California Democrats today put the finishing touches on a congressional redistricting plan designed to protect all their current seats but yield only one pickup toward the national goal of regaining control of the House next year.
As described by leaders of the state Assembly and state Senate and aides to Gov. Gray Davis (D), the plan is crafted to increase the number of Democrats in the largest House delegation from 32 to 33, while preserving 20 seats for the Republicans.
The district of one Republican, Rep. Stephen Horn of Long Beach, would disappear, but Republicans would be given a new open seat in friendly territory that includes Tulare County in the Central Valley.
The new Democratic district would be designed for a Latino candidate in Los Angeles. The district of embattled Rep. Gary A. Condit (D) of Modesto would be reconfigured in a way that would strengthen Democratic numbers and give a Latino politician a chance of winning the primary, especially if, as most Democrats expect, Condit does not seek reelection.
The proposal is designed to lock in the gains Democrats made in 2000, when they captured four House seats from the GOP. All of those freshman Democrats would be given improved districts.
But hopes expressed earlier by House Democratic leaders that California would provide a bounty of additional seats, as the party strives for the six-seat gain that would end the GOP's eight years of control, apparently will be disappointed. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) had hoped that California would offset states such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Republicans control redistricting and can make the Democrats bear the brunt of the seat loss required by new census figures, showing those states lagged in population growth.
Davis said in an interview that he had told Gephardt at a recent meeting in Washington that "the voters essentially redistricted by themselves last November and my goal now is to strengthen the reelection chances of our new, moderate members."
Aides to Davis and the Democratic legislative leaders said that any plan that aimed at more than a one-seat pickup would disperse the reliable vote so widely that current incumbents might be at risk.
Leaders of the state Senate and Assembly, both with solid Democratic majorities, exchanged plans today and are expected to make their new map public Friday or Saturday.
The plan faces several potential hurdles before it can go into effect. Despite the potential of adding one or two more Latino members to the delegation, the legislature's Latino caucus tonight was still weighing the possibility of submitting its own map -- which reportedly would help Latino challengers in other districts with growing numbers of Hispanic voters to take on Democratic incumbents.
Republicans, who said they had not yet seen the map, do not have enough votes to block passage of the Democratic plan. But their votes are needed for the two-thirds majority Democrats are seeking. With a two-thirds vote and Davis's signature, the plan would go into effect immediately and not be subject to a popular referendum next year. That would enable candidates to begin their campaigns for the March primary and the November election now, with certainty about their district lines.
Republican leaders signaled that they were prepared to go along with any plan that protected their current 20 House seats, even though it likely consigned them to minority status in the delegation for the next decade. After a meeting Wednesday with several of the GOP incumbents, including Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, state Senate Minority Leader James L. Brulte said, "From our point of view, 33-20 is fine."
Republicans are also being asked to accept plans that would make them a long-term minority in the state Senate and Assembly. An aide to Assembly Minority Leader Dave Cox said, "Our caucus will do almost anything to help President Bush keep a Republican majority in the House," as saving 20 GOP seats in California presumably would do.
Assembly Speaker Robert M. Hertzberg said in an interview that the redrawing of Condit's district to include Democratic areas of Fresno was planned long before Condit became enmeshed in the Chandra Levy disappearance case. "Gary was talking about running statewide in 2002," Hertzberg said, "and we knew we had to add Democrats to that district to keep it safe for any other candidate."
One Democrat who has complained publicly about the redistricting is Rep. Ellen Tauscher, who represents a fairly affluent suburban area east of San Francisco Bay. Tauscher's district has been redrawn to remove some of that territory and substitute more blue-collar and minority areas. Even though the Democratic registration margin would increase, Tauscher, a leader in the New Democratic coalition in the House, charged that she was being punished by state Senate President John Burton for refusing to support Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D), a Burton ally in San Francisco politics, in Pelosi's race against Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) for the post of House minority whip.
Tauscher reportedly gained one last-minute concession when the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a major research facility, was kept in her district.
Tauscher said tonight that even though "my district has doubled in size and 44 percent of the population are people I have never represented . . . I'm very pleased that some of my concerns were listened to."
The plan Burton is supporting and Democratic state senators financed was drafted by Michael Berman, a Los Angeles political consultant and veteran of past redistricting battles, whose brother, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), is a House veteran.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) told the Orange County Register this week that she and all but two of the other Democrats in the delegation had paid Berman an additional $20,000 each to ensure favorable boundaries. "Twenty thousand is nothing to keep your seat," the paper quoted her as saying. "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."