Schwarzenegger, Mehlman go head to head over reform

Republican Chairman Ken Mehlman and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) look to be locked in battle over the future of redistricting in the Golden State, with Mehlman pushing the status quo and the governor calling for an overhaul of the system.
John Shinkle
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may be locked in a battle with GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman.

If nothing changes, Republicans are almost certain to hold on to their 20 of 53 seats in the state’s congressional delegation. If the process is “depoliticized,” as supporters put it, by taking redistricting out of the hands of politicians and handing it over to a panel of former judges, the GOP could pick up as many as six seats, some Republicans say.

The split between Mehlman, who ran President Bush’s reelection campaign, and Schwarzenegger comes three months after the movie star-turned-politician made a last-minute trip to the battleground state of Ohio on the president’s behalf.

Before Nov. 2, 2004, Schwarzenegger had not taken a position on redistricting reform, a process that would affect both congressional and state legislative districts. During the campaign, the governor actively stumped for Republicans in seven state legislative districts; none of those Republicans won. Earlier this year, the governor came out in favor of reform.

Mehlman was expected to meet yesterday with members of California’s GOP delegation, Capitol Hill sources said. Redistricting was expected to be at or near the top of the agenda, these sources said, adding that Mehlman was almost certain to voice opposition.

Wayne Johnson, a GOP political consultant in Sacramento whose clients in 2004 included California Reps. Richard Pombo and Dan Lungren, explained: “If you’re risk-averse, you probably don’t like” redistricting reform, given the uncertainty of newly drawn districts.

A Republican political consultant in California who was aware of yesterday’s meeting said Mehlman was doing Rep. David Dreier — the chairman of the California GOP delegation and a staunch opponent of reform — a favor by attending.

Referring to Mehlman, the consultant said: “I think he’ll say, ‘We made the deal for 20 seats because we thought 20 in California would be enough, that we could hold our majority [with that], so we need to stick to it. If we do something else, we don’t know what we’re going to get.’”

The consultant and other supporters of redistricting reform contend Dreier and other GOP leaders agreed with Democrats in California on an electoral map that protected incumbents after the 2000 census.

Dreier spokeswoman Jo Maney did not return a phone call for comment. The congressman, who chairs the House Rules Committee, has repeatedly refused to comment on his position on reform.

Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee (RNC), called reform a “state issue.” He declined to say if anyone at the RNC has voiced any opinions about how it would affect the Republicans’ majority in Congress.

While he said he could not confirm that Mehlman was scheduled to meet yesterday with Republicans, Diaz did say that, as chairman, Mehlman is expected to confer with state party leaders all the time.
Republicans opposed to reform argue that the party has done as well as it can in a state that hasn’t backed a GOP presidential candidate since 1988 and has two Democratic U.S. senators and a Democratic-controlled state Legislature.

Republican political consultant Mark Abernathy dismissed that logic, contending that the party would likely pick up four to six seats under reform and that, “in a bad year,” Republicans would drop to no fewer than 22 seats — two more than they have now.

Abernathy, who was closely involved in the state’s 2003 gubernatorial recall, works for California Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader and the sponsor of the redistricting-reform bill in Sacramento backed by Schwarzenegger.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), one of four Republicans from the California delegation who publicly supports reform, said partisanship has little, if anything, to do with changing the system.

Lungren added that “gerrymandering” has ruptured lines of communication between Republicans and Democrats by having “taken out the incentive to listen” to those in the opposition.

The Sacramento-area congressman, who previously represented a congressional district in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s, suggested he can appreciate being shut out of the political conversation, having served in the minority.

Other California Republicans who have voiced support for redistricting reform are Reps. Bill Thomas, Darrell Issa and Devin Nunes — the same three members who were the first to back the recall.

Neither Thomas nor Issa would comment yesterday on the reform effort. Some opponents of redistricting reform say that it’s premature to revisit the issue now, before the 2010 census. Nunes disagreed, saying, “If you believe it’s unfair, then the unfairness has to end today.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the state Democratic delegation, said she had had conversations on the House floor with Republican members from her state who were dead set against reform.

Lofgren, like other Democrats, expressed uneasiness with Republican efforts to change the way reapportionment takes place, particularly in light of the Republican-led redistricting of Texas’s electoral map in the last election cycle. That redistricting helped Republicans beat several incumbents, including veterans Martin Frost and Charlie Stenholm.

But Abernathy, the Republican political consultant, suggested that Republicans, not Democrats, are more scared of running in competitive elections. He singled out Dreier and Rep. John Doolittle as those most opposed to changing the status quo. “There are a few members in the delegation who are deathly afraid of running in fair districts,” Abernathy said.

Other GOP members who oppose changing the redistricting process, redistricting-reform supporters said, include Ed Royce and Elton Gallegly. Spokesmen for Royce and Gallegly did not return messages.

Doolittle spokeswoman Laura Blackann said the congressman opposes redistricting reform because it comes “middecade” and threatens conservatives. “This is an effort to make the districts in California more moderate, and the congressman has no interest in watering down the Republican Party,” she said.