Redistricting, Open Primaries and the Challenges for Democrats
County Chair Jess Durfee on How to Work a System the Party Opposed
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Up until this year, California’s state legislature drew the boundaries for its own districts, and for those of the state’s 53 Congressmembers, and the names on the November general-election ballot for state and federal offices were the people who won their parties’ primaries. A series of initiatives passed by California voters in 2008 and 2010 changed all that: now the district lines will be drawn by an independent commission and the two top vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, will face each other in the general election. As chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, Jess Durfee opposed those changes — but in a January 27 appearance before the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club, of which he used to be the president, Durfee explained how the party can work with the new system as well as the potential dangers it poses for Democrats.
Though the state Democratic party worked even harder to defeat the redistricting initiative than it did on the open primary — including a failed attempt to repeal the whole thing in 2010, two years after voters passed it in the first place — Durfee described the open primary as a greater potential threat to Democrats for one simple reason: Democrats tend not to vote in primaries. Currently, 44 percent of California’s voters are registered as Democrats, 31 percent as Republicans, and the rest either “decline to state” a party affiliation or register with one of the five smaller parties on the California ballot (Green, Peace and Freedom, Natural Law, Libertarian and American Independent). Yet in the 2010 primary, 45 percent of California’s registered Republicans voted versus only 31 percent of California’s Democrats.
In California’s three major cities, there’s a similar imbalance between Democratic and Republican participation in primaries, Durfee explained. In Los Angeles, 35 percent of Republicans voted in the June 2010 primary versus 23 percent of Democrats. In San Francisco, it was 45 percent of Republicans versus 38 percent of Democrats. In San Diego, it was 53 percent of Republicans versus 36 percent of Democrats. Republicans, Durfee said, have pursued a successful strategy of placing Right-wing initiatives on primary ballots to lure their voters to the polls. Also, while San Diego has consolidated its local elections with the major presidential and gubernatorial elections in even-numbered years, San Francisco and Los Angeles still have their local elections in odd-numbered years — so they don’t serve as a lure to get Democratic voters in those cities out to the polls.
How could this work in the real world? Durfee cited the 2010 election for attorney general, in which two major candidates ran in the Republican primary while six ran in the Democratic primary. Had the open primary been in effect in 2010, Kamala Harris — who won the Democratic primary and went on to beat Republican nominee Steve Cooley in the general election — would have come within half a percentage point of being eliminated in the primary, and the general election could easily have been between two Republicans. According to Durfee, Harris squeezed out a victory among her Democratic rivals only by being the lone woman in the race — suggesting that under the open primary system, multi-candidate primary races are a luxury California’s Democrats can no longer afford. “We cannot go into any more statewide races with six primary candidates,” Durfee said bluntly.
“We have to re-evaluate how to do things and do a better job of turning out Democrats in primaries,” Durfee explained. Another change with the open primary is that people who register “decline to state” will be more likely to cast primary ballots — they could do that before by requesting a ballot from any of the seven parties with ballot status, but a lot of them didn’t know that — and therefore, Durfee added, “one of our challenges is to encourage ‘decline-to-state’s’ to participate and hopefully vote Democratic.” He also said that in heavily Republican areas like Fallbrook or Valley Center, the state Democratic party may want to give its local committees and clubs the power to offer qualified support to more moderate Republicans by rating them “acceptable,” the way the San Diego Democratic Club already does in some races. The San Diego County Democratic party tried (unsuccessfully) to influence the last race for County Supervisor between Right-wing incumbent Bill Horn and moderate Republican challenger Steve Graunke but, under current state party rules, couldn’t mention Graunke’s name. Instead, Durfee said, “we sent Democratic households a mailer that said Bill Horn was not good for Democrats, and on the other side we had the Democratic slate.”
Who Draws the Lines?
Durfee began his presentation on redistricting by reviewing not only what the new redistricting commission is supposed to do but also how it was appointed. “The mandate is to draw districts that maintain geographic integrity and contiguity; protect ‘communities of interest,’ comply with the federal and state voting rights acts [which, in practice, means creating so-called ‘majority-minority districts’ on the theory that people of color can only win legislative elections if the majority of voters in the district share their ethnicity], and disregard the party affiliations of voters,” he explained.
The last is probably the biggest difference between legislative and commission redistricting; for legislators, making sure as many districts as possible were “safe” for one major party or the other, by drawing the lines so that most districts were either overwhelmingly Democratic or overwhelmingly Republican, was the top priority. Indeed, supporters of the redistricting commission initiative argued that the legislature had made it so difficult for districts to change parties that it had essentially destroyed democracy in California — and said that an independent commission would draw more evenly balanced districts that would make legislative seats far less “safe.”
Other parts of the law require that each of the 40 State Senate districts contain two State Assembly districts — a California tradition the legislature abandoned in its last two redistricting plans — and that, wherever possible, cities and counties not be split between districts. (Currently, half of Chula Vista is in one Assembly district and half is in another — and Chula Vista is not so large it couldn’t all be contained in one district.) Because the commission’s instructions say it must not consider party affiliation when drawing new districts, Durfee said, it’s likely to produce districts radically different from the ones that exist today.
What’s more, he said, “The process done this year will basically establish the district for more than 10 years (the usual period between redistrictings, mandated by federal law and the U.S. Supreme Court), because these commissioners will ignore what the legislature did 10 years ago and start with a clean slate.” The districts drawn this year for use in 2012 and beyond will probably remain in place for decades to come, with only slight tweaks every 10 years to account for population changes and ensure voting rights act compliance, Durfee predicted. Because of that, he said, “It is critical that we be engaged in this process.”
Who’s On the Commission?
Durfee began his presentation by explaining who’s on the current redistricting commission and how they were selected. The commission started with 30,000 applicants to their Web site, http://wedrawthelines.ca.gov
, which were winnowed down in a series of screenings to 60. From this list, party leaders in the California legislature used their right to remove some people from consideration, much the way attorneys strike certain people from a jury pool, until the list was down to 36. The names of those 36 people were then put through a random drawing that produced eight commissioners — three Democrats, three Republicans and two registered decline to state or with another party — and those eight appointed the remaining six commissioners to bring the total membership to 14 and fulfill the legal requirement that the final commission contain five Democrats, five Republicans and four others.
The requirement in the redistricting initiative that the commission contain equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans — in a state where registered Democrats currently outnumber Republicans 44 to 31 percent — was one of the reasons the Democratic Party not only opposed the initiative in 2008 but sponsored another initiative in 2010 to get rid of the commission altogether. Durfee said he continues to be troubled by the enforced parity, but there’s nothing he or anyone in the state Democratic party can do about it short of using their challenges to make sure the Republicans on the commission are fair-minded people who live up to the law’s requirements that the commissioners not be too heavily involved in partisan political activity: they can’t ever have served in elective office or been on an elected official’s staff, and they can’t have donated more than $1,000 to political campaigns in any one election cycle.
Durfee said the state Democratic Party was “the only organization … who complained about anyone” after the initial pool was whittled down to 36. “We found one person in the final round who had worked for a Republican political consulting firm that had drawn the legislative districts in Arizona” — districts widely credited with boosting Republican representation at the expense of Democratic candidates and voters — and another who had sought to evade the ban on contributions of more than $1,000 per election cycle by having her husband write large checks to John McCain, Jim DeMint (highly Right-wing Republican Senator from South Carolina) and other GOP candidates. The Democrats were able to get her removed from the final pool.
Other ways the final commission is unrepresentative of California as a whole, Durfee explained, are its ethnic makeup — thanks to the luck of the draw, he said, “of the first eight, four were from the Asian-Pacific Islander (API) community” — and its income. “All but three of the commissioners have an income of $75,000 per year or more, and several of these people have incomes of over $150,000,” he said. “The wealthy are well represented; the poor are underrepresented.” In filling out the additional six members of the commission that were appointed by the first eight, Durfee said, “We were advocating for an API Gay Republican from San Francisco. He was nominated or endorsed by the chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, but the Republicans eliminated him from the commission.”
Another API Republican who won Democratic support, and who ultimately got on the commission, was Gil Ontai of San Diego — whom Durfee and his fellow Democrats backed because without him, there would have been no one from California’s second-largest city on the final panel. Meanwhile, Cynthia Dai from San Francisco, one of the people who got on the commission in the drawing for the first eight members, has since resigned — and Durfee said party officials will be lobbying the commission to replace her with a non-Asian Democrat from San Francisco because if a San Franciscan isn’t appointed, that city won’t be represented on the commission.
The commission already started to hold public hearings on redistricting in January, giving Queer community representatives and others to argue that theirs constitutes a “community of interest” whose needs should be taken into account in the final map. (As Durfee explained it, the definition of “community of interest” is quite broad and could encompass almost anything the commissioners want it to mean, or can be persuaded it means. It can include geographical regions as well as political/ideological interests like environmentalism.) This month, the commission will start touring the state for more hearings. By April, official data from the 2010 U.S. Census — on which the commission must base its maps — will be available, and the commission will hold another round of statewide hearings and release a preliminary plan in June.
According to the initiative that created it, the commission must decide on its final maps by August 15 — and the plan must have the support of nine of the 14 commissioners, including three of the five Democrats, three of the five Republicans and three of the four others. If the commission can’t agree on a plan, or if the plan they do approve is repealed by voters in a referendum or thrown out by the courts, the California Supreme Court will step in and do the redistricting. (One of the Democrats’ fears in the campaign for the initiative was that the commission would regularly deadlock and the Supreme Court, all but one of whose current members were appointed by Republicans, would get to do the redistricting and would make it Republican-friendly.)
Durfee said that in working to influence the commissioners, “our challenges are to build coalitions and find the appropriate messengers. These commissioners don’t like parties, so we’ll be looking to communities of interest that make up the Democratic family — environmentalists, communities of color, LGBT’s [Queers] and geographical communities — and the Republicans will do the same.” One Democratic goal in the redistricting, Durfee explained, will be to undo some of the “odd things” done in the last legislative redistricting to make all the districts in north San Diego county safe for Republicans. “A district along the I-5 corridor will be competitive for Democrats,” Durfee said, “and even the Republicans there tend to be pro-education, pro-environment and pro-choice.”
Redistricting will be taking place for local offices as well, and Durfee gave a quick explanation of how that process will work. “The city of San Diego already has a redistricting commission” — which the San Diego Democratic Club and other Queer community organizations extensively lobbied in the last process to make sure Hillcrest and North Park both stayed in City Council District 3 so it would keep its substantial Queer population (making Queers, in redistricting-speak, a “community of influence” in the district — the last three City Councilmembers from that district, Christine Kehoe, Toni Atkins and incumbent Todd Gloria, have all been “out” Queers). “The County Board of Supervisors has a sham ‘advisory commission,’ which they will ignore and draw the districts however they like,” Durfee said. “The San Diego Unified School District will have an advisory commission, too, but they usually follow its recommendations.”
Speaking Out for the Least of San Diego
The club also heard from Rocky Neptun, radical Queer activist and organizer of the San Diego Renters’ Union, the San Diego Bus Riders’ Association, the Caring Council and other groups working to formulate a truly progressive alternative for San Diego under the banner “San Diego Coalition for Honest and Fair Government.” Neptun announced his candidacy for mayor of San Diego in 2012 and said his groups will be running challengers in City Council Districts 1, 3 and 5 on an agenda contained in a two-page platform he handed out at the meeting. Though the platform sets an ambitious agenda — including building a light monorail system above most San Diego thoroughfares, decentralizing city government into so-called “neighborhood councils,” using those councils to develop a “participatory budget process,” making San Diego an “amnesty city” for undocumented immigrants, and making the city’s water supply independent of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District by 2030 — Neptun used his speaking time to focus on two of its most significant points: rent stabilization and free public transit.
“We can’t do rent control in California because our legislature was bought by the apartment industry, but we can do rent stabilization,” Neptun said. “Rent stabilization will allow landlords to raise rent only by as much as the increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Also, the only way to get San Diegans out of their cars is with free public transportation” — that and charging private car owners a so-called “global warming mitigation registration fee” to finance the free public transit system. Along with the platform, Neptun distributed his analysis of Mayor Jerry Sanders’ most recent state of the city address (also published in the January-February 2011 issue of Zenger’s Newsmagazine) in which he argued that “the corporations are taking over San Diego. Profits will dictate our local needs, and this is what City Councilmember Carl DeMaio [an early favorite in the 2012 mayoral election] and others want.” Neptun announced that his group has already raised $25,000 for the 2012 campaigns, “and we still have a year to go.”
Finally, the club elected new officers for 2011 and approved a new set of bylaws prepared by newly elected club president Doug Case to bring the club’s official regulations in line with how it is actually run. The officers include three former club presidents — Case as president (one member jokingly compared him to California’s former and present governor, Jerry Brown), Jeri Dilno as executive vice-president and Craig Roberts as vice-president for political action. Matt Corrales was elected vice-president for development (fundraising), and Brad Jacobsen and John Gordon were re-elected secretary and treasurer, respectively.