Published August 23, 2011
LOS ANGELES -- California voters are in for quite a surprise when they head to the polls in 2012: competitive congressional elections and possibly unfamiliar names on the ballot.
A new electoral map drawn up by a panel of ordinary citizens and criticized as creating too many districts for minority representation has dramatically changed California's political landscape. Members of Congress who've held their seats for years are now scrambling to figure out their political futures.
"We're going to have more competitive elections in November than this state has seen, probably in two decades," political expert Allen Hoffenblum told Fox News.
Hoffenblum says if the result of previous redistricting was that it protected incumbents, the error with the citizens' map is that it is heavily skewed to racial demographics.
"We went from a political gerrymand to a racial gerrymand. That the commission became overly conscious of drawing seats on race. The Latino seats, the black seats, the Asian seats. And in the process of creating these districts based on race they divided counties, they divided cities and split cities."
Republican Rep. David Dreier has held his southern California seat for more than 30 years. It now skews heavily toward the area's Latino population that's not part of his natural political base.
The most competitive races figure to be ones in which multiple incumbents will face off against each other. Depending on how the races develop that scenario could play out in half-a-dozen districts across the Golden State. Longtime incumbent Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman are now in the same district north of Los Angeles. Republican Reps. Ed Royce and Gary Miller could also face off in the new 39th District.
Since there is no residency requirement beyond living in the state, lawmakers have some flexibility when it comes to where they live and what districts they try to represent. Some lawmakers have already declared their 2012 intentions. Many others have not.
"The process was open and transparent. And it yielded maps that didn't care about incumbents and didn't care about where people sat in the past," California political analyst Matt Klink said. "They're new lines. New districts. It's going to create a lot chaos at the state level and the federal level for the California representatives."
The shake-up started as a reaction to the redistricting of seats following the 2000 Census. Critics said the politicians who led that effort drew districts that protected their jobs.
The numbers suggest that's exactly what happened.
In the last five election cycles with 265 congressional races, only one California incumbent representative --Republican Richard Pombo in 2006 -- lost a race for reelection.
Voters in 2008 approved a referendum creating a blue ribbon citizens commission to draw new district lines following the next Census.
The new congressional map is almost certain to put incumbents in races against each other. Just a month ago, Democratic Rep. Janice Hahn won a special election in the 36th District that runs primarily along the Pacific coastline near Los Angeles.
The Port of Los Angeles is the dominant feature in Hahn's hometown of San Pedro. But for the next decade, San Pedro marks the southern end of the new 44th District, which extends deep into the heart of inner city communities including Watts and Compton that are now represented by Democratic Rep. Laura Richardson. It's a district that Hoffenblum says wasn't designed to be represented by a white woman like Hahn.
"I don't have to completely introduce myself. My family has a long history of serving these communities," Hahn told Fox News. "I'm hoping that (voters) will put color aside and they will judge the folks that run based on our experience and based on how we can represent them in Congress."
Hahn's brother is a former mayor of Los Angeles and her father was a well-known figure in city and county politics.
Richardson said her name will be on next year's ballot and in a recent statement noted that she already represents a huge chunk of the new 44th District.
"I look forward to continuing to work hard for these communities and expanding on the constituent service and legislative work I have provided in my last two and a half terms in Congress," Richardson said.
The new map for state Senate seats in Sacramento is also creating a lot of controversy.
Republicans are pushing an effort to legally overturn the Senate map, which they blast as skewed in favor of Democrats.
"(The commission) didn't consistently apply the guidelines," said state Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro. "And when it came to the Senate maps, they almost abandoned the guidelines in 11 out of the 40 maps, or over 25 percent of the Senate lines are probably unconstitutional."
The make-up of the state Senate is key because if one party gains control of two-thirds of the membership, it can push through tax hikes on a party-line vote.
"This isn't about partisanship at this point," Del Beccaro said. "It's about fairness."
The California Citizens Redistricting Commission is made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents. The members went through a vigorous application process designed to weed out anyone with an overt political bias.
Latino groups have also threatened legal action on the Senate map they contend unfairly draws them out of power in Sacramento.