Clovis News

Political turf wars under way in Fresno Co.

Fresno County supervisors have begun digging in to defend their political turf as new census figures show a need to redraw their districts before next year's elections.

Population shifts over the past decade have left the five supervisors with an uneven number of constituents.

Unlike state and federal lawmakers, whose districts will be reapportioned by an independent, statewide commission, the county Board of Supervisors is charged with re-configuring its own districts.

Already, board members are expressing preferences -- some conflicting -- for how the lines should be drawn.

Take, for example, Supervisor Susan Anderson, who is leaving office next year but wants to protect her district: "I want to make sure part of my district stays in Clovis. It's always been like that. I don't think we should change that."

The county elections office last week drafted three proposals for the new districts, one of which hands all of Clovis to Supervisor Debbie Poochigian.

County Clerk Victor Salazar says the draft maps are just a starting point. They're not being released publicly until supervisors and county staff review them.

Most supervisors say they want to establish their own committee to offer additional designs.

The redistricting, required every 10 years to balance populations and assure residents equal representation, is due to be completed by September.

The 2010 census numbers released last month show much of the population growth in Fresno County occurred on the fringes of Fresno and Clovis represented by the more conservative Poochigian and Supervisor Phil Larson. This means their largely rural districts will have to lose residents to more urban districts -- about 33,000 people total.

Larson, whose district extends from west Fresno to Interstate 5, says his preference would be to hang on to the northern parts of the city and give up southern parts.

"I've done a good job representing [southwest Fresno] but I think they'll get equal treatment from another supervisor," he said.

Supervisor Henry Perea, the board's only Democrat, wants to pick up southwest Fresno to add residents needed for his slower-growing district spanning Fresno's core.

Tom Holyoke, a political science professor at California State University, Fresno, has a warning for supervisors.

"This is where the elements of gerrymandering come in," he said, noting that supervisors' ability to choose their constituents -- and voters -- presents an inherent conflict of interest.

"Districts that are competitive, we assume that's good," he said. "It's bad to make districts safe for one candidate or for a political party."

To prevent moving the lines for political gain, state and congressional districts this year will be redrawn by a newly formed panel of citizens. The independent panel, set in motion by voter-approved initiatives, doesn't redraw districts for cities and counties, however.

Still, local officeholders are bound by law to re-configure districts in a way that keeps neighborhoods and ethnic groups intact and doesn't serve re-election interests.

Perea says his district's possible expansion into southwest Fresno and even south to Malaga, where the demographics are similar to other parts of his district, would meet the spirit of the law.

"This is a natural extension of the boundaries," he said. "And it gives us the opportunity to really home in and focus on economic development in Fresno."

This move could shift 10,000 residents from Larson's district to Perea's, the number Larson needs to lose. But that still is short of the nearly 25,000 residents Perea's district needs to gain.

Perea is likely also to add residents, say political observers, from Poochigian's district, which extends from Clovis and east Fresno to the Sierra Nevada. This could happen, they say, in east and southeast Fresno -- along Clovis Avenue, for example.

Poochigian, however, says she doesn't want to lose too much of southeast Fresno, particularly near her home in the Sunnyside neighborhood. That could pose problems for Perea, who says he doesn't want to move too far north to add residents.

In another version of the jigsaw, Anderson's district extends farther west, near Highway 99 where growth has been rampant and Larson may need to lose constituents.