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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Why California alone can't give Demos the house

June 19, 2001

Ever since last fall's election, national Democrats have looked at California and salivated. They see a Democratic governor in Sacramento with Democrats holding huge margins in both houses of the state Legislature.

They see Democrats holding a 32-20 edge in California's largest-in-the-nation congressional delegation. They see a new seat coming to California. In short, they see the potential for big enough gains in this state to overcome the GOP's 10-vote margin in the House of Representatives.

They're probably wrong, for there are at least two constraints on the Democrats now drawing maps for the congressional and legislative districts of the next 10 years: The new lines will have to recognize population shifts within the state, and some incumbent Democrats will want their districts made safer.

This means Democrats probably won't be able to engineer a much bigger congressional delegation margin for their party than it now enjoys.

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Here's why: As fast as the San Francisco Bay area and the Los Angeles metropolitan area grew over the last 10 years, other parts of California grew even faster. New census figures reveal that for the first time since the Gold Rush era, more Californians live outside those two huge areas than in them.

Which means the new congressional seat likely will not go to either the Bay Area or Los Angeles County, both firm Democratic bastions. Instead, it will belong either to the Inland Empire area of San Bernardino and Riverside counties or to the Central Valley.

Those areas are anything but safe for Democrats. Republicans such as Gary Miller, Jerry Lewis, Ken Calvert and Mary Bono now occupy most of the seats from the Inland Empire. Republicans John Doolittle, Doug Ose, Wally Herger, George Radanovich and Bill Thomas have won repeatedly in districts that are either entirely or partly within the Central Valley. And Democrat Cal Dooley barely held onto his Fresno-area seat last year.

Republicans even hold a voter registration edge in much of the Central Valley, the only major part of the state where that's true.

So when — not if — the new district is plunked into one of these two highest-growth areas, it will be difficult for Democrats to make it "safe" for their party.

At the same time, some incumbent Democrats who won narrowly last time out — think Jane Harman of the Los Angeles County beach cities and Susan Davis of San Diego and Ellen Tauscher of the East Bay — want their districts made safer. Even in this largely-Democratic state, there are only so many Democratic-leaning precincts that can be switched between districts to create that safety. Take them away from other districts and those areas will soon be having closer contests.

Yes, Democrats can probably engineer a small gain for themselves, but not the five seats folks like House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt count upon. This means the shape of the next House will be decided by other states as well as by California. And states like New York and Pennsylvania, where Democrats enjoy California-like majorities, will be losing seats to places like Arizona and Florida and Georgia and Texas, where Democrats are decidedly not in complete control of the reapportionment process.

Yes, Republicans cannot dictate everything in Texas, Georgia and Arizona, because Democrats will have some sort of veto power. Nor can they assure that the seats lost by New York and Pennsylvania will come from urban Democratic districts, rather than rural Republican locales. In New York, for example, urban growth far exceeded that in the suburbs, so Democrats might not lose much ground and Democrats control the state legislature.

So the outcome of next year's congressional contest — long seen by Democrats as a potential watershed — may not be known until Election Night.

For there's only so much California Democrats can do for their party, and they already did most of it long before this reapportionment year even began.

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