The obituaries for former Republican Congressman Don Clausen — who died at age 91 this week — revived discussion of how gerrymandering has changed our politics.
Clausen, a cheerful moderate who represented California’s coast north of San Francisco for 20 years, was one of the first and most famous victims of the modern gerrymander, the computer-driven manipulation of district lines to benefit one party or minority group.
Although it now has an odious reputation, there was a time when it was considered sport to destroy seats of the opposing party if you held both the governorship and legislature in a state.
Now pundits and reporters alike bewail how gerrymandering has made districts so politically one-sided that low-turnout primaries dominated by ideologues are often the only meaningful elections. The line about having politicians choose their voters rather than the other way around has become part of the dark humor surrounding the dark art of gerrymandering.
Of course, the media is now much more opposed to gerrymandering than when I started to write about it some 30 years ago. The biggest difference I can see is that Republicans now benefit from it more than Democrats.
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s infamous GOP remap of Texas districts is often cited as a watershed moment in gerrymandering history.
But I was witness to the real beginning of modern gerrymandering. In 1981, I was a lowly staffer in the California state legislature and saw the late Congressman Phil Burton, a Democrat from San Francisco, turn California’s congressional map into what he called his “contribution to modern art.” Because Democrats controlled the legislature and California Gov. Jerry Brown (then as well as now) would sign anything they produced, it was open season for Democrats.
Tony Quinn, a respected political analyst in California who used to be a Republican consultant, wrote on the website Fox & Hounds: “Burton’s work was the first truly brutal partisan gerrymander in American history, but not the last. I chuckle when I hear bleating Democrats complain about what the Republicans did to them in Texas . . . Burton taught them how to do it, and if a nice guy like Clausen could be cut out of his district, Republicans in future decades would have no restraint on doing the same thing when they were in power.”
I still recall the press conference at which Burton discussed the upcoming release of his
plan to the legislature's Democratic majority and insisted that many Republican congressmen were "in their mother’s arms."
He specifically said of Rep. Clausen, “Don’s in his mother’s arms.” After the district lines came out and Clausen saw his home turf had been eviscerated, he approached Burton at the Frank Fats restaurant in Sacramento to ask what had happened. “Your mother dropped you,” was Burton’s brusque reply.
Clausen went on to lose his re-election battle in 1982 by 6 percentage points. He left politics that election night in the classiest way possible. “The really happy man is the one who can enjoy the scenery when he has to take a detour,” he told supporters.
Rep. Ron Dellums, the radical from Berkeley, was protected by Burton, who stripped out working-class white precincts that didn’t hold the Reagan-bashing Dellums in high regard. “He can’t be beaten by a honky in the primary,” was Burton’s summary of his artwork. “He’s in his brothers’ arms.”
Since then, gerrymandering has become ever more sophisticated, allowing districts to be drawn so carefully that they are sometimes barely contiguous or made up of disconnected pieces separated by water. Some states, such as New Jersey, Arizona and California, have moved to “nonpartisan” methods of drawing district lines using legislative staff or independent commissions.
Their degree of success has varied since they tend to end up endorsing one party or the other’s proposed plan with few changes.
The real answer to gerrymandering — the ultimate inside baseball of politics — is to ensure that more politically sophisticated parts of the electorate are made aware of the worst abuses and use new media to arouse public outrage over them. But that usually works if the line drawers are capable of shame — and whether it’s Phil Burton or Tom DeLay that commodity may be in short supply.
John Fund is an expert on American politics where politics and economics and legal issues meet. He previously served as a columnist and editorial board member for The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of several books, including "Who's Counting: Bow Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote At Risk," "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy,” and "The Dangers of Regulation Through Litigation." He worked as a research analyst for the California Legislature in Sacramento before beginning his journalism career as a reporter for the syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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