S.J.’s political puzzle

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By Zachary K. Johnson

STOCKTON – Political boundary lines won’t cut across Stockton for the first time in a decade based on first-draft maps released Friday.

The city will be whole inside one Assembly, one state Senate and one congressional district based on a not-yet-final proposal from the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.
All of San Joaquin County’s cities remain intact, but the county, on the whole, lands in two House, three Assembly and two state Senate districts. One map pulls Lodi out of the county into a district with Napa wine country and reaching to Santa Rosa.

Stockton and the county are still smarting from last decade’s remapping, which critics said put small pieces of the city and county in a patchwork of far-flung districts, diluting political clout. All of the county’s four Assembly districts currently include chunks of Stockton.

Having all of the city in one district would make Stockton a significant voting bloc and provide a unified voice, Stockton Mayor Ann Johnston said. “We finally have, I believe, the potential for the kind of representation we so desperately need.”

In practical terms, a gerrymandered city has to bring its issues to several lawmakers who must also answer to a wider constituency, she said. Johnston said she was happy with the first-draft maps but said more county cohesion would be even better.

In the weeks leading up to Friday, that’s been the message from other cities in the county, who passed resolutions asking to put the whole county in one congressional, one state Senate and two Assembly districts.

“We would certainly appreciate the benefit of having us all under one roof,” said Mayor Bob Johnson of Lodi, one of the cities to pass such a resolution. Lodi interests are more in line with Stockton than places outside the county, he said.

The county’s current political makeup includes four Assembly, two state Senate and two congressional districts. Critics have called the House districts blatant examples of gerrymandering. One current district connects Stockton to Santa Clara County through the Altamont Pass, while another starts with a long finger in Stockton and ends in Fresno County.

Political boundaries are redrawn every decade to reflect population changes counted during the U.S. census. It was the Legislature’s job before voters in 2008 and 2010 chose to give the job to a new citizens panel.

Commissioner Gabino Aguirre said the new process brings back integrity and transparency, with maps drawn with communities in mind, not the political interests of incumbents.

Districts created by a citizens panel will likely have more legitimacy with the public, said Bob Benedetti, executive director of Jacoby Center for Public Service and Civic Leadership at University of the Pacific. He said if those districts are more compact, it could change how lawmakers are influenced.

Splintered cities and counties don’t work well together, which gives lobbyists more pull compared with constituencies. “It increases the outside pressure because there is no inside pressure,” Benedetti said.

And the nation has a history of using political boundaries to limit the voting power of minorities, said Michelle Romero, a redistricting expert at the Greenlining Institute, an advocacy group that has organized events encouraging participation, including one in Stockton.

She said the commission has been responsive to input about defining “communities of interest,” a key criteria considered by the panel.

The commission is looking for the public to help it shape the next draft.

A meeting will be held in Stockton on June 24 at San Joaquin Delta College. A second draft will be released before the commission issues a final version Aug. 15.

The first draft puts most of the county into more-compact districts. But not Lodi, which falls into two far-flung legislative districts.

The Assembly district starts in Lodi, but sprawls west through Oakley and Isleton to Benicia in Solano County. To the northwest, it curls around Davis into Woodland in Yolo County. That district is nested in a larger state Senate district that stretches further west to Napa and Sonoma counties.

The Lodi-to-Santa Rosa connection has some baffled.

“Amazing and complexly idiotic,” said David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University who specializes in California politics. “The only community of interest I can see in that state Senate district is wine,” he said. “I would imagine that district will get edited quite a bit.”

During their Friday meeting, members of the redistricting panel agreed to take another look at how state Senate districts were drawn.

Population and other requirements put Lodi in a difficult position, said Michelle DiGuilio, a commissioner from Stockton. The foothills to the east and the coastal ranges to the west create natural boundaries and, she said, federal rules for Merced County also have an impact. Merced is one of a handful of counties singled out in a federal law protecting minority voting rights.

“How do we balance all the competing needs on a very large, regional scale?” DiGuilio asked.

Compact districts have been the goal, but political experts believe large districts can still work for constituents.

Mike Machado lives in Linden and is the former state senator from the Fifth District, which is about the size of Rhode Island. “A person can represent a large area very well if they get to know it.”

Similarities from one end of District 5 to the other outweigh differences, said state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who represents the district now. The Delta, in particular, unifies the district, but so do issues of education, agriculture and transportation, she said. “We share a great deal of common ground.”

And those issues won’t change, even if Wolk is drawn out of the district. That appears likely, she said. “If that is the case, regardless of any district boundaries, I will still continue to work on behalf of the common issues the people of Stockton and the greater Delta region share.”