Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown is also known, in another past political life, as the “Ayatollah of the Assembly” for his absolute rule over California’s lower legislative chamber during the 1980’s and first half of the ’90’s.
But most folks probably don’t know how he earned the nickname.
The year was 1982 and Brown was looking to solidify his position as Speaker. In particular, he wanted to find a way to gracefully rid himself of some rival Assembly Democrats from Southern California.
It turned out: Brown’s rivals wanted out of Sacramento almost as much as Willie wanted them gone — especially if it meant getting their tickets punched to Congress.
Enter: political redistricting and the gerrymander.
Led by the late California Rep. Phil Burton (his district presently represented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi), California Democrats came up with a plan that did to Golden State congressional districts what Hitler and Stalin once did to Poland.
Using, shall we say, some very creative geography, Burton’s cartographers turned a 43-seat congressional delegation that had split 22-21 in favor of the Democrats into a 45-seat bloc that re-divided 27-18 in his party’s favor. This, even though Republicans received more than 50% of the vote in the 1984 congressional elections in California, when the new districts were put to their first test.
But getting back to Willie . . .
In order to make the gerrymander work, Brown had to power it through the Assembly. Which is what he did, getting the measure approved at 1:20 a.m. on the final day of the spring legislative session, with then-Gov. Jerry Brown (yes, the same Jerry Brown currently running to get back his old job) eventually signing it into law shortly before he left office in January 1983 (more on the delay in a moment . . .).
Asked what to make of all the late-night power politics, Brown offered this famous boast:
“The Speaker in California is the closest thing you will ever know in the world to the Ayatollah.”
I’ve left out a lot of the drama from California’s 1980s redistricting fight: Republicans went to the ballot in June to block the Burton plan, which they succeeded in doing. However, they couldn’t get an alternative passed that November. Meanwhile, then-State Supreme Court Justice Rose Bird allowed the Burton plan to move ahead with a little fine-tuning with regard to minority districts (translation: Speaker Brown buying peace with then-Assemblywoman Maxine Waters). So the Burton plan became law — and another nail in Bird’s political coffin, as angry voters removed her from the bench.
Just look at what happened here a decade ago.
Determined to keep their delegation super-majority intact, incumbent congressional Democrats turned to political consultant and gerrymandering whiz Michael Berman. Mr. Berman — ironically, the brother of one of those Assembly Democrats who wanted to flee Sacramento and the Ayatollah’s reign back in the ’80’s — said he was more than happy to help . . . so long as every incumbent ponied up $20,000 for his services.
To which Rep. Loretta Sanchez noted:
‘Twenty thousand is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million (campaigning) every year. If my colleagues are smart, they’ll pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win in. Those who have refused to pay? God help them.’”
Berman’s plan worked. Congressional seats are pretty much blast-proof (California having maybe two seats in serious contention in this cycle). The Legislature’s even worse, with not a single seat changing party hands during entire statewide votes.
In theory, voters put an end to that latter farce, in the last election, approving Proposition 11. It tasks a citizen’s commission with redrawing legislative districts.
Naturally, the political ruling class wants that to end. Thus we have Proposition 27 on the November ballot. If approved, it kills Prop 11 and the idea of citizens handling legislative redistricting. And it makes sure that congressional redistricting remains in the bailiwick of politicians.
Why so? Because of the presence, further up on the ballot, of Proposition 20. If approved, Prop 20 adds congressional redesign to the responsibilities of Prop 11’s citizen’s commission.
Here’s where the political intrigue really heats up. Congressional Democrats hate the thought of Prop 20. So they’ve asked their deep-pocketed friends to help kill the cause. In this case, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has dumped $1 million into the Yes on 27 campaign (saying “yes” on Prop 27 being a more positive way of saying “no” on Prop 20).
Keep an eye on the 20/27 initiative fight as we get closer to November. Keeping control of Fortress California helps Democrats offset Republican gains in other Sunbelt states — that, and the GOP’s expected gains in governorship and control of state legislatures after this election. And the party has to figure what to do with so many candidates and so few seats (among the main problems: 40 Sacramento legislators due to retiring in 2012, some of whom presumably covet the term-limit-free Congress).
Such is the challenge for the current chairman of the California Democratic Party: John Burton. Yes, he’s the brother of Phil, the ’80’s gerrymandering giant.
In case you’re interested in how California’s population shifts adds to the Democrats’ complicated task of drawing congressional lines (more folks in the Inland Empire; fewer living around Pelosiland), here’s a nifty chart.