October 27, 2005
Redding in our future?
Prop. 77 raises fears that county could point inland
by HANK SIMS
SEVERAL OF THE SIX INITIATIVES PLACED ON THE special, statewide ballot by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would each, if passed, have profound effects on government in California. Proposition 75, for example, would limit the ability of public employee unions to contribute to political campaigns. Proposition 76 would create new spending limits for state government and weaken constitutional guarantees of funding for schools.
But some local Democrats have particular concerns about Proposition 77, the governor's proposal to reform the way that the state is divvied up into political districts.
On a recent swing through town, State Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata) warned that the practical result of Prop. 77 could be to divide the large, coastal block that makes up the North Coast district in the state senate, the state assembly and the U.S. Congress.
"From the standpoint of the clout of the North Coast ... that's very much at risk if this bill passes," Chesbro said.
From some points of view, the fear is that Humboldt County, instead of belonging to electoral districts that run north to south, could instead be lumped into districts that run east to west. In other words, rather than having Sonoma County as the main population center in our districts, we could conceivably have conservative, inland Redding instead.
Part of the cause for concern is in the language of the initiative itself. Prop. 77 hands over the redistricting process --- traditionally performed by the California State Legislature --- to a panel of three retired judges. And in drawing new lines, the judges would no longer be allowed to consider "communities of interest," a catch-all term that describes areas with a common ethnic makeup or similar cultural values.
Last week, Chesbro argued that several factors --- including the coast, the Highway 101 corridor and, to some extent, the defunct Northwestern Pacific Railroad line --- worked together to unite the coastal counties north of the Bay Area into one distinct block.
However, voter registration on the North Coast is weighed heavily toward the Democratic Party, and to some, that means that as in much of California, general elections for the Assembly, State Senate or Congress are rarely strongly contested. In large part, the "safe" districts are the result of a bargain struck by Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Sacramento back in 2001.
To some, like Eureka businessman Rob Arkley, owner of Security National Servicing Corp. and one of the top donors in the state to Schwarzenegger causes, the idea of "safe districts" is an injury to the very idea of "little-d" democratic values.
"I have absolutely no idea how the districts would be posited, nor have I heard any ideas about it," he said. "All I think is that creating more competition, a system where there's a competition of ideas, is going to create a better democracy for the state."
Understandably, though, many have qualms. Milt Boyd, a member of the local Democratic Central Committee, wrote a opinion piece for the Times-Standard early this month, also raised the specter of a Humboldt County isolated from its allies to the north and south. Certainly, if such a district were to come to pass, local legislators like Chesbro and especially Patty Berg (D-Eureka), a left-leaning member of the Democratic Party, may have a difficult time convincing conservative inland voters to vote for them.
But local opponents of the plan are emphasizing the potential loss not of safe Democratic seats but of the coastal community of interest. Arcata City Manager Dan Hauser, a former member of the state assembly, said that he remembered a brief period in the late '60s when districts in the north part of the state tended to run east-west. It wasn't a good idea then, he said, and it's not a good idea now.
"Certainly the counties of the coastal district have a lot more in common with each other than with the rapidly growing Redding area," he said.
If passed, the Prop. 77 redistricting process would begin immediately, with new districts drawn in time for next year's spring primary elections. l
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