Stateline Story

California Braces For Redistricting Battle

The long-awaited release of census data for California confirms what most pundits have been projecting for some time: the state no longer has a single racial or ethnic majority.

With the white population dipping below 50 percent for the first time since the 1800s and the biggest growth in the Hispanic and Asian populations, California now stands as both the most populous and diverse state in the nation.

Weighing in with 33.9 million residents and boasting a booming economy (although slowed in recent months by a dip in tech stocks and a continuing energy crisis), the state's population grew by over 4 million people since 1990.

And with the year 2000 Census figures now available, the real sport begins: using that data to redraw political district boundaries.

Coupled with the effect of terms limits in the state legislature, the new racial reality promises to make this redistricting fight like none before.

"I always thought it was vicious before, but [term limits] are going to make the past wars look like child's play," says Assemblyman Bill Leonard.

Leonard notes that because of terms limits, members of the state assembly will be looking at vulnerable state Senate seats, senators will eye assembly seats and both will be scrambling to run for the U.S. House of Representatives.

"The people in Washington are going to look at the people in Sacramento with fear," he said.

In coming months, the Census figures -- available for the first time over the Internet -- will be crunched by countless politicians and interest groups to see where advantage lies.

The California constitution requires that new political districts be drawn in the year following each census, and the job of doing that for state offices falls to the Legislature. Local government districts are redrawn by county supervisors, city councils and local school boards.

Democrats have a hefty majority in both the Assembly and state Senate, and have a 31-20 edge in congressional seats. But any redistricting plan requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature.

California will now have 53 House seats, a gain of one, as a result of the new Census Under state law, each Congressional district must now include approximately 639,000 residents. The number of state Legislature seats remains the same, but the districts must now be redrawn to include more residents in each senate and assembly district.

The most powerful forces in the redistricting fight could be Hispanic politicians and interest groups, which have been given increased clout with the census data that shows they represent about 30 percent of the state population.

"While the population figures have not changed to a surprising degree, what is of note is that with increased political participation in recent years, that block will be an even stronger force," said Paul Loh, a public policy professor at Cal State University, Northridge.

Interest groups are already forming alliances to ensure that they get the outcome they want from redistricting. The new ethnic picture is also leading to some interesting changes in traditionally Republican Orange County, which has long been populated by middle-class whites and other conservatives.

With the Hispanic population of Orange County jumping to 28 percent and the Asian population surging to 14 percent, state Democrats are targeting what they once referred to as the "Orange Curtain."

Democrats went so far as to hold their annual state party convention in Anaheim this year, vowing to strike at the heart of one of the last remaining Republican strongholds in the California.

"It's just a matter of time before we have a complete victory in Orange County," boasted Bob Mulholland, chief spokesman of the California Democratic Party.