Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 17, 2011

New districts to shift Senate power on Peninsula

Palo Alto would keep its representatives but could lose political clout

by Gennady Sheyner

The map of state Sen. Joe Simitian's district currently resembles a rabbit gazing at the sky, its brain positioned somewhere around Los Altos.

The rabbit's body is a spacious blob stretching along the ocean and encompassing a generous swath of Santa Clara County and smaller chunks of San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. Two ears sprout from its head, one pointing northward and encompassing Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and Redwood City and another one pointing east and stretching through Santa Clara County and toward San Jose.

The seemingly random design of the district is far from unusual in California, where redistricting has always been the purview of the political party in power. But now, a redistricting proposal, released by the nonpartisan California Citizens Redistricting Commission, aims to kill the rabbit and every other district map that resembles a picture in a Rorschach exam and replace them with boring, amorphous blobs — which is what the 11th District will become if the commission's recommendations are approved in August.

Under the commission's plan, the map of Simitian's 11th District would resemble a parallelogram with a slightly elongated bottom left corner. Its northern border would start at Brisbane, and its southern border would extend diagonally from the ocean to Sunnyvale. The proposed district would also swallow up various cities that previously fell between the rabbit's ears (Mountain View and Sunnyvale) or stood just above its body (Portola Valley, Woodside, Half Moon Bay).

Meanwhile, cities just west of San Jose, which currently fall in the right ear of the topographical bunny, and those that make up the rabbit's tail in the southeast section of the district would switch to another district. Aptos, near the shore of Monterey Bay, would no longer have to share the same district as San Carlos.

Simitian this week said the new map could create some anxiety for residents in northern Santa Clara County, the part of the county that includes his hometown of Palo Alto. The county (which currently makes up about 60 percent of the district) would become a minority in the Senate district, and the political center of gravity would shift to San Mateo County.

"It's understandable that people in Sunnyvale will say, 'What do we have in common with Brisbane?'" Simitian said. "But when the districts are this big and when they cover that much ground, each district will have more disparate communities."

These concerns are typical whenever districts get redesigned and counties are forced to share a district, he said. He noted that under the current setup, he represents Capitola in Santa Cruz County but not Mountain View, which is five minutes away from his house. He responded to concerns from his Santa Cruz constituents by opening an office in their county.

Other state Assembly, state Senate and Congressional districts on the Peninsula are also slated for major redesigns. Assemblyman Rich Gordon, whose 21st District currently resembles the receiver of a 20th-century telephone, would see his turf become more geographically compact even as it spreads east to swallow up Mountain View and Sunnyvale. The district would lose the cities that currently stand on its fringes, including Redwood City in the north and Los Gatos in the south.

Gordon, who took office last year, told the Weekly the proposed maps make "geographic sense." He also said he does not presume that the drafts released last week would be the ones the commission ultimately adopts.

"Under these tentative maps, Los Altos and parts of San Jose would no longer be in my district in the future, but I have to represent those areas during this term of office, and I will continue to represent that area and do that work," Gordon said. "When it comes time to campaign, I will be campaigning in some new communities, but I wouldn't presume that I'll be representing those communities."

Analysts say the shifts in districts, while visually dramatic, are expected to have little political effect on the politicians and their constituents on the Peninsula. Unlike in southern California, where Republican Reps. David Dreier and Elton Gallegly now find themselves battling for political survival in increasingly Democratic districts, the changes in the Bay Area promise to be more subtle, said Jim Ross, a political consultant who specializes in state elections.

Several cities in San Mateo County, including East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, would shift from Rep. Anna Eshoo's 14th District in the U.S. Congress to Rep. Jackie Speier's 12th District. This, however, is unlikely to cause a huge stir for the residents in either district, Ross said.

"The Bay Area's congressional delegation is pretty solid," Ross said. "It's not like they're going from one party to another. They're all Democratic and relatively progressive."

Impacts could be more substantive in the reshuffling of state Senate districts. San Francisco, which is currently split between two districts (Mark Leno's in the north and east and Leland Yee's in the west) would be reduced to one senator — a move that Ross says could cost the city some political clout.

But this could also spell good news for residents in many sections of San Mateo County, who will no longer have to vie with San Francisco for the attention of their senator.

"San Mateo County and, in general, the South Bay will get more specific representation than it had in the past because the San Francisco seat currently held by Leland Yee moves south," Ross said. "That nexus of power moves south."

The upshot is that some Peninsula voters who are currently represented by Democrats in the state Assembly, state Senate and the U.S. Congress could find themselves represented next year by a different set of Democrats. Voters in Palo Alto, meanwhile, should see few concrete impacts other than the fact that their district maps would lose those creative shapes that it took decades of gerrymandering to achieve. Their representatives would remain the same, Ross noted.

The redistricting process is being closely watched around the country, where district lines continue to get drawn up by politicians. The 14-member commission, which was approved by California voters in 2008, has held 23 public hearings on the subject and is scheduled to vote on the final map on Aug. 15.

Ross called the commission's work a "real public process" and praised the group for its transparency. Simitian agreed.

"If you look at the first set of draft maps, they followed the rules, exercised common sense and kept it as apolitical as it was possible to do," Simitian said. "I give them high marks."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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