DISTRICTS: Political boundaries provide residents with little clout and chances are fading for fairer 2011 plan. By Gene Maddaus STAFF WRITER The latest attempt to change the way California draws its political boundaries stalled in Sacramento this week, further diminishing the chances that the next redistricting in 2011 will be handled differently from the last one in 2001. That was disappointing news to officials on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, which offers one of the starkest examples of what can happen under a partisan redistricting plan. The Peninsula’s congressman lives 30 miles down the coast in Huntington Beach. Its state senator lives 20 miles away in Inglewood. Both are in very safe seats, robbing The Hill of any influence over elections and any real political clout. “The people of the Palos Verdes Peninsula have been shafted for so many years on this issue,” said Rolling Hills Estates Councilman Frank Zerunyan. “Enough is enough.” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made reforming the redistricting process a priority of his administration. He has threatened to oppose a Feb. 5 ballot measure that would extend term limits unless a redistricting reform measure is also on the ballot. But this week the Legislature adjourned without taking up redistricting, postponing any discussion of the issue until next year. “There was no will to do redistricting by the leadership,” said Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who has spearheaded several redistricting reform measures. “We’re getting closer and closer to the next decade. I don’t think you can count on the Legislature. The political parties really don’t want to give up the power they have to protect political incumbents.” The current boundary lines were drawn in 2001 by Michael Berman, a veteran Democratic consultant who lives and breathes redistricting. Working on a $1.36million contract from the state Senate, Berman crafted districts that would lock in a Democratic advantage in the Senate and congressional delegations. Congressional Democrats each paid Berman $20,000 to protect their seats. Republican incumbents supported the Berman plan because their districts were protected as well. It has held up remarkably well – in three elections, only one congressional seat has switched parties. (Another consultant drew the Assembly map for the Democratic Assembly leadership, and it is generally regarded as being less gerrymandered.) On the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the effects were readily apparent. In Congress, the Peninsula had been in a swing district. Jane Harman eked out a 1 percent victory over Republican incumbent Steve Kuykendall in 2000. Berman removed The Hill from Harman’s district – making hers a safe Democratic seat – and linked it up to Dana Rohrabacher’s solidly Republican seat in Orange County. “If Dana Rohrabacher were to try to walk his district, he would have to turn sideways and shimmy through Long Beach,” said Rancho Palos Verdes Mayor Tom Long. “A bunch of chimpanzees with crayons could draw better districts than we have now.” The new lines made it impossible for Kuykendall to try to win his seat back in 2002. His choices were to challenge Rohrabacher in a primary – as a moderate, he would stand little chance against an entrenched Orange County conservative – or take on Harman in a heavily Democratic district that no longer included his house. “I would have probably taken a crack at it,” Kuykendall said. “But after reapportionment it didn’t make any sense.” The Hill’s Senate seat had also been competitive. Moderate Democrat Betty Karnette had beaten a Republican by 3 percentage points in 1996. Before that, the district belonged to moderate Republican Bob Beverly, who faced close races in his final two campaigns. With reapportionment, the conservative Peninsula found itself drawn into an overwhelmingly Democratic district based in Inglewood, Compton and Watts and designed to elect a black senator. Again, The Hill was connected by a ribbon through Long Beach – in places as narrow as a single street – to the bulk of the district. The result has been predictable. As far as local councilmen are aware, Sen. Ed Vincent has not visited The Hill since it was drawn into his district six years ago. “We’ve invited him,” Long said. “He and his office have not been very much in touch with our part of the Peninsula.” Asked if he had any relationship at all with Vincent, Long said, “No.” (Vincent, who has been ill, did not return calls seeking comment, nor did his staff.) Rohrabacher has at least been to events on The Hill since it was spliced into his district, but he, too, isn’t around very much. “The Hill people feel he doesn’t hear them and he’s not very interested in them,” Karnette said. “People in Palos Verdes would feel much better if they were with somebody from the South Bay area. That’s what they want. They don’t want somebody from Orange County.” Rohrabacher said that while he spends more time in Orange County and Long Beach than he does on The Hill, due to the distance, he does reflect the Peninsula’s political views. “People don’t elect members of the House of Representatives to go to their districts and hold their hands and go to social events,” Rohrabacher said. “They elect someone to go to Washington, D.C., and represent them in Washington.” As for the Assembly, the district was left largely unchanged in 2001. Out of 80 Assembly seats statewide, it was one of five that was considered competitive. But even there, demographic changes in Long Beach have made Republicans on The Hill increasingly irrelevant over the last decade. In the 1990s, Democrats held a mere five-point registration edge. As a result, the Assembly seat changed parties three times during the decade, usually by razor-thin margins. The Democrats’ advantage has swelled since then to a nine-point edge – due largely to an influx of Democrats in Long Beach – and the seat has become increasingly out of reach to Republicans. Kuykendall mounted a bid for the seat in 2004, but lost to Karnette by eight points. Karnette, who lives in Long Beach, will be termed out next year. So far no major Republican has announced for the race. In the last few years, an area that used to be contested and catered to has had to get used to being marginalized and ignored. Rancho Palos Verdes Councilman Steve Wolowicz blamed the redistricting for low voter turnout and reduced civic engagement on local issues. Long suggested that a lack of representation might explain why his city has received only $80,000 in emergency response funding since the Sept. 11 attacks. “We are right next to the ports and I think they are high-risk areas,” he said. Next year’s Senate race is likely to be a spirited contest between four seasoned office-holders. But Peninsula voters will be bystanders. “It’s very possible for the 25th Senate District to be decided without any of the candidates stepping foot on The Hill,” Wolowicz said. Absent a crystal ball, it is hard to foresee what will happen in 2011. If a Democrat wins the governorship in 2010, the party would again have a free hand to draw the lines as it pleases. If a Republican wins, a stalemate would probably throw the job of redistricting to the California Supreme Court, which appointed special masters to draw the boundaries in the 1970s and the 1990s. Paul McKaskle, who served as chief counsel to the special masters in both cases, said that example should serve as a model for reform. “They were concerned about the law,” McKaskle said. “They didn’t know much about politics. They were lawyers, and they approached it from a legal standpoint.” The law requires equal populations in each district, encourages keeping cities and counties whole, and forbids splitting up minority groups in a way that would dilute minority influence. “It was done without regard to party,” McKaskle said. “And there were – and not because the masters made any particular effort – a number of competitive seats.” The Assembly even switched over to the Republicans in 1994, before going back to the Democrats in the next cycle. McKaskle supports giving the job to an independent commission, but cautions that such a body would not be able to create a lot of competitive seats. Most areas are mostly Republican or Democrat. Creating a lot of swing seats would take more contortions than Berman performed in 2001. And as for the Palos Verdes Peninsula, it is not big enough to be guaranteed influence, no matter how the lines are drawn. It has only about 70,000 residents – one-tenth of a congressional district, one-thirteenth of a Senate district. The Republican Peninsula would probably be represented by Democrats even if Democratic consultants didn’t draw the lines. But at least they might have to work for it. “Would everyone get everything they want? No,” Lowenthal said. “You can’t get competitiveness in every district because of housing patterns. But you will get more competitiveness by being fair.” [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!
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