By Steven Tavares
Follow @eastbaycitizen on twitter
In the not so distant past, California judges, then legislators crafted peculiarly drawn districts maps up and down the state. Some took circuitous routes around areas containing minority groups with the potential to swing control of entire districts to other party. Gerrymandering became the norm rather than the exception. Under the spirit of the state’s long history of governance by referendum, voters took control of the process of dividing the state.
Fourteen commissioners are just weeks from releasing the first proposed detailed map of the Citizens’ Redistricting Commission, but the group may be in a no-win situation unable to make everyone happy.
In a Utopian world, the presence of the committee is meant to signify a transfer to redistricting power from Sacramento to the people, that is, if you believe the real power actually lies within the arena of ubiquitous special interests. Nearly 90 speakers were scheduled May 21 to lobby the redistricting committee at a hearing in Oakland. While some spoke on behalf of themselves and a few local elected leaders, in an example the law turning the redistricting process on its head, asked for consolidating bisected districts, the vast majority represented unions, a slew of minority groups and business interests looking to cajole the committee in a forming districts line advantageous to their own interests
When Bay Area residents from the spoke through their allotted two minutes, many urged the commission to separate more upscale areas in Eastern Alameda County and Contra Costa County from inland cities in the East Bay. San Leandro, for one, took a beating within the first 60 minutes of the hour afternoon hearing with numerous speakers referencing the Oakland suburb as having few economic and social similarities with cities to the east, such as Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore. A businessman from Dublin argued the prevalence of farming in some parts of the Tri-Valley bear little resemblance to places like San Leandro. If there was a subtext to the argument from the mostly white speakers, it was made clear by a older woman from Orinda who characterized living in Berkeley and Oakland as “a different kind of living.”
The job of clarifying California’s oddly drawn districts is certainly a specific and complex endeavor, but many of the commissioners who reside in Southern California were sometimes baffled by speakers who plowed through specific regional names. When a speaker urging the city to keep districts whole within areas of Downtown San Francisco referenced the “Tenderloin” and “SoMa,” Commissioner Jodie Filkins Webber of Riverside asked, “What’s a Tenderloin? Did you make up the name?” Others appeared confused by seemingly overlapping regional names such as the Diablo Valley, Lamorinda and the Tri-Valley. Ten of the 14 commissioners reside outside of the Bay Area.
Some speakers though have a legitimate concern in cleaning up the crazy-quit nature of the current district lines. Carole Groom, the president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors says her region with a population of nearly a million deserves a state senator from within its borders. “We would like to have a senator who resides in San Mateo County, not San Francisco County, not Santa Clara County,” said Groom. Numerous speakers pointed to the existence of three district congressional districts centered in Walnut Creek. Bifurcating the burgeoning cities political power among three representatives is a huge problem, said a speaker from the city while noting, “The political climate in far different in Diablo Valley than the rest of the district that reaching inland.
The political hue of the East Bay is invariably the bluest of blue, but not in the far-flung valley cities brimming with higher property and sales tax, in addition, to a smattering of vocal conservative groups like the Tea Party, which has continue to grow in Contra Costa County. In some ways, the will of the voters in this decidedly Democratic state may put some of its political power up for grabs in regions abutting the East Bay. Already, candidates for Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi’s 18th assembly district are awaiting the commission’s findings with some predicating their candidacies on whether portions of the valley, including a larger chunk of the Tri-Valley is incorporated. Such a scenario would somewhat dampen the prospects of a more progressive candidate winning Hayashi’s termed-out seat.
All the bickering and maneuvering by special interests group though has its limitations. According to the Voting Rights Act, all districts must be equal within a certain range. Critics hope the difference calculates at less than five percent. Within the sheer numbers, minority groups must also be somewhat proportional adding an increased level of complexity. When the U.S. Census revealed an unprecedented exodus of African-Americans from districts including and surrounding Oakland, it raises questions as to where an equal number of the minority will be added. In addition, the entire Bay Area is being shockingly outpaced by other regions of the state in population. Overall, the state average an increase of 10 percent in population, while the Bay Area struggled in some places to reach half that number.
A preliminary study late last year by the Rose Institute at Claremont College predicted the growth of conservative-leaning Central Valley would begin to encroach on the East Bay, thereby, lightening its liberal power base by several shades of blue. The dilemma for the commission, according the report might also render efforts to simplify the district maps by eliminating split counties and cities. One approach could force parts of Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco district jumping across the bay, the reports says.