Ethnic groups say the pool of applicants for a citizen commission to redraw Assembly and Senate districts is too white and too male to reflect the state’s diversity. Others question the expense.

By Shane Goldmacher

February 3, 2010 | 7:20 p.m.

Reporting from Sacramento – For the first time, voting districts for California’s Legislature will not be drawn behind closed doors in the backrooms of the state Capitol. Instead, a first-in-the-nation citizen commission will do the job, and thousands of everyday Californians are jostling to serve on the panel.

But hopes of taking politics out of the process are fading.

Ethnic groups charge that the pool of applicants is too white and too male to reflect the state’s diversity. Others are raising questions about $1.3 million in taxpayer money being spent on a public relations contract to woo minority applicants. And an effort is afoot to repeal the commission, which voters created by passing a 2008 ballot initiative.

The once-a-decade remapping, to be done next year after the national census, will affect the makeup of the Legislature until the following population count in 2020. Lawmakers previously drew the districts — often contorting boundaries to rope in the voters of their choice — and will continue to determine the lines for congressional seats.

With the Feb. 12 application deadline looming, more than 73% of the 13,905 tentatively eligible residents who have asked for one of the commission’s 14 seats are non-Hispanic whites. Nearly 70% are men. Not even 5% are Asian Americans, who make up more than 12% of the state’s population. Latinos are roughly 10% of tentatively eligible applicants, although they are 36% of state residents. Black applicants are on par with their segment of the population. The statistics are publicly available at

“Unfortunately,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Asson. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, “it seems like our fears are coming true in terms of ending up with a commission not representative of California.”

Supporters of Proposition 11, which created the commission, said concerns about underrepresentation for women and minorities are overblown. They note that applications are just the first step in a long process that will eventually produce a group of five Democrats, five Republicans and four members of neither party.

“If we have 2,000 minority applicants, they may not be the same percentage as the state, but it’s more than enough to have a diverse commission,” said Douglas Johnson, a researcher who studies redistricting at the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College.

The state awarded a $1.3-million contract for minority recruitment to Ogilvy Public Relations. The company’s proposal called for a statewide radio campaign that began this week and for “barbershop and beauty salon outreach” for African Americans, among other methods.

Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who opposed Proposition 11 and is organizing opposition to a proposal to expand the commission’s reach to congressional districts, called such language “ludicrous and laughable,” showing “no sensitivity to the African American community.”

Some lawmakers object to the expense of the contract, noting that Proposition 11 suggested the entire redistricting budget would be $3 million.

“We’re now mandated to do this — and we’re cutting food stamps,” said state Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego), chairwoman of the Senate’s budget committee.

Ducheny declined to fund the contract last fall. State Auditor Elaine Howle, who is charged with forming the commission, provided the money from her department’s reserves.

The outreach effort “was a crucial part of our charge,” Howle said.

Ducheny accusedthe initiative’s chief proponent, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, of hiding its true cost during the 2008 campaign. Last month, Schwarzenegger proposed doubling the commission’s budget to $6 million.

Next fall, voters may be asked to reconsider the whole matter. The proposal to make the commission responsible for congressional boundaries is aimed at the November ballot, as is the one that would repeal the panel altogether. Petitions to qualify both are pending.

Meanwhile, the auditor’s office is sifting through the applications to select 60 finalists for the commission. Eventually, eight names will be drawn at random from that list, and those eight will select the remaining six panelists.

“I’m feeling pretty comfortable with our ability to come up with those 60 individuals . . . , a diverse group that represents the diversity in our state,” Howle said.

The James Irvine Foundation has pledged $2.3 million to help the state create a diverse commission. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are flowing to groups like the Los Angeles Urban League and the Greenlining Institute to help persuade minorities to apply.

Strict rules for potential commissioners have made recruiting hard, advocacy groups say. Among the prohibitions: Candidates cannot have run for office, worked for a political party or a politician or have been registered lobbyists in recent years.

Those restrictions filter out the most politically engaged in minority communities, Vargas said.

“We have to identify those folks who are not engaged . . . and convince them to serve,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing.”

Women’s groups are also canvassing for volunteers.

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