Earlier this week, we reported on efforts by California’s Democratic congressional delegation to influence the state's redistricting commission. As we detailed, Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and others to testify in support of district lines that coincided with the party's interests. In one instance, party operatives invented a local group to advocate for a Democratic-friendly map.
If California Democrats actually succeeded in manipulating the redistricting commission, then why did some Democratic incumbents lose?
Our story did not assert that every Democrat got what they wanted from the Commission. Indeed, we noted that Democrats faced a particularly difficult challenge getting what they wanted in densely populated, ethnically diverse Southern California.
Still, fewer Democrats might have lost than it seems.
Some have argued, for instance, that the high-profile retirement of Rep. Lynn Woolsey, in Northern California, was a result of redistricting.
But as it turns out, Woolsey announced her retirement before the lines were completed, and has said redistricting had nothing to do with her decision.
What about Reps. Berman and Sherman getting drawn into a district together?
As many have noted, Democratic U.S. Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman were drawn into the same district, and as were Reps. Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson.
Several people -- including members of the redistricting commission -- have pointed to the Berman-Sherman face-off, in particular, as evidence that the commission was not manipulated by Democrats.
But even in that case, there appears to be evidence of an effort to influence the process.
According to FEC records, on May 23, Sherman's PAC paid $15,000, to an entity it called "PMPA" in their disclosures. The address of PMPA is the home of redistricting consultant Paul Mitchell's mother in Glendale. One of Paul Mitchell's firms is called Paul Mitchell Public Affairs, or PMPA. It's not clear what the work was for. Mitchell didn't respond to our request about his work about Sherman.
In the end, Sherman appears to have come out ahead. The so-called Berman-Sherman district was 60 percent from Sherman's old district, and 16 percent from Berman's district.
Sherman's office did not return our requests for comment.
As for Berman, he told ProPublica he didn't try to influence the commission: "I'm not unfamiliar with the redistricting process. I wasn't caught flat-footed. I just chose not to do what many on both sides of the aisle did: try to sway the commission to do something that was good for one member. The whole process was supposed to draw lines without consideration to incumbents. I respected that process."
Didn't Republicans and others try to influence the commission too?
Yes, they did. In fact, our reporting began with one such attempt. But we also found that Republicans were far less organized or effective than Democrats.
For instance, Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, tried to enlist his allies to urge the commission to draw him a friendly district. Last April, McKeon emailed a local trade group with defense industry tries encouraging them to "advocate to the Redistricting Commission" for McKeon's ideal district. (Read the email.) McKeon didn't return our requests for comment.
The group, the Antelope Valley Board of Trade, did not testify in favor of his district. McKeon ended up getting part of what he wanted but not all of it.
There haven't yet been elections based on the newly redistricted lines. So any projections about how Democrats and Republicans will fare are just that, projections.
We interviewed multiple experts who said that Democrats could be expected to gain a seat or two via redistricting. The previous district lines had actually been the result of a bi-partisan backroom gerrymander that created a few Republican seats. A fair redistricting process might have eliminated those safe seats.
But after the districts were drawn, internal Democratic Party analyses projected a gain of six or seven seats.
More importantly, the way lines are drawn doesn't just affect the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans. Particular lines can also protect particular politicians.
Rep. Judy Chu's Southern California district, for example, would likely remain safely Democratic in any redrawing. But, as our story shows, a group with ties to Rep. Chu successfully intervened in the commission process at the last minute to tweak lines that will likely make it easier for Chu herself to defeat any Democratic challenger.
That's particularly relevant because California is moving to a new "open primary" system where the politicians who get the largest number of votes go on to face each other in a second round -- regardless of party affiliation.
The Commission was never meant to be non-partisan.
We'll let readers judge for themselves. The voter referendum creating the commission called for "nonpartisan rules designed to ensure fair representation."
Here is the language voters saw in the ballot box:
The People of the State of California hereby make the following findings and declare their purpose in enacting this act is as follows:
(a) Under current law, California legislators draw their own political districts. Allowing politicians to draw their own districts is a serious conflict of interest that harms voters. That is why 99 percent of incumbent politicians were reelected in the districts they had drawn for themselves in the recent elections.
(b) Politicians draw districts that serve their interests, not those of our communities. For example, cities such as Long Beach, San Jose and Fresno are divided into multiple oddly shaped districts to protect incumbent legislators. Voters in many communities have no political voice because they have been split into as many as four different districts to protect incumbent legislators. We need reform to keep our communities together so everyone has representation.
(c) This reform will make the redistricting process open so it cannot be controlled by the party in power. It will give us an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on the commission, and will ensure full participation of independent voters—whose voices are completely shut out of the current process. In addition, this reform requires support from Democrats, Republicans, and independents for approval of new redistricting plans.
(d) The independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will draw districts based on strict, nonpartisan rules designed to ensure fair representation. The reform takes redistricting out of the partisan battles of the Legislature and guarantees redistricting will be debated in the open with public meetings, and all minutes will be posted publicly on the Internet. Every aspect of this process will be open to scrutiny by the public and the press.
(e) In the current process, politicians are choosing their voters instead of voters having a real choice. This reform will put the voters back in charge.
Why do you say the commission limited opportunities for public input? Didn't it have dozens of hearings?
The public hearing transcripts clearly show that a lot of testimony was received by the commission. But the commission cancelled a second round of draft maps and the hearings they said they would do with them. Many groups criticized this move as limiting citizen input.
Instead of releasing a promised second round of draft maps, the commission chose to release daily 'visualizations,' which were drawn at meetings in Sacramento. While the general public could comment via email, transcripts show individuals in attendance joined what became impromptu hearings at the beginning of each meeting. Transcripts show that these in-person comments and map submissions were influential. But they were only an option for those with the resources both to anticipate which districts would be discussed on a particular day, and appear in person in Sacramento.
Here is the commission's statement on our article.