Less than a week after the failure of Proposition 62, the open primary initiative, momentum is building to eliminate the safe seats that many blame for Sacramento's fractured state.
A proposed initiative circulated by Republican Ted Costa, that would reform the redistricting process, became a focal point of new attention last week. Costa is the activist whose recall measure forced Gov. Gray Davis out of office last year.
Although both Democratic and Republican party establishments are expected to work against the proposal, Costa is hoping to get support from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other political moderates who feel that safe seats encourage partisanship on both sides of the aisle.
Schwarzenegger supported Proposition 62 but didn't campaign for it actively. It fell 54 percent to 46 percent, while competing Proposition 60, placed on the ballot by state legislators, was passed.
(Proposition 60 guarantees that the winner of each party's primary has a place on the ballot in general elections. The open-primary initiative would have taken the two top primary vote-getters regardless of party affiliation, making Democrat vs. Democrat or Republican vs. Republican runoffs a possibility.)
Schwarzenegger also fell short in helping elect several moderate Republican legislators he supported. In his post-election news conference, Schwarzenegger said he's considering whether to launch an initiative to change the way district boundaries are drawn.
"We want to not have extremists that are so bad for the state from the extreme right and the extreme left," he said.
So far, Schwarzenegger has not endorsed the Costa initiative. Last week, his spokeswoman, Ashley Snee, said the governor is still considering his options.
Also last week, the board of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce passed a motion supporting redistricting reform and the elimination of term limits, another factor blamed for legislative logjams. Board chairman and Westside attorney George Kieffer crafted the proposal; Kieffer was one of three co-authors of the failed open primary initiative.
The once-a-decade practice of redistricting has long been a contentious issue in California, where the state Legislature has the responsibility for drawing district boundaries. In the 1980s, Republicans unsuccessfully sued to overturn a Democrat-led redistricting that they said favored Democrats too heavily.
In 1991, however, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson rejected the Democrat-controlled Legislature's plan, thus forcing redistricting into the courts. A panel of three retired judges drew the boundaries that were in effect through the 2000 election.
But the 2001 redistricting done by consultants hired by the state Legislature has drawn nearly universal criticism. It drew heavily partisan districts some with the incumbent party holding a 20-point or even 30-point registration edge that eliminated any inter-party competition. As a consequence, only a handful of legislative districts have been competitive in general elections. In the rest, the winners have been determined in the primaries, where candidates appealing to the hard core of their own party usually won.
The result has been a Legislature dominated by very liberal Democrats with a very conservative Republican minority party. The political center where most deals traditionally get cut has shrunk, leading to bitter and protracted struggles over the budget and other key legislation.
Costa's initiative would take the redistricting process out of the hands of legislators and give it to a panel of retired judges.
In the recall campaign, Costa drew financial support from deep-pocketed businessman-politician Darrell Issa. This time, he has a potential backer in Republican Steve Poizner, a retired millionaire who spent nearly $6 million of his own money in a failed attempt to win an open Assembly seat in the Silicon Valley.
Last week, Poizner vowed to use his wealth to sponsor a redistricting initiative, but as of late last week, Costa said he had not yet spoken to Poizner. It's likely that all the initiative needs is a modest amount of financial backing to garner enough signatures to qualify it for the ballot.
Costa acknowledged his initiative would probably run into opposition from both political parties just as the open-primary measure did. To the extent that any redistricting eliminates safe seats, it will also make incumbents more vulnerable, weaken party loyalty and strengthen political moderates.
"Of course the Democrats are opposed as the majority party, but even the Republican Party regulars are against it," Costa said. "I'm not very popular among Republicans these days."
This is where Schwarzenegger's support would be important. To date, every measure he has actively campaigned for or against has gone his way.
Costa said he is aiming for a special election in November, 2005. Otherwise, it will compete against a host of other initiatives in the next statewide election in June 2006.
"That's what happened to the open primary initiative this November," he said. "There were so many measures on the ballot that no one took notice when the Legislature put on a competing measure to weaken it."
There has also been talk of a compromise in which term limits are lengthened. Currently, Assembly members can serve only three two-year terms, while Senators can serve only two four-year terms.
Term limits, which California voters enacted in 1990, have been widely blamed for another type of dysfunction in the Legislature, as lawmakers have cycled in and out and have always kept an eye on their next office. Yet poll after poll has shown Californians favor term limits and would resist altering them.
Costa said he wanted the initiative simply limited to redistricting.
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