Too safe for our good

Here’s a revealing question for you: Of the 53 California House seats up for election on Nov. 2, how many were won by incumbents?

The answer is 51, and most of those incumbents won by huge margins, as did our own Wally Herger, R-Chico. But before you start feeling glad that at least two newcomers won, you should know that they are succeeding representatives who retired—and both are members of the party of their predecessor.

The same is true elsewhere. With the exception of Texas, where Tom DeLay-manipulated legislative gerrymandering caused five veteran Democrats to lose their seats, 99 percent of incumbent House members won re-election, 96 percent of them by a margin of at least 10 percent. With their gerrymandered districts and huge campaign funding advantages, the only way they can lose is to get involved in a scandal of some kind.

Back in California, term limits brought some fresh faces to the state Legislature but absolutely no change in the partisan lineup in either the Assembly or the Senate. That’s because, like the House districts, the state’s legislative districts have been gerrymandered to make them perfectly safe. They’re so securely Republican or Democratic that the only contests are in the primary races, where very liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans tend to prevail. This has led to profound divisiveness and an inability to compromise in the Legislature.

Historically the state Supreme Court was responsible for redistricting in California, but in the 1990s the Legislature took it over, with disastrous results. Gov. Schwarzenegger has indicated his support for establishment of a new independent commission, perhaps made up of retired judges, to oversee redistricting, but the Legislature isn’t about to create one, so a statewide initiative will be needed first.

Reportedly, petitions are being circulated for just such a measure. We hope it succeeds and the governor puts his clout behind it.