Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

SoCal Rep. Lowenthal takes a big swing at redistricting with new bill

Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) fought for redistricting reform when he served in the state legislature
Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) fought for redistricting reform when he served in the state legislature
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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California has 14 new members in Congress this year — more than a quarter of the state's delegation. Much of the turnover can be traced to California's citizen-drawn redistricting map. Now, one of the state's freshman lawmakers wants to expand citizen redistricting commissions nationwide.  

With the idealism of a modern-day Don Quixote, Long Beach Democrat Alan Lowenthal admits his idea will be an uphill struggle. (You can read the full text of his bill below.)

Lowenthal says the last straw for him was in 2001 when the California state legislature — with lots of input from Congress — redrew Congressional district lines, eliminating the seat of Long Beach Republican Steve Horn. Lowenthal, himself a state assemblyman at the time, disagreed politically with the former Cal State Long Beach president,, but says Horn "was in that district all the time. People liked Horn. He represented us."

Lowenthal names those with a hand in dismantling the seat held by Horn: the late Democrat Juanita Millender-McDonald, who represented Carson, Republican Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach, and GOP Congressman Ed Royce of Fullerton.

Lowenthal pushed for reform in the state legislature. But it took two ballot propositions to put redistricting in the hands of an independent commission.

Lowenthal has now introduced the "Let the People Draw the Lines Act," which would take California's system nationwide. The freshman lawmaker says he's aware power brokers in Washington will be loathe to change the system that keeps them in office, but he's undeterred, saying: "It starts with one."

University of California political scientist Marc Sandelow says there's a simple political reason why Capitol Hill is less than interested in citizen redistricting panels. "The people in elected office today won under the current rules," he says. "There’s no incentive for them to change those rules." Sandelow says that's why campaign finance laws are also hard to pass.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi "fought very hard" against California's citizen redistricting measure, Sandelow says. "Not because she doesn’t think it’s good government, but because she collected hundreds of millions of dollars for elections throughout the country." Sandelow says when there were safe seats for incumbents in California, Pelosi — through her leadership PAC — was free to spend campaign dollars elsewhere. "Now, she has to spend them in California."

Loyola Law Professor Jason Levitt says Tennessee Democrat John Tanner fought for redistricting commissions back in 2009. His measure got more than 30 co-sponsors, but never got out of committee.

There are several other citizen redistricting proposals floating around Capitol Hill - including one by fellow Californian Zoe Lofgren of San Jose. But those bills deal with other redistricting issues, such as how often the lines can be redrawn every decade. None are as comprehensive on the topic of citizen commissions as Lowenthal's measure. 

More than half a dozen other states already have independent commissions that draw district lines.

Lowenthal admits it'll take years -- and a lot of pressure from good government groups -- to change minds on Capitol Hill. 

Bill introduced by Rep. Alan Lowenthal