Monday, August 1, 2011 | For the first time in California history, new boundaries have been proposed for state Legislature and U.S. House of Representatives districts with incumbent and would-be officeholders able to watch what was happening to their districts, step-by-step.

“There’s been a world of difference between the way the Legislature does things and the way this [new] commission does things,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies and a strong supporter of the new redistricting system.

This is the first time the public could observe the process day-by-day. But another aspect not usually discussed is that for the first time politicians could do that too.

For example, when Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson saw that preliminary boundaries made a run for the House seem inviting, the Fullerton Republican jumped in.

Revised boundaries prompted Nelson to retreat because now he would have to confront two House incumbents — Republicans Gary Miller and Ed Royce — in the same district.

Until this year, Nelson and the hundreds of other potential candidates statewide who wanted to seek one of the 80 Assembly, 40 state Senate or 53 House seats were clueless about new district boundaries until a few days before the state Legislature approved them.

How It Used to Work

In the past, according to interviews with former lawmakers, a small group of legislators from the party in power — usually Democrats in recent decades — met secretly and drew the boundaries.

If reporters got wind of a meeting where final decisions might be made, they gathered in a Capitol hallway or outside a lawmaker’s office, often well past midnight, then chased emerging decision makers, trying to get answers about who might benefit or be hurt by new boundaries. While the key lawmakers tried to escape into “members only” elevators, reporters would try to hold open the doors or squeeze inside to keep the questions coming.

Yet there were few surprises. The boundaries invariably protected favored elected officials of the party in power.

If the leadership liked a lawmaker, that person would wind up with a “safe” district. But those who had crossed the leadership could find themselves in wildly unfavorable districts.

Partisan deadlock on the state budget? A few redistricting hints or outright threats to Democrats and Republicans alike made the votes magically materialize.

Former Marin County Republican Assemblyman William T. Bagley recalls the days when the late Rep. Phil Burton (D-San Francisco) was the nationally recognized master of redistricting.

While Burton wouldn’t go into specifics, Bagley said, he had a phrase he used to assure elected officials of both parties when they were safe: “Don’t worry. You’re in your mother’s arms.”

In 2001, Republicans and Democrats made a deal to protect all incumbents. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the pact was so successful that of the 612 races that took place after the 2001 lines, only seven seats changed party.

There are bound to be complaints about the new system as well.

The final vote will be Aug. 15. Republicans and minority groups upset by the final boundaries have alredy threatened legal challenges.

Some, like former Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown (D-San Francisco) say redistricting as a whole is overrated. Because Democrats far outnumber Republicans statewide, they’ve generally held control of the state Legislature for most of the past four decades.

Brown said even with favorably drawn district lines, elected officials still must answer to voters for the work they do, and if they’re not good at their jobs, they can be defeated.

He said members of the Assembly and state Senate are trusted by the voters to make literally life-and-death decisions, like the death penalty or important consumer safety issues, but have lost the authority to draw their own district lines.

“That’s crazy,” said Brown. “I think the way it has been done — always subject to court tests — over the years it’s proven to be effective.”

But Bagley and others who support the new system said it, combined with the open primary that goes into effect next year, will reduce the highly partisan divide in the Legislature and eventually result in more moderates elected.

Bagley, who calls himself an “evangelical moderate,” said under the new rules ” the extreme conservative or extreme liberal will have to move to the center.”

Districts no longer are being drawn to ensure that the most partisan candidates win. The open primary will pit the two biggest vote-getters, against each other, even if they are from the same party. Candidates must appeal to a wide base, not the extreme ends of their parties.

Laws and Sausages

Sacramento old-timers are fond of a remark attributed to 19th-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck that those who appreciate good laws and sausage, shouldn’t watch either being made.

A new redistricting system, featuring a 14-member California Citizens Redistricting Commission, was approved by voters last November. The commission has five Democrats, five Republicans and four members who are not affiliated with any political party.

Anyone could watch the commission in public meetings and live Internet broadcasts divide the state into new districts.

Boundaries changed repeatedly. Viewers sent thousands of emails to commissioners, and often they were the subject of public discussion and sometimes action.

The hours were long, the back-and-forth and outside testimony often impassioned and tears did flow.

And one of the 14 commissioners, the only one who lives in Orange County, chiropractor Michael Ward voted against each of the final map proposals, saying the commission paid too much attention to race and ethnic groups when it drew boundaries.

But beyond doing virtually all its work in public — legal issues were discussed privately — a number of those who watched at least portions of the meetings said they were struck by the overall respectfulness and civility of the conversations, a dramatic departure from much of today’s belligerent local, state and national discourse.

Commissioners were forbidden to consider political party registration or where an incumbent lived when they drew the lines. That’s how some new districts, like Miller and Royce’s, wound up with two incumbents.

In the past, the courts have rejected districts approved by the lawmakers when they were judged obviously too partisan. That has caused an unexpected impact on individual lawmakers.

Former Republican Assemblyman Paul Priolo, who represented a coastal district near Malibu, said his career was given a second wind, thanks to the courts.

When a legislative map plan was rejected in the early 1970s and the courts took over, Priolo, who considers himself a moderate to liberal Republican, thought his career was finished. He was certain his new boundaries would include most of predominantly Democratic West Los Angeles.

“I was about to end my political career,” he said. “There was no way I could survive.”

The first thing he did when the court-drawn district maps were released, he said, was look for his house. It was half a block inside the boundaries of a new, predominantly Republican district that ran into Ventura County.

“I looked at that and the registration,” he said, “and I was in fat city.”

And according to Brown and other former lawmakers, in the past those who were in good with the leadership sometimes made special requests for their districts’ boundaries.

Former San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Charlie Meyers, for example, always asked to have every Roman Catholic parish in San Francisco included in his district. One key to his re-election successes was funerals. He tried to at least stop by the funeral service of each constituent.

And then there was the request of a lawmaker whom officials wouldn’t name. He asked to have his mother-in-law moved outside his district.

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