Critics call redistricting plans too pro-incumbent

By Steve Lawrence Associated Press Writer
Friday September 14, 2001

SACRAMENTO — Lawmakers approved redistricting plans for the Legislature and California’s congressional delegation Thursday, sweeping aside complaints they would help incumbents at the expense of other interests. 

“I suspect that most of these districts have been designed so we won’t have to worry about elections for the next six to eight years,” Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, said as lawmakers debated new lines for the Assembly. “Everybody wins.” 

Assembly members voted 65-8 Thursday to approve new lines for their house and a state tax board, and a few hours later adopted new state Senate and congressional districts, 58-10. 

The Senate passed the Senate and congressional plans Wednesday night 38-2, and approved the new Assembly and Board of Equalization districts Thursday 40-0 without debate. 

The votes sent the proposals to Gov. Gray Davis, who is expected to sign them into law. 

The plans will probably help Democrats maintain their big majorities in the Legislature and the congressional delegation for the next decade while allowing Republicans to tighten their hold on the seats they have now. 

Democrats currently have 26 of the Senate’s 40 seats, 50 of the Assembly’s 80 seats and 32 of the state’s 52 seats in the House of Representatives. 

California will get a 53rd congressional seat starting in 2003 because of the population growth revealed by last year’s census. That new district, in the Los Angeles area, is also expected to go to a Democrat. 

There seemed to be some chance early in the week that legislative leaders wouldn’t be able to agree on new lines because of a dispute over how to draw a few Senate and congressional districts. 

But Senate leaders removed a major stumbling block when they agreed to redraw a San Diego-area district in a way that could help one of Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg’s lieutenants win a congressional seat. 

Critics charged that the new districts — particularly the Senate and congressional lines — would go too far to promote the political ambitions of most incumbents at the expense of regional and ethnic interests. 

“What happened to drawing lines for the people of the state rather than ourselves?” Leslie said. 

He said the state should create a nonpartisan commission to draw new districts after each federal census instead of leaving the task to lawmakers. 

“I think the process brings out the worst in the Legislature,” said Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, D-Davis, saying the lines would protect “most of us from the challenge of a competitive election.” 

But Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, defended the plans. 

“This is a political process, a political process that has a legal right and obligation and imperative to protect incumbency,” he said. 

Much of the opposition, Cedillo implied, came from Assembly members disappointed they didn’t have a clear shot at a Senate or congressional seat. 

“There are 80 people who should aspire to hold 40 seats on the other side of the building,” he said. 

Assemblyman Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles, said the Senate and congressional plans were “the best legal compromise that we are going to be able to achieve.” 

He said legislators critical of the plans would be more unhappy if the state Supreme Court took over redistricting. 

Thomson and Assembly members Fred Keeley, D-Boulder Creek, and Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said the Senate plan unnecessarily cut up their parts of the state to provide populations for inland seats. 

“The central coast should not be an organ donor for the rest of the state,” said Jackson. 

“This is not about me; this is about process and outcome,” said Keeley, whose interest in a Senate seat could be thwarted by the new lines. 

Cedillo said the plans would increase the number of seats held by women and Hispanics in the Senate and Congress while going a long way to protect so-called communities of interest, but other lawmakers said they didn’t go far enough. 

Jackson said the Senate plan could actually result in fewer women winning legislative seats. 

Alan Clayton, research chairman for the California Latino Redistricting Coalition, said his organization would ask the U.S. Justice Department to go to court to challenge several districts in the legislative and congressional plans on the grounds that they weaken Hispanic political clout. 

Kathay Feng, an attorney at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles, praised some parts of the Assembly plan for its impact on Asian and Pacific Island voters but criticized others. 

She said her organization hadn’t decided to take any legal action.