Berkshire Billionaire's Son Battles Soros on California Ballot
Charles Munger Jr., son of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Charles Munger, is battling billionaire George Soros, unions and Democratic Party leaders to strip congressional redistricting powers from California lawmakers.
The younger Munger, 53, and his wife have spent $10 million to win support on Nov. 2 for an initiative that puts the task of reshaping California’s 53 U.S. representative districts into the hands of the Citizens Redistricting Commission. A competing measure backed by Soros and labor groups would erase the panel.
“I’m doing this to try to ensure voters have fair districts where representatives will compete for offices,” Munger said yesterday in a telephone interview from Palo Alto. “Elected politicians are picking the voters, voters aren’t picking their representatives.”
Munger has mailed 660,000 DVDs of “Gerrymandering,” a 77- minute documentary, to regular voters in California in support of Proposition 20, which would give the state panel, created by a 2008 ballot measure, added power over congressional district lines. With his wife, Charlotte Lowell, 53, they account for most of the $10.5 million raised to support the initiative, the California Secretary of State’s website shows.
Opponents also include Haim Saban, the Los Angeles-based media executive, and Peter Angelos, the Baltimore Orioles owner. State records show Soros and Angelos each gave $100,000 to back Proposition 27, which would return legislative redistricting to lawmakers. Saban loaned its supporters $2 million.
‘Hasn’t Worked Out’
Saban supported the creation of the commission in 2008 but now believes “it hasn’t worked out as intended because the state’s diverse population has not been adequately represented in the process of selecting members,” said a spokeswoman, Cassandra Bujarski, in an e-mail message.
Michael Vachon, a spokesman for Soros in New York, didn’t have an immediate comment when reached by telephone today.
Most of the $3.3 million raised for Proposition 27 came from Democrats, their supporters and government unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME, as it’s known, donated $1.25 million, state records show. The Democratic State Central Committee of California gave $250,000 to the effort.
Calling the new commission “a boondoggle” that will cost millions of dollars, U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from San Jose, said “it gives a boost to the Republican Party out of proportion to their actual registration numbers.”
California records show about 7.53 million Democrats and 5.25 million Republicans among its 17 million registered voters.
Mandated by a 2008 ballot measure to draw state Assembly and Senate districts, the panel will include five Republicans, five Democrats and four members who aren’t from either party, according to its website. All will be chosen through a process supervised by the state auditor.
“The commission creates yet another unelected, nonrepresentational, bureaucrat panel that will lead to even more gridlock,” Lofgren said by e-mail.
Commissions redraw legislative districts or assist lawmakers in doing so in 21 other U.S. states, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
“None are exclusively drawn by citizens who aren’t involved in politics,” said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California. “Commission authorities are always constrained in some way.”
Outside the System
“It has often been the case that some maverick figure introduces a redistricting measure,” Cain said in a telephone interview. “It has always been people outside the system offended by the process.”
Munger, a Republican, is a particle physics research scientist with a doctorate from U.C. Berkeley. His father is vice chairman of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, where the elder Munger has been a director since 1978. He owns about $1.64 billion in shares, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing this month.
The younger Munger said he never considered following his father into the world of business. “Would you want to compete with him?”
Munger was the largest individual contributor to the 2008 ballot initiative that created the redistricting panel, which is still being constituted. He gave $1.3 million of the $6.5 million raised for it, according to state records. The proposition won 51 percent of the vote.
Every 10 Years
Legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years based on the decennial U.S. Census, to adjust for population shifts, according to the California auditor’s website. Congressional districts are also reshaped to account for changes in population, based on the census.
Districts designed by the new commission take effect for the 2012 elections. Previously, state legislators designed the districts.
Lowell, who said she isn’t a member of any political party, said the couple believes extending the commission’s authority to include congressional districts will lead to more competitive elections and better representation for all.
“There’s no hidden agenda,” she said in a telephone interview. “Neither of us has any intention of running for office.”
“Gerrymandering,” which examines how politicians use the design of districts to help them win elections, serves as an educational tool for voters, Munger said.
“I thought it was a good movie and a nonpartisan look at the problem,” he said yesterday, explaining why he paid to distribute hundreds of thousands of copies in California. “It was a useful way of educating the public.”
The film, begun in 2005, was independently financed, director Jeffrey Reichert said in a telephone interview. Reichert said he met Munger at a Republican election-night party in California two years ago and later asked the scientist to help finance distribution of the film. Reichert said he and the film’s producers were initially reluctant to give away copies. “You usually sell the DVD.”
They changed their minds after concluding more people would see the film, which he said cost less to make than Munger’s investment in distribution. Munger is also sponsoring its theatrical release today in four California cities including Los Angeles, Reichert said. It will also debut in New York.
More than 100 e-mails have been sent complementing him on “Gerrymandering,” Reichert said. One called the movie “‘the single most patriotic act ever committed off the battlefield,’” he said.
In the event both propositions pass, the one with the highest number of yes votes will take effect, according to a voter information guide distributed by the state. There have been no major voter surveys on the topic.
“It’s very difficult to predict which way it will go,” said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. “Most voters don’t have the faintest idea of how districting is done in the first place.”
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