Will redistricting help Dems defeat Herger?
New maps offer encourages some but not all
For the past 24 years, Republican Congressman Wally Herger has represented a swath of Northern California that includes depressed mountain and farm-worker communities, fertile ranchlands and rice fields and liberal-leaning Chico.
Redistricting, now under way by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, has stirred hope among some of his critics that there might be an upheaval in a district that stretches from north of Sacramento to the Oregon border. Residents say they’re eager for competitive campaigns that address high unemployment and poverty rates, immigration reform and health care.
The draft voting maps released last week by the redistricting commission offer only slight encouragement.
They divide most of what is now Herger’s District 2 into what the commission calls the “Modoc-Tehama District” and the “Yuba District.” In doing so, they split four counties, including rural Glenn County.
Hamilton City would land in the Modoc-Tehama District, where Herger has his Chico home, and Orland and Willows in the Yuba District, where Congressman Mike Thompson, a Democrat, resides.
Steve Soeth, who chairs the Glenn County Board of Supervisors, said that if the draft map is adopted, his county district would be divided between the two congressional districts. “This could be problematic, but I don’t know what the fallout might be,” Soeth said.
In Shasta County, Democrat Frank Treadway said he believes the configuration of the Modoc-Tehama District will give his party a little boost. And Chicoan Ken Fleming, who enlisted a cartographer to help him analyze the maps, said he believes the new Assembly district that Chico would belong to is an improvement over the districts that presently split Butte County.
“What we have hasn’t worked well for the people who live here,” said Fleming, adding that districting “has locked up North State counties by political ideology.”
Fleming is active with the North State Budget Coalition, which works to protect social services from budget cuts. He and other Democrats say that Herger has failed to bring funding into the district that might expand services for children and repair infrastructure.
“There’s been a lack of understanding of the importance of government spending in rural areas,” Fleming said.
Herger could not be reached for comment, and his staff did not reply to an e-mail query about redistricting.
The shape of the Modoc-Tehama District would reduce the number of Latino voters in the district represented by Herger. That concerns some Democratic Party activists, who see ethnic diversity as helpful to the party’s ability to compete.
Small minority communities are dispersed throughout what is now Herger’s District 2. The district’s expansiveness—it runs through 10 counties and includes the cities of Redding, Chico and Yuba City—makes it difficult for minority communities to exercise their voice on issues of common concern.
According to census data, Latinos are 19 percent of the District 2 population. At present, almost 10 percent of District 2’s eligible voters are Latino, said Rosalind Gold, who’s helping track the Latino vote for NALEO, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, in Los Angeles.
In the Modoc-Tehama District, only about 7 percent of eligible voters would be Latino, Gold said. But Latinos would be about 13 percent of all eligible voters in the Yuba District.
Chico resident Lupe Arim-Law agrees that Latino voters can help the Democratic Party boost its ranks, but she and other community leaders note that more outreach is needed before that happens in a significant way.
Arim-Law chaired the local “Latinos for Obama” group when Obama was running, and later worked on the 2010 campaign for Democrat Jim Reed, who ran against Herger and captured almost 43 percent of the vote. Arim-Law said her view of Herger was shaped largely by his comments at a 2009 health-care forum in Chico.
Arim-Law was disappointed in Herger’s stance on reform, but was “deeply offended” when she said Herger placed blame for dysfunction in the system on “illegal aliens.”
“You don’t blame a broken system on the people who live on the fringes,” Arim-Law said. “I don’t feel he represents me. I don’t believe Wally Herger values the Latino community.”
Arim-Law said Latinos sometimes fail to get involved politically because they’re struggling to make a living or may be unsure of their rights. During the Obama campaign, Arim-Law said she was approached by a few Latinos who had been counseled by their employers to “vote Republican because it’s good for jobs.”
Some Democrats argue that the present configuration of District 2 makes it impossible to elect moderate candidates. That’s in part because the Democratic Party has lost much of its white voter base in the rural North State during the past 50 years.
Chico’s Bob Mulholland, who serves on the Democratic National Committee, questions how much effect redistricting can have in an area where most voters are “white heterosexuals who vote Republican.” Mulholland argues that in conservative areas the Democratic Party “has increasingly come to be seen as a party of women, gays and minorities.”
David Wilson, who chairs the Shasta County Democratic Central Committee, agrees in part but is more hopeful.
“Now, God and guns trump every other issue,” said Wilson, who also works with the organization Take Back Red California. “Part of our mission is to reverse that.”
When the citizens’ commission held an April meeting in Redding, about 70 people attended. Some argued that District 2 should keep its north-south configuration, ensuring that in the foreseeable future it would be a Republican stronghold. Others lobbied for an east-west configuration that would include liberal enclaves on California’s coast and lead to fiercer party competition.
The commission designed Modoc-Tehama as a district that reaches east to the Nevada border. For the first time in at least a decade, Butte County will be kept whole in all its voting districts—Assembly, Senate and congressional.
“Redistricting is going to help us figure out how to win,” Fleming said. “But we have to have campaign money and start early enough. People on the Democratic side feel it’s going to be an uphill battle.”
An earlier version of this story was published in ChicoSol at www.chicosol.org, and produced in partnership with New America Media.