Boundaries of democracy

Published: September 7th, 2012

By: Jason D. Cox.

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Redrawing the lines for the new District 32.

by Jason D. Cox
photography by Warren Bessant

Every 10 years, following the census, district boundaries for State Assembly and Congress are reviewed. These lines, traditionally drawn by elected officials and other political leaders, usually favored political voting strength. But for the first time in the history of California, thanks to Proposition 11, these districts were radically altered, sometimes irrespective of deep-set political strongholds. This new form of redistricting was pushed forward by the people of the golden state to address long-term incumbents and to bring in new faces who might revitalize the system.

Proposition 11, also known as the Voters First Act of 2008, authorized the creation of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, a state agency designed to re-draw the boundary lines for California’s state legislative and Board of Equalization districts. This 14-member commission started with a pool of more than 30,000 applicants, from which 60 finalists were chosen. Eight commissioners were selected by lottery from the 60 finalists. The eight commissioners named an additional six. These 14 commissioners upheld the priorities laid out by Prop. 11, from the start a politically charged undertaking meant to radically change California’s political landscape. And with the unveiling of the new district maps, there was immediate judicial challenge. “A lot of people have the impression that the Commission basically decided how to do the redistricting,” Commissioner Peter Yao, of Claremont, says. “And that probably is not an accurate description, because the act itself spelled out in great detail what factors we should consider or should not consider.” A procedure included in the process was for the redistricting to be tested by opposing parties. Since the maps were drawn, four lawsuits were brought against the re-mapping of the congressional districts, and in all four cases, both the state and federal courts ruled unanimously in favor of the Commission. “The state court and the federal court looked into it, and they ruled in our favor, saying we did what we were supposed to do—no more, no less,” Yao says. An

important element to Prop. 11 is that it is designed to eliminate gerrymandering and fosters the capacity to promote healthy competition in the new districts. By helping to eliminate unbalanced voting populations, democracy is promoted rather than manipulated. In reference to the way this process was handled in the past in California, and currently in the rest of the country, Yao says, “[Politicians] are picking the voters. They have things backwards. I see the system as being totally wrong.”

Challenges faced by the Commission included discovering what the communities in these districts wanted and needed, aligning those priorities with the redistricting process and figuring out how to produce districts that met those priorities. “The act doesn’t tell us how to do it,” Yao says, “The act simply says, while doing your job, this is what you must consider.” As a first step, the Commission decided to start with a blank slate, rather than taking previous maps and trying to reshape them. In order to gain input from the state’s communities, the Commission held 34 public hearings, traveling as far north as Redding and as far south as San Diego. The public was invited to address the Commission regarding their communities’ shared interests. Yao cites the example of Napa Valley and Sonoma where producing wine is of great interest. “They want to be able to select someone who can protect the water and the land and make the industry a big success,” says Yao. After hearing from them, the Commission was made aware that Citrus Valley has problems with water shortages. “They don’t want somebody to cut off their water supply when they see the large unemployment resultant of the water problem,” says Yao. He emphasizes that a great deal of time was devoted to hearing about this and many other scenarios. While active, the Commission received more than 30,000 emails. It reviewed populations of multiple cities and found the communities within those populations that shared common priorities. The Commission was then able to start drafting some broad areas on their blank map. “It’s a real push-pull,” says Commissioner Jeanne Raya. “Once you have the district laid out, you’re deliberating on the testimony you’ve received. It’s not [a puzzle] because you don’t have pieces cut out. You’re cutting out the pieces as you put it together.”

Other important considerations included keeping communities together that desired to be together, as well as not undercutting the current standing of minority groups in different areas. “When we drew the map for those counties, the major criteria are that you cannot regress from the current status, in terms of excluding minorities or doing anything that could jeopardize the voting power of minorities in those counties,” says Yao. “We had to see that the minority voting percentage was not less than it is today. In the end, our task was not to draw it the way that we chose to draw it, but rather it is to try to meet as many of the criteria that have already been spelled out on the proposition that the voters passed.”

The entire redistricting process is a matter of public record and was open to the public, another aspect of Prop. 11. Previously, the state legislature and the courts, not the public, handled this process. All meetings were videotaped, with meeting archives available on the California Citizens Redistricting Commission website. This obligatory transparency lends itself to the credibility of Prop. 11 and the new redistricting procedures. “We look upon this as a noble experiment because it’s never been done before,” Yao says. Putting such influence in the hands of citizens is a significant step for democracy. Numerous publications, national and international, covered the Commission’s activities, the British magazine “The Economist” being one that paid special attention. “We’re looking forward to the other 49 states seeing what we’ve done,” Yao says. “And I would probably say that a majority of these states, within a few years, will try to do something similar.”

Being a part of such an important process unique in the U.S. political landscape left a heavy impact on those involved, and they are proud of the work they were able to do for the state as well as the country as a whole. “When we get news articles about someone who’s thrown their hat in the ring, I take a post-it note and put it on my map,” Raya says. “The maps we drew are providing new leadership opportunities. I believe in that growth. There should be opportunity for people to think they have a chance in these districts.”

La Verne’s new Congressional District 32 separates it from previously linked cities in the old District 26.  A sample of areas newly disconnected from La Verne include (clockwise from top) Lytle Creek, the intersection of 21st Street and North Palm Avenue in Upland, and Montclair Plaza. At left: 2358 Second St. represents the city of  La Verne, which is part of the new District 32. Lytle Creek is now in the new District 8, Upland is in the new District 31, and Montclair is drawn into the new District 35. / photos by Warren Bessant La Verne’s new Congressional District 32 separates it from previously linked cities in the old District 26.  A sample of areas newly disconnected from La Verne include (clockwise from top) Lytle Creek, the intersection of 21st Street and North Palm Avenue in Upland, and Montclair Plaza. At left: 2358 Second St. represents the city of  La Verne, which is part of the new District 32. Lytle Creek is now in the new District 8, Upland is in the new District 31, and Montclair is drawn into the new District 35. / photos by Warren Bessant La Verne’s new Congressional District 32 separates it from previously linked cities in the old District 26.  A sample of areas newly disconnected from La Verne include (clockwise from top) Lytle Creek, the intersection of 21st Street and North Palm Avenue in Upland, and Montclair Plaza. At left: 2358 Second St. represents the city of  La Verne, which is part of the new District 32. Lytle Creek is now in the new District 8, Upland is in the new District 31, and Montclair is drawn into the new District 35. / photos by Warren Bessant  La Verne’s new Congressional District 32 separates it from previously linked cities in the old District 26.  A sample of areas newly disconnected from La Verne include (clockwise from top) Lytle Creek, the intersection of 21st Street and North Palm Avenue in Upland, and Montclair Plaza. At left: 2358 Second St. represents the city of  La Verne, which is part of the new District 32. Lytle Creek is now in the new District 8, Upland is in the new District 31, and Montclair is drawn into the new District 35. / photos by Warren BessantLa Verne’s new Congressional District 32 separates it from previously linked cities in the old District 26. A sample of areas newly disconnected from La Verne include (clockwise from top) Lytle Creek, the intersection of 21st Street and North Palm Avenue in Upland, and Montclair Plaza. At left: 2358 Second St. represents the city of La Verne, which is part of the new District 32. Lytle Creek is now in the new District 8, Upland is in the new District 31, and Montclair is drawn into the new District 35. / photos by Warren Bessant

 

“I don’t know of any other state that has gone this far in handing a decision to the people,” says Richard Gelm, professor of political science at the University of La Verne. Gelm is the author of “Politics and Religious Authority: American Catholics Since the Second Vatican Council” and “How American Politics Works.” / photo by Warren Bessant

“I don’t know of any other state that has gone this far in handing a decision to the people,” says Richard Gelm, professor of political science at the University of La Verne. Gelm is the author of “Politics and Religious Authority: American Catholics Since the Second Vatican Council” and “How American Politics Works.” / photo by Warren Bessant

A congressman retreats

After more than 30 years of service, Republican David Dreier, who represents La Verne in the old District 26, announced in March 2012 that he would retire from his post at year’s end. His announcement came after the Commission redrew Dreier’s district, and the final lawsuit against the redistricting had been settled in favor of the Commission. “The whole political landscape has been drastically changed,” Richard Gelm, University of La Verne professor of political science says. The 26th congressional district was Dreier’s base since 1981. Before redistricting, the district stretched from as far west as La Crescenta and as far east as Rancho Cucamonga, clinging closely to the relatively affluent, conservative foothill communities. While speculation resides that Congressman Dreier was drawn out of his district by the Commission, others say it seems unlikely since he has openly admitted that he has been planning his retirement for years. Also, as professor Gelm notes, congressmen are not required to live in the district wherein they run for office. He says that Dreier, one of the most senior congressmen in the country, probably would have a good chance being elected in another district if he chooses to run. Those in the political know say that Dreier has a move yet to be made, but it may be in a slightly different game. Congressman Dreier, through his San Dimas and Washington congressional office spokespeople, declined to comment to La Verne Magazine regarding the redistricting or his political future.

The new Commission tried to draw congressional districts that fit the population rather than the political needs of elected officials, but its success remains to be seen. “As in any situation, you need balance between experience and new blood,” Claremont City Councilman Corey Calaycay says. The councilman lives in a city of Claremont house in Congressional District 27. His house borders La Verne’s District 32, and from his yard, he literally can put a foot in each district. Claremont and La Verne, once in the same congressional district headed by Dreier, are now separate. Calaycay says it remains to be seen whether pending federal issues shared by La Verne and Claremont can still be smoothly adjudicated with the two new separate representatives.

The new District 32, which captures La Verne, is projected to yield an increased Latino voting population and is likely to diversify the district, giving a more accurate depiction of the area. And, while the aim was for balance, it would appear that the new 32nd District may have overcompensated the numbers between democrats and republicans. Only time will tell if this “noble experiment” was a success or not, but if nothing else, the people of California should be pleased to see that their voices have been unwaveringly been heard by Congress.

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