By Jim Sanders
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

For Californians willing to invest big hours for a shot at making history and creating a more competitive Legislature, today marks your chance.

Cost to apply? Nothing.

Expected to be watched closely nationwide, California will begin implementing a power-to-the-people initiative, Proposition 11, passed by voters last year.

State Auditor Elaine Howle will begin accepting applications today for a 14-member citizens commission that will draw state legislative and Board of Equalization districts, but not those of Congress, in 2011.

“I think this will revitalize people’s involvement in our democracy,” Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said of stripping lawmakers of redistricting authority and giving it to citizens who will be paid $300 for each day worked.

“I think people realize that if we’re going to get our state government back on its feet, we have to be more invested in shaping it,” Feng said.

Redistricting, technical and seemingly mundane, is a once-a-decade requirement that strikes at the heart of political power by affecting the likelihood of a particular person or political party winning a legislative seat.

By tilting districts a little left or right, or by adding or subtracting a neighborhood, for example, the Legislature could help or hurt an incumbent by ensuring that a strong challenger lived inside or outside the new boundaries.

In 2001, for example, then-Assemblyman Richard “Dick” Dickerson angered GOP leadership by breaking party ranks in passing a state budget. Two months later, the Legislature approved new maps that ultimately ended Dickerson’s political career by extending district lines for a Senate seat he was seeking just far enough to enable a GOP colleague, Sam Aanestad, to challenge him.

Opponents blasted Proposition 11 as a power grab by Republicans and complained that a panel of only 14 citizens is not likely to adequately represent the racial, gender, geographic and other diversity of a state with 38 million people.

“We still don’t like Proposition 11, but we know it’s something we have to live with, so we’re working to try to encourage a diverse and qualified applicant pool,” said attorney Eugene Lee of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

Twelve states currently give commissions the responsibility to draw legislative districts, but most members are governmental appointees. California’s 14-member panel goes farthest in placing power in the hands of citizens chosen largely at random, according to Douglas Johnson, a redistricting expert at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government, a nonprofit at Claremont McKenna College.

“I consider this a major reform, and one that could be a model for the rest of the country,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

Proposition 11 promised $3 million for drawing new maps in 2011, but only $500,000 has been allocated so far, Howle said.

California’s creation of a redistricting commission comes at a time when polls show that the Legislature’s voter approval rating is at 13 percent, an all-time low.

“We’re very hopeful that this will lead to a more democratic way of drawing the lines, a less partisan way,” said Alice Huffman, who served as a paid consultant for Proposition 11 after the California NAACP, which she serves as president, endorsed the initiative.

Nearly nine years ago, Democrats and Republicans struck a deal to draw legislative districts that protected incumbents of both parties.

Not one of the state’s 120 legislative seats changed party hands in the 2004 and 2006 elections, and only four of 100 legislative seats did so last year. Similarly, just one of California’s 53 congressional seats has switched party hands in the past three elections.

Another ballot measure has been proposed to include congressional seats in the process.

Johnson said creation of the citizens commission will end an inherent conflict of interest.

“The ultimate question is: Do the voters pick representatives – or do the representatives get to pick and choose their own voters?” he said.

The commission is designed to be transparent, with its records open to the public and members barred from discussing redistricting with outsiders – including legislators – except in public hearings.

Tony Quinn, a former GOP legislative staff member involved in the state’s 1981 redistricting, said the commission may take some of the politics out of drawing maps, but he does not expect either major party to gain significantly because most communities tilt naturally left or right.

Opponents of Proposition 11 say the new process could backfire, depending on who is selected for the 14-member panel, by reducing the influence of minority groups.

“Reform is fine, we support reform – but this is not the right reform,” said Alan Clayton, a longtime activist in redistricting matters.

Opponents worry that the required composition of the citizens panel – five Democrats, five Republicans and four others – coupled with a selection process that is part evaluation, part political, part random draw and part diversity considerations will hamper its effectiveness.

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