Many of us who weren't in San Diego in the 1970s and early '80s, when Pete Wilson was mayor, know him almost exclusively as governor of California in the '90s. We progressives immediately recall how his decision to carry the torch for Prop. 187—which unfairly cast Latino immigrants as villains in the early-'90s recession—helped him come from behind in the polls to defeat Kathleen Brown in the 1994 gubernatorial election. And we remember his ardent support for tough-on-crime statutes—such as the “Three Strikes” law—that have helped jam state prisons so full of inmates that they violate the U.S. Constitution's protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
But even longtime San Diegans who regard Wilson as a positive political force should be rolling their eyes at his latest crusade.
Not long after the California Citizens Redistricting Commission (wedrawthelines.ca.gov) approved new district boundaries for the state's legislature and congressional delegation, Wilson endorsed a campaign to have them overturned through a voter referendum.
If Wilson wants to be viewed as a statesman in his old age, he's made a bad move. If, on the other hand, he wants to be seen as a bottom-feeding Republican Party hack: Success!
In 2008, voters, frustrated with politicians' history of drawing new district lines in a way that made incumbents all but invulnerable, took the job away from state legislators and gave it to a commission composed of 14 citizens—five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents. They held dozens of public meetings up and down the state and took in heaping helpings of advice from groups representing interests across the political, ideological and ethnic spectrum.
In the end, they came up with new maps that are widely seen as beneficial to the Democratic Party, particularly in the state Legislature, where a few gained seats could give the Democrats the two-thirds majority needed to raise taxes if they see fit to do so.
That's what has the Republican Party in a tizzy and collecting signatures to get a referendum on the June 2012 ballot. They issue lip service about the redistricting commission's process violating the federal Voting Rights Act, a stance they're borrowing from Michael Ward, the lone commissioner to vote against all of the proposed maps. Tell us, when has the Republican Party ever given a damn about the Voting Rights Act? No, all they really care about is making sure that the only option the Democrats have when it comes time to balance the budget is spending cuts.
This is the same Republican Party that's always gassing on and on about “the will of the voters.” Apparently, they care about the will of the voters only when it's neatly aligned with the will of the GOP— like when it's time to restrict the civil rights of gay and lesbian Californians.
This time, the will of the voters was to establish a process that would lead to more competitive seats, and, lo and behold, that's just what the redistricting commission's approved maps do. Coupled with a new system in which the top two vote-getters in the primary election advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, the new maps will result in suddenly interesting elections. The ultimate goal is to force politicians to start occupying various positions along the political continuum, somewhere between “my way” and “the highway.”
Does that sound good? It doesn't to Wilson and the Republicans, who, essentially, want a do-over. Even if they collect enough signatures to quality for the ballot and the voters reject their appeal, they may still succeed in thwarting the commission's work temporarily; the job of determining district lines for the June 2012 primary would go to the Supreme Court. Hopefully, the court will see the effort for the folly that it is and stick with the commission's approved maps.
If the Republican Party had put a little more effort toward appealing to a broader swath of the state's voters, perhaps it wouldn't be in this predicament in the first place. Instead, the GOP continues to push itself further into the margins.
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