Buckle up

Think the recall was a big deal? Wait ’til the governor goes after the gerrymandered safe seats.

With Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger raising $73,000 a day for his campaign committees, and causing conniption fits among those who say he’s as compromised by influence-peddlers as Gray Davis, I see a different story and a different threat.

I want the governor to keep raking in far more dough than Davis, who raised $36,000 daily. I hope Schwarzenegger does whatever it takes, within the law, to keep pulling in 73 grand per day.

Davis used his campaign riches to re-elect himself. Schwarzenegger spends his to halt or pass ballot measures he thinks are bad or good for California. Big difference. And it’s a crucial distinction now that Schwarzenegger is considering launching the political war of the decade in California—a far bigger struggle than some puny recall.

The historic recall of 2003 will look like child’s play when stacked up against the effort to end the tyranny known as “safe seats.” If Schwarzenegger takes on this cause in 2005, he will become immersed in an epic struggle against vast institutions that long have ensured that voters don’t have any actual choice at the ballot box—and voters don’t even know it.

So-called safe seats are why none of California’s 53 congressional seats changed parties on November 2 and why those results were known months before a single vote was cast. Nationwide, safe seats are why few of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives changed hands.

In Sacramento, safe seats are why none of 100 state Assembly and state Senate seats changed party hands.

Under the safe-seats scheme, voters are irrelevant. Don’t think democracy in America. Think of any despotic regime in which the winners have been predetermined by the political parties.

Bob Stern, the respected liberal fighter for good government, said the safe-seats scheme gripping California meant “not one incumbent lost this year, and not one elective office changed from one party to another party. It’s worse than the Soviet Politburo used to be. We don’t have democracy, except in the primary. That is when we hold our elections.”

Voters can be forgiven for not knowing what a “safe seat” is, what “redistricting” or “gerrymandering” are, or even what a “voting district” is. We in the media are guilty of gross journalistic malpractice when it comes to explaining issues that have people like Stern so worried.

Most newspapers have kissed off the safe-seats topic, resorting to incomprehensible shorthand stories that mention “reapportionment” or “redistricting”—as if Californians have a clue what that means.

It’s no more complicated than a Mario Bros. game, yet voters get tricked because they aren’t given the rules. Thus, each of eight times during the past 80 years that voters have been asked to end the safe-seats scam, voters were tricked into opposing the badly needed reform.

“They’ve used actors like Jack Lemmon to fight reform,” said Stern. “But what if the reform side does the same thing this time, and ends up with Arnold Schwarzenegger on its side? Ha! I think it could finally succeed.”

Most voters realize their community is divided up along city, county and natural geographical lines, and they vaguely assume these lines help form a congressional or state legislative “voting district,” as the California constitution requires.

Most voters figure voting districts contain residents who live near one another and thus share similar problems. Most voters believe that when they vote in November, they choose among candidates who offer solutions designed for their community.

My, what a dear and quaint notion.

Today, the Democratic Party and Republican Party of California use highly detailed computer programs to divide voters by party registration rather than honest geography and community. The two parties do whatever possible to cut Democratic and Republican voters off from one another so there’s no need to compete on ideas.

Thus, Republican voters are ghettoized into their own bizarrely shaped “voting districts,” and Democratic voters are ghettoized into their own bizarrely shaped “voting districts.” Once voters are herded into exceedingly unnatural divisions, no candidate from the shut-out party has a prayer of getting elected. The seat is “safe” for the party that drew the lines, no matter how bad its candidate may be.

It’s pure political corruption. A wag in Southern California uttered this Orwellian truism: “Voters no longer pick the candidate.” Instead, candidates wielding computers “pick their voters.” It should give you the absolute creeps.

The most undemocratic district in California is the 23rd congressional District, carefully drawn by the Democratic Party to ghettoize Democrats and exclude Republicans. The vibrantly mixed district once represented by moderate Republican Michael Huffington was reconfigured into a “Democrats only” district snaking up the Central Coast that is so narrow, in order to exclude Republicans, that some joke that the area “disappears at high tide.” It will never elect a Republican, regardless of whether the Democratic candidate is an inept hack or not. That’s not choice.

At the state legislative level, Senate District 15 was drawn to exclude Democrats and ensure a Republican victory. It stretches in a ridiculous manner from busy downtown San Jose to faraway Santa Maria, ignoring natural boundaries. Senate District 23, drawn to exclude Republicans, stretches in a laughable manner from Farmers Market in the tony and congested Westside area of Los Angeles to the Latino farming town of Oxnard, two mountain ranges away from Los Angeles.

The November election is now pointless. All winners are known in advance. Even the spring primary is badly corrupted. During the primaries, the party that now controls your voting district tries to spoon-feed a preselected party insider (usually a hard-core ideological hack) to voters. Usually, this preselected hack, showered with money from ideological special-interest groups, beats any newcomer who runs in the primary to represent the party.

Ending this nonsense must fall to Schwarzenegger, a Republican. The majority party will never end the scam, since the majority party gets to draw the phony voting districts in the first place. In Texas, the tyrannical majority Republicans recently drew ridiculous voting-district lines, and the Democrats were helpless. In California, the tyrannical majority Democrats do the same.

“Eight times in California, the Republicans have come up with a way to take away the power of redrawing the districts from the politicians and hand it to independent panels,” said Tony Quinn, a respected political analyst. “Eight times, voters have said no to reform because voters were confused. … This time, the ballot measure needs to be kept simple.”

As moderate Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum noted, “Schwarzenegger will be opposed by every single incumbent politician from both sides of the political aisle—because they all want to preserve their jobs—plus the usual Democratic special interests such as the Service Employees International Union, the AFL-CIO, the trial lawyers, the nurses association—you name it!”

Special-interest groups dread the creation of true communities of interest. After all, if Republican and Democratic voters weren’t painstakingly separated by computer programs, “mixed” districts would crop up. Candidates would have to compete over ideas to win. Some would refuse to kowtow to special-interest groups.

Can’t have that.

In one notorious effort to preserve safe seats, the late actor Jack Lemmon became a spokesman for the safe-seat lobby. Sadly, Lemmon made a commercial claiming that if pols couldn’t draw up their own voting districts, and the job went to an independent panel of judges, the California judiciary would be corrupted. Lemmon could never explain just how.

Recalls Hoffenblum, “[Former Democratic Assembly Speaker] Willie Brown later called that Lemmon TV spot one of the greatest con jobs of all time. Willie loved it. Jack Lemmon changed the subject.”

Iowa and Arizona don’t let rear-end-protecting politicians draw their own voting districts. Miraculously, the independent panels that draw the maps in Iowa and Arizona have not been corrupted.

Only twice in recent history have honest districts been drawn in California. In the 1970s and in the 1990s, districts were drawn by an independent panel after the California Supreme Court took the duty away from Sacramento legislators bent on outrageous gerrymandering.

This resulted in 1996 in several honest and naturally mixed voting districts. True competition erupted. A wave of moderate Republicans and Latino Democrats were elected.

Said Quinn: “People should remember that Latinos were elected to the Sacramento Legislature in 1996 in large numbers due to court plans, and never due to letting legislators draw districts.” And it wasn’t Republicans who drew the longtime voting-district lines that kept Latinos from office—it was the majority Democrats who did that.

Geographically honest voting districts fell apart in 2001 when the power reverted to the Legislature to draw new lines. Shamefully, the beaten-down Republicans agreed not to fight a Democratic “safe seats” plan that guaranteed Republicans could keep the relatively few seats they still controlled. I understand the slimy but typical majority behavior of the Democrats. I don’t understand the Republicans. Talk about quislings.

The ugly lesson of safe seats is that no matter which political side you’re on, safe seats protect the ossified status quo. They shut out Latinos, Republicans, women or whoever else isn’t in power. As Schwarzenegger is realizing, those clinging to power don’t care whom they hurt. Least of all the voters.