California GOP fights Democratic redistrict plan with eye toward '82

President Reagan's home state could pull the rug out from under Republican plans for taking control of the US House of Representatives in 1982. At issue is reapportionment -- a subject that draws a collective yawn from the public, but which alarms politicians, whose political careers literally are laid on redistricting lines drawn to reflect changing populations every 10 years.

Buoyed by their 1980 sweep to power in the Senate -- for the first time in a quarter of a century -- Republicans are eager to sew up Mr. Reagan's mandate by becoming the majority power in the House in 1982. With an eye to those elections, the party is pouring $1 million into redistricting efforts around the country.

In California, however, a Democratic-designed plan eliminates four Republican congressional seats -- possibly offsetting gains expected in other states.

"The California plan is the greatest threat in the whole country to our plan to take over the House in '82," Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Richard Richards told reporters at a recent breakfast. "There's no question about that. It could thwart the whole thing."

Already, the RNC and the National Republican Congressional Committee have donated $100,000 each towards a state GOP referendum drive aimed a giving voters a chance on the June 1982 ballot to throw out the Democrats' blatantly gerrymandered reapportionment plan. The White House, too, threw its support behind the push on Sept. 22, when President Reagan became the first California voter to sign the referendum petition in a special Rose Garden ceremony.

Despite such support, however, state GOP leaders face what one political analyst calls "a tough row to hoe. "They must collect the signatures of 346,119 registered California voters within less than 90 days if they are to place the referendum on the June primary ballot. This task is made even tougher by the fact that voters traditionally have expressed little, if any, interest in reapportionment.

Nor is the effort a cheap one: The price tag for the qualification drive, which involves direct mail, volunteer help, and paid signature gatherers, is estimated at $1.2 million. This does not include the additional $1.5 million it could cost the GOP to convince, voters to support the measure once it is on the ballot. And the whole plan could be thwarted if Democrats decide to slightly after the current reapportionment plan. If that happens, the Republicans would have to start gathering signatures all over again.

There also is the problem of trying to keep the issue from being fought along straight party lines. From the start, state of GOP officials, who also face the loss of four state senate seats and three assembly seats under redistricting, have pushed the effort as a drive to get "politics out of reapportionment." They argue, along with Reagan, that a non-partisan "blue ribbon" commission should be established to draw up redistricting plans each decade.

However, state Democratic leaders say they plan to challenge the referendum in court.

Ironically, the California GOP call for taking politics out of redistricting is set against a national scene that features battles in other states where Republicans are trying to take advantage of Democrats, just as Democrats have wielded their majority power over Republicans in California.

Some state GOP leaders say they're not interested in taking reapportionment out of the hands of the state legislature -- which would happen should the referendum be held -- and would rather commit themselves merely to overturning the present plan.

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