California’s Citizens Redistricting Commission will redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts this spring and summer. One of the 14 commissioners, the only one from the Sacramento area northward, is well known in Davis civic life: Stan Forbes.
Voters created the commission in 2008 to draw new district lines according to strict, nonpartisan rules, based on the 2010 census. The current districts, set by elected state officials, have been widely criticized as drawn to protect the political status quo.
Five commissioners are Democrats, five are Republicans and four belong to neither party. Forbes is one of the four. He is also a bookstore owner, Esparto farmer and former member of the Davis City Council and Davis Board of Education.
Forbes believes the commission, which will start public hearings soon, could create a benchmark for other states.
“If this works, as I think it will,” he said, “and becomes a model for the nation, for each state, then this will be one of the most significant things I will have ever done.”
Forbes talked about the commission and its work with program host Bill Buchanan on “Davisville,” an interview program on Davis radio station KDRT-LP, 95.7 FM. Here is part of the interview:
Buchanan: This commission (is meant to) change how the state works, by designing legislative districts that are logical and cohesive, unite communities and don’t pay so much attention to how the lines affect the fortunes of one major party or the other.
Forbes: That’s exactly right. We’re not designed to come up with competitive districts, but we are designed to come up with districts that take political registration out of the criterion.
And this is the opposite of how it’s been done?
We were told, at one of our commission meetings, that one of the criteria in the 2000/2002 lines that were drawn was incumbent protection.
That sort of thing makes people very cynical about government.
I didn’t coin this phrase, but I have used it often: It used to be that the politicians picked their voters. In this opportunity, the voters will pick the politicians.
Is this going to work?
I absolutely think so. It’s important for California, but this has real potential nationwide. This is the first time in the country that a commission has the final say-so on the boundaries. In almost every other state, the legislatures still draw the boundaries, so they’re still politically drawn. If this works, the public at large will say “the way we’re doing it is not good, that is, where the politicians control it,” because they clearly have a vested interest in maintaining their own position.
The California Legislature didn’t want to give up (redistricting) authority. The commission was created by a proposition in 2008.
That’s correct, Proposition 11. And Proposition 20 last year added the House of Representatives. The Legislature also put a measure on the (2010) ballot, Proposition 27, to get rid of the commission, and that was defeated. So the public has spoken on this commission three times. Prop. 11, passed it. Prop. 20, passed it. Prop. 27, handily defeated.
How did this get past the opposition?
The public, given enough votes, can overcome any special interest, if the public cares enough about it. Perhaps in this case — I don’t know this, because I was not involved in Proposition 11 — the public had just gotten sick and tired of what takes place in Sacramento, and they wanted it to change.
The commission will work from the 2010 census numbers, plus look at other criteria.
First, we have to comply with the U.S. Constitution. That means, particularly in congressional seats, that the population must be essentially identical in size. Then we also have to comply with the Voting Rights Act. That basically says you cannot dilute or overconcentrate minorities in districts so as to weaken their political power. Then we have to continue to try to have communities of interest, which is somewhat self-defined.
People say, “Why can’t you have a computer do this?” Because communities of interest are self-defined. You can’t program for those.
We also have to pay attention to political boundaries. For example, in the Prop. 11 materials you’ll see that Long Beach was cut up into a number of different districts. There was no Long Beach seat. We’re supposed to try and have the district be contiguous, reflect political boundaries, (reflect) topographical boundaries. These criteria are all set forth in Prop. 11.
You’ll hold hearings, too.
One set of hearings will be for the public to input and tell us what you think your communities of interest are. Do you want to be hooked up with Dixon, or Woodland, or what have you? How does the public define their communities of interest? We’ll take that information and the census data, draw a set of maps, bring that back to the public, and say, “What do you think? Do these represent what you wanted to tell us? Or do you want us to change the lines because of an issue we’ve missed?”
Anyone can come to these hearings?
We encourage it. They’re going to be streamed live … we have a website, and a Twitter account. We ask people to come to those and to go online and give us your comments.
I’m sure there will be people who try to pack the hearings.
Probably. But because we are specifically not allowed to consider party registration, and where the incumbents live, they still have to present their position in terms of a “community of interest” way of approaching it. So I think that will dilute the impact of packing it by party.
How does your knowledge of local politics help you as a commissioner?
I’ve had great opportunities to work with people who have different points of view, different objectives, different value systems. The ability to do that was one of the central criteria. I asked the people who picked the final 60 (commission candidates, from which the board was chosen), “How did you narrow this down?” And he said the No. 1 thing they looked for was the ability to be unbiased.
You get an opportunity to learn — you don’t have to — but you get an opportunity to learn in local politics, because you have to deal with the people in the whole community, and come up with solutions that meet, as much as possible, everybody’s needs.
You also understand politics.
And I’m particularly pleased with this group. This is about as nonpartisan a group as you’re ever going to want to see. I’ll give you an example. We had to replace a woman who had to resign (from the commission, because of the time commitment). There were 12 of us there. One was absent. We took an initial vote, and it was 7 to 5 in favor of one candidate. Well, we debated. You have to have nine votes to win. We re-voted, and four people change their votes. I’d never seen a body where people didn’t get sort of a vested interest in their position. They were open to being persuaded, and that speaks very well of the commission, and for the process.
When do you come up with a report?
We’ll have tentative maps in late May, early June. We’ll have another set of maps in July. Our final map has to go to the public Aug. 1 because the public has 14 days to comment before we make a final vote, which has to be done by Aug. 15.
The decisions need supermajority approval.
It’s not just a supermajority. You have to get three Republicans, three Democrats and three independents to vote for it. You could have 12 votes in favor of the maps, but if two of the independents vote against it, they’re not adopted.
Once these (maps) are done, they will be used for our primaries next year (in 2012). These will be the maps through 2020.
I would think a court challenge is inevitable.
Probably, but our view is that anybody can sue. Our objective is to come up with a plan that will withstand that lawsuit.
A place like Davis, or Yolo County, could be part of a district with Sacramento, or Solano, or Colusa. How do you decide how to apply the criteria?
The proposition sets a hierarchy of the Constitution — we have to look at population balance, in terms of numbers. We have to be sure the Voting Rights Act is taken care of. Then we will look for the other criteria, political boundaries, topographical boundaries. That will give us basic outlines. And then it will be, what does the public think? If your block is in this district, and we have to take a block out, which makes the most sense?
This is where the human element comes in. You talk about it, and (the decision) has to have those nine votes.
Are you getting pressure to favor a political point of view?
No. On the contrary. I think the political types think we will, and think we’re naïve … but we met in the state Capitol, and the legislators were told to stay away from us, because it’s illegal for them to talk to us and try to influence us. And we are all very conscious of the political pressure that’s potentially out there, and it makes it very sensitive to that. I don’t think there’s going to be a political bias to this.
It reminds me of a jury. It’s almost like you’re empaneled.
That’s exactly the way we’re supposed to look at it.
It would seem remarkable if there weren’t some attempt, by someone, some group, to try to pressure how you come up with your results.
A former politician I’m not going to name came in the store (The Avid Reader in Sacramento) maybe two months ago, and he said to me, “You all are going to have to spend the next six or eight months wearing sackcloth. You’re going to have to be like Caesar’s wife.” We’re going to have to avoid even the appearance of any sort of influence or backroom dealing. Transparency is fundamental (to this process). That’s why everything is recorded, everything is videotaped and streamed live, we have transcripts generated of every hearing.
This is in complete contrast to the way (redistricting) was done before, where the public didn’t have any say as to how the lines were drawn.
What do you hear from your friends about this?
The public reaction is very, very positive. They really like this, they’re glad I’m doing it, there’s lots of encouragement. They think this is really good for California.
You’ve done a lot of different things in your life. How does this compare?
In terms of public service, I’ve been very blessed in the things I’ve been able to do, the public has allowed me to participate in. This has lasting potential. If this works, as I think it will, and becomes a model for the nation, for each state, then this will be one of the most significant things I will have ever done. This will be my little footnote.
“Davisville” is produced every two weeks at KDRT, 95.7 FM in Davis. Each show airs several times and can be heard online in the archives at http://www.kdrt.org. Stan Forbes was interviewed for the March 14 program. Host Bill Buchanan is a longtime Davis resident and former journalist.