Politics & Government

Valley lawmakers push for campaign on redistricting

WASHINGTON -- Two semi-maverick San Joaquin Valley lawmakers hope to lure lots of other people's money into the fight over how California's congressional districts are drawn.

Unlike many of their colleagues in Congress, Republican Reps. Devin Nunes of Visalia and Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield want an independent commission -- not the state Legislature -- to be responsible for redistricting. Such a change, they argue, could lead to more rational districts rather than boundaries designed primarily to keep incumbents in office.

Nunes and McCarthy are seeking approval from the Federal Election Commission for a fundraising campaign to support a potential measure on California's June ballot.

The money would come through potentially unlimited "soft money" contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals. But that has raised concerns among critics, who say it would violate recent campaign fundraising reforms.

A 2002 law prohibits members of Congress from raising unlimited "soft money" contributions for elections. Instead, contributions must fit within strict guidelines. Corporations, for instance, cannot contribute directly. Individuals cannot give more than $2,300 to a candidate per election.

"This prohibition on federal candidate and officeholder solicitation and receipt of soft money is the very foundation of [campaign finance reform]," the Campaign Legal Center cautioned in a nearly identical case involving redistricting two years ago.

In 2005, Democratic Rep. Howard Berman of Los Angeles and Republican Rep. John Doolittle of Granite Bay asked the Federal Election Commission for permission to raise unlimited soft money to fight Proposition 77, which would have created an independent commission of retired judges to redraw congressional districts in California.

The commission permitted the California lawmakers to raise money in unlimited amounts. The result was a torrent of dollars that helped sink Prop. 77. Wal-Mart, E! Entertainment Television and the AFL-CIO, among many others, poured money into the 2005 campaign.

Several dozen California House members, including Democratic Reps. Dennis Cardoza of Merced and Jim Costa of Fresno, contributed their own surplus campaign funds to help defeat Prop. 77.

The FEC's 2005 decision covered election fundraising. Nunes and McCarthy want the same reasoning to apply to fundraising that helps get a measure on the ballot in the first place.

"We want to make sure we're not doing anything wrong," Nunes said

The Constitution requires congressional districts to be redrawn every 10 years. The California Legislature, like most others, draws political lines to protect incumbents.

Among the 106 general congressional elections in 2004 and 2006 in the state, party control switched only once, when Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, lost his seat last year.

The Legislature could craft redistricting reform, or voters could secure enough signatures to place a reform measure on next year's ballot -- the method that Nunes and McCarthy support.