Not so long ago there was a sweeping constitutional revision of the state’s redistricting process. Pushed through by a coalition of reformist organizations and opposed by an entrenched majority, it was a painful first step away from decades of hyper-partisan map making and the perennial shady maneuverings of incumbents eager to maintain their offices. Not surprisingly, the newly-drawn maps faced the scrutiny of the state Supreme Court and charges of politicization, that operatives and consultants sought to commandeer this new and improved process to try to drag it back into the bad old days.
Except this story didn’t end with the state’s leaders testifying in court, GOP consultants begrudgingly decoding email syntax, emergency petitions, document dumping, and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars wasted in the state’s defense.
I’m talking about California and its power-hungry Democratic super-majority.
As Florida’s Fair Districts amendments sought to depoliticize redistricting, so did California’s Proposition 6, passed by a slim-margin in 2008, by creating the California Citizens Commission on Redistricting. Both state’s initiatives are touted as parallel reform efforts — the final steps in removing the politics from an activity that has been purely political since the earliest days of reapportionment. Except California took the concept to its logical extreme: they removed the politicians from the process.
Democrats hated it. Opposed by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer along with the NAACP, Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and the California Democratic Party, over $1.5 million was used to derail the initiative, to no avail though. With the introduction of Proposition 20, giving the commission the authority to draw congressional maps, the slim margin of support turned into a people’s mandate, receiving over 59% of the vote in 2010.
Producing a historic shakeup of the Democratic congressional delegation, which had only seen one incumbent lose since 2006, it’s no surprise that the party’s legacy members would trot out the usual attempts to invalidate such a progressive reform: painting the commission as unaccountable, wasting state funds, and as another weak salve for a hopelessly damaged system (the hands-up argument). Just the thought of one’s power being siphoned away produces an amazing self-survival instinct in both Democrats and Republicans.
This resistance recalls our state’s own story, starting in 1993. Push-back to Gov. Lawton Chiles’ redistricting initiative was unsurprisingly partisan and Democratic majority-induced. Chiles worked closely with the Republican Senate President (now Congressman) Ander Crenshaw to forward a constitutional amendment that would have created an independent redistricting commission. At the time the fallout from 1992’s painful redistricting process was just beginning to settle, although the scars were still fresh. Crenshaw recalled the reapportionment as “one of the most gut-wrenching, stomach-turning, friendship-breaking processes [he had] ever seen.” Nearly $10 million was spent on maps that were ultimately rejected and redrawn by federal judges.
Sen. Larry Plummer, a Democrat not seeking reelection and a noted party maverick who publicly sparred with the outgoing Senate President Gwen Margolis over the Democrats’ highly questionable 1992 maps, authored the proposal. Despite unanimous approval by an evenly divided Senate and vocal support by then-Republican State Senator Charlie Crist, the proposed amendment died at the hands of House Democrats. Prior to hearing the bill in his House Appropriations committee, Chair Peter Wallace, a Democrat, threw up his hands and issued a truism Floridians are experiencing at this very moment: “You cannot take the politics out of the process.”
In 1998, the Constitutional Revision Commission nearly placed a redistricting commission amendment on the ballot but fell shy by one vote, due to pressure from Hispanic members in the Republican House.
The Common Cause public interest group, under the moniker Committee for Fair Elections, fell short of the goal again in 2006 when their redistricting amendment was rejected by the State Supreme Court in a 6-1 decision. House Speaker Allen Bense, R-Panama City, was instrumental in the fight against the initiative, pouring nearly $50,000 of taxpayer money down the drain to maintain the electoral safety of Republican incumbents statewide. Gov. Crist, not unsurprisingly, was also opposed to such reform (despite his advocacy for it in ’93). When asked about his reversal, he was (un-ironically) quoted as saying “Can’t I change my mind?”
The very existence of a mechanism that allows for legislators to draw their own seats will ensure that the legislative institution is tarnished every time. The appearance of impropriety can never be scrubbed from this process. We’ve traced the narrative arc from politicians of yore unabashedly copping to the partisan aims of redistricting, acknowledging the war for seats and favorable voting populations, to the whitewashed testimony of President Gaetz and Speaker Weatherford glibly reminding us that politics were thoroughly sieved from 2012’s process. Provided a majority and the accompanying keys to the backroom, Democrats would willingly shuffle inside and draw their own incumbent-friendly maps.
Both ballot initiatives were born from the same idealistic notions of reform, but the California experience diverted radically from Florida’s now cautionary tale. Theirs has withstood the test of multiple legal challenges and has drastically increased political competition and choice. Ours on the other hand has produced dubious results: still-gerrymandered districts and a general sense of distrust in the entire process.
I’m thankful that the legal process is providing the public with a guided tour of the Republican redistricting strategy. It’s a deceitful and expensive game they’ve played — committed while the ink on the Fair Districts amendments had hardly dried. But as the defense files petitions to the highest court of the land and while taxpayer dollars get burned to defend districts expertly designed to disenfranchise minority communities, I’m fearful that Democrats could just as easily be in this hot seat.
So while we await a nebulous ruling to emerge from South Monroe Street, set your eyes on 2018 when the next Constitutional Revision Commission convenes. A citizens redistricting commission can actually fulfill the promises of our Fair Districts amendments. Thanks to California, we know it really can work. We know we have the power.