Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Race That Isn't


IF you live in Pasadena or Burbank, Glendale, Temple City or Monterey Park, you might not discover there's a Congressional election taking place in your neighborhood until you step into the voting booth next Tuesday.

You won't see much in the way of billboards, lawn signs, mailers or bumper stickers. There are no cable TV ads or campaign rallies. There's not a lot of media attention.

Yet Adam Schiff, the Democratic incumbent, is indeed running for re-election. And he's already won.

That's because Schiff is running in a "safe" district, one whose boundary lines have been drawn to protect the interests of the incumbent.

Schiff's 29th Congressional District is heavily Democratic. Much of that is due to demographic changes. In a nutshell, the Republicans have been leaving and the Democrats are moving in.

But thanks to redistricting, the 29th is so solidly Democratic now that Schiff's re-election is all but assured, short of a national-level scandal. Talk about job security.

Fortunately, the people of the 29th seem well served by Schiff, a centrist Democrat who spends a great deal of time pressing the flesh in the district and, when in Washington, avoiding extreme positions.

I know Republicans who are still smarting over FDR but will vote for Schiff.

As you can imagine, this tends to discourage highly visible, well-financed opponents. In this election, Schiff faces Jim Keller, a Libertarian; Lynda Llamas of the Peace and Freedom Party, William Paparian, a former Pasadena mayor who is running as a Green Party candidate, and William Bodell, a Republican.

Hardly the kind of competition that would have Schiff looking for a job in the private sector.

In the meantime, Schiff has raised more than $1 million for this election. Only Paparian with $23,135 has reported raising any money for his run. Bottom line: In the last election, Schiff won 65 percent of the vote. His closest opponent had 30 percent.

It seems odd that a country which embraces competition in business, in education, in sports - because it results in a better product - should ignore this mantra when it comes to choosing political representatives.

One result of that thinking is that in 2004, 85 percent of House incumbents won by landslide majorities of more than 60 percent. Only seven incumbents, out of 399 running, lost their seats.

And while I'm sure than many of these incumbents were re-elected based on their good deeds, a lot were returned because voters had no real choice.

According to Common Cause, advances in information and mapping technology have enabled a level of precision in district drawing that in effect, enables legislators to choose the voters they wish to represent and makes it difficult for voters to hold their representatives accountable. It also ratchets up the cynicism level of many voters.

For the record, this is a bipartisan bloodsport. I only mention Schiff because he is right here in our own backyard.

Republicans have had their own share of shenanigans. In Georgia, in the wake of taking control of state government in 2004, Republicans in 2005 redrew the Democratic gerrymander of 2005. They piously defend the proposed lines as more compact, but their primary motivation is clear: two more Republican House seats in 2006.

The bad news is that attempts at reform have failed.

Voters rejected Proposition 77 in last year's special election. The measure would have put redistricting in the hands of retired judges, who would have had to follow specific guidelines.

Much of the blame for that defeat can be placed at the feet of state legislators who promised a better plan when they campaigned against Prop. 77. Instead, their plan collapsed at the end of the session in a circus of finger pointing.

The state Legislature needs to try again. And if they don't, we need to encourage another try at the initiative level. Perhaps even a plan that confronts the problem from a national perspective.

It's as simple as this: If competition is a cornerstone of our society, it certainly ought to bring us better service from our elected representatives.

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