Breaking the gerrymander

Redistricting initiative is struck from the ballot; Schwarzenegger gets blamed

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Gail Ohanesian ruled last week that Proposition 77—the effort to redesign how the state’s legislative districts are drawn—be pulled from the November 8 special-election ballot. The measure is now before judges on the 3rd District Court of Appeals. Pundits and news reporters immediately pounced on the legal decision as a huge blow to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and reform agenda for the state.

And true, the initiative was part of the governor’s self-styled and now badly bruised “year for reform.” Five issues he hoped to put before voters have been pared down to just two: an initiative to put in his hands more power to control state spending, and another that would affect how public-school teachers earn tenure.

But, in truth, Schwarzenegger had no control over Proposition 77, which was spearheaded by conservative political activist Ted Costa and financially backed in large part by wealthy Southern California political hopeful Bill Mundell.

“The biggest mistake Schwarzenegger made was ever turning this over to Costa,” said Tony Quinn, a former Republican strategist who is in favor of redistricting reform but is also happy to see Proposition 77 removed from the special-election ballot. “It was a flawed initiative. It would have lost, and it would have set back any effort at real reform,” Quinn added.

Costa said he will immediately take Ohanesian’s ruling to the state Courts of Appeal. Legal experts say the case probably will reach the state’s highest court.

“It’s a body blow,” Costa acknowledged after the ruling last week. “We’re knocked off the road. We’ve got to get back on that road.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Bruce McPherson has set August 15 as the deadline to put the proposition back on the ballot. And Democratic legislators plan to hold an investigative hearing August 17 to examine how Proposition 77 made it onto the ballot in the first place.

The lawsuit, brought by Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer, focused on two different versions of the measure’s text. One version, which was approved by the secretary of state, by law must be shown to potential signees and then presented before voters. But a second version, with several word and clause changes and an entire paragraph missing, inadvertently was circulated for signature gathering.

“The differences are not simply typographical errors,” Ohanesian said in her written decision. “They are not merely about the format of the measure. They are not simply technical. Instead, they go to the substantive terms of the measure.”

More than 950,000 signatures were gathered in support of the initiative.

Proposition 77 would have taken the job of drawing legislative lines away from the legislators and given it to a panel of retired judges. Earlier this year, SN&R wrote about the efforts to redesign the redistricting process (see “Gerrymander jigsaw,” SN&R Cover, May 12), outlining how the arcane process can conflict with democracy’s one-person-one-vote cornerstone and also can affect the balance of power in the nation’s capital.

Costa is no stranger to redistricting defeat. He has been involved with failed attempts in 1983, 1989 and 2000.

“In 2000, we got thrown off the ballot just like this,” Costa said. “You go on.”

Constitutional amendments that mirror Costa’s initiative have been proposed in both the Senate and the Assembly.