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California Members will get the first glimpse into their political futures later this week, when the state’s independent redistricting commission releases its first draft of the new Congressional district maps.
After the maps are released Friday, a second round of regional public hearings and additional releases of updated maps will follow, before the California Citizens Redistricting Commission announces the final maps on Aug. 15.
That will complete what is likely the most open redistricting process in the state’s history — one that incumbents at the state and federal levels have been cut out of.
Gone are the days when Democrats could count on Michael Berman, brother of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), to solidify their political safety. And there are no more meetings between advisers for the Congressional delegation and state legislative caucuses to draw maps that make everyone happy.
Doug Johnson, a redistricting expert and fellow at the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College, said the new maps could result in a “continuing trend of retirements.”
“We’re also likely to see a number of state legislators challenging incumbents,” Johnson added.
Not unexpectedly, the process was met with anxiety by the state’s Congressional and state-level incumbents. California Speaker John Perez (D) and many other legislators opposed the ballot measures that handed control of the process to 14 citizen commission members selected from across the expansive state.
“There is obviously some apprehension because it is such an unknown quantity,” Perez spokesman John Vigna said. “We’re hopeful and pretty confident that [the commissioners] want to put out a good product.”
Like hundreds of other Californians, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D) sent the commission a letter asking that it consider keeping Marin and Sonoma counties within the 6th district. The Northern California district, which begins at the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge and jets north into wine country, could look drastically different.
“I urge the Commission to keep it intact, to maintain the Marin-Sonoma pairing that has served residents of both counties so well,” Woolsey wrote.
Woolsey, who is likely to retire and is expected to announce her plans this month, was the only Member to send a letter, but insiders said incumbents have attempted to influence the process in other ways.
Two insiders told Roll Call about a commission hearing in LA where some 50 supporters of Rep. Laura Richardson (D) showed up, asking the commission to keep the 37th district intact. Richardson’s Congressional office declined to comment on the redistricting process, and a message passed on to her campaign was not returned.
But Richardson was not alone, the insiders said, as supporters of other incumbents around the state followed suit.
To adjust to population changes in the area and smooth awkwardly shaped districts, the commission’s new map could adversely affect several LA-area incumbents, including Richardson and the eventual winner of the July 12 special election in the neighboring 36th district.
“Everybody’s district is in jeopardy given how wide open this process is,” LA-based Democratic strategist Roy Behr said.
Incumbents are not the only ones hoping to influence the process. Groups gave presentations and submitted maps to the commission, including the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans for Fair Redistricting — which seeks fair representation for the Asian American and Pacific Islander populations — and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a leading Latino legal civil rights organization.
The MALDEF maps caused considerable buzz, and an analysis by Sacramento-based Democratic consultant Paul Mitchell showed they created a combined 16 more majority-minority Congressional and state legislative districts than under the current maps.
The commissioners, who will take those and other maps submitted under advisement, were selected by independent auditors from the Bureau of State Audits. Some 30,000 Californians applied, and the auditors winnowed that down to 120 applicants who were interviewed in person — 40 Republicans, 40 Democrats and 40 “decline to state” voters.
Eight commissioners were selected and then picked the final six of the 14 members — five Republicans, five Democrats, four decline to state — who began meeting in January.
According to the new law, a special majority of at least three votes from each of the three sub-pools is required to approve the maps, and any subsequent legal challenge will bypass the usual appeals process and proceed directly to the state Supreme Court.
Redistricting Commissioner Maria Blanco, a Democrat, is an attorney from LA and currently serves as vice president of a community enhancement organization. In an interview with Roll Call, Blanco said the commissioners were pleasantly surprised by turnout at some two dozen public hearings, which she said sometimes lasted until close to midnight and included nearly 100 people who signed up to speak.
“Not only are our hearings public, but we are not allowed by law to have any meetings in private,” Blanco said. “Every single thing happens in public and webcast. I think that by and large the public is very encouraged by the fact that this is an open process.”
Blanco stressed that the commission cannot take factors such as where an incumbent lives, or keeping an incumbent with a particular community under advisement when drawing the map. She said that likely explains why the commission has heard directly from just one Member of Congress.
The most glaring partisan outcry in the newly independent process came in mid-March when the commission voted unanimously to use Q2 Data & Research as the technical map drawing consultant. Republicans decried Q2’s past work for Democrats, while Democrats argued that the Rose Institute, the only other organization to apply, was tied to Republicans.
“We have a very good team of technical experts that accompany us to all the hearings,” Blanco said. “After we finish a particular region we produce concept maps. ... They hear all the same things we hear, then we work with them afterward.”
The 14 commissioners also hired all of the staff assisting in the brand new process. That includes Executive Director Daniel Claypool, who helped build the commission as a member of the Bureau of State Audits, and Budget Officer Deborah Davis.
“It is certainly a much more open and independent process than the Legislature doing it itself,” the Rose Institute’s Johnson said. “Everyone will be watching closely to see how the commission operates.”