CA GOP ‘Idiots’ Lose State Senate

FEB. 6, 2012


Back to the campaign drawing board for California Republicans.

The California Supreme Court recently upheld the maps drawn by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

The immediate fallout: State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, told his hometown paper that he wouldn’t seek reelection, due to the unfavorable maps approved by the court. In another swing seat, Republicans have yet even to field a candidate. State Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark, announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection in order to run for a new seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

If Republicans lose both state Senate seats, their Senate caucus will be reduced to fewer than 14 members, the all-important two-thirds threshold that gives Republicans the ability to block tax increases. At 13 Republican and 27 Democratic state senators, Democrats in the Senate could vote to impose infinite tax increases.

“It’s going to be seriously difficult for Republicans to stay above one-third in the Senate because of this,” California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro complained to the Mercury News. “It puts the two-party system in the Senate in jeopardy.”

$2.1 Million Dollars for Useless Referendum

Republicans can now put a cost on their defeat: $2.1 million.

According to its fourth quarter campaign finance report, the Republican group Fairness & Accountability in Redistricting spent a whopping $2.1 million on its effort to put the new state Senate maps to a vote in November. The committee collected $1.7 million, or 80 percent, of its funding from the California Republican Party. That’s money that a cash-depleted party could have invested into voter registration programs for the three competitive state Senate districts.

“The CRP already spent a few million dollars on the referendum and varied lawsuit, all this while one of their best senate candidates, Jeff Miller, has no million-dollar voter registration program and can’t even afford a new URL,” observed the January 30th Redistricting Partners newsletter.

But it didn’t have to end this way for Golden State Republicans. Not if they’d followed the old maxim: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Lesson One: Research redistricting commissioners and use legislative strikes wisely.

Propositions 11 and 20 gave legislative leaders of both parties the power to strike up to two names from the final applicant subpool of redistricting commissioners. Republican leaders could have spent a few thousand dollars on opposition research reports on the backgrounds of redistricting commissioners. Or they could have spent just a few hours cross-checking applicants against the state’s campaign finance database. Had anyone at the California Republican Party done a few hours of research, they’d have discovered several campaign contributions by two commissioners.

Back in July 2011, first reported on two redistricting commissioners’ partisan histories and campaign contributions. Commissioner Jeanne Raya failed to disclose four contributions totaling $1,000 made on behalf of her business to a state political action committee.  State law requires commissioners to disclose any civic, political or charitable donations of $250 or more.

Commissioner Gabino Aguirre made three campaign donations to Democratic candidates for state office. In November 2008, Aguirre contributed $100 to Ferial Masry, the Democratic nominee for the 37th State Assembly District. A year later, he made a $200 contribution to Gloria Romero, a former Democratic state senator. Aguirre also has extensive ties to a redistricting special interest group, the Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). The progressive social justice organization submitted its own redistricting maps for the Central Coast. It’s no coincidence that Blakeslee and Strickland’s seats, which are now likely to flip to the Democrats, are both on the Central Coast.

With just a little bit of research, Republicans could have made an educated decision to strike Raya and Aguirre. But Republican legislative leaders didn’t want to spend the money. One high-level staffer described Republican legislative leaders’ approach to the redistricting process as “an inexcusable reluctance to spend the resources to research the background of the commissioners.” Another senior staff member for a Republican legislator put it simply, “The truth is we’re idiots.”

While neither staffer wanted to be identified by name, one Republican political consultant openly defied party leadership in an attempt to save the GOP from itself.

“When you start the process telling people not to be involved and then end the process complaining that others were too involved, you have created your own emergency,” wrote Matt Rexroad, a partner with Meridian Pacific, in his rant for Capitol Weekly. “The issue that really galls me is that Republicans can cry foul all they want, but legislative leadership made it very clear that they did not want any Republican consultants to engage on redistricting.”

Lesson Two: Focus on the flawed process, not self-interested outcomes.

If they had been consistent in their objections, Republicans could have convinced the public that the redistricting process was flawed.

Republicans were right: the redistricting process was corrupted by special interest groups. Background research could have helped expose Aguirre, but the full extent of his partisan activities couldn’t have been fully brought to light in time for the legislative strikes.  That’s because Aguirre’s last and most egregious contribution, a $100 check to Democratic Assemblyman Das Williams, posted to the Secretary of State’s website nine days after the Bureau of State Audits completed its background check.

Williams had a vested interest in redistricting. Yet the commission took no action to disclose this potential conflict of interest or sequester Aguirre from Williams’ region. They did the opposite. Aguirre was put in charge of overseeing the Central Coast mapmaking.  He promptly adopted the maps suggested by his friends at CAUSE.

Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine, who have been highly-critical of the Republicans’ redistricting referendum, questioned the cause of Willliams’ redistricting good fortune. “When you look at Williams’ new 37th Assembly district, which is about as safe for him as can be, along with the new 19th SD, the future of the hyper-ambitious young pol looks bright indeed, whether he sits still for two more, two-year terms in the Assembly, or jumps into a 2012 race that could bring two four-year terms in the senate. Coincidence? You be judge,” the CalBuzz team wrote back in August.

Republicans didn’t concentrate on this message, in part, because they liked the configuration of the State Assembly maps. They also ignored the Voting Rights Act violations with the congressional maps because those were favorable to high-ranking House Republicans. Instead, Republicans voluntarily swapped a message about the flawed process for a pity-party about losing one-third control of the State Senate.

Lesson Three: Don’t look a gift commissioner in the mouth.

Redistricting Commissioner Mike Ward, an Orange County chiropractor with no prior involvement in state politics, demonstrated a more coherent message than Republican political pros.

“The Citizens Redistricting Commission has certified maps that are fundamentally flawed as a result of a tainted political process,” Ward said at the commission’s August 15 press conference. “This commission simply traded the partisan, backroom gerrymandering by the Legislature, for partisan, backroom gerrymandering by average citizens.”

Then Ward did what you’re supposed to do when you object to a corrupted process: he voted against all of the proposed maps. He didn’t cherry-pick maps based on those that would help his political party. The Senate referendum quashed Ward’s message about the flawed process. If the process was corrupted, why only challenge one set of four maps? Republicans’ inconsistent message impressed upon the press, public and ultimately the State Supreme Court that the referendum was motivated by partisan interests.

Lesson Four: Courts are influenced by public opinion.

Republicans’ last error with its redistricting message came with the referendum lawsuit. Republicans turned the lawsuit into a legal argument about the rule of law, the right to referendum and the will of the voters.

“In the law, the word ‘stay’ has a clear meaning. To ‘stay’ an action means to stop that action. The most authoritative legal dictionary of American law defines ‘stay’ as, ‘To stop, arrest, forbear.’ To ‘stay’ an order or decree means to hold it in abeyance, or refrain from enforcing it.” Black’s Law Dictionary, at 1267 (5th ed. 1979).

Assemblyman Don Wagner wrote in the Flash Report, “Thus, because the petition is ‘likely to qualify,’ the Supreme Court was directed by the Constitution to ‘refrain from enforcing’ the Commission’s Senate maps. In short, the California Constitution, with a simple, four letter word of indisputable meaning, stays or stops the use of the Commission lines until the people have their say on those lines at the ballot box.”

Legally, Wagner may be right. But, who cares? Not even the Supreme Court cared about legal precedents or Black’s Law Dictionary when public opinion stood on the other side.

Said the court’s unanimous opinion, “The Commission-certified Senate districts also are a product of what generally appears to have been an open, transparent and nonpartisan redistricting process as called for by the current provisions of article XXI.” In other words, the Court was influenced by press accounts and public opinion when deciding what to do with the redistricting mess.

In their stories about the court decision, neither the Los Angeles Times nor Sacramento Bee included a word about the corrupted process. Mike Ward was left out completely.

By the end of the redistricting scandal, Republicans had so badly muddled their message that there was no longer any reference to a corrupted process.

(Related: 10 Ways to improve the Citizens Redistricting Commission.)



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