Proposition 11: The Change We Need

Some people see politics, policy and the world in blacks and whites. “I’m right, they’re wrong.” “Common ground is for the weak.” They believe what they believe so absolutely it makes attempts to see the other side’s point-of-view immaterial. They form the core of the political parties. They occupy the far right and the extreme left fringes. The purity of their ideology outweighs the momentary need for pragmatism.

Partisan politics is too often the ultimate expression of this colorless world view. Ideas don’t matter, the political impact of those ideas is what counts. If it’s a question of getting more of “their side” elected or helping to solve problems, it’s no contest: my side wins; we’ll solve problems later. We see this all the time in political attacks that seek to dehumanize the other side. They don’t just disagree with “us,” they are not “us.” We’re patriotic; they’re not. We’re real; they’re false.

Presidential politics highlights this dynamic every four years. The California Legislature demonstrates this phenomena every day it’s in session. The state faces enormous problems. Our financial situation is a mess. Our water supply is endangered. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Too many of our schools are failing. The list goes on and on. Too much partisanship means these problems fester.

What California needs are lawmakers who focus on solving problems, not scoring political points. We need lawmakers who are beholden to all of us, not just to the extremes of their party. And that’s why California needs to change the way we draw our legislative districts.

Under current law, state legislators draw the districts. Not surprisingly, they are only human after all, the primary concern of district drafting is to protect incumbents. If this means ignoring communities of interest or common sense, too bad. The ideal is a “safe seat,” not a reasonable one.

By definition, a safe seat protects an incumbent from the opposition. This means lawmakers are really selected in the primary, not the general, election. The current redistricting process has seen to that. And primaries are dominated by folks who see the world in black-and-white. The winning candidates, then, are those who can best appeal to the party’s base.

This is great for the lawmakers, but lousy for the state. Certainly there’s a need in the Legislature for purists of both parties, partisans who will sound the clarion call of ideology. But if that’s the only type of legislator we have in Sacramento, the Capital becomes more like talk radio than a forum for solving problems. Because the fact is that solutions come from the middle, not the extremes.

Proposition 11 takes redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers, investing this power in a commission that, while having a balance of members from both parties, is independent of them. The result will be less safe to incumbents, but more responsive to a broader slice of the political spectrum. Extremists will not do well in these districts. Ideologues will be at a disadvantage. Instead, moderates and pragmatists will hold the advantage.

Even more threatening, to some, is how Proposition 11 threatens the status quo. Under the current redistricting scheme, those in power draw the new lines. Those in power can, consequently, assure they and their allies will remain in power. By taking redistricting powers away from incumbents, those in power might lose it were Proposition 11 to pass. Democrats are currently in power in the Legislature (it wasn’t always so, but it is now). Not surprisingly the Democratic Party is the chief opponent of Proposition 11.

The irony here is that Proposition 11 is very much in keeping with the political philosophy and rhetoric of the Democratic nominee for president, Senator Barack Obama. Senator Obama speaks frequently on the need to move beyond partisanship and ideology in order to solve America’s problems. He calls himself a pragmatist who is more interested in solving problems than scoring political points. Proposition 11 would help make Senator Obama’s new politics a reality in California. The California Democratic Party embraces Senator Obama, apparently, but not necessarily his ideals.

Proposition 11 is not perfect and its opponents are spending millions of dollars attacking it. Perfection, however, is not and should not be the criteria used in evaluating an initiative or legislation. The real question is whether the proposal improves on the current situation.

California’s politics is broken. We all saw how this is playing out in the ongoing budget fiasco and Sacramento’s inability to reach consensus on most any issue of importance.

Proposition 11 isn’t a magic wand that will suddenly make Sacramento a haven of functionality. Proposition 11 won’t even remove all partisans from the Legislature. There are numerous communities — and, therefore, legislative districts — in the state that will be controlled by one party.

What Proposition 11 will do is increase the number of problem solvers elected to office. It will shift the center of political gravity in Sacramento from the dysfunctional nexus in which it resides today and move it toward a more pragmatic location. Who knows, it might even help create a more civil political environment and a more productive legislature.

California faces many problems. Proposition 11 is part of the solution.

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