Where do we fit in?

Redistricting sets up new political power bases for some, problems for others

Redistricting across the state and in Contra Costa County is a bit like herding cats: It seems everyone has his own agenda and wants to go his own way.

California voters said they were tired of politically based redistricting and in 2008, started an experiment in state politics when they approved proposition 11. Prop. 11 designated the state auditor to start an application process that would result in selecting 14 members to a redistricting commission.

According to information distributed by, the redistricting commission and the process the commissioners are using to redraw political boundaries "will be an exciting new experiment in direct democracy that encourages participation by all registered voters in California."

Prop. 11 gave the commission the responsibility to redraw the boundaries for state Senate, Assembly and state Board of Equalization districts. In 2010, voters expanded their foray into the land of political experimentation with Proposition 20, which handed the commission the responsibility -- and the power -- to redraw congressional districts. California joins about a dozen other states that have embraced the commission-based redistricting strategy. In California, if the commission fails to agree on district boundaries, the argument can land in the state Superior Court.

Yanking the power to redraw district boundaries deprives the Legislature of the ability to create and maintain districts that favor incumbents and whichever political party is in the ascendency. Although voters were clear about their distaste for the political machinations that created a heavily weighted pro-incumbent political map -- which can sometimes look like a jigsaw puzzle -- they were less clear about the consequences of a commission-based redistricting model.

One problem with the commission is as old as America: representation. The closest thing to a local voice among the 14 commissioners is the single member from Oakland and the two from San Francisco. The commission makeup is slanted toward Southern California, with eight members hailing from that region.

No meetings of the commission have been held in the Tri-Valley -- the closest have been in Oakland and San Jose, each of which has a population larger than Danville, San Ramon, Pleasanton, Dublin and Livermore combined.

Jim Donnelly, president of the San Ramon Valley Democratic Club said a local meeting "would have been nice."

"We have a big area out here, but how many meetings can you have?" he said.

Not everyone is completely comfortable with the appointed members of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission deciding district boundaries. Political pundit Bill Gram-Reefer, who writes for the online publication "Halfway to Concord," said despite the makeup of the committee -- five Democrats, five Republicans and four "declined to say" -- those in the latter category tend to lean to the left, skewing the process toward Democrats.

"It is what it is. The commission wasn't really given a mandate to actually change how things are done, just do it more transparently," he said.

Donnelly, however, said the new districts will put some incumbents at risk.

"If you look at where some of the districts have been put together, some people are going to get crowded out," he said.

A first glance at the map released June 10 would eliminate Elk Grove and most of the northeast of Joan Buchanan's 15th assembly district. Instead, it would run west to pick up Lafayette, Orinda and Moraga, something Gram-Reefer thought could be a problem for San Ramon Mayor Abram Wilson, should he decide to challenge Buchanan again.

Donnelly said he'd heard the new district described as a "rich district," but said it would likely favor Buchanan over a Republican challenger.

Wilson agrees the new district favors Democrats, but he said he's seen changes in the public mindset.

"I'm hopeful that people will vote for the person, not the party and I'm seeing more and more of that," he said. "I see more voting for independents."

Ideally, Wilson would like politics to be less about republicans and democrats and more about people voting in their best interests.

"As mayor, we've never had a democrat or republican, it's just a person and I should hope that we get to that in all levels of government," he said.

The new map of state senate district 7 would lop off the west -- part of Richmond, and El Sobrante up to Rodeo -- extending it further south to pick up Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore.

Gram-Reefer said Congressional redistricting could hurt Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton), who would lose south Contra Costa County to George Miller (D-Concord). Miller's district would include the major population centers, including both San Ramon and Danville. McNerney would either have to move into another district or challenge longtime Congressman Pete Stark (D-Fremont) in an election McNerney could be hard pressed to win.

"The guys who are going to have to scramble are the guys who have only got a few years (in Congress)," Gram-Reefer said, although Donnelly said there's been some talk about Stark retiring.

It's a numbers game; in drawing new boundaries, the commission must meet population targets. The population in each of the 53 congressional districts in the state must be 702,905 and cannot vary by more than a restrictive single person in each district. The 40 state Senate districts have a target population of 931,349; the 80 Assembly districts have a target population of 465,674; and the four state Board of Equalization districts have a target population of 9,313,489. The state legislative districts can have a population variance of plus or minus 5 percent.

These maps are just one in a series of steps that will ultimately become the new districts. Next up is more outreach by the commission, meaning more community meetings -- again, with none in the immediate area. A final map is expected by September, but Gram-Reefer said he expects some outcry from politicians who feel shortchanged and possible tweaking of the districts as a result.

For Congressional seats, Gram-Reefer said he would prefer a larger East Bay congressional district, with candidates elected from a pool, much like a city council race, as opposed to separate districts for each congressional candidate.

In trying to ensure that the result of the commission-based exercise creates a more equitable and competitive political playing field, commissioners must follow guidelines when they draw boundaries. In addition to the population targets that will create districts with equal numbers of residents, the commission must maintain standards stemming from the Voting Rights Act. Those standards ensure that minority voters have an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their communities.

Commissioners can consider race and ethnicity as a factor in drawing boundaries, but race and ethnicity cannot be a deciding factor.

Commissioners also must adhere to a general principle of "contiguity." That means keeping like with like, and may well be the reason for the dramatic shift in what would become Buchanan's new district, eliminating rural areas and the long run up to Elk Grove, which is arguably more like Sacramento than, say, Lafayette.

The idea of contiguity is also playing heavily into the supervisorial redistricting in Contra Costa County, where seven separate maps have been drawn up. Those maps raise some questions for local residents. For example, does Alamo have more in common with Walnut Creek or Danville?

That's a no-brainer for David Bowlby, head of the Municipal Advisory Council (MAC) in Alamo.

"As the board of supervisors embarks on this task of drawing the district lines, my hope is Alamo would stay with the San Ramon Valley as a community of interest," Bowlby said. "We share the same school district, we share the same fire district. The community, through the mutual advisory council, owns land in the form of Hap Magee Park -- we share quite a lot of interests as a community."

Gram-Reefer said he's heard rumors that county supervisors are leaning toward map No. 6, which would keep Alamo, Danville and San Ramon together but include the three localities with Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda, popularly known as Lamorinda.

That would move the three cities out of Supervisor Mary Piepho's District 3 and into District 2, represented by Gayle B. Uilkema; the county's goal is to have a final map in place -- barring legal challenges -- by the end of August.

Population targets restrict both the commissioners and the supervisors. Every time they adjust one boundary, it creates issues in others, and that's the case across the state as well as in Contra Costa County. While the local population has increased, creating challenges for county officials, statewide, the Inland Empire has seen a large increase, largely from residents of the Republican persuasion. That's a major reason political prognosticators see a benefit for Republicans in the redistricting musical-chairs exercise, at least to the extent that Republicans can gain an advantage in a state still over-weighted to Democrats.

Redistricting plans are efforts to create new political districts that encompass a similar political landscape containing local "communities of interest." Splitting a population with similar values and views is discouraged.

Danville Mayor Karen Stepper wants her town, Alamo and San Ramon to remain together.

"Everything we do is 'San Ramon Valley,'" she said, adding that Danville and San Ramon are already working with Lafayette, Orinda and Moraga on a regional transportation initiative. She said Danville has written the board of supervisors endorsing maps 5 and 6, both of which would move the town, San Ramon and Alamo into District 2.

Wilson is less concerned with which district San Ramon is in than the idea of staying as one block with Danville and Alamo.

"We will have to count on each other if and when we have a disaster," he said.

Read this story in Views magazine, available for free on June 27.


Like this comment
Posted by Harald A. Bailey
a resident of Alamo
on Jun 15, 2011 at 8:18 am

Thank you, Glenn

Like this comment
Posted by Alamo Ron
a resident of Alamo
on Jun 15, 2011 at 11:19 am

Gayle Uilkema is a fine public servant with high credibility.

Like this comment
Posted by Julia
a resident of Alamo
on Jun 16, 2011 at 10:46 am

Great question... "Where Do We Fit In"

Right where they want us to fit in - right in their pocket and mostly likely behind the 8 Ball.

Thanks, Julia

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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