Last Updated July 8, 2003
108th Lineup: 33 D, 20 R
107th Lineup: 32 D, 20 R
District Map: Click here
California has gained House seats in every Census going back to 1850, when it became a state; over that century and a half it has grown from 2 seats to 53, the most of any state in history. But California grew less rapidly in the early 1990s, and so it gained only 1 seat from the 2000 Census, the first time in a century it has not gained 2 or more. The tradition of partisan redistricting goes way back: Republicans drew the lines to their advantage in the 1940s and 1950s, Democrats in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, as the California House delegation grew from 23 in the 1940s to 30, 38, 43, 45 and 52. The great genius of redistricting here was Democratic Congressman Phillip Burton, who dominated the line-drawing for House seats and for the state Senate and Assembly as well (and intervened behind the scenes in other states too); his 1982 plan, slightly revised for 1984-90, left Democrats in secure control of the delegation even though he died in 1983. In the 1990s neither party had full control. Governor Pete Wilson, after hard-nosed bargaining with the Democratic legislature, persuaded the state Supreme Court to adopt a plan drawn up by his appointed commission in 1992. This was a relatively evenhanded plan, with generally regular boundaries; the fact that Democrats had a 32-20 margin in the delegation after the 2000 election reflected the party's strength in most parts of the state, not any acuity in drawing district lines.
The assumption after the 2000 election was that California would produce a Democratic redistricting plan. Democrats held the governorship and controlled the state Senate 26-14 and the Assembly 50-30. But that is not what happened; for the second decade in a row California ended up with a plan that gave neither party any great advantage. Democrats picked up four California seats from Republicans in 2000 and entered the process with a 32-20 edge in the delegation. They could have weakened several Republican incumbents, but that would have made it harder to safeguard the four incumbents who won in 2000. And they had to do something about the Central Valley seat held by Gary Condit, world-famous for his affair with the slain intern Chandra Levy in 2001. With his moderate record, Condit had held a seat that leaned Republican in other races. It would have to be made more Democratic if Democrats hoped to keep it. The key player for Democrats was Michael Berman, brother of Congressman Howard Berman and a redistricting expert who had worked with Phil Burton on redistricting in the 1970s and 1980s. He came out of retirement and was hired as a redistricting consultant by House and state Senate Democrats, at $20,000 per incumbent. As Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez said, "Twenty thousand is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million every election. If my colleagues are smart, they'll pay their $20,000 and Michael will draw the district they can win in."
Term limits played a role in convincing Berman and the Democrats not to maximize the number of Democratic seats. Assemblymen are limited to six years in office, state senators to eight; incumbents, especially assemblymen, spend much of their time plotting to run for other offices. As a result, it was not at all clear that there were 41 Democratic votes in the Assembly for plans that would protect incumbent congressmen and state senators, most of whom feared competition in the primary much more than in the general election. In February 2001 Berman met with five House Republicans, including David Dreier, who spoke for most of his California colleagues, and NRCC Chairman Tom Davis, who is also a redistricting buff. They agreed on the outline of a deal: Democrats would protect all incumbents, strengthen the Condit seat and take the new seat created by reapportionment; Republicans would get 20 seats for 19 of their incumbents in which the Bush 2000 percentage was at least 50%. It was understood that Long Beach Republican Steve Horn, nearly beaten in 2000 and surrounded by mostly Democratic territory, would have to be sacrificed to create a new Hispanic Democratic seat, and that Republicans would get a new seat in the Central Valley. In turn, Republicans would get Republican legislators to vote for the plan, with a view toward getting the two-thirds vote necessary to block a ballot initiative on the subject in 2002. This angered some Sacramento Republicans, who wanted to take their chances in court or with an initiative, and it angered Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, who argued that a plan that put most Latino voters in safe Democratic districts would not give Republicans an incentive to develop ties to Latinos which would be necessary if the party is ever to be a majority in the state again.
While Berman was busy drawing the lines in his Beverly Hills office, Republicans were busy building support for the deal. Howard Berman, who spoke for other delegation Democrats on redistricting, of course favored the deal. The NRCC chartered a private plane to fly Berman to Washington, where he met with at the White House with Karl Rove, who endorsed the plan. Davis secretly flew to Sacramento and lobbied Assembly Republicans. In August 2001 the plan was unveiled; Berman sent out copies to all incumbents, Republicans as well as Democrats, with personal notes. There was never much chance that it would not be approved. In the Assembly only 28 of the 50 Democrats voted for it initially, but some switched their votes and with Republican help it was passed with a two-thirds margin. In the Senate 24 of the 26 Democrats voted for it and it easily got the two-thirds. The plan was signed by Gray Davis September 27. To criticism by Republicans that they should have tried to undermine Democrats via the courts or the ballot box, Tom Davis said, "Our view is that we are trying to control the House in 2002. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Democrats were in control, and they were generous in giving us a 20th District." To national Democrats who hoped for redistricting gains in California, Howard Berman said, "Sometimes the cautious move is the smart move. Time will tell. But I'm convinced we made the right decision, given the vagaries of politics and unanticipated decisions. … We will have a massive Democratic majority in the delegation for the rest of the decade." California Democrats had already done enough for the national party, they said, converting the 26-26 delegation elected in 1994 to 33-20. It was time for Democrats to pick up seats in the rest of the country.
The plan itself has the elegance one would expect of the nation's foremost redistricter. Where the district shapes are contorted, there is often a demographic as well as political rationale: the 23d District, which connects a thin band of Pacific coast in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, collects a constituency with common interests and proclivities, quite different from those of the voters in the interior of those counties who were placed in the 22d and 24th districts. Naturally there were some complaints. Moderate Democrat Ellen Tauscher complained that she was given a too Democratic district; she wanted one that matched her moderate record. Latino groups complained that only one additional Hispanic district was created. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a group funded largely by East Coast liberal foundations, filed a lawsuit against the plan, honing in on the fact that it reduced the Hispanic percentages in the districts held by Howard Berman and Bob Filner. In all, 23 of the 26 Latino legislators backed the plan; weighing in against MALDEF also was former Speaker and Los Angeles mayor candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. The suit was dismissed in June 2002.
The plan was condemned by many journalists and political scientists for protecting incumbents and reducing competition. And in 2002 in these 53 seats--12% of the nation's total--only one was seriously contested, the Condit seat. But political trends over the course of a decade can make uncompetitive seats competitive: the political divisions of 2002 will not necessarily stay locked in place forever. Would Phil Burton have accepted a 33-20 split? Probably. He used to make the argument that California members of both parties should have safe seats because it was inhumane to make congressmen take the red-eye, the overnight plane from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Washington, every week.
National Journal Group offers both print and electronic reprint services, as well as permissions for academic use, photocopying and republication. Click here to order, or call us at 877-394-7350.