R.I.P. Proposition 77
The greatest loser in the special election was the promise of redistricting
By Jill Stewart

Amidst the hubbub over the just-completed special election, I nearly forgot how many years it took before California voters grew disgusted enough to target Sacramento legislators who, with glinting eyes, had kept a grip on office for so long that many legislators grew decrepit, or even died, while in office.

When voters finally did get outraged enough to approve term limits in California, it was with the tacit admission that they no longer had the time to pay close attention to the sly subculture of lifelong pols and deadwood who were deciding how to spend our taxes.

So, voters adopted term limits as a default. It was the voters’ way of making sure the bums got thrown out. This special election reminds me very much of those confusing years just before voter clarity finally gelled and term limits came roaring through in California.

At press time on Nov. 8, opinion polls showed many reforms on the ballot were losing; some by big margins. But among those possible losers the greatest tragedy, if true, would be the demise of Proposition 77.

Voters — somewhat peevishly for people in a state with an improved credit rating, plunging workers comp insurance rates and vigorous job growth — were more interested in punishing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger than in stopping the two political parties from turning California into a gerrymandered wasteland of non-democracy.

In some ways, Arnold deserves the drubbing, if drubbing it turns out to be. He lost contact with voters in 2005 during his poorly mounted war against government worker unions, and never got it back.

But I doubt voters would have been so gleeful about whacking Arnold if they really grasped how bad things are and who is to blame. The vast sums of cash spent in this election — a sick new record for egregious political spending — tell the story.

The governor, who voters were downright tired of watching at fundraisers, surpassed his goal of gathering $50 million to promote measures to control spending, end gerrymandering, tighten teacher tenure and institute a state paycheck protection law.

But late reports indicated that the really hideous overspending was not committed by the governor. That distinction went to union leaders — who I like to call the “me-first” union honchos — and their allies in Democratic groups who together raised more than $120 million.

Interestingly, the very same bunch — the ossified Democratic/unionista establishment of Sacramento — was the same bunch that fought term limits tooth and nail. Term limits saved us from the doddering Sacramento legislative lifers who couldn’t be ousted any other way. But voters, if the polls were right, are not yet aware enough to realize they left the job unfinished. Gerrymandering has to end if we’re to have representative government in California.

Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock, who I ran into shortly before the election, told me, “The only weakness in a democracy is when the people are not paying attention to the issues. When a free people’s backs are to the wall, the people will engage.”

Joe Cerrell, a respected Democratic political consultant, agreed with McClintock that, “Things cannot stay as they are,” with the current fixed elections that assured not a single party seat changed hands last year. However, the loyal Democrat told me he felt that the Democrat-controlled legislature should oversee the panel that unravels the mess.

He didn’t like Prop. 77’s plan to let retired judges draw the maps. I find the idea of using a retired judge’s panel spot-on, however, since the law would have given the governor and legislature veto power over judges they viewed as partisan or not highly respected.

Sadly, voters never even got this far into the debate. Voter ignorance was powerfully reflected in the final polls floating around on Election Day. Voters had absolutely no clue that twice in contemporary times, the California legislature has temporarily lost its power to draw up voting districts. Voters didn’t know that both times, the job of drawing voting district maps was handed to — you guessed it — judges.

Both times, the judges did a great job. A really excellent, really fair job, in fact. The judges drew up reasonable maps that respected city boundaries and geography, and that avoided such butt-protecting Sacramento legislative antics as slicing through mountain ranges and making mince-meat of city borders.

The key thing was this: none of the judges were running for office inside the voter districts they were empowered to draw up. Since the judges were not running in the districts they were crafting — and in fact were not running for office at all — conflict of interest vanished. Duh!

Observers from left and right agree that, during these two previous efforts in which the legislature was removed from the process, California temporarily got its democracy back. Temporarily.

This is the reason Prop. 77 has been enthusiastically backed by sensible folks like Sen. John McCain and extremely liberal groups like California Public Interest Research Group and Common Cause (not to mention liberal Democratic editorial boards at places like the Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times). They want what is best for California and its residents.

That desire trumped any emotional need they may have had to see Schwarzenegger falter.

Sadly, California’s mostly Democratic voters are in the “punish Arnold” phase. That’s partly why many voters were buying into the absurd, Orwellian, anti-Prop. 77 television ad which argued that the ballot measure would allow a group of “hand-picked” retired judges to turn California into a jigsaw puzzle as disastrous as the gerrymandered state of Texas.

Wrong. We can’t turn into Texas — we became that awful place years ago. The gerrymandering disaster is full upon us. A panel of local school children — forget respected judges — would do a better job of drawing voting districts than the rotted-out legislature, which lives to assure that each and every Democratic and Republican hack is guaranteed their win at election time.

If I knew of a car bumper big enough to handle it, I would manufacture a bumper sticker quoting the most chilling thing ever said about our non-democracy in California. As one wag put it a few years ago: “Voters no longer pick their candidate. Now, candidates pick their voters.”

Bill Mundel, the businessman who championed Prop. 77 and raised a great deal of money trying to see it approved, was commiserating with me one day in the green room at KNBC-4 TV in Los Angeles, because so few voters had a clue what was going on.

“They don’t know computers are being used to herd them into these voting districts to ensure the outcome in November,” Mundel said. “They don’t know because we can’t get the media to explain it.”

It’s true that the media fell on its face during this election, failing to explain the most basic elements of Prop. 77 to the public. I’ll leave it to historians to say whether the California political journalist is a particularly dumb species of human, or perhaps is simply biased — as most reporters were, and are, in opposing term limits.

But even if the Democratic Party of California (not rational Dem voters, but their icky upper-party apparatus) continues to oppose change, and even if the media helps them, these throwback forces can’t hold off progress forever.

My friend Mickey Kaus, a respected journalist and serious brain who writes a popular blog on www.slate.com, noted online before California’s election returns rolled in, that he was backing Prop. 77 because the state has hit rock-bottom.

As Kaus noted, the New York Times Magazine recently published a “world-weary exposition” explaining that it is too difficult to draw truly competitive, two-party voting districts — because Republicans live in Republican areas and Democrats in Democratic areas. At most, the magazine dismissively stated, perhaps 12 of California’s 53 congressional districts might see two-party competition during election season if Schwarzenegger’s reform passed.

Kaus wrote: “A dozen? A dozen seems like a larger number than zero! A dozen competitive seats would be a big improvement. I’ll take it.”

The fact that a moderate Democrat like Kaus bucked his party trend on this issue tells me that growing numbers of moderate Democrats will begin to realize they’ve lost their democracy, even if they aren’t as smart as Kaus. More Democrats will start hating the idea that the very act of voting for Congress and the state legislature is no longer necessary, since elections are decided months before Election Day.

Sen. McClintock, a conservative admired even by Democrats for being unflinchingly honest, is dead right. If voters, in their current lack of understanding and lack of fury, have indeed voted down Prop. 77 by the time the ballots are counted that will not be the end of things.

As with the confused years that finally led us to term limits and forced out hundreds of deadwood politicians, Californians will eventually rise up. They will find out what is really going on in their own local “voting district,” and they will take back their badly compromised democracy.