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Drawing the Lines

If political prognosticators are right, more Californians will go
to the polls Tuesday than have bothered in a long, long time.
And if other educated predictions come true, such populace participation may be very short-lived, because sooner or later, it’s going to sink into the public consciousness that all have been royally screwed.

Unless, that is, your name is Lois Capps, or Bill Thomas, or any other of California’s Congressional delegation of 53, in which case the future is downright rosy.

Nagged by hanging chads and other technical impediments to accurate vote counts? Don’t be. In a way, your votes already have been counted—for years to come. Channel your dismay instead to the manner in which your congresspeople have participated in subverting the Constitution, virtually guaranteeing themselves a well-paying job with great benefits until 2010, and along the way canceling the value of your vote for representation.

Write a letter. Yell and scream. Kick the dog. It won’t do any good. Love ’em or hate ’em, your congressperson will probably be yours until they are stooped and gray.

“While Osama bin Laden was trying to destroy American democracy from the outside in 2001, the Republican and Democratic parties did a pretty good job that same year of doing it from the inside,” wrote author and political observer Dick Morris in a recent book, “Off With Their Heads.” Morris, a Republican political strategist and architect of Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign, has a lot to say about the issue.

Two years ago in the aftermath of the decennial census and the ensuing California reapportionment, “incumbent congressmen and their political bosses took away the peoples’ power to choose a House of Representatives,” opined Morris.

BAD FOR DEMOCRACY One-time challenger Beth Rogers, a Republican from Santa Barbara, said recent reapportionment has hurt voters by entrenching both parties, shielding representatives from a disgruntled electorate.

The Congressional Quarterly Weekly observed, “California Democrats … nearly guaranteed all of California’s congressional incumbents safe seats until the redistricting that will follow the 2010 census.”

Both of San Luis Obispo County’s congressional representatives—Capps, a Democrat; and Republican Bill Thomas—can relax for a while, knowing that those pesky elections that members of the House face every two years will be a whole lot easier to win. Or, put another way, very hard to lose.

The biggest benefactor, albeit coincidentally, is Capps, to hear the outspoken Morris tell it.

“Lois Capps is a lucky winner, an innocent beneficiary,” said Morris in a telephone interview last week. “She is a lightweight. She is not seen as substantive in Washington. Actually, the most interesting thing is that Capps was perceived as someone who would be gone very soon. She was perceived as one of the most vulnerable Democrats. But then when they redrew the districts, she’s there for life.”

Morris wrote in his book that “one congressional district—Capps’, the 23rd — was so creatively drawn by the state’s political bosses that it was described by Congressional Quarterly Weekly as ‘skinny as a snake.’ The magazine noted that at one point, the district thins ‘to span the distance between the ocean and the high tide.’

“The goal of this abstract expressionist art,” Morris continued, “was to reelect Democratic representative Capps, who had then survived three competitive races in a ‘slightly Republican-leaning’ district.”

Capps’ Washington press secretary, Brigid O’Brien, said, “We are not going to dignify the baseless musings of a political pundit with a response.”

San Luis Obispo voters, said O’Brien, “know the congresswoman’s legislative achievement and depth of expertise on key policy issues such as health care, the environment, and education. And that is why they have elected and reelected her four times.”

The 23rd Congressional District was so creatively redrawn—safeguarding Congresswoman Lois Capps from any and all challengers—that it’s been described as “skinny as a snake.”

As to the “skinny as a snake” description of Capps’ district, O’Brien would only note: “The California legislature had the final say over drawing the congressional lines.”

Capps’ Republican opponent in the general election, Beth Rogers, said she learned about the results of gerrymandering the hard way.

“My race showed some interesting real-world glitches,” she said this week. “When you have a monopoly you have corruption. Right now we have a set of incumbents, even the good guys who don’t mean to do this, who are all locked in the same trap. If you don’t have competition and healthy dialogue between two parties, everyone is trapped into voting a straight party line. It’s a travesty. We have really busted democracy with this.”

The key thing about California’s reapportionment, according to Morris, “was not that it was a partisan effort, which one would anticipate, but that it was a bipartisan deal to keep all the incumbents in office. Kind of the opposite of term limits.”

Implications of such manipulation are far-reaching, Morris added.

“It takes the House of Representatives away from voters and makes it kind of a life tenure job, like the Supreme Court. It also has the byproduct of making incumbents far more worried about primary fights than they are about the general election, which drives the Democrats to the left and Republicans to the right.”

And that in turn helps elected politicians avoid the inconvenience of having to cater to, or even hear, the plaintive cry of their constituency.

“Congressmen are not worried about being centrists because they don’t have general election problems. But they are worried about being too far to the center, and therefore could be knocked off from the left or the right,” said Morris.

So how does it come to pass that so much political power is vested in a pencil and eraser?

States control some of their own political destinies by electing and sending representatives to Washington, D.C., to scrap for shares of the national fiscal pie. At present, California has more than one-tenth of all these representatives; 53 of the maximum allowed under the Constitution, 435.

Every 10 years, following the national census, states are required to give another look to the lines that separate electoral districts for members of the state house, and Congress.

Those lines change because people move about willy-nilly, once every four years or so. The plan of the founding fathers was that each elected state assembly and senate member, and each U.S. House member, would represent approximately the same number of citizens.

ANOTHER WINNER Republican Bill Thomas of the 22nd District is another beneficiary of recent reapportionment, which some critics say cuts out the voters.

To accomplish this, the legislative leaders of a state’s majority party will take the data produced in the census and translate that to a map. Sometimes there are fewer people, so a state might actually lose one or several representatives. In California’s case, one seat was gained because 4.1 million people moved into the state during the time since the last census.

California’s political map drawers had the opportunity to carve a few more Democratic seats, lending them an even greater share of the California delegation.

“Or,” said Morris, “[Democrats] could sit on their winnings, consolidate their strength, make sure their congressman would be there for life, and make sure there were never enough Hispanics in any one district to make the delegation browner. They chose the second course of action. It really represents on their part a very cynical decision to protect the incumbents.”

More than 80 percent of California’s population gain is Latino, but that did not translate into more representative power for Latino political candidates.

Congressional district borders are arbitrarily drawn by those in power—in California, a coalition of Democrats under the leadership of the Senate Rules Committee, Senate Pro Tempore John Burton, and Democratic Party Chief Art Torres.

The only requirement of any consequence is that the same number of residents be located within the lines of each district, give or take a few thousand people.

In more usual times, a party in power would draw those lines, often maliciously, to damage the opposing party and ensure as many electoral victories for itself as possible. Lawsuits from outraged citizens and the losing political party often followed.

When reapportionment is conducted unfairly, with an advantage to one party or another, the illegal practice is called “gerrymandering.”

Derived from the outrageous actions of one Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts in 1810-1812, who signed into law one of the most egregious—perhaps one of the first—examples of the redistricting scam that eventually came to bear his name. In that case, the prime beneficiary was Thomas Jefferson.

Until now, California’s sterling example of gerrymandering occurred in 1982, when the late Democratic Congressman Philip Burton took pencil to paper. (Burton was the brother of John, who as current state senate leader is a key architect of the current district plan.)

Twenty years ago, California’s congressional delegation was divided almost equally between Democrats and Republicans.

Philip Burton’s creativity then inspired havoc with Republican seats, because all of the district lines veered, swerved, and curved to encompass the greatest number of Democrats.

When Willie Brown was speaker of the state Assembly in 1991, Democrats repeated the oddly arraigned artwork designed to keep them in power. But Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the reapportionment bill sent to him by lawmakers, and tossed the issue to the state Supreme Court.

A special team of “masters” appointed by the court redrew the districts to attempt more equal division of the delegation along party lines.

From those crazy, hazy days of power-to-the-powerful, which made some sense in its own biased way, things have now evolved into a situation where the status quo is protected at all costs, even if that means guaranteeing that other-party incumbents will similarly survive. The most recent California gerrymander freezes the state’s huge House delegation at 33 Democrats and 20 Republicans, and at the same time assures Democratic control of the California legislature through this decade.

Congress is enjoying something it cannot create for constituents: nearly absolute job security.

The job of these people is to troop off to Washington to help secure billions of dollars that are available to states each year from the federal budget. In a drug cartel, these people would be the “mules.” The most successful pork-barrel raiders for major project money are sure to be remembered by state pols when it comes time to redraw those old district lines. Protecting the productive, as it were.

This has several “bad effects,” said Morris.

“The House of Representatives is virtually unelected and unresponsive to the voters,” he said. “Elected politicians have to fear primary elections, rather than general elections. And the total effect is that it makes congresspeople totally dependent on the state’s political bosses. Now, there is a capacity to enforce discipline on congressmen and force them to vote the party line. Otherwise, they end up with a district in which they will lose.”

The ultimate irony of Tuesday’s recall may be that Gov. Gray Davis faces an electorate determining his political fate for the next couple of years, while by his signature on the recent reapportionment bill, he has helped decide the political representation of Californians, or the lack of it, for the rest of this decade.

“It all means that a Lois Capps can skate by, as long as she is nice to the party leaders,” said Morris, the pundit to whom she would not respond.

Capps’ most recent electoral victim, Rogers, offered this depressing summation: “Process has been used to deny the public democracy.” ³

News Editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at

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