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Skelton: California’s gerrymander with a twist

Gerrymandering was supposed to be cured by redistricting reform. No chance. It’s still alive and well in California.|

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

Gerrymandering was supposed to be cured by redistricting reform. No chance. It’s still alive and well in California.

That was evident in the just-completed once-a-decade redrawing of California congressional and legislative districts.

But the latest gerrymandering wasn’t about crafting weirdly shaped districts to benefit the political party in power. Neither was its purpose necessarily to protect incumbents from election defeat or to carve them friendly districts to run for another office.

The goal of this year’s gerrymandering was to help Latino, Asian American and Black candidates win seats. And it resulted in some very oddly shaped districts.

Actually, that was called for under federal law — the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“Minority communities need to be taken into account so they have voting power and an equal opportunity to elect a representative of their choice,” I was told three months ago by Fredy Ceja, spokesman for the independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

The 14-member commission — five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents, nonpoliticians selected in a process headed by the state auditor — drew the new maps.

The panel had a legal obligation to try to preserve, if not increase, districts that Latino, Asian American and Black candidates could win.

And it did, particularly for Latino candidates. It drew 16 U.S. House districts — out of 52 — where a majority of voting-age citizens are Latino.

That’s up from nine currently, according to the California Target Book, which tracks congressional and legislative races and closely followed the redistricting process, collecting data and analyzing each step.

The downside is that some cities and towns got rooked. They were carved into two or more districts, robbing them of their own, dedicated representative in Congress. They’ll have House members representing several interests.

San Jose, for example, was split into four districts in order to maximize the number of Latino voters in some seats. Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s San Jose district was expanded 60 miles south into Salinas to pick up Latino voters. It will go from 31% Latino to 51%.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo vigorously fought the fracturing of congressional representation, contending it would “sacrifice the interests of 1 million San Joseans.”

That occurred in several areas of the state. Fresno was fractured in thirds. Long Beach was split in two. San Bernardino and Riverside were divided up. So was tiny Hanford in the lower San Joaquin Valley. All in order to bring Latino voters into certain districts.

“Arms of districts were going out in all directions in order to separate Latinos and whites,” says Tony Quinn, a Target Book editor and redistricting expert who once was the Republican consultant on legislative remapping.

“Community after community was torn to pieces in order to achieve ethnic districts. One district near LAX is held together only at low tide.” That’s Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu’s district.

“When you see lines going in all kinds of crazy directions, that’s gerrymandering,” Quinn adds.

“This wasn’t a political gerrymander. It was an ethnic and racial gerrymander.”

He doesn’t think it was required under the Voting Rights Act because California’s electorate is very diverse and has been electing lots of Latino politicians and other candidates of color.

California’s population is 39.4% Latino, 34.7% white, 15.1% Asian American and 5.4% Black, according to the state Finance Department’s demographic unit.

Under redistricting, there will be six congressional districts where at least 30% of voting age citizens are Asian American. There currently are three. There will be two districts that are at least 30% Black, both in Los Angeles, the same as now.

Latino and Black activists fought hard to get what they got — to gain and not lose, respectively.

Paul Mitchell, a political data whiz who has advised Democrats on redistricting across the country, agrees that many “cities got short shrift” in California. But he points out their priority is outranked by the Voting Rights Act.

“Tony (Quinn) has a point,” Mitchell says. “Districts were created at the expense of cities. I’m not going to dispute that. But laws take preference. Voting rights are a criteria second only to creating districts of equal population.

“Minority communities won up and down the board.”

He adds that at least “it was not partisan politics — politicians screwing politicians. The process was clean.”

And that was the purpose of redistricting reform adopted by voters in 2008. The old gerrymandering had a very bad stench and is still practiced in many states — Texas being an infamous example. It didn’t create any new predominantly Latino districts this time, although it gained two House seats because of population growth. California lost one.

The old gerrymandering was an ugly system with politicians choosing their voters, instead of vice versa. Voters finally got sick of it.

“No matter how redistricting is done, there’s going to be a fight,” says Target Book publisher Darry Sragow, a former Democratic political consultant.

“The old-fashioned way was behind closed doors in what used to be smoke-filled rooms. The new way is transparent for everyone to see what’s going on. I’m fine with that.”

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, who as Assembly speaker helped lead the 2001 redistricting by the Legislature, says: “A lot of people are complaining about this commission. But one of its most important purposes is to instill public confidence. People need to have confidence in government. And one thing that hurts public confidence is gerrymandering.”

Agreed. But gerrymandering is still a redistricting tool — just for a different purpose.

George Skelton is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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