Democrats’ dispute threatens to leave redistricting to court

By Steve Lawrence Associated Press Writer
Tuesday September 11, 2001

SACRAMENTO (AP) — A dispute among Democrats threatened Monday to torpedo legislative and congressional redistricting plans and toss the politically potent job of drawing new lines to the state Supreme Court. 

Democratic leaders in the state Senate and Assembly said they were at odds over how to draw a few key congressional and state Senate districts — in the San Diego and central coast areas — with time running out on their 2001 session. 

“Either the Legislature’s going to do the job or the courts are going to do it for us,” said the chairman of the Senate elections committee, Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland. 

He said turning the job over to the state Supreme Court “could be very negative for all of us.” 

Legislators are supposed to redraw legislative and congressional districts every 10 years to bring them into line with population changes revealed by the new federal census. 

But twice in the last three decades — in the 1970s and 1990s — the Supreme Court oversaw the process because the Legislature’s Democratic majorities and Republican governors could not agree on redistricting plans. Six of the seven seats on the court are filled by Republican appointees; one seat is vacant. 

Where district lines are placed can determine if one party or the other dominates the Legislature and the state’s delegation to the House of Representatives for the next 10 years. 

Democrats can control redistricting this year because they again have big majorities in both the Senate and Assembly and Democrat Gray Davis in the governor’s office. 

But pressures created by legislative term limits have helped create splits between Democrats in the houses, with Assembly members pressing their leadership to provide seats they can run for in the Senate and Congress. 

Perata warned the dispute could undo bipartisan agreements that could avoid an attempt by the Republican Party to persuade voters to overturn any plans passed by lawmakers. 

Lawmakers are running out of time to resolve the dispute because they are scheduled to adjourn for the year on Friday. They can extend their session, but they’re also facing deadlines for candidates to file for the March primary. 

Perata said the dispute boils down to differences over how to draw a congressional seat along the Mexican border. 

Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, says Assemblyman Juan Vargas, D-san Diego, wants to create a heavily Latino congressional district for himself by linking Imperial County with parts of San Diego County now represented by Filner. 

That could jeopardize the chances of Filner, who has beaten Vargas in two previous Democratic primaries, of winning re-election. 

The redistricting plan backed by the congressional delegation and state Senate leaders would link Imperial County with coastal parts of San Diego County represented by another Democrat, Susan Davis. 

Vargas wouldn’t discuss the dispute, but he is in a key position to determine the outcome. He’s one of six legislators — three from each house — on a joint committee charged with putting the final touches on the new districts. 

The other Assembly Democrat on the committee, Speaker Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, said Vargas isn’t the stumbling block, that he had problems with the proposed congressional lines before he appointed Vargas to the committee. 

“The district Filner holds should include Imperial and the district Susan holds should have the western piece,” Hertzberg said. 

The speaker also said he has concerns about the Senate plan, in particular its impact on one of his top lieutenants, Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Fred Keeley, D-Boulder Creek, who is termed out of the Assembly next year and is interested in running for the Senate. 

Under the current Senate plan, Keeley would live in a district that won’t have an election until 2004 and would be composed mostly of voters he doesn’t represent now. 

Senators serve staggered, four-year terms, so only half of the house’s 40 seats are up for election every two years. 

Perata said Keeley would have a good chance of winning that Senate seat, but Hertzberg said the way that district was drawn would not be “satisfactory.” 

Meanwhile, groups representing Latinos and Asians criticized revised redistricting plans that lawmakers unveiled over the weekend, saying they would dilute the power of minority voters. 

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said it would challenge the plans in court unless there were “significant modifications.” 


On the Net: Read the plans at www.senate.ca.gov and www.assembly.ca.gov/erca