October 2001

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The Bipartisan Redistricting: How It Happened
By Tony Quinn

Tony Quinn is co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of state legislative and congressional elections.

Lost in the aftermath of September 11 was the enactment of new district lines for California’s 120 legislative districts and 53 House seats.  The once-a-decade redistricting had been expected to generate political heat and partisan fireworks, but this year’s exercise passed with almost no one noticing.  That’s because both political parties early on agreed that this year the reapportionment process would be a status quo redistricting in which each party kept the existing number of seats. It was, in effect, a bipartisan gerrymander of California’s districts.

Thus ends California’s decade-long experiment in competitive legislative districts.  In 1991, former Governor Pete Wilson vetoed a sweetheart plan that passed with strong bipartisan support and forced the drawing of district lines by the State Supreme Court.  He gambled that the court would come up with competitive districts and the Republicans then could win control of the Legislature.  For a brief period that happened; following the 1994 GOP landslide, Republicans actually had 41 seats in the Assembly, a one-seat majority.

It has been downhill for Republicans ever since, with major losses of legislative and congressional seats in each of the past three elections.  The districting plan that seemed so wonderful in 1991 turned out to be a political disaster.  It created competitive districts all right, and the Democrats won them.

Democrats never wanted competitive seats, and fully in control of the process this cycle, they decided to simply make all the districts safe.  Virtually all the marginal districts created by the Supreme Court in 1991 are made safe for the incumbent party in 2001.  There are 50 safe (or as near safe as possible) Democratic seats in the Assembly; 30 safe Republicans.  In the Senate there are safe seats for 26 Democrats and 14 Republicans.  In Congress it is 20 safe seats for the GOP, 33 for the Democrats.

This plan had enormous bipartisan support, even though it cements the Republicans into a minority status in the congressional delegation and the Legislature for as long as the wind blows and the grass grows.

Why did Republicans settle for permanent minority status?  Well, they are political realists and all the alternatives were worse.  The 20 GOP seats in Congress could have been reduced to as few as 16.  Republicans hold the U.S. House of Representatives by a very narrow margin; 20 safe Republicans seats from California was viewed as a big win.  It was offered and the GOP grabbed the deal.

The Assembly and Senate were a little tougher to justify.  The GOP really has only 13 Senate seats, since the seat held by Senator. Bruce McPherson in Santa Cruz is really a Democratic seat.  Republicans nearly lost the seat held by Senator Bob Margett of Arcadia in 2000, so Republicans were looking at as few as 12 Senators if they did not settle with the Democrats.  The final Senate plan creates a 14th Republican district, likely to be won by Assembly Member Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria in 2004, and gives Senator Margett a safe seat.

There is a potential 15th Republican seat in a marginal district created in Modesto and Salinas, and a new safe GOP district in Kern and Tulare counties.  On the whole, Republicans have much to be pleased with in the Senate plan.  Interestingly, Democrats gerrymandered two liberal Assembly members, Fred Keeley of Boulder Creek, near Santa Cruz, and Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara, out of possible Senate districts, and the outlook is for a somewhat more moderate state Senate when all the districts are filled.

Republicans have lost 11 Assembly districts in the past three election cycles.  With the state’s demographics moving so dramatically against them, the best they could hope for is to stanch the bleeding, and that is what they did in agreeing to the 50-30 Assembly division.  Several marginal Republican seats,   that would have fallen to the Democrats over the next several election cycles, were made safe..  But in exchange the GOP gave up winning back virtually all the districts it has lost since 1996.

The Republicans’ problem in California is not a matter of gerrymandered districts, it is a party out of touch with the new middle class Latino and Asian voters, and a party that has lost formerly Republican voters in the suburbs.  Cities like Menlo Park, Los Gatos, La Jolla and Palos Verdes were the anchors for safe Republican districts 20 years ago.  Now all these communities have Democratic legislators and members of Congress.  That is not the fault of district drawing.

Republicans went along with permanent minority status in the Legislature simply to survive, with the hope to fight another day when perhaps the political demographics of California turn once again in their favor.

(c) 2001 California Taxpayers' Association