New redistricting map could make California less golden on the Hill

June 20, 2011

When it comes to clout on Capitol Hill, California has long reigned supreme, with its lawmakers routinely being placed in the upper ranks of key congressional committees.

That dominance now faces a challenge, however, as the Golden State’s voters decided in November to dilute California’s power in the Capitol — whether they meant to or not.

In addition to having the nation’s largest economy and population, California boasts some of the most exquisitely gerrymandered maps in the land. At both the federal and the state levels, the same lawmakers have been reelected cycle after cycle in districts drawn with the goal of protecting incumbents, regardless of party.

In 2010, voters got fed up and passed a ballot initiative — Proposition 20 — to take control of congressional redistricting away from the state legislature and hand it to an unelected commission. That body has now presented its first draft of a congressional map that sent shock waves through the state, drawing several members out of their current districts and into potential fights with other lawmakers.

“That’s what the people wanted,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.). “They wanted a redistricting that ignored the protection of incumbents.”

Will any of the state’s most senior members fall victim to the new map? The jury is still out — and the map faces more revisions before the lines are set — but there’s no question that some long-protected incumbents will have a hotter summer than usual.

“A few of the [incumbents] don’t have obvious places to go,” said Bruce Cain, the director of the University of California Washington Center. “There are some people that have tough choices.”

California Republicans hold the chairmanships of four House committees, the most of any state, and the state’s Democrats also lead the way with five ranking-member slots. And there’s no overlap between the two parties, meaning that Californians hold either the top GOP or Democratic slot on nine committees.

(California also has the top Democrat in the chamber, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the No. 3 Republican, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, but neither is endangered by redistricting.)

At least a handful of those panel chiefs face trouble under the redrawn lines:

l Rep. David Dreier (R), who is term-limited out of his post as Rules Committee chairman anyway, saw his San Gabriel Valley seat changed to become much more Democratic.

l  Rep. Howard L. Berman, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, was drawn into a San Fernando Valley district that is more amenable to another Democrat, Rep. Brad Sherman.

l  Rep. Loretta Sanchez, the ranking Democrat on the ethics panel, saw more Republicans added to her Orange County district.

l  Rep. Dan Lungren (R), the chairman of the House Administration Committee, had his Sacramento-area district drawn to be about even between the two parties.

l  Rep. Bob Filner, the top Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee, has already decided to run for San Diego mayor rather than reelection, perhaps because he knew he would have trouble in his new district — he was drawn into a seat with Rep. Susan A. Davis (D).

A handful of other longtime California lawmakers face obstacles to reelection in the wake of the new map, including 13-term Rep. Elton Gallegly (R), eight-term Rep. Lois Capps (D) and seven-term Rep. Gary G. Miller (R).

“Some people have compared Proposition 20 to unilateral disarmament, taking a cut to the state’s seniority when other states aren’t doing the same thing,” Cain said.

In the current climate, it’s unlikely that incumbents will get far delivering odes to seniority and the value of bringing home the bacon. After all, if Californians were so happy with their representation, maybe they never would have passed reform in the first place.

Particularly at the state legislative level, many residents blame gerrymandering for much of the dysfunction in Sacramento. Republicans hail from primarily conservative districts, Democrats represent mostly liberal districts, and no one has much incentive to compromise.

Yet for all the heartburn the new proposed lines have caused, most current members are likely to find a way to get back to Washington for the next Congress, whether they have to win a primary or move to a new district to do it. They know how to raise money and they have some name recognition — valuable assets in a state with prohibitively expensive media markets. The map probably won’t result in wholesale turnover in the state’s top ranks.

“I don’t think of it that way,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R). “Most of these guys will be okay.”

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