Ending the Republican Gerrymander of California

by Robert Cruickshank on August 30, 2011

I’ll admit it, I was not a fan of the redistricting commission when it was proposed. I opposed Prop 11 in November 2008, the initiative that created the commission; opposed Prop 20 in November 2010, the initiative that extended the commission’s jurisdiction to Congressional seats; and supported Prop 27 that same year, which would have abolished the commission entirely.

What explained my stance? The arguments that commission supporters made struck me as absurd and not reflective of reality. Backers claimed that the commission would create a bunch of purple districts across the state, giving voters choices and somehow forcing politicians to work together.

In the real world, Californians were self-segregating based on shared values, meaning purple districts were unrealistic. And in real-world Sacramento, political paralysis was the cause of Republicans having broken the system so that a progressive majority couldn’t govern. I didn’t see how a redistricting commission would fix any of that.

There always was a very strong argument for the commission, but it took the actual commission’s work to reveal it. What makes the new districts so important – and what has turned me from an opponent of the process to a supporter – is that it showed us just how the 1992 and 2001 districts were pro-Republican and therefore unrepresentative of California. In short, the commission ended the Republican gerrymander of California. No wonder Pete Wilson and other Republicans want to reverse the outcome.

Pete Wilson’s role here is significant. In 1991, he fought hard to block the Democratic legislature from drawing the new districts based on the 1990 Census. A revealing New York Times article indicates the degree to which Wilson was motivated to promote GOP districts:

Pete Wilson’s main purpose in running for governor of California last year was to prevent the Democratic-controlled Legislature from cheating the Republicans when it came to reapportioning the state’s huge delegation to Congress.

The article goes on to explain Wilson’s alliance with moderate Republicans against the right and against Democrats, and hints at the bruising battles fought in the early 1980s over the districting process. But the overall narrative is the same and has been for 40 years: California is trending Democratic, and Republicans want to use the districting process to stem the tide by getting an unfair advantage.

By the fall of 1991 it was clear that Wilson and the legislature were locked in a standoff, and the State Supreme Court stepped in to resolve it. The Court had a Republican majority, thanks to 8 years of appointments by Governor George Deukmejian (and the 1986 recall of Jerry Brown-appointed Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other pro-Bird justices).

Wilson hailed the 1992 districts as “fair” but the results were clearly favorable to Republicans. In 1994 the Republicans won control of the Assembly for the first time in many years, and made gains at the Congressional level. Of course, 1994 was the year that the GOP committed suicide by embracing anti-Latino bigotry in the form of Prop 187.

The 1996, 1998 and 2000 elections all began the process of undoing the redistricting-induced gains. Democrats retook the Assembly in 1996, and unseated several prominent Republicans in 1998 and 2000 (including Clinton impeachment manager James Rogan, who was beaten by Adam Schiff).

Even in 2001 there were a lot of Republicans who owed their seats to the more favorable lines drawn by the court in 1992, but the trends were clear and the GOP was endangered. With Democrats now in control of the Legislature and the governor’s office, it would have made sense for them to draw more realistic districts that kept pace with the state’s demographic changes. But that also would have put a lot more seats up for grabs, and doing that wouldn’t have been cheap. So Democrats offered Republicans a deal. They would freeze everything in place, protecting Republican incumbents in exchange for Dems not having to play defense in California. The GOP took the deal.

As a result, very few seats changed hands in California in the ’00s. Chances to win 2/3 in the State Senate were missed when Don Perata refused to back a challenger to Abel Maldonado in 2008 (a district Obama wound up carrying by 20 points). Despite two wave elections favoring Democrats in 2006 and 2008, only one Congressional seat – CA-11 – flipped. Democrats like Bill Hedrick in CA-44, Debbie Cook in CA-46, and Charlie Brown in CA-04 came very close to picking off Republican incumbents in ’06 or ’08, but the legacy of 1992 was hard to overcome.

And yet the commission has done it. The 2012 races will be fought on the basis of districts that actually reflect reality in California, rather than districts that were frozen in time in 1992. A lot has changed in 20 years, including the fact that the electorate has decisively rejected the GOP. As long as the California Republican Party remains a party for conservative white men, they will never ever win a statewide election again, and will never be able to make significant reversals in Congressional or legislative seats. It is only fair that this rejection of Republicans be reflected in the new district lines.

Republicans will gnash their teeth and may well get a referendum on the ballot to kill the new district lines. If they do, the referendum will go down in flames. Californians have no patience for Republicans or right-wing politics. It is very, very hard to believe they will agree to gerrymander the state for the benefit of a party that hates everything about 21st century California.

It is time for the California Republican Party to accept the reality that they have become too extreme and too racist to have political relevance in the state. And it is time for progressives to begin planning for a new era, one in which the enemy is not necessarily “Republicans” but instead is corporate politics that may wrap itself in the mantle of either party, or no party at all.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was first published at Calitics.

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