By CJ Dablo
Fourteen Californians have been charged with the task of drawing a final political map of the golden state by August, and right now they’re asking their fellow state residents to tell them how to best do their job.
Using figures from the latest 2010 Census and drawing public input into the process, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission came to the Long Beach Council Chambers on Wednesday to hear public comments on how to determine new political districts. The Commission will determine the new boundaries of the state’s Assembly, Senate and Board of Equalization districts. In addition, they will draw new boundaries for the state’s 53 Congressional districts.
Both local officials and the Commission stressed that public input is critical to the Commission’s goal to draw the political maps for a state that boasts a population estimated by the US Census Bureau to total more than 37 million.
Commissioner Gil Ontai, one of the 14 members of the Commission, acknowledged that understanding the local communities is key to putting the districts together.
“Number one, we’re hoping to get the public to come forward and say, ‘This is what our community looks like,’” said Ontai who explained that the Commission needs to identify “communities of interest.”
“And that’s the hardest part for us to define, primarily because we can’t do that,” said Ontai of the Commission. “We don’t know the neighborhoods. We don’t know the communities. We don’t know where groups of people sharing socio-economic similarities live and how they combine themselves. So the only way we know that is by listening to the public.”
Ontai was selected to serve on the Commission last December. He is based in San Diego.
Taking part in a round of public hearings that will be held in locations throughout Southern California, local residents on April 27 flocked to Long Beach’s City Hall to offer their input on redistricting. More than 200 people packed the Long Beach Council Chambers and even sat in the aisles when they couldn’t easily find a seat. Residents, who mostly hailed from South Bay and Long Beach areas, advocated for their neighborhoods and local communities at Wednesday night’s meeting.
More than half of the crowd signed up to speak during the hearing that lasted more than four hours. In addition to the local residents who wanted to engage in the civic discourse, there was no shortage of elected local officials, former elected officials, and former candidates for elected office who took their turns at their podium for their allotted two minutes.
Long Beach’s public hearing was part of a first round of opportunities for constituents to participate directly in the process of drawing the political district maps. The process is new for everyone– including the Commission. Rather than continuing to allow elected representatives to draw the district maps, Californians voted in 2008 to empower the independent commission to redraw specific state office district boundaries. At last November’s election, voters added the task of drawing Congressional district maps to the Commission’s “to do” list.
Although the speakers represented a variety of “communities of interest,” several spoke in favor of drawing a map where the political districts would not blend Orange and Los Angeles county constituencies.
“One thing that hasn’t been mentioned here is that East Long Beach is actually not part of Orange County,” said East Long Beach resident Andrew Kincaid, drawing a few laughs from the audience. Kincaid says he lives in the 46th Congressional District.
“Right now the district kind of sweeps along the coast and reaches all the way over to Palos Verdes. It’s sort of an abomination,” Kincaid said.
Kincaid expanded on a concern that Long Beach Councilmembers Robert Garcia and Gary DeLong had expressed in a press statement earlier this week.
“As elected officials from two different political parties,” they wrote, “we may not always agree on every issue, but we do agree on this: keep Long Beach together. We are asking you to support that Long Beach representation remains in Los Angeles County and that pieces of Long Beach neighborhoods are not thrown into electoral districts in Orange County.”
Garcia is a Democrat, and DeLong is a Republican.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican, represents the 46th Congressional District that covers an area that spans two counties and includes a portion of the Long Beach coastline. His district stretches west as far as Palos Verdes Estates. If the Commission chooses to separate districts along county lines, Rohrabacher’s constituency would be immediately affected. When asked to comment on Rohrabacher’s Long Beach constituency, a spokesperson from the representative’s Washington, DC office offered a brief statement over email.
“Mr. Rohrabacher has honorably served his constituents in Long Beach and hopes he has the opportunity to continue to do so,” said Tara Olivia Setmayer, communications director for Rohrabacher. “It does the residents of Long Beach a disservice if they are drawn into a district that only has one representative in Congress instead of two.”
However, during Wednesday night’s meeting, many residents who live in other districts said they are happy with their district maps and representation. Some had advocated to keep the 37th Congressional District intact. Some also stressed that Long Beach does not need to have a Congressional district with only one representative.
Still others want to correct boundaries. A few residents addressed how they have been affected by past redistricting efforts for the state Assembly and Senate areas.
“I think what you find is that redistricting [has] pretty much been arbitrary in this city, at least for the Assembly District and the Senate District,” said Tonia Reyes Uranga, a former Long Beach councilmember in a short interview Wednesday night. Reyes Uranga says that she is represented by State Sen. Rod Wright who is based in Inglewood. Reyes Uranga said she has no plans to run for the state or Congressional offices that would be affected by the redistricting process. She further pointed out problems with the Assembly representation. She did not move her residence, but in the duration of ten years she was moved between the 54th and 55th State Assembly districts, according to Reyes Uranga.
“You know, they draw these lines around our homes without any kind of acknowledgement as to what the communities of interests are,” she said.
As constituents spoke about their unique communities, staffers who were ready to assist the Commission quickly accessed maps that were then projected onto a screen. Many times, members of the Commission asked speakers to name other neighboring communities that should be incorporated into their district. At times, the staff took a moment to sketch out a model of a district map based on the speakers’ proposals.
“I like to remind people that they have the opportunity to have an impact on who’s going to represent them,” said Long Beach Councilmember Rae Gabelich in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. “How they’re drawn makes no difference to me,” she said, indicating that she has no plans to run for the state or Congressional offices that would be affected by redistricting. Earlier this month, she had encouraged her constituents to participate in this process.
Members of the public are invited to contact the Commission to voice their opinions on redistricting. A list of upcoming meetings will be posted at wedrawthelines.ca.gov. Those interested may also call the Commission at (866) 356-5217.
The Commission plans to submit a first draft of the map based on the input from the hearings by June 10, according to their information packet. Future hearings where the public will offer their input are scheduled this summer after the first, second and final drafts are submitted. The deadline for the Commission to approve a final draft of the district maps is Aug. 15.