The Coast

This suburban city where I grew up has never wanted for much. The median income is high. The schools are good. The shopping centers are plentiful. We get the sunshine missed by fog-bound San Franciscans 20 miles to the north. My only complaint is that the Pacific Ocean winds blowing through a gap in the coast range sometimes interfere with tennis.

So it was a shock to my fellow San Mateoans to wake up one morning and find the state legislature and governor had decided to take away their state senator. In a year in which the California reapportionment process has taken many odd turns, this may be one of the oddest.

We knew the legislators had been having more than their usual amount of fun in Sacramento. The patron saint of California Democratic reapportioners, Rep. Phillip Burton (D-Calif.) had called one new congressional district "gorgeous, it curves in and out like a snake." But the 40 redrawn state senate districts received less attention, so it was a while before we learned that the ravages of the odd-even system had not stopped with the last gas crisis, but left San Mateo with literally no state senator in 1983 and 1984.

Where did the senator go? It did not take long to discover that the post had been snatched away to Sacramento itself, where the local residents would be able to have two senators during the two years of San Mateo's deprivation.

San Mateo County supervisor Arlen Gregorio, a former state senator himself, said he was not surprised. The legislative leaders in the state capital at Sacramento are Democrats and their scheme "produces an extra Democratic seat, at least for two years," because of heavy Democratic voting in the capital area.

People in San Mateo and the rest of the peninsula do tend to vote Republican, but even local Democrats like Gregorio were appalled at this sleight of hand. So was my mother, school teacher Frances Mathews. "It means we have to go straight to the governor," she said, "and that doesn't do any good."

It wasn't just the 77,561 citizens of San Mateo being short-changed, but 500,000 residents of what the legislature chose to call the new senate district 11, enveloping southern San Mateo and western Santa Clara counties. In that very innocent number 11, lucky in Las Vegas, lay the problem. The rules say California's 40 senators must serve staggered four-year terms, with even-numbered districts electing senators this year and odd-numbered districts electing in 1984. Most of the new district 11 has been created from old districts 10 and 12. Old district 11 lies far to the southeast, also virtually out of the equation.

The voters in new districts 10 and 12, now shifted elsewhere, may vote for senator this year, but people in San Mateo have to wait until 1984. Meanwhile, residents of new district 6 in Sacramento, which takes up most of old district 3, will get two senators--the old district 3 senator who is filling out his term until 1984, and the new district 6 senator they will elect this year.

Petitions protesting the situation circulated here. Ideas were tried out. Couldn't San Mateo elect a senator in district 11 for a shortened two-year term? No, that would mean an extra senator in the legislature, which would violate the law even if the state needed any more senators than it already has. Couldn't they end this even-odd business and have every new district elect a senator this year? No, that would be unfair to the incumbents in odd districts who expected to serve full four-year terms.

Sacramento's defenders suggested that new district 11 residents use their local state assemblyman to handle their problems in the interim, a solution that Dawn Clifford, field representative for assemblyman Robert W. Naylor, called "ghastly." Fred Logan, who works for assemblyman Ernest Konnyu in the southern part of the new district, said when a local senator left office for a judgeship two years ago, work in the local assemblyman's office jumped 40 percent, with no increase in staff to help.

As one would expect, the whole matter has ended up in court. San Mateo city attorney Douglas Dang, Mayor Jane Baker and many others worked up several arguments, ably drafted by Christine Motley of the San Mateo County district attorney's office. All that has to be done, they argue, is shuffle the numbers of six new districts.

Their brief quotes from the Federalist Papers and notes with scorn that the idea that the whole state legislature would still represent San Mateo was the same excuse given the American colonists by the British parliament in 1776. "The argument was dismissed by Americans," their brief says, "with admirable contempt."

A three-judge panel should hear the case in a few weeks. With luck, San Mateo will then get its senator back. I hope he or she can do something this time about the wind on the tennis courts.