Over the summer, the web site I edit, CalWatchdog, published a series of articles documenting the way that the political left exploited the redistricting process in California to assure strong gains for the Democratic Party. The report included an exclusive interview with a redistricting commission member who alleged partisan behavior by his supposedly non-partisan commission colleagues, but the series didn't cause much attention in the media, the Capitol, or among the public. Apparently, no one was surprised that a commission formed with the best of intentions—i.e., taking backroom political deal-making out of the process by which political lines were drawn—was cynically manipulated to create a partisan advantage.
But the story is getting renewed life now that the ProPublica investigative journalism web site published a new report called "How Democrats Fooled California's Redistricting Commission." If you weren't cynical about the state of California's political system before reading it, you will be now. It reveals several lessons for California political observers, ranging from the ruthlessness of the state's powerful Democratic Party, to the utter incompetence of the state's fading Republican Party. It also reminds us that even the best-intentioned good-government reforms may make matters worse if proponents of reform don't grapple with political reality.
Calwatchdog's series by reporter John Hrabe focused on the deep partisan interests of one of the commission's supposedly non-partisan members, Gabino Aguirre, and the successful way he abused the public trust to secure his desired political results. Following the Hrabe series, redistricting expert Tony Quinn wrote in Fox & Hounds:
Dante condemned those who betray a public trust to the hottest place in hell. My candidate for Dante' inferno this week is State Auditor Elaine Howle, who created the poll of candidates that formed the Citizens Redistricting Commission …. Commissioner Gabino Aguirre managed to obtain a Senate district for his friend, Democratic Assemblyman Das Williams, in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. Aguirre made a campaign contribution to Williams after he was in the running for membership on the commission, and then helped craft the new Williams district without disclosing his contribution to anyone. He also helped draw the district intended to end the career of GOP Sen. Tony Strickland. Aguirre hosted a fund raiser in 2008 for the candidate running against Strickland's wife … . These are the kind of people Howle thought were 'impartial,' the primary criterion for a commissioner.
In my column about the left's redistricting victory, I quoted former Republican Party Chairman Shawn Steel, who said: "The Democrats knew what they were doing, and Republicans were asleep at the switch." People shrugged or dismissed our allegations as the work of disgruntled conservatives. But now ProPublica, which tends to lean toward the left, came up with equally damning conclusions based on a look at email correspondence, internal memos, interviews with participants and an analysis of the final district maps:
Working with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee … members were told to begin 'strategizing about potential future district lines,' according to another email. The citizens' commission had pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players. To get around that, Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party's interests. When they appeared before the commission, those groups identified themselves as ordinary Californians and did not disclose their ties to the party.
The Democrats played hard-ball politics, undermined the spirit of redistricting, and caught the Republican Party flat-footed. Many Republicans I talked to during the redistricting situation viewed Democratic gains as inevitable, which no doubt explains their lack of effort in combating what the Democrats were doing. But there was no excuse for their lack of political skill and inaction.
As ProPublica reported, "Statewide, Democrats had been expected to gain at most a seat or two as a result of redistricting. But an internal party projection says that the Democrats will likely pick up six or seven seats in a state where the party's voter registrations have grown only marginally."
Instead of losing a small number of seats, Republicans will be losing big because Democrats played them for fools. Wrote ProPublica, "What emerges is a portrait of skilled political professionals armed with modern mapping software and detailed voter information who managed to replicate the results of the smoked-filled rooms of old." Republicans couldn't match this cynical tactic, but it's a tactic that they should have seen coming and should have geared up to combat. They seemed to accept their losses as a fait accompli.
Many moderate Republicans and good-government reformers didn't realize that the state's highly sophisticated Democratic machine would rig the game so strongly in their own favor. Good government activists, such as Charles T. Munger Jr., who donated $7 million to the 2010 Prop. 20 redistricting ballot initiative that expanded the citizens redistricting system to U.S. House seats, believed that such a measure would really help take the politicians out of the redistricting process and empower citizens.
Early articles about redistricting sounded woefully naïve. Republicans such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson actually believed redistricting would increase the power of the GOP and they were concerned about getting support from Democrats, but the end result is a massive power shift from the declining GOP to the Democratic Party.
Let this be a reminder of how easily any reform—no matter how appealing it may sound—can and will be manipulated by those who are most skilled at the political game. In California, reform measures promoted by political novices will undoubtedly be manipulated by the pros. And as the GOP becomes less relevant, it seems less capable of recruiting highly skilled politicos who can duke it out with the Dems.
It's really impossible to take politics out of politics. The ProPublica report, combined with Calwatchdog's series last summer, will remind political observers of the enormous obstacles to reform. Not only must reformers come up with a good idea, they must figure out
a way to outsmart a ruthless political machine.
Steven Greenhut is editor of CalWatchDog.com.