Two days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when the nation was in misery, focused on the bloodshed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, no one was looking Sacramento’s way. While Californians openly wept in grocery-store lines, on September 13, 2001, the California Legislature pushed through a scheme so self-serving that state senators and state Assembly members were “almost giddy,” as one reporter observed in a news story at the time.
The redistricting plan of 2001 recarved state Senate, Assembly and U.S. Congressional voting districts into a geometric nightmare of amoebas and dumbbells and elephant trunks whose shapes and configurations showed little rhyme or reason.
It resulted in anomalies like the 23rd Congressional District, a skinny swatch of seemingly endless coastline running more than 200 miles from Cambria in San Luis Obispo County through Santa Barbara County to Oxnard in Ventura County, so narrow that the joke is it “disappears at high tide.” Wikipedia calls it “barely noticeable” on maps.
One of Los Angeles’ tightest-knit minority communities, Watts, was purposely destroyed as a voting district, chopped up into three separate congressional districts and three separate state Senate districts — leaving its many working-class and poor residents unsure whom to call about problems.
“They’ll get ping-ponged from office to office. … ‘You’re not in our district,’” says Kathay Feng, executive director of Common Cause California, who says the widely acknowledged reason Watts was sliced like an onion was solely to ensure the re-election of several incumbents in and around Watts — a fact that even lawmakers admit. It was a shadowy backroom deal you might find in a Vince Flynn novel.
And it all went down, slickly and quietly, during one of the worst tragedies in U.S. history.
Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, AARP and a raft of better-government groups are asking voters to halt these practices with Proposition 11, which would ask a bipartisan citizens’ panel to crunch the demographic numbers, respecting natural geography and the real edges of communities — and to stop calling people separated by mountain ranges “voting districts” or divvying up voters in cohesive communities like Watts as if they were door prizes.
The state Constitution requires this redrawing of voting districts after each 10-year U.S. Census.
The process is called “redistricting” but derided as “gerrymandering.” Many California voters have little clue what it is or how it works, and polls showed 41 percent of voters favor Prop. 11, but a sizable 25 percent are undecided. Supporters of the measure fear that the abstruse subject of line-drawing is too arcane and too much of a snooze-button issue alongside gay marriage and Sarah Palin.
“It is the ugliest process we go through,” says state Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), a longtime advocate for change. Gerrymandering “brings out the worst in us. When you’re caught, as a legislator, between your own interests and the community’s interest, you’re going to go with your own interests.”
As a result, voting-district lines are laid out behind closed doors by elected Sacramento power brokers using powerful computer software, data wonks and private consultants — all to advance political agendas. Feng says Common Cause has gotten reports about lines being tailored for incredibly petty desires; in one case, California pols drew a legislator’s grandmother into his district, in another, they drew lines to exclude a sole voter — a pesky gadfly whom a local politician hated dealing with.
Confirming such horror stories is hard because the work is so secretive, Feng says.
“There’s a ‘public’ process — and then there’s the ‘real’ process,” says former Democratic Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, from the Bay Area town of Pittsburg. Canciamilla was elected just before the redistricting completed amid 9/11. That deal, which is still in place, was especially notable, and has been widely pilloried, for the “safe seat” agreement reached between Democrats and Republicans.
Like snapping a freeze-frame photo, the 2001 deal cynically preserves the number of legislative seats held by Democrats and by Republicans, cementing the parties’ balance of power over California. Voters can thank former Republican leader Jim Brulte and former Democratic leader Bob Hertzberg, among others.
Newbie legislator Canciamilla remembers how he was called into an office near the Capitol, where, in strict privacy, then–Assembly Speaker Hertzberg showed him the maps and essentially told him what shape his 11th District might take.
“It was not presented as an option,” he recalls. “I just said, ‘Hey, as long as you don’t split it up too crazy, whatever you need to do.’”
Secrecy reigns over the practice. The Assembly, for example, has an Elections and Redistricting Committee. But its chief consultant, Ethan Jones, says he really doesn’t know how redistricting is done — and suggests the Weekly instead contact Jim Wisley, a specialist assigned to Speaker Karen Bass’ office by the Assembly Rules Committee. Wisley confirms he was heavily involved in 2001 remapping but declined to comment, saying he only builds databases.
“I’m one of the no-see-’ems,” Wisley says. “I’m only a technician. I’m like the person who repairs the TV.”
It can take a lot of phone calls to reach anyone willing to hint at the process — and even then, no one wants to be quoted. One source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the remapping is dominated by Democratic and Republican party honchos seeking key political goals, with individual legislators chiming in, all of it overseen by attorneys who keep the line-drawing legal, if not particularly honest.
During the remapping giddily approved during 9/11, Michael Berman of Berman & D’Agostino Campaigns in Beverly Hills — and the brother of U.S. Representative Howard Berman (D-Los Angeles) — was the master line-drawer for California Senate and Congressional districts. Attorney Joe Ramcho of San Leandro drew lines for state Assembly districts. “He was Bob Hertzberg’s guy,” the source says. “He did all of the negotiations with all of the [Assembly] members. He was in all of the backroom deals. That information passed away with him.”
Ramcho died in a helicopter crash after the 2001 plan was adopted, the source says. Hertzberg, Berman and Brulte did not return L.A. Weekly’s phone calls.
The source concedes, “Yeah, it’s self-serving. You’d never get any [legislator] to vote for a plan that screws them. Why would they do that?”
But as the League of Women Voters and other groups now point out, having set themselves up in safe seats from which they cannot be ousted — barring some huge voter upheaval or public scandal — California legislators no longer worry much about voters. That helps to explain the California Legislature’s abysmal 21 percent approval rating.
Former Assemblyman Keith Richman of Northridge was a rarity in Sacramento, as a moderate Jewish Republican doctor holding office in the polarized 120-person Legislature, which has fewer than five moderates in either party. He says the big money flowing from highly polarized, extremely partisan special-interest groups to the legislators in “safe seats” is so alluring that “it ends up driving candidates to the extreme” partisan camps to service their big contributors.
A few years ago, Republican Richman and Democrat Canciamilla joined with Long Beach Democrat Lowenthal in a bipartisan attempt to change all that. Lowenthal, who led the push, got a bill through the Democratic-controlled Senate to end gerrymandering, only to see it killed in the Democratic-controlled Assembly. Now, they’re going directly to voters.
Prop. 11 has drawn some opposition, including from the NAACP and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, both of which ask whether the bipartisan panel to be created by Prop. 11 will stand up for minorities — although, in fact, federal law requires that minority voting rights be protected, and the independent panels operating in other states have ensured as much.
Lowenthal says he became outraged when the 2001 “mapmakers” — Hertzberg, Brulte, Berman, Ramcho and nameless others — quietly turned the 46th Congressional District of Republican U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher into another disappears-at-high-tide monstrosity reaching from Palos Verdes Estates to Costa Mesa in Orange County, all to assure that incumbent Rohrabacher and other incumbents kept their jobs, regardless of party affiliation.
“It had nothing to do with making communities,” Lowenthal says. “It had all to do with making sure the incumbents were re-elected. I said, ‘I’m not voting for this.’”