The Metropolitan Forum Project Reviving Citizen Civic Engagement

Reinventing California: A Legislature at War

November 02, 2003

Part Four of a five part op-ed series exploring the roots of the recent gubernatorial recall and the failure of state government in California.

Perhaps just once this year did the California Legislature look more ridiculous than during its rancorous budget debates. Back in June, lawmakers came within two votes of defeating a resolution to honor fathers on Father's Day. Fourteen lawmakers refused to vote at all, afraid of going on the record.

A change of attitude is evident now in Sacramento, almost a dazed awakening after the recall. Newly humbled Democrats fear that Arnold Schwarzenegger's election could mean that their seats are in jeopardy. Republicans promise to work hand in hand with the incoming governor, who is more moderate than most of them. Unfortunately, the structural flaws that left the Legislature frozen are still in place. One is term limits. Another is the drawing of district boundaries so that districts are safe for the party in the seat but hostile to the moderate strain of thought that used to prevail in the Legislature and the state.

Roots of Rancor

That brings us back to the Father's Day resolution, which was a struggle of cultures as well as ideology. Four of the 80 Assembly members, including the resolution's sponsor, San Diego Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe, are openly gay. Kehoe's resolution honored fathers "including single fathers, foster fathers, adoptive fathers, biological fathers, stepfathers, families headed by two fathers, grandfathers raising grandchildren, fathers in blended households and other nontraditional fathers."

Conservative Republicans condemned it as part of the "pro-gay agenda." They said it slighted "traditional fathers." Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta) complained that Kehoe and her allies had injected "all this extraneous garbage into it."

Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), a longtime gay activist, retorted, "That's the kind of thing that makes you think they're from another planet."

Not another planet, but certainly a different community. The left-wing Goldberg was elected to her 45th Assembly District seat in 2002 with 86% of the vote to 14% for her GOP opponent. As with so many lopsidedly partisan districts, the primary is the contest. In 2002, Goldberg didn't even have a primary foe. She has no reason to compromise.

The conservative Haynes represents the 66th Assembly District in San Diego and Riverside counties, not quite as lopsided but he still won his seat 68% to 32%. The only way Haynes could lose would be to a Republican who managed to run to the right of him. That's why Haynes will not vote for a state budget, a tax increase of any form or anything else that offers a potential Republican primary election foe an opening.

The vast majority of legislative districts in California are solidly Democratic or Republican. Of the 100 seats that come up in 2004, only about 15 are considered competitive. This is the result of a devil's pact made by Republicans and Democrats after the 2000 census to carve as many safe seats for each party as possible, one of the state's worst redistricting gerrymanders of modern times.

Now California is stuck with legislative districts that mostly serve parties and causes and have turned the Legislature into a battleground of ideological purity.

Term limits are the other half of the equation. With Assembly members limited to three two-year terms, they aren't there long enough to trust or respect one another. Father's Day resolutions turn into take-no-prisoners combat. Measures that used to pass with overwhelming moderate support now lead to rigid caucus positions, protracted debate, party-line votes and personal animosities.

Former Assemblyman and Rep. Rick Lehman says: "Senior members used to tell me that it would take six years to find my way around. Now, six years and you're out." The turnover leads to constant churn in the legislative staff. There's precious little institutional memory left. One new lawmaker introduced a bill seemingly ignorant of the fact that an identical measure caused a bitter controversy years before. Legislators end up catering to the corporate or union interests that might provide their next job or finance their campaign for a different political seat.

Term limits, passed by voters in 1990, remain popular and most legislators will not publicly call for repeal. But there is a growing consensus that California's strictest-in-the nation limits -- six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate -- should be relaxed to 12 years in each house. It's not likely that the Legislature itself will have the courage to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot, something requiring a two-thirds vote in each house. Reform groups such as the League of Women Voters and the California Clean Money Campaign should collaborate on a ballot initiative to make the change.

Redrawing District Lines

It's just as critical that the job of redrawing legislative districts after each census be taken from the Legislature and given to an independent commission, possibly composed of retired judges picked by lot. This has been tried before, by voter initiative, and always defeated by television campaigns bankrolled by entrenched incumbents.

The best redistricting plans were drawn under supervision of the California Supreme Court either because of legal challenges or because the legislators and governor could not agree on a plan. One such plan, in effect for most of the 1990s, provided compact districts and divided as few cities and counties as possible. This resulted in a more centrist Legislature that was able to compromise on major issues. Then the 2001 gerrymander undid it. Ted Costa of People's Advocate, who started the recall drive against Gov. Gray Davis, has crafted a new ballot measure to hand redistricting permanently to a judicial panel. It could be on the November 2004 ballot.

There is plenty of talent in Sacramento. But members are forced to work in a system that produces constant political warfare. That does not serve California well. Angry citizens may be tempted to go after politicians they don't like, such as Gray Davis, but they should also give their attention to reforms that could restore common sense to a state capital obsessed with its own private ideological wars -- wars that have nothing to do with taking care of the people's business.


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