Observations from the Citizens Redistricting Commission Hearing in Oxnard

The latest scheduled stop of the vaunted Citizens Redistricting Commission for local hearings was in Oxnard tonight, where the pros and cons of the process were painfully evident.

1) On the positive side, it is quite clear that the Commission is doing its utmost to attempt, if imperfectly, to fulfill the mission it was given. Not everyone agrees with the first draft maps (and indeed, MALDEF will likely sue over what many Latino activists see as inadequate attention to their needs and interests.) All in all, though, the non-partisan process has so far led to greater respect for communities of interest than the careers of incumbent legislators on both sides of the aisle. This creates more risk, certainly, but the upside for those seeking more progressive legislation is that as more Millennials and Latinos move into the likely voter pool, the pressure on red-leaning will grow cycle by cycle, even as competitive Dem districts grow safer. In a Democratic wave election, there may be a real potential to reach and even exceed the 2/3 requirement in a way that would not be present if maintaining safe districts and respecting patronage networks were the primary considerations.

2) On the Republican side, most of the animus came from redder East Ventura County (Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and Simi Valley), which is divvied up by the first draft, effectively deeply endangering Republicans Elton Gallegly (R-CA24) and Senator Tony Strickland (R-SD19). Due to the Commission’s need to respect Voting Rights Act considerations in Monterey, the dominoes eventually come to fall in East Ventura County, forcing either Simi Valley or part of Thousand Oaks to be taken out of the County when it comes to Congressional and State Senate lines–a fact of which the Commissioners twice reminded conservatives in the audience. Minions of the local Chambers of Commerce and local city elected officials from deeply Republican cities got there early, lining up to advocate for keeping both Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks within Ventura County confines and out of the clutches of hated Los Angeles or the hated coastal areas–with the neat side effect of keeping Strickland and Gallegly in safe seats. And in fact, self-defined communities of interest seemed to alchemically shift depending on whether the congressional or state senate seats were in question, which very conveniently benefited Strickland or Gallegly depending on the situation.

More credible activity came from activists affiliated with CAUSE (Coastal Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy), which presented an alternative redistricting map at the Assembly level that would keep whole the long-overlooked and long-cracked city of Oxnard, the largest city in Ventura County, while also keeping more of the Latino population in an assembly district of interest. Oxnard is currently set to be split once again by the first draft map. Politically speaking, this would have the net effect of significantly slightly reducing the safety of the seat held by Democrat Das Williams (D-AD35), while increasing the chances for Democratic victory in the district directly to east, most of which is held by Jeff Gorell (R-AD37). Democratic firefighter and Fiona Ma fiance Jason Hodge made a somewhat pre-emptive declaration for the seat, perhaps overly optimistically assuming favorable district lines similar to CAUSE’s proposal that had not been set in stone. If the Commission’s first draft holds, that district would be a nearly even split between Democrats and Republicans, making any Democrat seeking it hard-pressed to push Afghanistan veteran and Republican incumbent Jeff Gorell out of office, even given a Democratic field that would be unlikely to remain fully clear (disclaimer: I worked as campaign manager for the 2010 Democratic nominee for AD37, Ferial Masry. Ms. Masry currently has no plans to run again in the district.) CAUSE and its left-of-center allies are much less partisan than Chamber and its Republican allies, if for no other reason than that the new maps are all downside for the GOP, while shifting Democratic populations into Gorell’s district comes at the slight expense of Das Williams, so there are no easy answers from a purely Democratic partisan perspective.

Perhaps most amusing were the constant assertions, mostly from conservatives but from progressives as well, that the new district lines would present some sort of life-altering problems for local communities. A constant conservative refrain, for instance, was that coastal communities should remain coastal while inland communities remain inland. While this sort of claim certainly makes sense on a city boundary or school board boundary level, it makes much less sense from the perspective of Assembly, Senate and Congressional races. Given the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans, the simple reality is that a Democratic representative living on the beach has much more in common with another Democrat living in the deserts and mountains, than she does with a Republican in a beach house a few miles away. And vice versa. In actual reality rather than a Broderist non-partisan unicorn fantasy world, partisanship is a much, much larger divide for legislators than are communities of interest. Which, of course, turns the entire redistricting hearings into a farce: local partisan after local partisan steps up to the microphone to talk about “communities of interest” being affected, when the reality is that 99% of what is really affected has little to do with local divisions, and a great deal more to do with divisions in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Which means that politics is inescapably at the heart of the process. The Citizens Redistricting Commission would be much better served by having an ostensibly non-partisan board, but allowing local partisans to advocate openly without forcing activists into the gamesmanship of pretense through the fear that their statements and opinions would be discarded.

Finally, as to the character of the local Republicans and conservatives, it was clear once again that the GOP has a massive demographic problem. The vast majority of those who gave conservative testimony at the commission were white and over the age of 65, while those on the left-hand side skewed somewhat younger and considerably browner. The refrains included a panoply of coded racial resentments (“culture”, “lifestyle” “our interests” and “our heritage” being among them) expressing outrage, as the Ventura County Star’s Timm Herdt aptly notes, at being associated with Los Angeles, Oxnard or other dreaded areas where (gasp!) brown people might congregate:

The refrain for the evening was “We don’t love L.A.” – the antithesis of Newman’s ballad to the city.

Speaker after speaker urged the commission to recast its proposed Assembly, Senate and congressional district lines to avoid putting any part of Ventura County with its gargantuan neighbor.

“The reason I’m here is I wanted to leave L.A. I didn’t like it,” said Harry Copeland of Ventura. “Their representatives are going to be different from what we want.”

Republicans might want to be reminded of the fact that “white flight” does not constitute a community of interest, and “get off my lawn” does not constitute a valid political opinion. Like the rest of California, Ventura County is changing and rapidly so. No amount of gerrymandering can keep it safe for a literally dying demographic, no matter how hard the Chamber of Commerce tries to make it so.

12 thoughts on “Observations from the Citizens Redistricting Commission Hearing in Oxnard”

  1. “Republicans might want to be reminded of the fact that “white flight” does not constitute a community of interest”.

    Why not?

    A community of interest is defined by prop 20 as “a contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation.”

    Can you come up with a reason why, under that definition, a racially homogenous exurb is not a legitimate community of interest?  

  2. Hey, not everyone against this divvying up of eastern Ventura County is a “thinly disguised partisan” from the Republican side.  I’m a liberal from Moorpark who’d be ecstatic if Gallegly and Strickland were no longer my representatives, but putting Simi Valley and Moorpark in a district with Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys is brain dead.  You can’t do that and keep paying lip service to “communities of interest”.  They are not our neighbors, and I doubt if the two areas have much in common.  I’m a little pissed off about this.

  3. Good article Dante.  I particularly liked:

    Republicans might want to be reminded of the fact that “white flight” does not constitute a community of interest, and “get off my lawn” does not constitute a valid political opinion.

  4. Many speakers seemed to feel that their communities would be “torn asunder” by being split between two assembly districts. It’s as if they’re expecting checkpoints and high walls topped with barbed wire.

    I understand the very real consequences of gerrymandering, but these folks are just ignoring the fact that their neighborhood will still be represented by the same city council and (in most cases) the same county supervisor. The only change will come in how they are represented in Sacramento and Washington. Perhaps we all believe that both have too much influence over local affairs these days.

    As David points out, the issue of partisan advantage is off the table. It was amusing to see people searching for euphamisms to express their discontent, but it was also a waste of the commission’s time.

    Many said that they opposed being gouped with distant communities because “I never go there”. Hey, unless they want to double the size of the state legislature, people must accept the fact that suburban and rural districts have to be geographically large. Just because residents of Simi Valley don’t pop over to Santa Clarita for dinner and a movie doesn’t mean that those two communities aren’t more alike than Simi and Oxnard.

    Nobody likes to be a political minority in their home district. But the ‘Pubs seem to be admitting that their party is incapable of change, and they have little hope of attracting new voters in their redrawn districts. Their common – but unspoken – message was, “Leave us alone”.

    I spoke to a gentleman afterward who thought that the requirement to keep the populations of districts within one percent of each other made the process too difficult. He thought that a variation of three percent would allow the commission to avoid the worst geographic splits… interesting idea.

    Perhaps a better system for the 21st Century would be to organize districts according to local affinities, and let the population numbers vary significantly. Then give the representatives fractional votes, proportional to the size of the population they represent… gawd, what a nightmare that would be for the whip!

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