Push me, pull you

The art and science of redrawing Sacramento’s political power lines

Illustration by Jason Crosby

See the redistricting maps being considered by the Sacramento City Council.

A strong voice for the central city, more power for Latino voters and greater clout for gay and lesbian voters.

These, among other things, may wind up being the legacy of months of work by local citizen groups and the Sacramento Citizens Redistricting Advisory Committee—formed earlier this year to help draw new districts for members of the Sacramento City Council.

Like all cities, counties, school districts and state legislatures, Sacramento is in the middle of its redistricting process—triggered every 10 years by the U.S. census.

The Sacramento City Council must decide on a final map by September. The council will next meet to begin exploring the details of a possible map Tuesday evening, July 26.

Earlier this month, the citizen panel forwarded four maps to the council—culled from dozens of maps submitted by the public—in order to help get started.

Each would have different impacts on the political power of certain neighborhoods and on the political fortunes of the council members themselves.

Just a few of the issues to be untangled: Which city council member, if any, will be awarded with the prized central city district? How to advance the political goals of one neighborhood, say Tahoe Park, without hurting the interests of another, like Oak Park?

And perhaps most important of all, can the city council serve the competing needs of so many different “communities of interest” while still protecting their own seats?

“It’s kind of push me, pull you situation” said City Councilman Steve Cohn. “I’m sort of in mad-scientist mode right now, mixing the chemicals in each of the tubes,” he added. “But Frankenstein hasn’t appeared yet.”

One of the city council’s first tasks will be to review the citizen maps they received last week, and perhaps pick one as the basis for a final map. Or the council could borrow ideas from different maps, or even throw the citizen maps out altogether and make up their own.

All four maps being considered more or less go along with a well-organized effort to unite the central city neighborhoods of downtown and Midtown. This area is currently represented by three different city council members, each of whom serves a slice of the grid.

Arguing that this diluted the power of Midtown and downtown, in 2001 neighborhood activists pushed for redrawing the map to include the central city in district, but the city council at the time rejected the idea.

This time, the proposal has the backing of the powerful Downtown Sacramento Partnership, as well as the Sacramento Rainbow Chamber of Commerce, along with other gay and lesbian groups and several neighborhood organizations.

(For more on the case for uniting the central city, see “The district,” SN&R Frontlines, May 5.)

Cohn, who represents District 3, which includes parts of Midtown and East Sacramento, has been agnostic about the prospect of a unified central city. But he said, “I think the Downtown Partnership and the LGBT community were very effective in making their case.” Because of that, Cohn said, “I think it’s more difficult to come up with a map where we divide the central city up.”

Of the four maps—simply labeled Plan A through Plan D—Cohn is partial to Plan B, drawn by the East Sacramento Improvement Association.

Among other changes, Plan B, would unite Midtown and downtown with East Sacramento, all within the boundaries of Cohn’s District 3.

“We feel there’s a real connection with Midtown, downtown and East Sacramento. There’s just an affinity between those neighborhoods,” said Paul Noble, president of the association. Cohn agrees, also noting that “the grid” of numbered and lettered streets extends into East Sacramento.

As conceived in this map, District 3 would be a pretty happening place; it’s understandable Cohn would want to be its councilman.

But lots of people want a piece of the central city. Another map, Plan C, would draw the lines so that the downtown rail yards—possible home of a new basketball arena and other new development—would be attached to District 2, which includes some economically stressed areas like north Sacramento and Del Paso Heights. “Every district has to have an economic engine,” said Darrell Roberts, who is part of the African American Leadership Coalition that introduced Plan C. Roberts told SN&R that his group thinks the rail-yards project, and the planned Township Nine development nearby, would be a boost for the district.

But Plan C would also split up East Sacramento, which won’t fly with that powerful neighborhood. “We really intensely dislike that map,” explained Noble.

And while the citizen panel was, in theory, free to ignore City Hall politics in making its recommendations, the city council is not. Both Plan B and Plan C would potentially force a couple of sitting council members out of office.

The East Sacramento plan would push the boundaries of District 5, now covering Oak Park, Curtis Park and Hollywood Park deep into the Land Park area. In turn, the boundaries of District 4 would end up north of the river in South Natomas.

That would mean that the incumbent council member in District 4, Rob Fong, would effectively be drawn out of his district when the election for that seat comes around next year. Unless he wanted to move to the other side of the city and try his luck campaigning in north Sacramento and South Natomas.

Cohn says it’s reasonable for council members to consider how the district lines affect sitting council members, though it shouldn’t be the first priority. “I’m trying to look and see if there’s a way to make it politically more acceptable,” he added.

Likewise, Plan C would draw District 3’s boundaries into the Woodlake neighborhood where District 2 Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy now lives. So Sheedy would have to move a ways north or east if she wanted to run again for the seat she’s held for the last 11 years.

Another big theme to emerge in the redistricting process is the desire for Latinos to have more political clout. Large Latino populations in neighborhoods like South Natomas, Colonial Heights and South Tahoe Park are divided by council district lines. That dilutes their voting power, says Eric Guerra, who is president of the Tahoe Park Neighborhood Association and vice president of the local Latino Democratic Club.

That makes it harder to elect a Latino to city council—there hasn’t been one since Mayor Joe Serna Jr. passed away in 2000. “But the bigger issue is having one representative to tackle those daily issues, like blight and crime, that are affecting the neighborhoods.”

The desire to draw Latino districts together dovetails with a push by residents of Tahoe Park to get their neighborhood—divided into two council districts in 2001—put back together.

But a couple of the proposals would also draw Oak Park out of District 5, where it sits now, into District 6, along with Tahoe Park.

“We want to be partnered with a more affluent neighborhood,” said Oak Park Neighborhood Association president Michael Boyd. In particular, the Oak Park leader wants to stay in District 5, with the comparatively wealthy Curtis Park neighborhood.

Tahoe Park leaders have told SN&R in the past that it makes sense to draw Oak Park and Tahoe Park together—the two working-class neighborhoods have a lot in common.

But Boyd says Oak Park leaders are worried their concerns and needs would get lost in District 5. The way Boyd puts it, “There’s a piñata, and we want to have the biggest club.”

Like Cohn said, push me, pull you.