BY JIM MILLER
Published: 29 May 2012 10:10 PM
Millions of California residents have been essentially cut off from the glossy surveys, town hall invitations, newsletters and other mailers from their state representatives in the months following the redrawing of the state’s political map.
More than half of Assemblyman Jeff Miller’s constituents live in Orange County. But from June 2011 through early April, almost all of the 147,000 mailers from the Corona Republican’s office went to households in his district’s smaller Riverside County portion, where the Corona Republican is running for the new 31st Senate District.
The citrus industry in Riverside County’s Coachella Valley faces a serious threat from the Asian citrus psyllid. But when local state Sen. Juan Vargas sent out nearly 40,000 letters in February warning people about the pest, they arrived in mailboxes in San Diego and Imperial counties, where he is one of several Democratic candidates in the redrawn 51st Congressional District.
Last summer’s overhaul of congressional and legislative lines by the state’s independent redistricting commission created large swaths of California where people will not see their current state senator or Assembly member on the ballot in 2012.
Since then, these lame-duck constituents have received relatively few of the mailers churned out at taxpayer expense by the offices of more than a dozen lawmakers facing close races this year, according to a Press-Enterprise review of Assembly and Senate mail records.
Those offices sent a disproportionate share of their government mail to parts of their districts where people will get a chance to vote for them, the analysis showed. Legislative rules require only that lawmakers’ mail stay within their districts.
The mass mail and personally addressed letters cover a variety of topics, and the same type of mailer often shows up in multiple districts. “You’re invited!” reads an April mailer on a Hesperia town hall meeting from Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks. “Qualifying taxpayers should not miss out on this tax credit,” read a February mailer from State Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Chino, referring to the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.
Legislative communications have been around for decades. Lawmakers call it a vital way to keep constituents informed about Capitol matters and other issues that affect their lives, rebutting criticism that the mail helps them build a positive image with voters.
Estimated percentage of legislative mail that went to areas where the lawmaker is on the ballot.
“My duty is to communicate with my constituents in a powerful way,” said Assemblyman Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, who sent about 673,000 mailers from June 2011 through April 5, at a cost of $142,000.
“The mail I sent out … is for the good of the constituents in our district. There was nothing there that says ‘Vote for me.’ ”
But critics say the government mailers have become indistinguishable from campaign pieces.
“I believe that all these mailers are just campaign propaganda at taxpayer expense,” said former state Sen. Ross Johnson, who pushed a 1988 ballot measure to ban the practice. “It’s really about re-election or running for the next office. It’s not about communicating with constituents.”
As for significantly more mail going to parts of lawmakers’ districts where they will be on the ballot in 2012, Johnson chuckled and said, “I’m sure it just worked out that way.”
The phenomenon shows up around the state. In Northern California, Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Roseville, represents about one-half of the population of the redrawn 6th Assembly District, where she is in a tough GOP primary fight. Nearly all of her legislative mailers since last June have gone to ZIP codes in that area.
In San Diego, Assemblyman Marty Block, D-Chula Vista, represents about a quarter of the population of the redrawn 39th Senate District for which he is running. More than three-quarters of his mailers have gone to that part of his district, Assembly records show.
In another expected close race, the office of state Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark, sent almost all of his mail to ZIP codes that are within the redrawn 26th Congressional District. About half of his Senate constituents live in the area.
Government rules prohibit legislative mail within 60 days of an election; the cutoff for the June 5 primary was April 5. They also limit the number of times a mailer can mention a lawmaker’s name, and they cannot show a lawmaker’s picture.
Sophisticated constituent-contact databases, though, have made it easier than ever for lawmakers to target their office mail at registered voters, people of a certain age or gender, or those who live in particular areas of their districts.
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