With just more than a month before California voters decide how the state redraws its political boundaries, House Republicans who want to the system to be transformed are counting heads and mobilizing for a last-minute fundraiser.
To that end, these Republicans are circulating a letter among California’s 19-member GOP congressional delegation endorsing Proposition 77, the Nov. 8 ballot measure that would reconfigure the state’s political topography.
Their goal is to force House members to stake out a clear position — for or against the proposition — and gear up for the five-week sprint to the election, including statewide media campaigns and personal appeals to back the measure from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).
As of yesterday afternoon, at least seven members had signed the letter, addressed to Schwarzenegger: Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis; Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, who has donated $50,000 to the effort; and Reps. Devin Nunes, Dana Rohrabacher, Howard McKeon, Dan Lungren and Darrell Issa.
At issue is power and who gets to wield it.
For now, the Democrat-controlled state Legislature is charged with redrawing California’s 53 congressional and 100 state legislative districts. Supporters of Proposition 77 want redistricting to be handed over to a panel of retired judges.
Given that essentially no legislative races in California are competitive — none of the 153 districts switched party hands in 2004 — few, if any, elected officials in either party publicly support the status quo.
The debate centers on timing: Democrats and many Republicans, particularly those who could face competitive races next year if the redistricting measure passes, say the state should wait until the next census, in 2010, to take action. But the conservative activists spearheading Proposition 77 and their small but growing coterie of GOP supporters in Washington and Sacramento want change now.
“If people want reform, if they want true reform, they have the opportunity to get it right now,” said Ted Costa, the president of the conservative group People’s Advocate and a chief backer of the measure. “It is truly in the hands of the people.”
Passage of Proposition 77 will be an uphill battle. It attracted only 32 percent support in a recent poll.
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), noting that when she first won her House seat, in 1992, it was a “lean-Republican” district, said, “I’m fine with the idea of having judges or wise persons or some independent, objective group handle the process.” But, Harman added, tampering with district lines in the middle of the decade risks disenfranchising voters and creating political havoc.
Other Democrats, including Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), said that it was difficult to take seriously Proposition 77 supporters who contend that the measure is a nonpartisan, “good government” effort to revive Democratic politics in California.
They point out that Costa and many of his allies supported the late-1970s anti-tax measure Proposition 13 and the 2003 recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
Nunes and Issa have said Proposition 77 could lead to a few House GOP pickups, but they add that most incumbents, Democrats and Republicans alike, would have to fight harder to hold their seats.
The clearest evidence that Proposition 77 is not a GOP sop, supporters said, is Republican opposition to it. As many as 12 of California’s House GOP members have yet to sign the letter to Schwarzenegger. At least one, Rep. John Doolittle, opposes the measure. Former Rep. Doug Ose (R) earlier questioned the wisdom of letting judges, who are not directly accountable to voters, redraw political lines.
Until recently, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) opposed plans to change the redistricting process. In a recent interview, Dreier said he had always supported changing the system but would have preferred to wait until the end of the decade. Once the governor signaled his support, however, Dreier said, he decided to sign on.
“I’m for it,” Dreier said of Proposition 77.