Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | May 1, 2007

Rare political bravery on redistricting

Hooray for California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles). He’s taking a huge political risk in support of one of my favorite causes – redistricting reform.

What’s the risk? He’s defying the woman who’s two heart beats away from the presidency – U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

That takes some political guts.

Originally, Nuñez obeyed Pelosi’s opposition to including congressional seats in any California redistricting plan – apparently what’s good for the state house is not good for the congress, in Pelosi’s view – but he has since changed course.

Nuñez is also risking the dreaded (and ridiculous) label of “flip-flopper.” We know from the 2004 presidential election how much Republicans love to fling that label at Democrats.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: “I never understood why politicians can’t change their minds. I think an open mind, willingness to listen to reason, and the ability to say ‘I was wrong’ are assets, not flaws, in politicians and people in general.” (August 2, 2005 column)

So kudos to Nuñez for his risky move.

I feared that redistricting reform would fall off the radar for years after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s redistricting proposal failed in his ill-advised 2005 special election. That initiative, Proposition 77, would have had a panel of retired judges draw state Senate and Assembly and U.S. House districts.

Then, right after Schwarzenegger breezed to a second term last November, he amazed and pleased me by bringing up the topic of redistricting, despite the previous initiative’s failure.

“Every one of the (legislative) leaders said to me that we’ve got to continue working on [redistricting reform]. Every one of them mentioned to me, let’s get going again in January about redistricting,” Schwarzenegger said in November.

Nuñez proposes to give the job of drawing districts to the Little Hoover Commission, which has a “mission … to investigate state government operations and – through reports, recommendations and legislative proposals – promote efficiency, economy and improved service,” according to its web site. The group was created in 1962 and is required by statute to have “a balanced bipartisan board composed of five citizen members appointed by the Governor, four citizen members appointed by the Legislature, two Senators and two Assembly members.”

The Nuñez plan sounds reasonable to me because it gets legislators out of the business of drawing districts for all three legislative bodies with districts: the state Senate, the state Assembly, and the U.S. House of Representatives. History clearly shows that legislators’ own self interest in creating safe seats for their parties always trumps their fiduciary duty to voters to create districts of communities with common interests.

But the Nuñez plan is not the only proposal being floated. Lafayette-based attorney Barry Fadem is circulating a redistricting reform petition of his own.

Supported by a wide range of groups including “the League of Women Voters, AARP, People’s Advocate and California Common Cause,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Citizens Fair Districts ballot initiative would have a panel of randomly selected Californians draw district lines for all three legislative bodies.

Either of these proposals is better, in my view, than the one recently introduced by state Sen. Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield). The Chronicle reports that Ashburn supports a citizens-committee approach to drawing state Assembly and state Senate districts, but not for U.S. House of Representative districts.

There’s no good reason to exempt congressional districts. As the Chronicle and many others have reported, “In 2004, not a single one of the 153 congressional and legislative seats up for election changed party hands. In 2006, just one did when GOP Rep. Richard Pombo lost his Tracy-area seat to Democrat Jerry McNerney.”

I’ll watch the progress of both the Nuñez bill and the Fadem petition and root for their success, but I hope the Ashburn bill dies a quick death.

In the meantime, if you’re a registered voter and you have a chance to sign the petition for Citizens Fair Districts ballot initiative, please do so. I know I will.

And contact your state Senator and Assembly member and ask them to support the Nuñez bill and oppose the Ashburn bill. Contact information is online at the Smart Voter web site’s Guide to Government at smartvoter.org/gtg.

Let’s get the conflict of interest out of drawing legislative districts and reward Nuñez’s rare political bravery at the same time.

Now that’s a win-win situation.

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