In November 2008 California voters passed Proposition 11, which took away from the state legislature the power to reapportion itself every 10 years and gave it to a new citizen commission. In a state where no incumbent had lost in the last decade and where the legislature’s approval rating was stuck at 16 percent, this seemed like manna from heaven. It did not seem so to the special interests — particularly the state’s public employee unions — who depend upon a pliant legislature to keep the money trough full.
The Citizens Redistricting Commission, which will also redraw congressional districts, was chosen through a multi-step screening process of several thousand applications until 14 finalists were chosen by the State Auditor: 5 Democrats, 5 Republicans, and 4 independents or members of other parties. Their charge was to make all districts more or less equal in population and to avoid the tortured gerrymandering practiced by the majority Democrats in the legislature over the last two census cycles.
A new day of competitive legislative races was about to dawn. Or was it? Someone must draw the actual maps for the many districts and the commission called for bids. The winning bid went to Q2, a small firm based in Berkeley that had what Sacramento Bee political writer Dan Walters called “indirect, but unmistakable ties to Democrats.” The head of the firm, Karin MacDonald, also is the head of the Statewide Database, the data bank used for redistricting. It, in turn, was created by one Professor Bruce Cain in 1981 when he worked as a consultant to the State Assembly’s Democrats. Cain is a co-owner of Q2.
When the commission’s staff developed the specifications for bids they called for bidders to show experience in Metropolitan Statistical Areas, large urban areas defined by the U.S. Census. At the last minute, the staff changed the specification to read “experience in a large incorporated city.” Q2 could not have qualified under the original specification, but could under the revised one. If you are beginning to think there is something rotten in Denmark, you’re right.
The other bidder was the Rose Institute of Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. It has ties to Republicans. Both bidders were asked to identify all sources of income over the previous five years. This was easy for small Q2, but Rose is part of a large institution that has hundreds of donors whose identity cannot be disclosed under IRS regulations. Rose certified that it had no supporters who posed a conflict of interest. Not enough, the commission said and disqualified them.
That the commission supinely accepted this slight-of-hand reflects its ideological bias As the Auditor, a political appointee, was sifting through the applications, racial and ethnic activists were building pressure to make sure that representation of what they called “underrepresented minorities” would be the commission’s primary objective over competitiveness.
While the commission is supposed to be comprised of “impartial” members, Tony Quinn, a long-time Sacramento observer, says that four of the five Democrats are very ideological; two of five Republicans haven’t a clue about the state’s complexity; and three of the four independents are not registered with a party because the Democratic Party isn’t far enough left for them.
Add to this recipe for bias the fact that the Secretary of State, an elected Democrat, had her office select the commission’s staff. The opaque selection process produced an executive director, Daniel Claypool, who, on his Facebook page, calls himself “a progressive Democrat.”
There is one glimmer of hope for some fairness in the redistricting process. Census data just released shows that many districts in the huge Central Valley have populations well above the ideal average, while many on the coast, especially around San Francisco and Los Angeles, are below it. This should have the effect for consolidating some coastal districts in order to add more in the valley. The coast tends to be liberal; the valley more conservative. Nevertheless, it is well to remember what the French say, “The more things change, they more they stay the same.”