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Los Angeles Daily News

Reapportionment deal makes elections a moot point
By Bill Hillburg
October 20, 2002

The fix has been in for more than a year on Southern California's campaigns for Congress, with safe seats bought for $20,000 each by incumbent Democrats and accepted gratis by equally self-interested Republicans.

Instead of races that offer choices and raise issues, the region's Nov. 5 ballots for the House are filled with guaranteed safe seats thanks to a bipartisan reapportionment deal cut in August 2001.

Critics say the fix makes a mockery of the electoral process and contributes to dwindling voter turnout.

Defenders say the deal is the result of a perfectly legal maneuver that serves national party goals while keeping effective, seniority-empowered lawmakers in place.

Rep. Joe Baca, D-Rialto, and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Garden Grove, initially refused to pay their required fee, and Sanchez revealed the existence of the $20,000-per-seat tariff in an interview with The Washington Post.

The ensuing furor was quickly overwhelmed by news of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

Baca said last year that he was upset with the process, which called for incumbents to pay $20,000 well before they were handed a map of their new district.

Baca said that his new bailiwick bore a strong resemblance to a district drawn for him by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"MALDEF didn't charge me a thing,' said Baca.

Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based Republican campaign strategist, said, "People are supposed to pick politicians. In California, the politicians pick people.'

Bob Mulholland, a top strategist for California Democrats and a member of the Democratic National Committee, said it was a bipartisan solution that means less money spent on campaigns and less confusion for the voters.

"The same people who want more competitive races also want less campaign spending. You can't have both.'

Robert Richie, executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy, a Washington-based watchdog group, said, "This creation of safe seats is taking the people out of the House. Without real races, you have no real debate on the issues. The people are less informed and less likely to vote.'

The center's recent report, titled "Monopoly Politics 2002: How No Choice Elections Rule in a Competitive House,' identified only a handful of real races among 435 contests nationwide. It forecast a wave of incumbent and partisan landslides in California, which it called "the poster child for efforts to shield incumbents.'

Richie and Hoffenblum advocate turning reapportionment over to nonpartisan panels, as was recently done in Arizona, or to the courts.

Richie also urged a return to the use of multiple-candidate districts. Several states used the method in the past, allowing voters to chose from multiparty slates and send more than one member to Congress from larger districts.

Mulholland said such calls for reform are merely sour grapes by the GOP, which hasn't dominated the Legislature in a reapportionment year since 1951. He argued that voters still have ample opportunity to choose candidates at the primary level.

"Most Republicans vote Republican, and most Democrats vote Democrat,' said Mulholland. "If you're a Republican and you move into a district that you know is Democratic, you shouldn't be surprised that the Democrats are in control.'

As the majority party in the California Legislature, Democrats drew the lines in the 2001 reapportionment, which was mandated by 2000 census data that added a 53rd seat to the state's House delegation. The Democrats' chief line drawers were Michael Berman, a veteran Democratic strategist and the brother of Rep. Howard Berman, D-Mission Hills, and Michael Berman's partner, Carl D'Agostino.

Michael Berman, D'Agostino and leading Democrats carved up the state, adding areas with heavy Democratic registration or promising demographics to incumbents' power bases and handing over Republican enclaves to GOP members.

For their services, Berman and D'Agostino charged each House Democrat $20,000.

The bottom line was a set of safe seats for all 32 sitting Democrats, scandal-plagued Rep. Gary Condit, D-Modesto, was later ousted in the primary, plus a new Democratic seat in Los Angeles County.

Republicans were offered a chance to keep their delegation total at 20. All they had to do was jettison Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Lakewood, a moderate veteran of competitive races in a Democrat-dominated district, in return for a safe GOP seat in the Central Valley. GOP leaders also agreed not to challenge the reapportionment plan in the courts, as they had in 1981 and 1991.

The highly respected Horn was duly sacrificed and soon announced his retirement.

Hoffenblum said the bipartisan reapportionment pact "was a sweetheart deal for the Republicans. It meant that California, one of the most expensive states to campaign in, was going to be out of play in the national race to control the House.'

Rep. Howard P. "Buck' McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, said at the time the deal was announced, that the GOP tried very hard to save Horn's seat but couldn't.

McKeon's new 25th District retained his home bases in the Santa Clarita area and Antelope Valley while adding new GOP-rich territory in areas ranging from Victorville to Mono County.

Mulholland said Republicans, still reeling at the polls in the wake of the anti-immigrant storm raised by former Gov. Pete Wilson, were lucky to keep their 20 seats.

There were some winners in the process. The San Fernando Valley area retained its current Democrat-dominated delegation while gaining a larger presence by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles.

The Inland Empire also gained clout, especially if the GOP retains control of the House. Rep. David Dreier, R-Covina, chairman of the House Rules committee, was returned to the area in a new 26th District that stretches from La Canada Flintridge to Rancho Cucamonga.

He'll team in the region with Reps. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, chairman of the Defense Appropriations Committee; and Ken Calvert, R-Riverside, who chairs the Subcommittee on Water and Power.

The Long Beach area was a major loser, as the vanquished Horn's district was sliced and diced. Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Torrance, gained 80 percent of Long Beach, while the city's coastal area and port were lumped with West Orange County and the Palos Verdes Peninsula in a safe seat for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach.

Long Beach's adjoining suburbs were also parceled out. Cerritos and Lakewood were placed in the new 39th District expected to be represented by Democratic newcomer Linda Sanchez. Downey and Bellflower gained clout by being allotted to Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Los Angeles, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Other Democratic incumbents found fault with the process.

For his $20,000, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, was shorn of 60 percent of his current constituents in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

"I don't want my money back; I want my district back,' Sherman said after the reapportionment maps were released. He later obtained some adjustments to his new district.

The GOP's Hoffenblum said that, on the national party level, the quaint notion of voters sending Mr. Smiths to Washington has been eclipsed by a battle for control of speakers' and chairmen's gavels and the policy agenda in the House. Democrats need to gain six seats to oust Republicans from power.

The Pasadena area was an epicenter of the national who-controls-the-House game in 2000. The GOP spent a record $6 million trying to keep James Rogan in office while Democrats ploughed $4 million into the campaign of winning Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena.

This year, Schiff is widely regarded as a shoo-in against GOP challenger Jim Scileppi.

"Politics is all run from the top down these days,' said Hoffenblum. "There's no grass-roots party building.'

Democratic candidate Marjorie Mikels of Rancho Cucamonga has no illusions about beating Dreier in the 26th District. To date, she has raised $15,000. Dreier's war chest totals more than $2.6 million.

"There are important issues, like the economy and the war with Iraq, where I differ with Dreier,' she said. "But it takes a lot of money to get your message out, and you have to be in a hot race to get any money.'

She said she has received no money from the Democratic Party or from allied groups like the Sierra Club.

Mikels said she recently received a "cold call' solicitation from the California Democratic Party, asking her for a donation "so we can take back the House.'

"I told the guy I was running for Congress as a Democrat,' said Mikels. "If you want to take back the House, what about me?'

This article also appeared in the San Bernadino Sun, Long Beach Press-Telegram and Inland Valley Daily Bulletin on October 21, 2002.


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Copyright 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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