Pushback on ProPublica redistricting story

As the California Republican Party continues to tout this week’s ProPublica article about Democrats influencing the Citizens Redistricting Commission’s work, there’s some pushback today from some of the state’s prominent political opinion writers.

CalBuzz, the site run by Phil Trounstine – a former Mercury News editor, communications director for Gov. Gray Davis and San Jose State University pollster –and longtime San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Barbara News-Press editor Jerry Roberts, called the study “misleading at best, dishonest at worst and fatally flawed in any case.” From that article:

In the course of their reporting, Calbuzz has learned, Pierce interviewed Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California, one of the state’s top non-partisan reapportionment experts, who explained to her that the gains forecast for Democrats represent a logical and expected result given a) demographic changes in the last decade and b) the criteria the commission was charged with using.

McGhee even emailed Pierce an advance copy of a 45-page analysis of the commission plan he co-authored with Vladimir Kogan of UC San Diego, which is scheduled to be published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy in a few months. Among its conclusions: given the gerrymandered districts used for the last decade, “it seems unlikely that it is possible to draw any plan that increases competition among congressional seats without also advantaging the Democrats.”

But when the ProPublica report published Wednesday – claiming that Democratic operatives had “managed to replicate the results of the smoke-filled rooms of old” (yes, they actually wrote that) – there was no mention of the detailed and comprehensive McGhee-Kogan research, nor even a reference to the facts, background and context on which it is based.

The Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters wrote that Democrats did play politics in trying to influence the commission, but that’s to be expected and Republicans merely are upset at having fallen asleep at the switch:

While they concentrate on a couple of Democrats whose seats were protected by intervention of some clandestine front groups and, perhaps, the gullibility of commission members, they don’t mention the plan’s adverse effects on other Democrats, such as forcing a high-octane shootout looming between Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in Los Angeles County.

More importantly, the article doesn’t mention that the Democrats’ creation of “community of interest” front groups could be effective only because the 14-member commission, as chosen by a convoluted process, was hypersensitive to that approach.

The Democratic members of the commission tended to be partisans, its Republicans tended to be of the go-along variety, and the supposed independents turned out to be mostly liberals inclined to draw districts that favor ethnic and cultural enclaves.

That tendency – coupled with underlying demographic and voter registration trends – had the combined effect of not only protecting most incumbent Democrats but giving them a chance to make congressional gains.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • StevefromSacto

    The whole ProPublica thing is a huge joke. Even the “ultra-liberal” Redding Record Searchlight says that: “the Republicans’ pose as innocent victims of a terrible deceit doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

    Here’s the complete editorial:

    Republicans in California are shocked — shocked! — that politics was going on in this year’s political redistricting.

    A detailed article released online Wednesday by the investigative-reporting shop ProPublica — “How Democrats Fooled California’s Redistricting Commission” — reported on how Democratic operatives, organized out of Washington, used a variety of sub-rosa angles to try to influence the Citizens Redistricting Commission. That independent board, created by voter initiative, for the first time this year drew new political district boundaries without making incumbents’ interests the top priority.

    The Democrats’ prime method, according to ProPublica? They offered testimony, nominally in the name of citizens or independent groups, that favored their own congressional representatives, all the while hiding their own party affiliation. In essence, they used front groups to manipulate the commission.

    This bit of political subterfuge, to hear Republicans tell it, undermines the integrity of the entire redistricting. Tom Del Beccaro, the state party chairman, wrote in a message to party supporters, “The report systematically lays out the corrupt manipulation of what should have been an open and transparent process.”
    Please. The Republican operatives’ real beef is that they tried to play the same game but failed to pull it off.

    We’re not privy to insider discussions among congressional Republicans about their redistricting strategy, but we did closely follow the new maps’ unfolding as they affected the north state.

    And what did we see? We saw Erin Ryan testify to the Citizens Redistricting Commission at Shasta College in April. She talked about how her work with the Girl Scouts, the United Way and private business had taken her all over rural Northern California over the years, and how the rugged geography made it implausible to link the conservative inland north state with the liberal North Coast — an idea floated by those keen for more political competition. She argued instead for a district centered on Interstate 5. Ryan’s geography lesson was persuasive and accurate, but somehow amid her list of bona fides she never got around to mentioning that she worked for Sen. Doug LaMalfa, who was very keen to keep a safe Sacramento Valley district for himself.

    We saw comment letters to the commission from at least one other aide to LaMalfa and members of the Shasta County Republican Central Committee, again arguing about the importance of Sacramento Valley districts (which would have suited LaMalfa and Assemblyman Jim Nielsen) — and again neglecting to mention their partisan ties.

    We saw the Shasta County Board of Supervisors corralled into the argument, sending a letter to the redistricting commission that advocated keeping Shasta County in a Senate district with Rocklin (as it has been for the past decade) instead of Roseville (as it will be under new maps). That change would have maintained a convenient status quo for LaMalfa and his fellow state Sen. Ted Gaines, and indeed it turned out LaMalfa’s office had drafted the letter for the supervisors to sign.

    Are these dirty, underhanded machinations? Or just the rough rules of hardball politics? Take your pick. Either way, though, the Republicans’ pose as innocent victims of a terrible deceit doesn’t pass the laugh test.

  • REW

    George Miller, and Howard Berman, two of the most senior and powerful Democrats in the California house delegation, had thier districts redrawn rather substantially, and not in the favor of either. If Miller and Berman had no influence over how the districts were redrawn, than no Democratic members did, because these guys are powerhouses in DC and in California.. It looks to me like the commission did thier job, they took testimony from citizens, and then drew up the districts themselves trying to avoid any gerrymandering. Republican are crying foul because they don’t see the party picking up any seats as a result of new district lines, they are trying to claim reappotionment was unfair. That’s not the pronblem, it’s the Republicans low registration numbers. Republicans have become a radical party, not mainstream. Right wing conservatives have taken over the GOP.

  • Elwood

    And left wing loonies have taken over the dimmiecrat party.

  • BGR

    Typical CA-GOP strategy to bring knife to gunfight.

  • Rick K.

    But isn’t it true that incumbent Democratic members of Congress like Jerry McNerney paid $20,000 each to that consulting firm that created sham, “astroturf” front organizations to influence the redistricting process? McNerney was elected in 2006 on an “honesty and ethics” platform and promised to be a reformer. He could’ve used his “outsider status” to seek change in Washington, but five years later he acts like just another professional politician. He needs to offer an immediate public explanation as to why he spent $20,000 on a consultant to influence the Citizens Redistricting Commission.

  • Allen Payton

    As Chairman of the Contra Costa Citizens Redistricting Task Force directly involved in the state commission’s process, I watched online and communicated with the Commissioners the day they created the Bay Area Assembly districts and they created districts that protected the incumbents, except maybe Joan Buchanan. Hers is more competitive for Republicans. In addition, I was in attendance at the meeting on the day they created the East Bay Congressional districts. I can tell you, regardless of the fact they didn’t have the party registration figures with them, by them keeping Oakland whole, splitting off San Ramon from the rest of the San Ramon Valley, and putting Richmond in with Central Contra Costa County, and not using the East Bay Hills as the natrual dividing line, as was the Community Of Interest (COI) testimony of over 300 people from the East Bay, they knew they were creating four districts that protected the incumbent Democrats. It was obvious when listening to Commissioner Galmbos Malloy false statements, that not only we but also their own contractor, Q2’s staff proved wrong, and the fallacious arguments as well as body language of Commissioner Blanco, that they knew what they were doing. Miller’s district is 26% Republican, Stark and Lee both have strong Dem majorities, and McNerney’s district is less competitive than before. They could have listened to the people and created one district east of the East Bay Hills that would have been competitive for both parties. But the commission was deceived and they listened to the commmissioners from the East Bay as if they were the experts, and we have the current districts as a result, for the next 10 years.

  • Elwood

    Well, whaddayaknow?

    The people are screwed again!

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    Add about 10 seats to the House and we wouldn’t have to agonize so much every decade over which deadheads to dump somewhere else.

  • John W

    Re: #7

    “They could have created one district east of the East Bay hills that would have been competitive for both parties.”

    Your problem, from what I assume is a Republican perspective, is that GOP registration in the state is down to 30%, strongly tilting far right. Don’t blame that on the commission.

    To my knowledge, creating competitiveness (which would have required the commission to use party registration data they were not permitted to use) was not one of the criteria for drawing the districts.

    Being in San Ramon, I’m unhappy about us being cut off from the “Contra Costa” congressional district. However, the districts now make far greater sense than what were once the deliberately gerrymandered Pombo and Tauscher districts.