Lifelong pols and deadwood

Term limits saved us from those doddering lifers who once ran Sacramento. An end to gerrymandering must come next.

Amid the hubbub surrounding the November 8 special election, I nearly forgot how many years it took before California voters grew disgusted enough to target Sacramento legislators who, with glinting eyes, had kept a grip on office for so long that many legislators grew decrepit, or even died, in office.

When voters finally did get outraged enough to approve term limits in California, it was with the tacit admission that voters no longer had the time to pay close attention to the sly subculture of lifelong pols and deadwood who were deciding how to spend our taxes.

So, voters adopted term limits as a default, to make sure the bums got thrown out. This special election reminds me very much of those confusing years just before voter clarity finally gelled and term limits came roaring in. At press time, opinion polls showed that many reforms on the ballot were losing. But among those possible losers the greatest tragedy would be the demise of Proposition 77.

Voters—somewhat peevishly for people in a state with an improved credit rating, plunging workers’-comp insurance rates and vigorous job growth—were more interested in punishing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger than in stopping the two political parties from turning California into a gerrymandered wasteland of non-democracy.

In some ways, Arnold deserves the drubbing, if a drubbing it turns out to be, because he lost contact with voters in 2005 during his poorly mounted war against government worker unions. But I doubt voters would have been so interested in whacking Schwarzenegger if they really grasped how bad things are and who is to blame.

Term limits saved us from those doddering lifers who once ran Sacramento, but California voters apparently are not yet aware enough, or furious enough, to accept that they left the job unfinished. Now, gerrymandering has to end.

State Senator Tom McClintock, whom I ran into shortly before the election, told me, “The only weakness in a democracy is when the people are not paying attention to the issues. When a free people’s backs are to the wall, the people will engage.”

Joe Cerrell, a respected Democratic political consultant, agreed with McClintock that “things cannot stay as they are,” with the current fixed elections, but the loyal Democrat felt the Democrat-controlled Legislature should name a panel to unravel the mess. He didn’t like Proposition 77’s plan for retired judges to draw the maps, but I find the judge’s panel spot-on because the governor and Legislature both have veto power over any judge they view as partisan or not highly respected.

Sadly, voters never got this far in this crucial discussion. Voters have absolutely no clue that twice in contemporary times in California, the Legislature has temporarily lost its power to draw up voting districts. Both times, the job was handed to judges.

Both times, the judges did a great job. The judges drew up very reasonable maps that avoided such butt-protecting Sacramento legislative antics as slicing through mountain ranges and making mincemeat of city borders.

The key thing was this: None of the judges was running for office inside the voter-district boundaries he was empowered to draw up. Because the judges were not running in the districts they were drawing—and in fact were not running for office anywhere—conflict of interest vanished. Duh!

Honest voting districts that respected city and geographic boundaries were the result, and observers from left and right agree that California temporarily got its democracy back.

The reason Proposition 77 was enthusiastically backed, not by hard-right groups, but by sensible folks like Senator John McCain and extremely liberal groups like California Public Interest Research Group and Common Cause, is because they want what is best for California and its residents. That desire trumped the emotional need to see Schwarzenegger falter.

Sadly, voters are in the “punish Arnold” phase. That’s partly why many of them bought into the absurd anti-Proposition 77 television ad that argued that the long-overdue reform would allow a group of “handpicked” retired judges to turn California into a jigsaw puzzle as bad as the gerrymander disaster in Texas.

Wrong. We can’t turn into Texas—we became Texas years ago. The gerrymandering disaster is full upon us. The truth is that a panel of local schoolchildren—forget esteemed judges!—would do a far more democratic job than the awful California Legislature, which continues to divide voters into crazily shaped districts to ensure that each and every Democratic and Republican hack is guaranteed a win at election time.

McClintock, a conservative admired even by Democrats for being unflinchingly honest, is dead right. If voters, in their lack of understanding and lack of fury, vote down Proposition 77, this will not be the end of things. As with term limits, Californians eventually will rise up. They will take back their badly compromised democracy.