California Citizen Map Could Help Ease Gridlock: View

(Corrects name of county in fourth paragraph.)

June 17 (Bloomberg) -- Republicans are angry. Democrats are running for cover. And the executive director of a group that represents Latino officials of both parties has called it a “worst-case scenario.” It seems the California Citizens Redistricting Commission has hit a nerve.

The commission is the product of two state ballot initiatives that took redistricting power away from state legislators and vested it in 14 unelected Democrats, Republicans and independents. Last week, the group released its draft map of California’s new state and congressional legislative districts, daring to produce cohesive geographic lines and “communities of interest” in lieu of meandering boundaries and safe seats for incumbents.

Most analysts say Republicans would lose at least two congressional seats if the new map withstands political and legal challenges. Meanwhile, veteran Democratic lawmakers would be pitted against one another in a handful of newly drawn districts that take no account of their seniority.

Democratic Representative Howard Berman and Republican Representative David Dreier, who have 58 years in Congress between them, are suddenly in jeopardy. Berman’s once-safe suburban Los Angeles district would be fused with that of another liberal Democrat, Brad Sherman. Dreier’s San Bernardino County district would become more Latino, making the conservative’s re-election a suddenly shaky proposition.

Faced with a similar reshuffling, Democratic Representative Bob Filner has decided to run for mayor of San Diego rather than seek re-election in a more heavily Latino district. (Although Latino voters gain clout in a number of districts, it’s not clear that the number of Latino representatives would increase immediately -- hence the objections of Latino elected officials.)

Let’s be clear: The new redistricting commission won’t vanquish the political polarization that characterizes California’s congressional delegation and paralyzes the state Legislature in Sacramento. California requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise taxes, enabling a determined minority to hold the annual budget hostage. The state has a projected deficit of $10 billion and no political means of closing it.

Yet stripping the Legislature of redistricting powers should have some positive effects on the margins. At least some of the newly drawn districts should be more amenable to moderates of both parties. In addition, citizen-driven redistricting should be a healthy complement to the state’s new system of open primaries, in which candidates of all parties compete in a single primary, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the general election regardless of party affiliation.

The open primary is similarly intended to reward moderate candidates at the expense of the extremes. Most of the time, it won’t -- after all, polarization resides not in our districts, but in ourselves. But closing the divide in even a few districts could be enough to put California on the road to legislative compromise and fiscal sanity.

Two dozen states allow ballot initiatives; getting citizen redistricting reforms on their ballots would be a small but important step toward healing the sclerotic U.S. political system. Opposition to any such efforts will be fierce. A nonpartisan redistricting plan in Florida is under a bipartisan legal attack under the guise of safeguarding minority rights. In Virginia, volunteers have started a redistricting mapping project on the Web that encourages residents to draw their own lines. Meantime, the state’s 11-member congressional delegation is designing districts to ensure each member’s re-election.

The California commission is required to produce a final map on Aug. 15. If its members can withstand political pressure and stick to their map lines, they’ll provide a promising sketch for their state. Maybe for the nation, too.

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