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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: New Year means Demos will draw new political lines

January 02, 2001

Every decade brings a new year that means new political lines, new boundaries for every congressional and legislative district in America — including those for all 120 seats in the California Legislature and all 53 of the state's congressional seats.

That's right: 53. For even though final census figures won't be released until April, enough is already known to be sure that California has grown enough in the last decade to take at least one more congressional seat from some population-draining part of the Northeast.

That could mean the Republican Party's days in control of Congress are numbered. Democrats came close to wresting control in the new congressional session. But with a Democratic governor and solid Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature, they can now control the California map-drawing in as self-interested a way as they did when the late Rep. Phil Burton of San Francisco masterminded the process in 1981.

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Even in a California with congressional district lines reshaped with major input from the GOP, Democrats had a majority in the state's House delegation for most of the 1990s.

But now the Republican Party's meanness and political mistakes of that decade are about to come home to roost as never before. It was little more than fearful xenophobia that caused the GOP to back the 1994 Proposition 187 and its anti-illegal immigrant provisions more strongly than it had ever before backed any proposition.

That measure passed, but did not stop illegal immigration. It did spark a Latino voter backlash against Republicans and a flood tide of citizenship applications from legal immigrants who had lived in this state for many years and never bothered to become full Americans.

Now the new district lines will have to reflect the new population realities. That means more seats for Hispanic areas than in previous plans, because they have both more registered voters than ever and more residents, legal and not so legal.

Because Democrats will control the process, they can draw lines putting enough of their voters in many districts to counterbalance the presence of a relatively few Republicans. They can concentrate Republican voters in a few districts. They can reshape formerly swing districts by adding a few largely-Democratic precincts or removing a few that regularly go GOP.

In San Diego, for example, the swing district won last fall by Republican Brian Bilbray may lose part of posh La Jolla, and thus become much more heavily Democratic, while adding those precincts to the district just north of that suburb won't ever change the outcome in the "safe" home of newly elected Republican Darrell Issa.

Adding a few precincts of ultra-liberal southern Santa Monica to the coastal Los Angeles County district that swung back and forth between Democrat Jane Harman and Republican Steve Kuykendall for the last eight years could make it pretty safely Democratic for the next 10.

It will be the same for every narrowly contested district around the state. Meanwhile, new seats will likely go to the highest-growth areas of California, including one to San Bernardino and Riverside counties east of Los Angeles and another to the Central Valley.

"If we get two new seats in those areas, both will have no incumbents," Democratic Assemblyman John Longville of Rialto, who will help preside over the map-drawing, told a gathering last fall. "I believe the lines will make them winnable by Democrats."

You bet they will, if Longville and his legislative colleagues have any say about it. With strict term limits in Sacramento and none in Washington, they're essentially drawing districts some intend to take.

Meanwhile, speaker-in-waiting Richard Gephardt licks his chops as he bides his time in the office of the House minority leader. He knows the new California map should produce a net of at least six and possibly 10 new Democratic House members two years from now — enough to make him speaker unless the GOP does the same sort of thing elsewhere. But Republicans probably cannot do that because there are few states where they enjoy the degree of dominance the Democrats have here.

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