Friday, May 6, 2011




These are times of high anxiety for California politicians of all stripes who hold state or federal office anywhere below the statewide level. Even some city council members and county supervisors now quiver as they await possible grand opportunities.

It’s all about reapportionment, the once-a-decade process in which the boundary lines for every congressional and state legislative district in America are drawn anew to reflect population movements and changes.

All through the spring, California’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission dutifully traveled the state holding hearings. This group, dominated by no particular party, combined with the charge it carries both from the 2008 initiative that created it and the one-person, one-vote decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, casts terror into the hearts of politicians once so secure their jobs were pretty much lifetime sinecures.

The sense of security came from the reapportionment plans of 1991 and 2001, which created districts all but guaranteed to perpetuate incumbents in office and maintain their seats in the hands of the same party should an incumbent leave for any reason. Since 2000, only one of the state’s 53 congressional seats has changed parties, and that only because a narrow tail of Democrat Jerry McNerney’s mostly Central Valley 11th District stretches west into the East San Francisco Bay area. Formerly occupied by right-wing Republican Richard Pombo, that district became a tossup when its geographically small East Bay section became heavily developed.

There have been even greater changes all across California, with much population moving away from coastal counties to both the Inland Empire region of Southern California and the Central Valley.

Many coastal districts and some in the Bay area now contain more than 100,000 fewer residents than the almost 800,000 each new district will need to feature. Result: there will be fewer coastal districts in the new plan and no one knows just what the new ones will look like.

The redistricting commission’s other charge is to make district boundaries more logical than they have often been, following city limits, county lines and geographic features like rivers and the crests of mountain ranges.

As a result, Republicans Jerry Lewis and David Dreier, both now representing parts of the Inland Empire, could find themselves sharing a district. So could Democrats Howard Berman and either Brad Sherman or Adam Schiff, all of whom represent at least some parts of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County.

It’s entirely possible Democrats McNerney and John Garamendi could be tossed into the same district, as could Democrat Mike Thompson and Republican Wally Herger in Northern California.

If the narrow coastal district represented by Santa Barbara’s Lois Capps is extended inland, Ventura County Republican Elton Gallegly could be tossed into a primary contest with fellow GOPer Buck McKeon, now the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, whose illogically gerrymandered district stretches from Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley in Los Angeles County to Death Valley and then along the California-Nevada state line as far as Mono County.

And the winner of the current dustup among Democrats Janice Hahn, Debra Bowen and Marcy Winograd in the thin-coastal-strip 36th Congressional District of Los Angeles County could easily end up sharing a new district with rookie Karen Bass or two-termer Laura Richardson, whose personal financial troubles would haunt her in such a primary matchup. The impending district change may have been one reason the formidable 36th District incumbent Jane Harman resigned last winter to head a Washington, D.C. think tank.

It’s also easy to see why retirement rumors have floated about for months suggesting departures for the long-serving likes of Gallegly, Lewis, Dreier and Democrat Fortney (Pete) Stark of another East Bay district. If you’re insecure about your reelection chances or don’t want to have to introduce yourself to a substantially new constituency, retirement can be the graceful way out for some political veterans.

Similar scenes are even more common on the state legislative level.

All of which promises to make 2012 a year of political flux unmatched in California in more than a century. For when incumbents are plunked into shared districts (who knows? There may be three in a few cases), opportunities can open for all manner of eager lesser officials now serving in the Legislature or on local boards and councils – people whose ambitions have been stymied for a decade or more. Some thwarted political careers could also be re-ignited. Are you listening, moderate Republican Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria and liberal Democrat Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara, to name just two?

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit