Lockout in the Legislature
‘Safe districts’ leave many convinced they have no say in state government
By HOWARD FINE
There is only one political entity in California that’s now held in lower esteem than Gov. Gray Davis: the state Legislature.
To get a sense of that discontent, talk to Dave Cruz, who has run an antique clock gallery in a quiet Long Beach neighborhood for nearly 30 years.
Cruz, 73, is a Republican, like many small business owners in Long Beach. He used to feel that his voice resonated with local representatives, whether they were Republicans or centrist Democrats.
No more. Thanks to a number of changes to the state’s political system term limits, redistricting, closed primaries most of Long Beach is now represented by liberal Democrats.
“My vote never counts now,” Cruz said. “This area is locked in solid for
the Democrats, and with the way they vote, I don’t feel fairly represented.”
Much of what’s happening in this Long Beach district, along with districts all over California, reflects more than 20 years of adjustments to the state’s electoral system.
Actually, it was in 1926 that an initiative handed reapportionment power to the Legislature. But it wasn’t until the 1980s when disaffection over a highly gerrymandered system favoring the Democrats, along with the inescapable power of the Assembly led by the self-proclaimed “Ayatollah,” Speaker Willie Brown that the soundings for reform grew louder.
The result has been a drastically different legislature and despite outcries being expressed by voters these days about “the system,” the real message is decidedly mixed.
Term limits, passed by voters in 1990, remain quite popular, despite the Assembly becoming a much weaker body, with a constantly rotating Speaker’s post and inexperienced legislators on the prowl for other political offices when they’re termed out.
“Not only have they shortened the institutional memory of the Legislature, but they have also reduced the amount of time for friendship and loyalties to develop,” said Paul Schmidt, political science professor at California State University Long Beach.
Meanwhile, a 2001 redistricting plan has had the effect of creating “safe districts” with large partisan majorities. In an area like Long Beach, where Democrats have been gaining ground anyway as middle-class whites have moved out and ethnic minorities have moved in, redistricting only provides a further strengthening.
Stephen Frates, senior fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College, calls redistricting “the 800-pound gorilla” of reforming the political process.
“What we have now, with 70 percent Democrat or Republican districts, are highly strident, very extreme people on both sides in the Legislature,” said Frates, who served on the California Constitutional Revision Commission, which issued dozens of recommendations for changing the way state government operates
“By doing this themselves,” Frates continued, “legislators on both sides of the aisle bought off on something that truly runs counter to democratic government.”
No more parity
Cruz’s Long Beach business is in the 27th state Senate District. In the 1990s, the district was fairly balanced between Republicans and Democrats as it swung from Long Beach west to Republican enclaves on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
In the early 1990s, Republican Bob Beverly represented the district, until he was termed out in 1996. Democrat Betty Karnette captured the seat, but to do so she had to campaign as a centrist.
Now, the parity that once characterized the 27th is gone.
Following the 2000 Census, the 27th like virtually every other Legislative district in the state has become locked into the incumbent’s party. Under redistricting, the 27th now meanders north through the largely minority communities of Hawaiian Gardens, Bellflower, Artesia, Paramount and Lynwood.
Democrats now outnumber Republicans five to three. Palos Verdes has been lopped off, shoehorned into the heavily Democratic 25th District next door.
Because of term limits, Karnette is forced out of office next year, as is state Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal, a self-described progressive Democrat who has sided consistently with labor unions and environmentalists during his five years in the Assembly.
Except neither is really going anywhere. In a dance seen with increasing frequency, Karnette and Lowenthal are trying to swap seats in next year’s elections. Lowenthal is running for Karnette’s 27th District Senate post and Karnette is running for Lowenthal’s 54th Assembly district.
Lowenthal, a former college professor, may waltz into his new Senate seat with no Republican opposition.
“I have faced strong Republican challengers in every election campaign until now,” Lowenthal said last week, noting that he had defeated well-financed Julie Alban and popular former L.A. City Councilman Rudy Svorinich. “But this will be a new experience for me, since there’s no question that the numbers have made this seat safer for a Democrat,” he said.
Cake walk campaigns
Despite Lowenthal’s advantages, there’s still a chance that another Democrat could throw their hat into the ring for the 27th Senate District primary. If that happens, Lowenthal would be forced to tack further to the left during the campaign, since under the new closed primary rules, only Democrats and “decline to state” voters would be eligible to cast ballots in the Democratic primary.
But with less than six months to go before the March primary, it’s more likely that Lowenthal will win the open seat unopposed.
“It’s not fair that he can walk in unchallenged by either party,” said David Lott, co-owner of the Belmont Brewing Co. restaurant in the Belmont Shore district of Long Beach.
“If I thought I had good representation, I wouldn’t hold that opinion,” Lott said. “But in the last couple of years, our company’s profits have been gutted because of the insane corrupt workers’ compensation system that Democrats have refused to even try to fix until now. And when I talked with (Assemblyman) Lowenthal about this last year, he just didn’t seem to care. It was really frightening.”
Lowenthal, who supported the workers’ compensation reform package that emerged from the Legislature last week, disputed charges that he was unfriendly to business. But he acknowledges voter distrust of politicians, pointing to poll numbers showing the Legislature with a 20 to 22 percent favorable rating among California voters, even lower than Davis’ 25 percent.
“I know the Long Beach Chamber and the state chamber believe my voting record is too progressive,” he said, referring to a California Chamber analysis that found he sided with the chamber on only two of 15 bills deemed crucial to business during the 2002 session. “But I do have strong business support.”
Lowenthal has set out to change the very procedure that gives him a leg up next November. Earlier this month, he introduced ACA 19, which would hand the reapportionment process over to an independent commission (see story page 12).
Ironically, his 54th District seat being sought by Karnette is considered one of only two or three competitive districts in the entire state. “By some fluke and I’m sure it wasn’t intentional it’s the only seat in the entire Legislature not made more Democratic in the redistricting process,” said political consultant Allan Hoffenblum.
When consultants hired by the state Legislature drew up new district lines following the 2000 Census, they made some major changes in areas around Long Beach. The biggest involved carving out an entirely new Democratic seat just to the north in Artesia, Cerritos and Santa Fe Springs.
But creating a new Democratic district also makes it more difficult to reconfigure surrounding districts to increase Democrat registrations, since Democrats were already pulled from many of these districts to make up the new one. That appears to have happened to the 54th.
As a result, both the Long Beach and statewide business communities have some hope that the Democrats’ hold on Long Beach can be broken.
“We see the 54th Assembly District as probably the closest seat in the state,” said Cassandra Pye, administrator of the California Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee. “It went 45 percent for Davis and 45 percent for Simon in the last election.”
The Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce has taken the unprecedented step of trying to stop Karnette from sweeping into office unopposed. Chamber president Randy Gordon characterized Karnette as anti-business, noting that she had sided with the California Chamber of Commerce on only one of the 15 bills deemed most important to business in the 2002 session. (Karnette did not return calls for comment.)
“Something needs to be changed up there,” said Robert Gray, owner of Flea Circus, which sells antiques, clothing and other collectibles. “I’m a Democrat, but even with all the Democrats up there now in Sacramento, I don’t feel my needs as a small business owner are being addressed.”
Indeed, there is a widespread consensus that the current plan has frozen too many people out of the state’s political system.
“When you talk to the legislators, they all listen. But when it’s time to vote, we don’t get their support,” said Joel Fierberg, chief financial officer and vice president of Snugtop, a maker of camper shells. “And with the way the districts have been drawn up, it’s quite clear they don’t have to support us to stay in office.”
Perhaps because of this frustration, not one of the business owners and executives contacted believe term limits should be lengthened; some even thought term limits should be shortened. That’s generally consistent with statewide polls.
“Legislators have a total of 14 years up there, and that’s a very long time,” said Kathleen Thurmond, owner and president of Best Washington Uniform Supply Co. in Long Beach. “Things can change very quickly, even with six years in the Assembly.”
Democratic political consultant Al Pross said term limits have brought other benefits to Sacramento.
“No one anticipated the greatest change in electing candidates, that there would be far more locally elected officials running for office,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing.” Pross noted that Lowenthal served six years on the Long Beach City Council before running for the state Assembly in 1998.
But Pross conceded that term limits have also led to legislators to be constantly looking toward their next elected office, as illustrated by the Long Beach “flip-flop.”
Electoral reform, in sum, is a work in progress. Whether it’s Long Beach’s 27th District or the San Gabriel Valley’s 59th Assembly District, which is a “safe seat” for Republicans, there remains a push-pull of various agendas, with the effort to maintain term limits led largely by Republicans contrasting with the effort to have the legislature maintain control of the redistricting, largely led by the Democratic majority.
How the current recall campaign might change those dynamics is impossible to know. But Fierberg warned that the impact of the electoral process goes far beyond whether legislators vote in accord with the business community.
“To have successful legislation, you have to compromise,” he said. “But with term limits and redistricting, we don’t seem to have that in the Legislature these days.”
Former Democratic State Assemblyman
“I’m an opponent of term limits. Proponents have the foolish belief that if you rotate politicians rapidly, that will fix things. Of course, it hasn’t.
“But term limits aren’t entirely to blame for the condition the Legislature is in. What they have given us is a Legislature that is a reflection of the California public today. And at the core of the problem is this fundamental paradox that has shown up in poll after poll: people are opposed to new taxes and they are also opposed to cutting state spending. The legislators up in Sacramento have demonstrated that same belief.
“That’s not to say that we shouldn’t change term limits. I think we should, especially the six years in the Assembly. It just won’t get at the deeper problems.”
“I believe reapportionment should be left up to the courts or a commission, not to legislators who stand to benefit from the way they draw the lines. It would also remove the contentious nature of reapportionment.
State Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose
Longest Continually Serving State Legislator
“Term limits have left our Legislature almost fatally handicapped without the memory, relationships or loyalty, which are necessary conditions for the development and enactment of sound public policy.
“Term limits transfer power to lobbyists and the better organized interests, as well as longtime bureaucrats. Why? Because new legislators do not have time to master the intricacies and details of the policies governing each element of public life.
“In our 2002 elections, we did get almost the same number of Democrats and Republicans in each house (actually, the Republicans gained one Senate seat and two Assembly seats), yet most of both the Republicans and the Democrats who won their own party primary and went on to be elected were less in the center. They occupied not only safe seats, but more partisan seats.
“So when it came time for us to come together and collaborate in passing a budget this past spring, there was little middle ground.
“Our current partisan reapportionment plan left us with only 17 Legislative districts that are competitive. The rest of the seats were guaranteed to one or the other of our two major political parties.
From a series of memos he calls “Dean of the Legislature’s Reflections.”
Former Republican State Assemblyman
“I was the first legislator to support the current term limits law. But what I dislike about the law is the disproportionate limits in each house. This has diminished the value of a bicameral legislature, making the Senate the more powerful body in which the major negotiations take place.
“A lot of people want to blow up the present system of term limits. But the California electorate supports term limits.
“My suggestion for reform is for a universal 12-year term limit, served in either house or as a combined total in both houses. That way, the total time served in the Legislature would actually be less than it is today, but you could gain experience in one house or the other, if you so chose.
“I think the biggest problem with today’s Legislature is the last reapportionment, which created these ‘safe seats.’ There’s no competition for a legislator after that first election. You should always have to look over your shoulder to make sure you don’t anger the electorate.
Leading Up to the Present
Initiative passes handing reapportionment power to the Legislature.
Democrats gain in Legislature through reapportionment.
Democrats force through highly gerrymandered redistricting plan. Republicans take challenge up to the U.S. Supreme Court, to no avail.
Proposition 140 enacted, establishing term limits for all state elected officials. Brainchild of former Republican L.A. County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, the measure taps into a groundswell of sentiment against Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.
Gov. Pete Wilson challenges Democrat-driven reapportionment, forcing it into the courts.
Republicans pick up Democratic seats, winning a majority in Assembly, but Brown remains in power for one more year by winning support of two Republicans.
Open primary initiative passes, allowing voters to cross party lines. Also, bipartisan commission releases recommendations on reforming California’s government, including turning reapportionment over to a commission and revisiting the issue of term limits.
U.S. Supreme Court overturns California’s open primary law, which gave extreme wings of Democratic and Republican parties more power in pushing candidates in primary elections.
Legislature draws district lines protecting incumbents, creating “safe districts” with large partisan majorities. Power shifts toward extremists and ideologues in both parties.
Revamped primary election rules debut: the 15 percent of California voters registered as “non-partisan” can vote in any party’s primary, but no one else can cross party lines.
Various moves to re-open party primaries. In the midst of worst fiscal crisis in decades, bipartisan committee comes up with recommendations to reduce the ideological gridlock. Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte threatens to run conservative candidates against any legislators that break the Republicans’ no-tax stand.