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The Obama/No-on-11 ticket

August 28, 2008 |  5:02 pm

campaign 2008, redistricting, California, Opinion L.A., Willie Brown, Democratic convention Give Howard Jarvis his due (or his don't) for Proposition 13, but I nominate Willie Brown as the father of late-20th-century government reform in California. No, really. It was Brown who brought us legislative term limits by amassing so much power as Assembly speaker in the 1980s and halfway through the 1990s that the only way to loosen his grip was to appeal to voters outside his home district to boot him from office. Before Brown was termed out, even Republicans with a majority in 1994 and 1995 were coaxed or intimidated into keeping him in charge.

You could make a good argument that Brown is also the father of numerous failed attempts to strip lawmakers of their power to draw their own district lines -- attempts like Proposition 11 on this November's statewide ballot. The members are term-limited, but the parties still have full power to perpetuate themselves and control who gets what seat in the Assembly, the Senate, the Board of Equalization, and Congress, and whoever has the majority is expected to work hard to keep it, at almost any cost.

Brown pretty much admitted as much Thursday morning to members of the state Democratic delegation in Denver. Don't even think of giving up that power, he said.

"Let me assure you, whoever is drawing the lines will dictate the course of action of who gets elected, and who gets elected will determine what happens to the policy issues in the halls of the Legislature," Brown told bleary-eyed Democrats. "Make no mistake about it; this is not about good government. Good government is whether or not we do the things that remove misery from people. That's the highest priority, and the process of drawing those lines gets us that opportunity."

The bottom line? "We have got to make sure that the no vote on Prop 11 equals the yes vote for Barack Obama."

Listen for yourself: Download willie_brown_82808.mp3

This may be a good point at which to draw your attention to a column by the Times' George Skelton, one of many seasoned Capitol observers who see the current budget fiasco as a result of extreme views on each side -- which he writes is in turn a result of districts gerrymandered by the party in charge. The the rule requiring a two-thirds vote for a budget or a tax increase may be enemy number one, but districting is close behind.

Needless to say, many disagree, like the author of this Calitics article calling redistricting reform "pointless." The real culprit, the piece says, is the "wingnut Republican caucus" and the two-thirds rule. Sacramento expert Bill Cavala labels the argument for reform "bunkum."

Frankly, I find myself wondering whether Proposition 11 would make any difference, and I think one of those earlier Brown-inspired reforms -- term limits -- has brought California to the brink of disaster. But that doesn't mean all old-school ways are best. The so-called wingnuts are a result of safe Republican districts, in which the winning candidate is all too often the one who outflanks all opponents on the right. If redistricting reform doesn't take care of that, I don't know what will. Besides, if Brown hates Prop 11, can it be all that bad?

*Photo: Randi Lynn Beach

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