Thomas gives $50K to reform drive

Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) gave $50,000 Friday to the group leading the redistricting-reform charge in California, an official from the group said yesterday — signaling growing momentum for reforming a system that largely shields incumbents. Reform advocates say the current effort is the first in nearly 20 years that has a real chance of prevailing with California voters. They add that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) win in the 2003 recall election has given considerable momentum to the cause.

Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) gave $50,000 Friday to the group leading the redistricting-reform charge in California, an official from the group said yesterday — signaling growing momentum for reforming a system that largely shields incumbents.

Reform advocates say the current effort is the first in nearly 20 years that has a real chance of prevailing with California voters. They add that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) win in the 2003 recall election has given considerable momentum to the cause.

Ted Costa, the president of the Sacramento-based group People’s Advocate, said Thomas is the first and only House member to contribute.

Thomas spokesman Tim Wood confirmed that the congressman, one of a handful of vocal supporters of redistricting reform in California’s 53-member congressional delegation, had made the contribution through his political action committee, Congressional Majority Committee.

Thomas was unavailable for comment yesterday, Wood said. But the congressman’s office issued a statement saying: “I, along with other members of the California delegation, have endorsed the redistricting initiative being circulated by People’s Advocate. I have been a major contributor to redistricting initiatives in the past, and I am happy to help Governor Schwarzenegger in this effort this year.”

Other House Republicans from California who back redistricting reform include Devin Nunes, Dan Lungren and Darrell Issa. Republican officials have hinted that Rep. Buck McKeon also backs reforming the system.

In recent months, Schwarzenegger has thrown his support behind the initiative. While Schwarzenegger managed to win passage of several ballot initiatives in last year’s elections, not a single state legislator he campaigned against lost.

People’s Advocate’s plan would take redistricting out of the hands of elected officials in Sacramento and turn it over to a panel of three retired judges.

Costa said that, unlike Thomas, most lawmakers — in Sacramento and on Capitol Hill — would prefer the issue of redistricting reform to go away.

Ultimately, Costa insisted, voters will make themselves heard. “The people are getting ready to give them their marching orders,” Costa said, referring to lawmakers who resist his reform.

Thomas’s contribution came one day after businessman Bill Mundell announced that he was pumping $100,000 into his organization, Californians for Fair Redistricting. That group and People’s Advocate have the same goal: reforming the system.

Mundell said yesterday that, in addition to his personal contribution, his group has raised more than $1 million and that it recently mailed 2.5 million petitions to Californians.

Reform advocates need 590,000 signatures to get the redistricting-reform initiative on a ballot this year. Because many signatures are likely to be discarded by state election officials, advocates really need between 800,000 and 900,000 to triumph. Their deadline is the end of this month.

So far, the leading reform groups have collected 380,000 signatures, Mundell said.

At 15,000 signatures per day — the current pace of operations, Mundell said — the reform advocates should make the deadline, he added.

Mundell acknowledged that his support for redistricting reform was at odds with the position of his longtime friend Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.).

“I have the utmost respect for Congressman Dreier,” Mundell said. “We just don’t agree on every issue.”

Costa and other reform advocates have accused Dreier and Reps. John Doolittle and Ed Royce, both California Republicans, of stymieing the reform effort.

GOP political consultant Mark Abernathy, whose clients include Thomas, has suggested, with other activists calling for change, that the Republicans are scared of running in competitive races. Abernathy did not return phone calls yesterday.

Those Republicans most worried about reform come from the suburbs of large cities such as Los Angeles, where Republicans and Democrats live in close proximity, reform advocates said.

Democrats have been largely quiet about the reform issue. While some have praised the effort in theory, others have openly voiced concern that Republicans — who hold 20 seats in the congressional delegation, compared to Democrats’ 33 and are in the minority in both chambers of the state Legislature — are simply trying to pick up more seats.

Former Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) has argued that taking the process out of the hands of politicians makes those in charge of redistricting less accountable to the voters.