Serving the Pols, Not the People

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

November 10, 2004

In the Nov. 2 general election, all of California's 53 U.S. House seats were at stake. Fifty-one incumbents were reelected, many by overwhelming margins. In case you're thinking that the success of two challengers shows it's possible for newcomers to break through in the state's hopelessly gerrymandered congressional districts, think again. Both are succeeding members of Congress who retired — a Democrat takes a Democratic seat and a Republican a GOP seat. The partisan lineup of the California delegation remains exactly the same as it was going into the election, 33 Democrats and 20 Republicans.

If Californians needed evidence that the congressional and legislative redistrictings after the 2000 census were political travesties, this election was it. These districts weren't drawn to provide Californians with fair representation but to serve the political parties. It's no surprise that they were drawn by the legislators themselves, with input from Republican and Democratic party leaders.

There's more. There will be some fresh faces in the state Legislature because of term limits — 10 senators and 24 Assembly members. Even so, the partisan lineup in Sacramento remains exactly the same: 25 Democrats and 15 Republicans in the Senate, 48 Democrats and 32 Republicans in the Assembly. Not a single seat out of all 153 at stake on Nov. 2 changed parties. And all 10 of the new senators previously served in the lower house.

When the results of an election are a foregone conclusion, the best candidate won't necessarily be the one who gets the job. Most legislative districts are so safe that the real battles are in the primary elections. Very liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans usually win those primaries and go on to easy victories in the fall. This has led to deep, partisan divisions in the operation of the Legislature and a breakdown in debate and compromise.

Lawmakers clearly cannot be trusted to draw fair, representative districts that will produce competitive elections. The job should be turned over to an independent commission, perhaps made up of retired judges. The legislators will not give up that power willingly, of course, so it will take a ballot measure. Ted Costa of the anti-tax group People's Advocate has a petition for such a measure approved for circulation.

Similar initiatives lost in the past, mostly because of misleading ads financed by legislative leaders. But this time a proposal would probably have the support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has enough clout with voters to give it more than a fighting chance. He hasn't yet taken a position on the proposed People's Advocate measure.

Schwarzenegger is correct when he says, "I believe the action is in the center." Moderates were much easier to find in Sacramento during the 1990s under a sound district plan drafted under the supervision of the state Supreme Court. That kind of plan is sorely needed again.