Last week, ProPublica released an investigative report entitled How Democrats Fooled California’s Redistricting Commission. In their story reporters, Olga Pierce and Jeff Larson, alleged that Democratic elected officials, in particular the California Congressional delegation, manipulated the redistricting process. In a press release California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton said; “The article charging California Democrats with manipulating California’s Redistricting Commission is pure fantasy.” His comments to the San Francisco Chronicle were less censured and in character calling the report;
“complete bulls..t, an absolute f..king fabrication.”
ProPublica is arguably a leader in public interest investigative reporting. ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom. In 2011 the publication was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, their second recognition. This report is not one worthy of a Pulitzer. It is flawed from the start due to its premise.
The premise of their story is that the California Redistricting Commission was designed to prevent elected officials from influencing the drawing of the political boundaries in California. The initiatives that created the commission were never supposed to stop political influence in the redistricting process. The new process was designed to take control from the hands of the politicians being elected.
The process was set up to allow for public input from communities of interest throughout California. The process was not designed to prevent political groups from advocating on boundaries that benefited their interests. All the process did was require that all efforts be publicly disclosed.
There are several areas where the reporters missed the mark; some might say they were duped and manipulated. One example is their heavy reliance upon input from the Republican connected and funded Rose Institute, which lost its effort to control the process directly as the commission’s redistricting consultant.
Another is the fact that they focused on efforts of interest groups they saw as connected to Democratic politicians, while ignoring the efforts of Republicans. Those efforts were significantly evident in Orange County where Republican elected officials and political operatives were heavily involved in coordination the advocacy of the Vietnamese community of Orange County asking the commission to draw lines that favored their community as a voting block. The specific goal was to set up Congressional, Senate, and Assembly seats that favored Republican/Vietnamese elected representation disproportionate to their demographic distribution.
The ProPublica story singled out efforts in Orange County by supporters of Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez:
Outside Los Angeles, residents of what’s known as Little Saigon begged the commission to undo what they saw as decades of discrimination and put the U.S.’s largest Vietnamese community together in one district. Instead, the community was split in two — a result of testimony by supporters of Rep. Loretta Sanchez, including a former staffer and one of her wedding guests, to get her a safe district.
Conveniently the authors neglect to mention that the former staffer worked for Sanchez more than a decade ago and was speaking on behalf of the interests of the Latino community he serves as Executive Director of, a 41-year old non-profit, the Delhi Community Center in Santa Ana. The reporters also fail to point out that about 5o individuals spoke at the June 22nd Commission meeting in Fullerton requesting that Santa Ana and the Anaheim flat lands be kept together as a community of interest, to preserve the Latino core population in those areas.
In my May 9th story on the May 6th Commission Hearing in Santa Ana, Redistricting Hearing: A lesson in Democracy, I wrote:
…the most effective and pervasive argument of the night was the support by Orange County’s Asian Pacific-Islander community for boundaries to be drawn that keep their communities together. Be it the Asian communities of west central and north western Orange County or the Korean American Communities of Yorba Linda, Placentia and Fullerton, or the Taiwanese community of Irvine, they all wanted to be kept together. But the dragon in the room was the effort of the Orange County Vietnamese community to have legislative districts that keep whole the Vietnamese-American community of central Orange County. Specifically, more than a couple dozen speakers argued that the cities of Garden Grove, Westminster, Fountain Valley, and unincorporated Midway City be kept together to provide the opportunity for the Vietnamese community to improve their political representation at the legislative level.
Those speakers were coached and coordinated by the political machine of former Republican Assemblyman Van Tran. Tran ran a failed campaign to unseat Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez in 2010. Tran is known as the Godfather of Little Saigon, having controlled a Vietnamese political machine in central Orange County for more than a decade. All but two Vietnamese elected officials have sworn allegiance to Tran.
In their story they quote Westminster Councilman Tri Ta, one of the organizers of the partisan effort by Van Tran’s political organization, but fail to mention that point:
“Residents who live in Little Saigon share the same needs, but if they’re in two different districts they may not be represented,” said Tri Ta, a City Council member from the area.
The leader of the coordination effort was Westminster City Councilman Tyler Diep, an aide to Board of Equalization member Michelle Steel, and former District Director for Van Tran’s Assembly office.
In July, when it appeared that his efforts to manipulate the process had not achieved the partisan/Vietnamese representation Tran wished for in a potential second challenge to Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, Councilman Diep became a bit unhinged in an email pg. #1 & #2 to the commission. I wrote then:
In the first paragraph of his letter, Tyler makes it clear what has him so upset. “To split Little Saigon (and several cities) to re-draw Loretta Sanchez Democrat seat would be a gross partisan violation of the Voting Rights Act and the intention of voters.” It seems his former boss and mentor, former Assemblyman Van Tran last year’s failed challenger to Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, won’t be getting a rematch if the newest Congressional District visualizations make the final cut. The latest visualizations pull most of Little Saigon into the same Congressional District, but splits it from the core Latino area of Santa Ana. Little Saigon is now included in a district that extends into Long Beach.
Diep is concerned that “the Voting Rights Act is not a proportional representation system as some who are attempting to redraw the previous incumbent district in Orange County think it is. The act is designed to protect minority communities who have had previous district lines weaken their already small political voice.” While the Voting Rights Act (VRA) protects minority communities from gerrymandering that prevents them from having a political voice, it also does not permit districts to be gerrymandered to provide a disproportionate voice to a small minority community.
While the final lines ended up splitting the Vietnamese community in the Congressional maps, the Senate and Assembly maps keep the Vietnamese community of Little Saigon primarily intact. On the whole, this is a clear success of a partisan controlled effort by the political machine of elected Vietnamese Republicans. It is likely that Diep will benefit greatly from this success in his effort to be elected the second Vietnamese Assemblyman representing Orange County’s Little Saigon community.
Then there was the successful partisan Republican effort to ensure that the City of La Habra, which has significant community of interest ties with Los Angeles County, be included in predominately Republican districts that encompass portions of Orange County. This effort was lead by Republican La Habra City Councilman Tim Shaw, who just happens to be a District Director to State Senator Bob Huff. In this effort Shaw didn’t even attempt to hide his desire, and that of the majority Republican power base on the Council, for the City to be situated in a Republican district more in sync with their partisan ideology.
In the end La Habra was included in districts desired by Shaw and his republican colleagues including Shaw’s boss, the presumptive GOP Minority Leader in the Senate next year, Senator Bob Huff. The success was particularly convenient for Shaw as he now lives in the 29th Senate district represented by Senator Huff. This successful partisan manipulation was completely ignored by the ProPublica report.
But the partisan influence of Orange County’s Republican establishment was also demonstrated in the machinations of one of the Republicans on the Commission. A resident of Anaheim Commissioner Mike Ward, throughout the process, made it clear he wanted to inexplicably ensure that the City of Fullerton be kept whole in all final maps. This position ran counter to the clear evidence that such lines would diminish the representation of multiple communities of interest in Fullerton.
One possible reason for his position is the alleged sighting of Commissioner Ward and County Supervisor Shawn Nelson meeting for lunch at Angelo’s in Anaheim shortly before Ward made his position on a Fullerton split clear. Such a meeting runs contrary to the intent of the process to separate elected officials from direct ex parte contact with commissioners. His efforts were successful, and Fullerton was left whole in the resulting maps. It is believed that Shawn Nelson may seek the Senate seat when Senator Huff is termed out.
UPDATE: I got a call from Supervisor Shawn Nelson and he insisted that he does not know and has never met Mike Ward. My tipster was also insistent, but since I wasn’t there myself I’m clarifying Supervisor Nelson’s position in the context of my story. Supervisor Nelson also stated that he has no interest in a position in the State legislature.
But Ward’s ultimate disservice to the process were his votes against all of the proposed maps. In doing so, he preserved the ability of Orange County Republicans to challenge the maps in the courts. This could only occur if the Commission failed to reach consensus on the proposed maps. Hence, his final vote was critical if the Republicans were dissatisfied with the results of the process they had so strongly advocated for.
The bottom line is that both sides of the political spectrum were heavily involved in the redistricting process in California. That is how it is supposed to be. The only thing the California Redistricting Commission did was remove the hands of elected officials from the map drawing process. Everyone had a say, and success was achieved on both sides of the political aisle.
The reality is that Republicans were disproportionately represented on the commission in relation to their actual representation in voter registration. The results of this process did not fully satisfy any interest group. That is probably the strongest validation of the process that can be achieved. When everyone is a little unhappy, true compromise is probably to blame.