Politics & Government

California lawmakers sit on sidelines during redistricting

WASHINGTON — California's 53 House members seem to be simmering on the sidelines as an independent commission draws the new map that will determine their political futures.

Just listen to the incumbents talk about what, if anything, they're doing about the state's once-in-a-decade redistricting:

"Nothing," said Rep. John Campbell, R-Newport Beach.

"It's out of our hands," said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena.

"You just sit in the stands and watch," said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove.

On June 10, the Citizen's Redistricting Commission is scheduled to release its draft maps that will show what California's 53 congressional districts could look like for the next decade.

Incumbents know they're in for change and, potentially, tough races.

"It would be very difficult to recreate a horseshoe district like mine," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, whose district connects Modesto to Fresno via the Sierra Nevada.

The commission also will present maps showing state Assembly, Senate and Board of Equalization districts.

But on Capitol Hill, of course, the real anxiety comes over the decennial congressional redistricting required under the Constitution. The remarkable thing about California this year is the incumbents' lack of power over their own fate, a striking contrast to the past, when they could hire a trusted consultant or rely on one alpha wolf to protect them.

Still, California's incumbents are not entirely voiceless on the redistricting front.

Thompson, for one, is the leadership-appointed liaison between House Democrats and redistricting efforts nationwide. He consults with redistricting experts and lawmakers from other states and helps raise money for potential legal challenges.

"We have a legal team in place," Thompson said, and "we're going to make sure the districts are drawn fair."

An organization called the National Democratic Redistricting Trust has been established to raise funds on redistricting litigation. Last May, the Federal Election Commission approved the Democratic group's request that members of Congress be allowed to raise money in unlimited amounts from anonymous donors for the effort.

"The Trust seeks to engage in litigation over the electoral process that will govern how future elections are conducted, but its activities will not be a means to participate in those elections," the election commission's vice chair, Cynthia Bauerly, wrote in explaining the fundraising ruling.

The Democrats hope to raise $12.5 million for the nationwide redistricting litigation effort, according to an article in Politico. Thompson declined to speak about fundraising specifics.

"We're going to raise whatever money we need," Thompson said.

California's own eventual maps could be among those facing legal challenge if the commission "draws districts that are egregious," Thompson said. He's among a number of incumbents to suggest dissatisfaction with some of the commission's rules, including the inability to take incumbent hometowns into account.

Thompson's opposite number is Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., the redistricting vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Westmoreland's spokeswoman, Leslie Shedd, said Friday that the Republicans don't have a similar redistricting fundraising entity akin to the National Democratic Redistrict Trust.

Instead, Shedd indicated that Westmoreland is serving as a "point person," engaging in tasks like talking with congressional delegations to ensure unity.

"If you have a congressional delegation that's supportive of a map, it's much easier for those maps to go through," Shedd noted.

This won't count in California, where the 2008 ballot measure establishing the redistricting commission set out strict rules including a prohibition on private communications between commissioners and legislators.

"It's very clear that any involvement by us would result in negative consequences," said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Los Angeles.

One lawmaker, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, did write all 14 members of the redistricting commission, underscoring certain key principles, including the obligation to maintain compact districts and minimize the number of divided cities and counties.

As an example of the latter, Nunes often cites Fresno County, which is currently divided among four different congressional districts.

Nunes did not, however, submit proposed maps of his own.

This is all a big contrast to the days when lawmakers were largely the masters of their own fate.

In 2001, House Democrats each paid consultant Michael Berman $20,000 to draw the congressional district map later adopted by the California Legislature. By hiring Berman, the brother of Rep. Howard Berman, D-Los Angeles, the state's 34 House Democrats could ensure maximum protection.

The only Democratic incumbent to lose a seat in 2002 was Rep. Gary Condit, D-Ceres, whose reputation was in tatters following reports of his affair with missing intern Chandra Levy.

This year, Howard Berman insists he's out of the redistricting business.

"I'm some combination of ignoring it and watching it from afar," Berman said. "It's nothing kinetic, as they say in the military."