An investigation last month by CalWatchDog.com, which I edit, revealed that at least one of the 14 commissioners in charge of drawing new district lines for California’s elected representatives had made multiple political campaign contributions to Democratic candidates—contributions that were previously undisclosed to the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. The commissioner, Gabino Aguirre, also has an extensive web of connections—similarly undisclosed—to a special-interest group that submitted its own redistricting proposals to the commission. The revelations about Aguirre don’t merely call into question the integrity of the redistricting process. They also cast doubt on the entire agenda advanced by good-government activists and the state’s moderate business community, who touted redistricting reform as a central plank of their platform to fix California’s dysfunctional political system.
During a press conference in Sacramento announcing final release of the new district maps, redistricting commission members evaded tough questions about Aguirre’s alleged conflicts of interest. But one commissioner expressed concern about how the commission had conducted its business. Michael Ward of Fullerton was the only commissioner to vote against moving the final maps to the public for review. “I’m sad to find myself compelled to vote no,” he said during the commission’s open session on July 29. “In my opinion, the commission failed to fulfill its mandate to strictly apply constitutional criteria and consistently applied race and ‘community of interest’ criteria and sought to diminish dissenting viewpoints.” Put another way: it became apparent even to the commissioners themselves that the Citizens Redistricting Commission was as politicized and beholden to special interests as any legislator-led redistricting body would have been.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Voters in 2008 passed Proposition 11 to shift post-Census redistricting decisions from a self-interested state legislature to a supposedly disinterested commission. In 2010, voters approved Prop. 20, which expanded the commission’s jurisdiction from redrawing state legislative and Board of Equalization districts to redrawing congressional districts as well. Proponents promised fair reapportionment, free from gerrymandering. The commissioners would be carefully selected and vetted by the state’s independent auditor. State law barred any applicant who had made political-campaign contributions in excess of $2,000 to a particular candidate or committee.
But contributions tell only one part of the story. The problem with Aguirre is not his contributions, which were below the $2,000 limit, but his connections to an organization that has lobbied on behalf of specific districts and specific politicians—as well as the fact that he didn’t disclose that potential conflict of interest, which may constitute a failure to live up to the commission’s code of ethics.
In a July 21 letter to the commission and to Governor Jerry Brown, California Republican Party chairman Tom Del Beccaro called on Aguirre either to resign or to face removal for his failure to “disclose his current (as of July 14, 2011) advisory board membership in Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) in his application, supplemental application and oral interview in 2011. CAUSE has been an active advocate before the Commission for district maps in the Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles Counties, and Commissioner Aguirre has been an aggressive advocate for CAUSE’s maps.” Del Beccaro says that he has received no response. But his letter reflects frustration among Republicans who believe that Aguirre’s membership on the commission calls into question the fairness of the new legislative district maps. And the truth is, many Republicans are rightly embarrassed by the Aguirre revelations because they did practically nothing to vet the commissioners. “The Democrats work the system far better than Republicans,” Del Beccaro admitted. “But they have more resources.”
The redistricting debacle shows how resistant to reform California’s government is. Good-government activists argued that part of the state’s dysfunction stemmed from its aggressive form of direct democracy—including the initiative, referendum, and recall processes—which contravened a republican form of government that entrusts key decisions to elected representatives. Redistricting was the second part of the reformers’ platform. But the Citizens Redistricting Commission’s maps will almost certainly be challenged in court and perhaps even become subject to yet another referendum. And now it seems that at least one of the commissioners was doing the partisan work of a special-interest group. During the 2008 election, opponents of Prop. 11 argued that members of the proposed commission would advance political interests just as politicians did; the only difference, they said, was that it would be even harder under the new system to know who was representing what interest. It seems that the critics were perceptive enough—or cynical enough—to be correct.
At bottom, the reformers mistakenly believed that they could depoliticize the governing process. “How do you take politics out of politics?” Republican assemblyman Don Wagner of Irvine asked me recently. “It’s like trying to take baseball out of baseball.” Wouldn’t it be better to let the Left and Right battle over district lines publicly than to trust the Gabino Aguirres of the world to do the right thing behind closed doors?