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An edgy agenda for California

Schwarzenegger's proposal to reform redistricting takes on the red-blue divide.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2005



LOS ANGELES AND OAKLAND, CALIF.

For the ultimate political superhero, it is perhaps a curious decision. This is the man who smashed an automobile during the recall campaign to signal his opposition to a car tax. This is the man who has called legislators "girlie men" and turned "special interests" into an evil more loathsome than homicidal cyborgs.

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ever been the avenger for the average Joe - a Mr. Terminator goes to Sacramento. So it is no small irony that in his State of the State address Wednesday, the "people's governor" staked much of his political future on one of the most arcane areas of insider politics: redistricting.

His speech touched on a suite of reforms from teacher pay to government spending. But in many respects, his effort to change the way politics works is the most far-reaching and ambitious - for California and the country. "This is not a California problem, it is a national problem," says Elizabeth Garrett, director of the USC-Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics. "Our representatives are much more partisan than we are ... and one reason is that this favors people with extremely partisan ideological positions."

To Dr. Garrett and others, the so-called red-blue divide so evident here and nationwide is less a function of changing American character or culture than it is of politicians' increasing desire to squelch any competition in election years. The result is hundreds of legislative districts across the United States that lawmakers have drawn to keep incumbents in office - artificially making them more "red" or "blue."

The practice is as old as the Republic. But in many cases, the motive is no longer for the party in power to gerrymander more seats for itself. The rising cost of elections has meant that both parties are now willing to settle for a divided status quo in return for an easier ride through election season.

Governor Schwarzenegger learned the lesson in the last election, when every California candidate he campaigned for lost. In all, there were 153 congressional and state legislative seats in play in California last November. None changed parties.

"It is the single biggest reason we have polarization in state legislatures," says Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant in Los Angeles.

Trying to convey that to voters, however, has been tricky. Redistricting isn't an issue that makes for good political theater, as smashing cars did. It's politics for the C-SPAN set, the bloodless and tedious war of democracy - often fought along battle lines seemingly drawn with the impulsiveness of an Etch A Sketch.

A dozen states have done what Schwarzenegger wants to do - take from lawmakers the job of redrawing legislative districts every 10 years and give it to a panel of retired judges. Yet eight times in the past 70 years, California voters have rejected initiatives to reform the process - including proposals similar to the ones linked to Schwarzenegger.

In his address, Schwarzenegger, a Republican, called legislators to a special session to deal with this and several other issues. If the Legislature does not act, he has suggested that he will take it to the people in yet another ballot initiative this autumn. In a year that could already be shaping up to be Schwarzenegger's Waterloo, it could be the ultimate test of his clout.

"If he puts a bunch of initiatives on the ballot, what does he do if he loses?" asks Larry Berg, former director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics. "He gets into real trouble."

He could be there already. Friday, he will release a budget that attempts to solve an $8.1 billion deficit without raising taxes. In his special session, he will try to persuade lawmakers to essentially put a cap on spending, reform the state's tangled pension system, and base teacher pay on performance.

In other words, in a strongly Democratic state, he is taking on the poor, the elderly, and the teachers' lobby - not to mention the lawmakers. "He's going to have a rough couple of months," says Garrett.

By all appearances, it doesn't faze him. In fact, he seems to relish the opportunity. "He doesn't have a lot of respect for the political structures that others have created," says Tony Quinn, coeditor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of California elections. "He feels he was sent to Sacramento not to be the Republican or Democrat but to shake things up, and he seems to be very much inclined to do that."

Whether he has chosen the right battle, though, remains to be seen. Experts question whether he can fix California's problems without raising taxes - and whether he can turn redistricting into action politics.

"This is going to be the year that will determine Arnold's legacy," says Mr. Hoffenblum. "He has the popularity, but how much capital will he need to use?"

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