Jewish Journal

Outside the Lines

by Mike Levy

Posted on Sep. 20, 2001 at 8:00 pm

The political battles over redistricting caused a brief but nasty showdown between two prominent California Jewish politicians.

The conflict began earlier this month when a proposed redistricting plan, which has since been changed, moved as much as 60 percent of Rep. Brad Sherman's Sherman Oaks congressional district .

The plan drew immediate angry fire from Sherman. "I'd rather walk over hot tar barefoot than run against Howard [Berman], but I'll do what I have to do," said Sherman, whose district had been redrawn to include much of Berman's former district, giving some of Sherman's core constituency to Berman.

By Sept. 14, the California Legislature had approved its plans to redraw political boundaries of the state's Senate, Assembly, congressional delegation and Board of Equalization, a process called redistricting.

With Democrats in comfortable control of both houses of the state legislature and the governorship, the high-stakes redistricting process becomes a means to ensure that control for the next 10 years, by drawing and approving voting districts which can be expected to elect Democratic representatives. To that end, both the state Senate and California's 32-member Democratic Congressional delegation hired the same consulting firm to help design as many "safe" Democratic districts as possible.

Though the congressmembers do not get to vote on the layout of their districts, their suggestions are influential. The newly drawn lines now await only the approval of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

Some have decried the incumbency-protecting nature of the process. Yet this is all standard operating procedure. The real controversies in this battle are less about party politics and more about ethnic politics -- and family ties. The consulting firm hired by the Democrats to draw the district lines is Berman and D'Agostino Campaigns, run by Michael Berman, brother of Rep. Howard Berman. The originally proposed new district lines moved much of Berman's Northeast Valley 26th District into Rep. Sherman's 24th District, while shifting Sherman's former Valley constituents to Berman. The lines also split the burgeoning and increasingly politically active Latino communities of the Northeast Valley, making the future election of a Latino congressmember in the Valley more difficult.

"It looks like this is going to end rather badly and divisively," said Sherman of the first proposal, speaking from Sacramento, where he was lobbying the Assembly to change the proposed districts. Though he said he would be "proud to represent any part of the Valley," the newly drawn 24th District left Sherman "more of Howard's district than my own. The people transferred to my district are people loyal to Howard, [people] who I have never served." Sherman even suggested that, if the proposed districts stood, he might run against Berman in the 26th.

"We were basically hoping that Brad and Howard would work something out. The last thing we want to see is two Jewish members of Congress fighting with each other," said Howard Welinsky of Democrats for Israel, after the revised district plan passed the Legislature, adding, "I support the current lines."

Sherman, too, has accepted his new constituency, with some concerns. "I end up with a weird-shaped district, the best that can be done under the circumstances. If I were an art critic I'd be upset. It's going to require some extra work, I have to drive through Howard's district to get to parts of mine. But as it stands now, I keep 50 percent of my [former] district." He adds that his concerns are geographic and service based, and that he never meant to fight the addition of Latinos to his district. "This is not a matter of ethnicity. The voting power of Latinos in my district goes up over 200%. That's a good thing. It only means that my constituent services operation will have to be more mobile, to serve the new communities to the east," Sherman said. On Friday, both Sherman and Berman were in Washington, where both sit on the House Foreign Relations Committee.

Latino leaders have spoken out against the proposed new districts, both before and after the Sherman-Berman negotiations. "We're very concerned about the situation in the San Fernando Valley," said Amadis Velez, redistricting coordinator for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). "From Sylmar to San Fernando, it's a community that has really grown in terms of civic participation over the past 10 years. A district line haphazardly placed diminishes the community's ability to elect a representative of their choice."

Following the approval of the revised district lines, Velez says the new districts in the Valley still do not maintain MALDEF's goals. "We consider it a violation of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We will consider filing a lawsuit. First we're going to ask the governor to get involved, to have the Legislature amend the plans as passed."

So far, the organized Jewish community has remained quiet in the redistricting process, a fact which bothers some concerned members of the community.

While Latino organizations have become more vocal and influential over the past two decades, Jewish organizations seem to have become less so. "In the last few reapportionments, many ethnic communities have invested resources to ensure their representation, but the Jewish community has not, in part because we are very well-represented, in the short term," said Scott Svonkin, director of public policy for B'nai B'rith.

"Over time, the risk is that if we're not paying attention, we're going to lose ground."

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