Ms. Bass and Mr. Denham Go to Washington, Alone

The California State Capitol Building

When the 112th Congress is sworn in today, only two of the new members will be from California: Former Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D) and state Senator Jeff Denham (R). This is remarkable given that 53 members of the House of Representatives--that is approximately 12% of the entire House--hail from California. To put that in perspective, more than 96 percent of California's U.S. House delegation are re-elected incumbents.

Why is there so little turnover in the House of Representatives?

In 2001, the last time California legislators drew state and federal district lines, they drew lines to accomplish one goal, to keep their jobs. Legislators drew districts that were so "safe," and so completely protected from competition by challengers, that in the last ten years, only one U.S. House seat has changed party hands.

For those who think that our elected officials are ineffective, just take a gander at our district lines to see what a swimming success their 2001 incumbency protection plan really was.

Given these safe, non-competitive districts, one may wonder why Bass and Denham were able to buck the trend. Well, in fact, they didn't. They both ran for open seats. Both Bass and Denham replaced members of their own party who opted not to run for re-election.

What is going to happen next time California draws district lines?

Things will be different for this year's redistricting process. In 2008, voters approved a ballot measure creating a 14-member independent redistricting to draw state senate, state assembly, and board of equalization lines. Then in 2010, voters opted to expand the purview of the commission to include congressional lines.

Goodbye incumbency protection plan, hello competitive districts? That remains to be seen. People of similar philosophical, social, and political views tend to live close to one another. There is only so much a redistricting commission can and should do. For instance, it is unlikely that we will see the creation of numerous dyed in the wool liberal districts in Orange County, or hard core conservative districts in the Bay Area.
What can and should change are district lines drawn so that ensuring that sitting legislators will be able to keep their jobs takes a beat seat to fair representation of constituents.

Who are the members of the independent redistricting commission?

Approximately 30,000 Californians applied to be a member of the 14-person commission. Thanks to the help of those in the State Auditor's office, the applicant pool was narrowed to 60. After that members of the State Senate and Assembly struck 24 applicants. Then eight of the remaining 36 applicants were picked by lottery. Those eight members then chose the remaining six members, and poof, we have a redistricting commission.

The 14-member commission is made up of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four voters who are not a member of either major party. The commission is intended to reflect the racial, ethnic, gender, and geographic diversity of the state. As it stands, there are four Asian Americans, three Caucasians, three Hispanics or Latinos, two African Americans, one American Indian, and one Pacific Islander.

"¢ Drawing district lines is no easy task, and vigilant monitoring of the commission's decisions is essential. To see how you would do drawing California's district lines, play the "redistricting game" by clicking here.
"¢ For more on the redistricting process in general click here to watch a SoCal Connected report on the subject.

Photo of the California State Capitol Building by Flickr user Willscrlt. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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