Valley may gain seat in Congress in political shift

December 19, 2010 

California is moving into uncharted political territory by charging a citizens' commission with the task of drawing boundaries for its congressional, state Senate and Assembly districts.

In short, nobody knows what is going to happen.

But experts say this much is certain: The grand experiment -- which is being watched closely by other states -- likely will benefit the San Joaquin Valley.

A study issued this month by a Southern California think tank says the region between Sacramento and Bakersfield has grown so much that it should pick up a new congressional seat -- as well as additional representation in the state Legislature.

At the same time, the study said, the new seat likely would come at the expense of the Bay Area, where population growth has lagged behind the San Joaquin Valley.

Some Valley lawmakers say additional seats in Congress and the state Legislature could give the region badly needed leverage to push its political agenda.

"It's very important to get an additional member," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "It's one more vote [for the Valley] -- and one less for the Bay Area."

The study -- done by the Rose Institute of State and Local Government, a nonprofit at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California -- projected the state's population and assumed it would retain its 53 congressional seats. It then established the ideal population size for congressional, state Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization seats.

Using that model, it showed all six Valley congressional districts exceeded the projected target population of 705,604. Because districts must have about the same number of residents after redistricting, this means the Valley is likely to get another district. The surpluses ranged from 51,335 in the 21st Congressional District, represented by Nunes, to 89,752 for the 11th District, which runs from Stockton into the far East Bay suburbs.

At the same time, 10 districts that make up almost all of the Bay Area would need a significant number of additional residents to reach the norm, meaning the region is likely to lose a district. For instance, the Rose Institute study found San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi's seat to be more than 121,000 below the target population.

"The trends have been visible for a while," said Douglas Johnson, one of the study's authors. "Even with foreclosures and people possibly moving back [to coastal areas], it's not going to overcome the massive [inland] growth of the first eight years of the decade."

The Rose Institute study came just ahead of the planned Tuesday release of the first 2010 census numbers for the nation and the states, as well as the number of congressional representatives allocated to each state.

Some recent census estimates indicate that populations in coastal districts may not have shrunk as much as the Rose Institute report suggests.

Still, demographers generally agree that the inland parts of California -- both in the San Joaquin Valley and the Inland Empire of Riverside and San Bernardino counties -- have grown at a faster clip than coastal areas since the last census was conducted 10 years ago.

Mary Heim, chief of California's demographic research unit, said the state's population has grown 14% in the past 10 years. During that period, she said, San Joaquin Valley counties have grown faster than the state average, while growth in the coastal counties was below the average.

Change is coming

The key to the once-a-decade reapportionment process that will grow out of the census, everyone agreed, is the commission. It is made up of a mix of Californians -- Republicans, Democrats, third-party and independent voters.

Two years ago, voters approved Proposition 11, which stripped state legislators of the power to draw their own districts and created the commission. Last month, voters approved Prop. 20, which added drawing congressional lines to the commission's duties.

What is supposed to be missing from the commission is politics.

"If done properly ... this is going to have a dramatic effect on the drawing of legislative and congressional district lines, and the results will be very positive," said former state legislator and Secretary of State Bill Jones, who has been through several reapportionments.

Tim Storey, a redistricting expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, agreed: "It is absolutely going to upset the apple cart. The power dynamic is undoubtedly going to change under this system."

If the reapportionment process still was controlled by Sacramento politicians -- as it usually has been in the past -- the likely result would be gerrymandered districts that would allow Bay Area representatives to maintain their power, the Rose Institute report said.

Instead, commission members will be asked to follow guidelines to create districts that are compact, split counties as little as possible and take into account "communities of interest."

A community of interest could be something like the city of Fresno, its county islands and, possibly, Clovis. The areas all have similar interests.

Or, said political analyst Tony Quinn, a former Republican redistricting staffer, the commission could view community of interest differently. One possibility, he said, is splitting Fresno into an Anglo north and a Hispanic south, then sending the districts out into other areas of the county and, possibly, into adjacent counties.

"They're going to have to make choices," Quinn said.

He predicted a new San Joaquin Valley district would go into San Joaquin and southern Sacramento counties. Its domino effect would be felt throughout the central San Joaquin Valley.

One complicating factor for the commission, experts said, is the Voting Rights Act, which is a law designed to prohibit disenfranchisement of minorities. Two Valley counties are subject to the law and cannot have divided congressional and legislative districts. Those counties are Kings and Merced.

The Rose Institute's Johnson said that could possibly be a factor in the 20th Congressional District, currently held by Fresno Democrat Jim Costa. Though it sprawls on the Valley's west side between Bakersfield and Fresno, the district could potentially keep its odd shape because it is strongly Hispanic, Johnson said.

Still, change is coming. And redrawn boundaries will create new opportunities for challengers.

Unlike this year's congressional election, in which no incumbent was thrown out of office, as many as 15 congressional districts could be competitive in 2012, Costa said.

Incumbents 'nervous'

But nobody really knows, and the fact that a nonpartisan commission will tackle the reapportionment issue puts more intrigue into the process. There will be intense political pressure, experts say.

Storey, of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said other states are watching California to see if they might want to follow suit.

"Is it a new model or another set of problems?" Storey said. "It will be a big challenge no matter who does it. It is extremely political. There is no way around that."

Redistricting experts and political watchers also agree that any assumptions should be thrown aside.

In theory, for instance, the combination of a nonpartisan commission and inland population growth should benefit Republicans.

The Rose Institute report notes that California's Democratic congressional districts are underpopulated by an average of 30,000 people, while the average Republican district is overpopulated by 54,000 people.

In addition, the report says 65% of the state's population growth occurred in congressional seats currently held by Republicans.

California's Republican Party, however, has weakened in recent years, and Democrats "have demonstrated strength in some high-growth 'Republican' areas," the report states.

For that reason, the report says, newly drawn inland congressional seats could be highly competitive for both parties.

Quinn said all incumbent politicians "should be nervous."

Costa discounted the ability of incumbents to shape what any of the districts will look like.

"Are both of the Democratic and Republican caucuses monitoring this? Yes," Costa said. "Will that do any good? I doubt it."

Bee Washington correspondent Michael Doyle contributed to this story. The reporter can be reached at jellis@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6320.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service