Tangled Election Web
by Kathy Brigham, October 27, 2010
Berkeley is probably not the best place to be introduced to politics, especially after a childhood spent wearing a little “I Like Ike” pin. In Berkeley, the question was never: Are you a Democrat or a Republican? The question was: Are you a Stalinist or a Trotskyite?
The Stalinists turned out to be somewhat stodgy and so politically correct that one had to avoid the expression “black ball,” not to mention the niggardly word. The Trotskyites, on the other hand, gave great parties and argued constantly among themselves about arcane issues that had nothing to do with real life. The Trotskyites were definitely more fun.
In 1972, the journey from Berkeley to Ukiah was somewhere between 100 and a million miles. In Berkeley, Ron Dellums was our Congressman — not that sad old man in Oakland, but a young, dashing, radical Democrat. In Ukiah, Don Clausen was our Congressman — a heavyset, jolly man who knew how to bring home the bacon. A Republican, of course.
Clausen was initially elected to Congress in 1963, when the First District included Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa, and Marin Counties. In 1973, however, Mendocino was “redistricted” into the fighting Second District — a confusing shuffling of the northern counties that was reversed by 1983, at least as far as Mendocino County was concerned. Clausen, a sturdy campaigner, survived all this shuffling.
But in 1982, after being re-elected nine times, Clausen lost to a Democrat, Doug Bosco. The Republicans regained the seat when Frank Riggs beat Bosco in 1991. Dan Hamburg then defeated Riggs in 1993, Riggs regained the seat in 1995, and Mike Thompson nailed it down in 1999.
Meanwhile, our assemblyman in 1972 (then Second District) was Democrat Barry Keene, followed by Democrat Dan Hauser, followed by Democrat Doug Bosco, followed by redistricting. When Mendocino County became part of the First District, Hauser stayed in the job until he was “termed out” and it has been solidly Democratic ever since.
On the State Senate side, Peter Behr was the last Republican — he was a moderate at a time when moderation was not uncommon in the Republican party. He was also an environmentalist who authored the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1972. Behr served our district from 1974 to 1978 (though he began in 1971, before redistricting) and was replaced by Barry Keene.
After that, it was all Democratic all the time and a definite pattern was laid down: Starting with the local city or county government, these fellows (and, later, gals) worked their way up or across the ladder. Not even term limits could stop this inevitable march. Passed in 1990 (by the people, not the legislature), term limits restricts Assembly people to three terms of two years each and Senators to two terms of four years each. But there remain no term limits in the U.S. Congress.
Wes Chesbro is the poster child for surviving term limits. First elected to the State Senate in 1998, Chesbro was termed out in 2006. Soon he had been appointed by the Senate Rules Committee to serve on the California Integrated Waste Management Board — said to be a rather plush sinecure with modest demands on time for a six figure salary. He was also appointed by State Superintendent Jack O'Connell to serve on the California Mental Health Service Oversight and Accountability Committee (benefits unknown).
A few years later, in 2007, Patty Berg was termed out in the First District Assembly seat and Chesbro was returned to the State legislature. His opponent in that election was Republican Jim Pell. Am I the only one who has no recollection of Jim Pell? Perhaps that is because he only got a bit more than 29% of the vote. There is no doubt about it: the First District Assembly seat and the Second District Senate seat are safely Democratic.
At the same time, the Second District Assembly seat (once occupied by the likes of Doug Bosco and Dan Hauser) is now safely Republican. In the last election, the Democrat got only about 29% of the vote. Likewise, the Fourth Senate District (somewhat analogous to the Second Assembly District) hasn't seen a Democrat since Mike Thompson.
Wait a minute: Mike Thompson? If this is beginning to make you dizzy, that's because the lines are changed every 10 years. In 1990, Mike Thompson's home (St. Helena) was in the Fourth Senate District. A few years later, after redistricting, he was living in and representing the Second District. Whereas Thompson narrowly won office in the Fourth District, the Second District was and continues to be strongly Democratic.
So the redistricting in the early 1990s had a profound effect on the political map of our northern counties. By moving the line between the two most northwestern Senate and Assembly Districts, the legislature pretty much guaranteed the Democrats a safe seat in the West and the Republicans a safe seat to the East. We can only assume that this pattern was repeated all over the state, in which there are 40 Senate Districts and 80 Assembly Districts.
What it probably means is that a Mike Thompson (although a fiscally conservative Democrat) could not get elected in the Fourth Senate District today, nor could a moderate environmentalist Republican like Peter Behr stand a chance in the Second. Moderation, as predicted by Barry Goldwater, has fallen out of fashion.
A movement has been afoot for some time to put an end to politician-managed redistricting. Several initiatives have been placed on the ballot, but it was not until Arnold the Governator got involved that unbiased redistricting became a real possibility.
The Common Cause webpage describes redistricting thusly:
“Every ten years, following the completion of the United States Census, California's state and federal political districts are re-drawn. Districts must be adjusted to changes in population demographics so that districts are equal in size. In the past, this process has been completed by the California State legislature. This means that legislators have the ability to draw their own district boundaries, dividing neighborhoods or groups of people in ways that benefit their own electoral needs.”
In 2008, the voters of California passed Proposition 11, creating a commission which includes equal parts Democrats, Republicans, and “Other Parties” to handle the task of redistricting. The members of this Commission are said to be specifically chosen for their “objectivity” and lack of a stake in the outcome. Sounds a tall order, but the process has begun and 2011 is to be the first year of redistricting as an objective and mathematical exercise and not a political one. That is, unless Proposition 27 is successful.
Prop 27 will undo the Citizens Committee created by Prop 11 and return the power of redistricting to the state legislature. It is also designed as a foil against Prop 20, which seeks to do the same thing with California congressional districts, i.e., remove the power of redistricting from the State legislators.
The list of major donors supporting Prop 27 includes some familiar Democratic stalwarts and others less so: Haim Saban, AFSCME (of which this writer was once a proud member), AFT, IBEW, firefighters and other unions, the California Democratic Central Committee, Zenith Insurance, George Soros, and others. Except for Mr. Saban (who unaccountably donated $2 million to Prop 27 after helping to bankroll Prop 11 in 2008), the list is oddly familiar. It brings us back to tiny (in population) Mendocino County and a startling article that appeared some months back in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Written by California Watch, the article revealed that the Mendocino County Democratic Central Committee brought in $235,000.00 in October of 2008 alone and used that and other donated funds to assist a couple of Democrats seeking assembly seats in San Diego and Alamo respectively. The source of the funds ranged from AFSCME ($30,200), SEIU ($30,200), and PAC for Classified Employees of California Schools ($25,000) to Blue Shield ($25,000) and Zenith Insurance ($25,000). There was also a $30,200 donation from an L.A. law firm, and $25,000 from a PAC for professional engineers.
In 2007, there had been a similar flurry of large donations to the Mendocino County Democrats: California Alliance for Progress and Education, Sacto ($30,000), Richardson for Assembly, Burbank ($27,900), Friends of Dymally ($20,000), SEIU Local 1000, Sacto ($27,900), Hollywood Park Land Company, LLC ($27,900), Catherine Fancher, housewife, Hillsborough ($27,900).
Although some of the Mendocino Democratic money was given to local candidates (Carre Brown got $3,000; Meredith Lintott and Kendall Smith both got $1,000 plus some expenses) and $30,200 was sent to the California Democratic Party, the bulk of the funds coming in these large chunks from Sacramento and Los Angeles went to the two Assembly campaigns in other parts of California.
According to California Watch (January 2, 2010):
“Politicians and their supporters routinely funnel money through county-level political party committees around the state, avoiding strict limits on campaign giving and hiding the source of millions in donations, a California Watch analysis shows.
“By using county parties as middlemen both Democrat and Republican donors can contribute far more money than the law typically allows to highly contested races in California where the extra cash could make the difference between winning and losing.”
In this case, $200,000 went to Marty Block's campaign in the 78th Assembly District (San Diego) and $107,000 went to Joan Buchanan's campaign in the 15th District (San Ramon). Neither campaign turned out to be a squeaker, but the demographics in both are more balanced than the 1st District.
In the 78th, the Democrats managed to carve out a friendly enclave in the generally conservative San Diego. With about 30% Republicans and 43% Democrats, independent voters are an important factor. Block ran toward the middle, pledging to balance the budget and attracting support of police officers. He won with 55.4% of the vote.
The 15th District is similarly constituted: 40% Democrats, 30% Republicans, and the remainder independents. Buchanan won with 52% of the vote. Obviously, neither candidate would have prevailed without attracting those middle-of-the-road independent voters.
But the question arises: Why do Democrats in the First Assembly District so easily gather up those all-important independent votes? At the time of Chesbro's defeat of Jim Pell by 71% to 29%, the Democratic registration in the District was only about 46%, with about 26% registered Republicans and the remaining 30% undeclared or in other parties. Perhaps our “independent voters” are more Green or Peace and Freedom than they are American Independent or Tea Party. But you can be sure that, although this is a mystery to most of us, it is no mystery to the people who draw the lines that separate these Districts.
Whatever the demographics, the fact is that the First District is an Assembly seat so safe for the Democrats that the Republicans spend their money elsewhere and so, to some extent, do the Democrats. I was unable to find any evidence of a Committee for Jim Pell in 2008 or that he raised or spent any money (though this may be a result of my inexperience). Chesbro, on the other hand, raised a bunch of money and gave a bunch away: over $150,000 or so to State and local Democratic Party organizations and $11,000 or so to individual Democrats running for Assembly or local office, such as our own Kendall Smith. In fact, it appears that he gave more money away to other Democrats or to help other Democrats than he spent on his own campaign.
Republicans are clearly doing the same thing, i.e., moving money from safe Republican seats to help in close elections elsewhere while, at the same time, wasting no money on elections where the Democrats have the demographics and the Republicans do not. The result, for the voters, is a lack of choice. Unless you want to move into one of the Districts that hasn't been totally nailed down for one of the two major parties, you must resign yourself to living with gerrymandering. And the incentive for candidates in either party to moderate their views is mostly non-existent.
Some experts also believe that gerrymandering is one of the causes of gridlock. And while one would think that the minority party would be in favor of Prop 20 and against Prop 27, that does not seem to be the case. As Rebecca Kimitch observed in the October 2nd edition of the Whittier Daily News, gerrymandering protected Republic house seats in 2006. This is because, in California, the two major parties struck a deal and created both safe Democratic seats and safe Republican seats. Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were trying for a smooth running government, it appears to have been a dismal failure.
Thus, the Republicans are lying low on these two propositions, letting the Democrats do the heavy lifting. The Yes on 27 Committee has raised over $3 million this year and the list of donors reads like a Democratic Who's Who: from George Soros to Nancy Pelosi to Barbara Lee (Barbara Lee?) and including plenty of union PACs and that ubiquitous Zenith Insurance (the Darth Vadar of the insurance world).
There is a Republican putting up big money against 27 and in favor of 20, but he is not exactly a party apparatchik. Charles Munger, Jr. is physicist at Stanford who happens to have a wealthy father (a Berkshire-Hathaway principal) and is married to a successful attorney, Charlotte Lowell. They have collectively put over $8 million of their money into the Yes on 20/No on 27 fight. Munger and Lowell have funded an unusual political mailer that has started appearing in Californians' mail boxes. It includes a DVD that explains gerrymandering, the fight to get Prop. 11 passed two years ago, and the current attempt to turn back the clock on that success. The DVD can also be viewed on their web page: (Yes20No27.org) .
It is, of course, always fascinating to read the pro and con arguments in the official voter guide. For Prop 20, the pro arguments are signed by representatives of AARP, California Common Cause, NAACP, National Federation of Independent Business, California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and San Diego Tax Fighters. The con arguments come from Californians against Waste, Congress of California Seniors, Daniel Lowenstein (founding Chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission), California Black Chamber of Commerce, and Carl Pope of the Sierra Club.
The argument against 20 focuses upon its cost and contrasts that to the legislative analysis of Prop 27, which it says finds 27 will decrease costs. Since Prop 27 would eliminate the Citizens Redistricting Commission, it would, according to the Legislative Analyst, reduce state redistricting costs by .” . . a few million dollars . . . once every ten years beginning in 2020.” But contrary to the anti-20 arguments, the Legislative Analyst finds that any change in future redistricting costs if 20 is passed would “not be significant.”
The other argument against 20 is that “it mandates Jim Crow economic districts.” This is where the rhetoric really gets wacky: “Jim Crow districts are a throwback to an awful bygone era. . . . Munger Junior may not want to live in the same district as his chauffeur, but ... the days of 'country club members only' districts or 'poor people only' districts are over.”
The fact that 20 is supported by the California NAACP and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce would seem to put the lie to this argument. And the pro-20 side counters with the charge that: “In the last redistricting, Latino leaders sued after a California Congressman had 170,000 Latinos carved out of his district just to ensure he got reelected.” Now he .” . . is leading the charge against 20!”
According to Wikipedia, this refers to some very complicated machinations after the 2000 census allocated California one new House seat. Howard Berman (“dad of the delegation” on redistricting), made a deal with Republicans Tom Davis and David Dreier. In order to keep 34 safe seats for Democrats, Berman added one new Republican district while protecting 19 incumbent Republicans. According, again, to Wikipedia, every California Democrat in the House and California State Senate hired Michael Berman (Howard's brother) as a redistricting consultant, for a fee of $20,000 each. When this plan was unveiled, one legislator complained that Berman had stabbed him the back by undermining the safety of his seat with too many Hispanic voters. So (again, according to Wikipedia) Berman agreed to redraw the boundary between their districts, giving himself 55.6% and Sherman 36.5% Latino population. This diluted the Latino vote, led to unsuccessful litigation, and ultimately fired the fight against partisan redistricting.
This is the kind of insider information that is unlikely to filter down to even the most conscientious voter. Instead, we must rely upon the pro and con arguments, the rebuttals, and the identity of the persons making those arguments. And this begs the question: Why is Carl Pope of the Sierra Club on the anti-20 side? Perhaps a clue is provided by the Sierra Club Legislative Report Card. It reveals that 14 Senators and 34 Assemblyman scored “100% green” on the Report Card and all of them were Democrats. In contrast, all of the “Eco-Zeroes” were Republicans.
When Democratic office-holders seem so adamant in opposition to 20, this would be a no-brainer for an organization that relies on Democrat support. All the more so, since the Republicans are not bothering to put up a fight.
None of this is a secret. For the most part, it is a matter of public record. Of course, most people don't have 20 hours or so to waste as I have just done. Most people rely upon the recommendations of their political party or of other special interest organizations with which they are allied. I may have spoiled myself forever on that score. Who, exactly, should I trust?
As if in answer to this plea, I have just received my “Women's Election Education Guide” in the mail. It urges me to vote for Boxer and Brown (which I will) and Torlakson (which I will not). It also “strongly urges” me to vote No on 20 and Yes on 27. “Stop wasting our money on nonsense,” it tells me, with a photo of Arnold looking particularly crazed. Of course, this mailer is one of those “paid for” by the people and causes endorsed. Why else would an election guide “for Democrats” endorse Dan Hamburg (a Green) instead of Wendy Roberts (a Democrat)?
The California Democratic Party official mailer is more dignified. It calls 20 “another redistricting power grab by a Republican billionaire” and 27 as a noble effort to repeal “Schwarzenegger's Republican reapportionment scheme.”
In my dreams, I am visited by my long-dead father — a Republican but also an agnostic and a cynic. His words of wisdom instruct me: “Don't trust any of them. It's all fixed.”