“You don’t pick your representatives; your representatives pick you.”— A popular definition of the “gerrymandering” process
First off, let’s get one thing straight: everyone west of the Adirondacks mispronounces the word. As Jeff Reichert’s new documentary notes, the word is pronounced “GARYmandering.” It was Founding Father Elbridge Gerry (pronounced “Gary”) who, as Governor of Massachusetts in 1812, carved up an electoral district so oddly that it resembled a salamander.
Drawing on interviews with more than 50 commentators from across the political spectrum, “Gerrymandering” presents a compelling argument that allowing politicians to draw district maps is a tool that works to defeat true democracy. As one pundit colorfully observes: “Gerrymandering is the blood sport of politics.” When political lines are being reinvented on a map, “it’s not about ideas, it’s simply about power!”
The film argues that allowing legislators to draw voting districts means “politicians choose voters instead of the other way around.” Once an urban population has been sliced-and-diced to consolidate wealthy neighborhoods, ensnare partisan cores, or divide and disempower Asian, Hispanic or African American enclaves, “it really doesn’t matter who you vote for,” a seasoned political player observes. “The election outcome has already been determined.”
Reichert’s award-winning film succeeds in bringing many voices to the table, including politicians, professors, reporters, community activists, Native Americans and four current and former California governors (Ronald Reagan, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger). In an interview with The Planet, director Reichert emphasized that the film was intended to be nonpartisan, was “entirely privately financed” and that the timing of its release — two weeks before the crucial November election — was coincidental. Work on the film began in 2005, Reichert noted, “before Prop 20. Or Prop. 11 were even ideas.”
The Voters First Act for Congress (proponents of California’s “anti-gerrymandering” Proposition 20) has taken full advantage of the timing. In early October, VFAC mass-mailed 660,000 free DVDs of “Gerrymandering” as part of a glossy election packet urging people to vote “Yes on 20; No on 27.” Mailing this multimedia “nonprofit” message cost somewhere between $102,000 and $113,000. Where does VFAC get this kind of money? More about that later.
Mapmakers Behaving Badly
“Gerrymandering” crisscrosses the country, revealing a range of bizarrely drawn districts that resemble earphones, worms, and slingshots. California is replete with gerrymandered regimes that sprawl and twist like mold spores in a Petri dish — a rogue’s gallery filled with examples of what can happen when a gerrymanderer’s Rorschach Treatment is employed to trump demographics. LA’s bucket-shaped Congressional District, for example, suggests a pigeon biting the tail of a toad kissing the snout of a cocker spaniel. In one delicious cameo, a Sixties-era Willie Brown marvels over his own Assembly district, noting that “Picasso would be proud” of the way it was drawn. One narrow section connecting two large pockets of pro-Dem voters was so thin it actually comprised little more than the median strip running down the midsection of a road.
The shenanigans continue as the film introduces us to a rising young politician whose attempt to challenge an incumbent is derailed when the older man orders the challenger’s home “drawn out” of his New York district, making it impossible for supporters to vote for him.
In New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, the film documents how entire districts have ceased to exist in flood-ravaged neighborhoods. The hurricane offered opportunities to redraw the political map of the South by drawing down the population of New Orleans while driving up the political populations in neighboring states selected to receive the refugees.
One veteran politician revels in the ability of modern Gerrymanderers to divide a district into Democratic and Republican enclaves with such precision that “if you have a Republican husband and a Democratic wife, we can draw the line straight down the center of their bed.” Another political insider recalls a district that was redrawn because a politician wanted to exclude the apartment of an annoying intern.
Jon Stewart pops up to introduce the remarkable episode in 2003 when the entire Democratic wing of the Texas Assembly and Senate disappeared in the middle of the night and hid out in a Holiday Inn in neighboring Oklahoma to stop a vote on redistricting plan that would hand Democratic seats to the Republicans. Tom Delay hatched the plan at the behest of Karl Rove and George W. Bush. Even though redistricting is supposed to happen only once every ten years, Rove hoped to engineer a mid-decade redistricting coup that would benefit the Bush White House. In the end, Delay dispatched Texas State Troopers to corral the wayward Dems. The vote proceeded and a passel of Bush-friendly Republicans summarily replaced seven seated Democrats.
To dispel the idea that redistricting only benefits Republicans, Reichert points out “if Barack Obama hadn’t been involved in choosing his own district, he might not now be president.” In many cases, Reichert concedes, “racial redistricting helps minorities.”
The Battle for California’s Prop. 11
The core of the film revolves around the 2008 battle for Proposition 11, California’s Voter Empowerment Act. Prop. 11 was supposed to depoliticize the process by placing redistricting in the hands of an independent panel. Despite the failure of five previous attempts to reform the redistricting process, Common Cause activist Kathay Feng decides to mount one last attempt. Feng enlists the Women’s League of Voters, the American Association of Retired People and, most surprisingly, a broad-shouldered ally named Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Governator cruises through the film like he owns it, radiating energy, conviction, humor and charm. This may prove to be one of his best film roles. Schwarzenegger’s posturing as a tireless “populist hero” — working to return power to the people by ending the increasing polarization of state politics — was critical to the success of the initiative.
Prop. 11 created an independent 14-member citizen’s commission. Reichert points out that 33,000 Californians “of all political persuasions” volunteered to serve of the commission.
Reichert admits that Prop 20 might not wind up adding more fairness and balance to the political process but insists the current system has failed and it’s time to try something new. Asked if there are other systems that have proven to work better, he cites several European models, noting that Germany’s system is both successful and popular. Could modern computers accomplish redistricting impartially, free of political bias? Reichert can’t be sure but he does offer: “There is open source mapping software. A high school student with Google Earth might be able to do a better job.”
“Gerrymandering” ends with a montage of “Congress Gone Wild” clips featuring angry words and bad behavior ranging from Republican John Boehner to Californians Barbara Lee and Henry Waxman. (Waxman is shown banging his gavel and threatening to have someone “physically removed.”). These snippets lack context and seem designed to portray all political incumbents as petulant and self-aggrandizing egotists. Asked about this, Reichert confesses, “We may have gone a bit overboard there.”
With the 2010 Census completed and the next round of redistricting set to begin in January, the importance of this film in stimulating a debate cannot be denied. “Gerrymandering” will convince many viewers that it makes perfect sense to Vote Yes on 20 but, hold on. There are hidden forces at work behind the screen. Let’s take a minute to explore them.
Follow the Money
“There’s a lot of money in redistricting,” Reichert told the Planet, citing a number of well-financed and politically connected firms that profit by offering to redraw political boundaries. One of the most influential firm is owned by Michael Berman whose brother Howard holds forth over California’s 28th Congressional District. (Reichert says he tried to interview Michael Berman but “he wouldn’t talk to us.”)
Reichert tells the Planet that the brothers Berman need to gerrymander the Assemblyman’s district to counter the rising power of the region’s Hispanic residents. After the 2000 census, Reichert notes, members of the State Democratic Party were strongly encouraged to send five-figure checks to Michael Berman’s firm. (According to the film’s executive producer Bill Mundell, “All of the Legislature, all of the congressional delegation, paid consultants $30,000 to draw bulletproof districts.” The Brennan Center for Justice reports that 30 of California’s Congressional reps wrote $20,000 checks as part of a $1.3 million contract to redraw the state’s Congressional districts.)
The Planet asked Reichert why Prop. 20 has so much support from business groups and the Chamber of Commerce and no support from progressive groups and unions? Doesn’t this make it look like the Democrats stand to loose and the GOP hopes to gain from the passage of Prop. 20? Riechert admits this could happen but believes this is a risk that should be acceptable in a true democracy. “I don’t see this is a Republican power grab as much as it is a Democratic ‘power keep,’” Reichert explains. Reichert notes that the film “was entirely privately financed” and the filmmakers worked “with a laundry list of progressive advocacy groups nationwide to promote redistricting awareness and reform.” The film’s overall message, Reichert insists, is: “know the district you live in and participate in redistricting.”
A check with Election Track reveals a clear division in support for the two competing propositions. Republicans and businesses fund Prop. 20 while incumbent Democrats, doctors, firefighters, trade and professional unions, including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) support Prop. 27.
As of October 6, 2010, the Dem-backed Prop. 27 campaign reported contributions totaling $4,312,638. For the same period, the Prop. 20 campaign had raised more than triple that amount — $13,375,419. Prop. 27 lists 28 individuals (plus 24 incumbent Democrats) as contributors with the biggest donations coming from the AFT ($1 million), the American Federation of State, Country and Municipal Employees ($1.25 million) and Dem-friendly billionaire Haim Saban ($2 million). (Glenn Beck’s bête noire, George Soros, also chipped in a token $100,000.) Political insider Tony Quinn points to another complicating factor. Saban once told the New York Times, “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.” According to Quinn, Saban wants to assure that Representative Berman continues to exert a pro-Israel presence as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The Los Angeles Times made a big issue of the fact that Prop. 27 had the backing of pro-Dem billionaire Haim Saban but failed to report the biggest spender of all — Prop. 20’s Charles T. Munger, Jr. Described as a “self-employed” physicist, Munger (who works at the Stanford Linear Accelerator) has made 13 contributions to the Prop. 20 campaign totaling over S11 million. According to the Electron Track website, Munger made his first contribution of $301,770 on October 13, 2009. His individual contributions have ranged from $152,932 to $2.5 million. (According to Election Track, Munger made two $2.5 million contributions on a single day — September 27, 2010.)
Prop. 20’s second largest contributor (with six donations totaling $1,912,002) was Charlotte A. Lowell, who describes herself as a “self-employed” attorney. Charlotte Lowell also happens to be Mrs. Charles Munger Jr. The combined contributions of the two Sacramento-based Mungers apparently account for more than 90 percent of the Prop. 20’s campaign funding.
Election Track also records a $5,000 contribution from “Gerrymandering Movie, LLC. New York, NY 10001.” Reichert explains this donation as “in-kind for work we did to bring the film to readiness for the DVD mailing.”
There is another conflict of interest that runs counter to the claim that “Gerrymandering” is wholly “nonpartisan.” The film’s executive producer, Bill Mundell, is the founder of Californians for Fair Redistricting. In 2005, Mundell poured at least $318,000 of his own money into this reform campaign. Mundell is chair of an alternative energy firm and an educational software entrepreneur who describes himself as “a lifelong Republican” and “a proponent of market-based solutions to economic and policy issues.” Mundell is a well-informed and passionate advocate of redistricting reform but his involvement in a campaign to use an this documentary as a tool to aggressively steer the electorate’s vote on a critical issue on November’s ballot undercuts the film’s nonpartisan claim.
Mundell may be correct when he refers to gerrymandering as “America’s best-kept secret” — a tool of the status quo that “is more menacing than voter suppression or tampering.” But his personal stake and behind-the-scenes attempt to influence the outcome of the election needs to be factored into the equation. Explaining his decision to mail 660,000 copies of the “Gerrymandering” DVD to state voters the month before the election, Mundell wrote (in an op-ed in the Orange County Register): “My hope is that this will lead voters to vote yes on Proposition 20 (which would give the existing redistricting commission the power to also draw new district lines for California’s members of Congress) and No on Prop. 27 (which would eliminate the commission altogether).”
Mundell admits he can’t promise miracles but “if it does nothing else, redistricting reform will empower intra-party dissenters in a way that enhances the free flow of ideas…. A fixed political system is a stagnant one.” The Democratic Party’s opposition to Prop. 20 is clearly predicated on the fear that it stands to lose seats if legislators no longer control the redistributing process. But Reichert estimates that, “at best, Republicans could hope to pick up maybe a seat or two statewide.”
Ironically, Mundell seems to question the initiative process itself. “The failure of representative government in this state has led citizens to over-utilize the initiative process to express their will,” Mundell wrote in the Register. While Mundell said nothing about the threat that corporate-backed initiative campaigns pose for democracy, he holds the initiative process responsible for “leading directly to our recurring budget disaster” by creating “unfunded, uncoordinated mandates.” Equally out-of-sync with his role as champion of “Voter Rights” is Mundell’s observation that “no one can run the eighth-largest economy in the world when most of the budget has been predetermined by the voters.”
When Mundell proclaims that Prop. 20 “is unquestionably an initiative of the people and not of the politicians, nor of the special interests,” he needs to explain how a “people’s initiative” can be almost totally bankrolled by two “self-employed” residents of Sacramento.
Reichert insists that “our involvement in Prop. 20” does not compromise the film’s legitimacy because the film criticizes both major parties, notes the “pitfalls of Prop. 11,” and offers criticisms of the Yes on 20 campaign. Furthermore, the Prop. 20 organization “had no editorial control” over the contents of the film. “Prop. 20 does have major Republican backers,” Reichert adds, “but is also supported by a host of good government groups from the left.” And even if “mainly Democrats are lining up against it, it’s their opposition that’s making it partisan, not the language of the proposition itself.” Reichert points to an additional complication: “The same Democrats who are supporting Prop. 27 in California are supporting efforts similar to Prop. 20 in states where Republicans hold power” — a development that makes it “pretty clear that this is an issue that transcends simple party divisions.” Ultimately, Reichert argues, “I don’t think out support of 20 is partisan, even if the parties have separated themselves out on the issue.”
Still, whenever any individual or group decides to attempt to “lead the voters” — be it by gerrymandering, “astroturf” campaigns, corporate-backed initiatives or documentary films — there should be transparency. Viewers — and voters — need to be advised that “Gerrymandering” may require an “R” rating — for A Risky Proposition. Voter discretion is advised.
Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War (www.envirosagainstwar.org), which has just posted its 10,000th online article.