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
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
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.