Alan S. Lowenthal, State Senator from Long Beach, talks to PT about reforming the redistricting process.
PT: Political motives aside, what is redistricting reform fundamentally about—what does it propose to solve?
Lowenthal: It's about a process that has been denying fair representation to people who have an acknowledged community of interest. For democracy to work, people must feel that they have a representative who at least shares or is responsive to their needs. When you have legislators' self interest dictating the way districts are drawn, that doesn't happen. Self-preservation isn't a completely evil thing, but when it starts coming before the needs of the people, it means that you need to change the structure of the system.
PT: Practically speaking, what would redistricting reform do to address the issues such as air quality, transportation and infrastructure that your Long Beach constituents care about?
Lowenthal: I never thought that redistricting in and of itself was a panacea, or that it would solve all the problems. The idea is to create as fair a system as possible that does not disenfranchise people, which is what the current system does. Granted, just because you represent a community doesn't mean that you're going to always agree with everything the constituents want, and it doesn't mean that they're always going to speak with one voice.
Reforming the redistricting process would be a fairer way to proceed, and that will work to reestablish the people's trust in their elected officials. Whether it's in polls or just talking to people on the street, there's at best a lack of interest of what goes on in Sacramento, and at worst a tremendous distrust.
"I never thought that redistricting in and of itself was a panacea or that it would solve all the problems."
PT: On that note, what would you say has changed in the last 20-30 years in the way that citizens relate to their elected officials?
Lowenthal: They think that legislators aren't really there for them or accountable to them. In many ways though, this notion is a product of our time. As connected as we are, we are a very disconnected society. We lead very contained lives and we don't relate to people the way we used to. People used to have town hall meetings and there was much more community involvement in the democratic process. People knew who they were sending to office, and people received news and understood things through a very social process.
Technology has depersonalized communication, people are geographically dispersed, and this is reflected in a lack of trust in people's elected officials. It doesn't necessarily mean that the people think the legislature is doing a bad job; it means they don't care or know very much about the legislature and what it does.
PT: How can redistricting reform change this?
Lowenthal: We have to reconnect with people, and that's very difficult. Legislators can start—no matter when they're elected—by not waiting until their next election to go out and spend time in their communities. They need to try to break down that distance between themselves and the electorate. Having some continuity in their districts will help that. It won't solve everything, but it will help it because representatives will be able to resonate to common themes.
PT: Is there a tension between connecting with the electorate and maintaining a position in Sacramento that allows legislators to be effective?
Lowenthal: Yes, there is a tension there, but tension is not necessarily bad. Tension is a creative force that can either be used to the advantage of the democratic process or to its disadvantage.
If you spend all of your time in Sacramento playing the insider's game, you lose touch with what's really going on. You can't be in the district all the time, but we need to do it more. I think redistricting reform can help because it would make districts more compact and contiguous, which makes it easier to be in the community and to get a sense of what people need.
PT: How do you make that connection between the problems that people face every day and the subject of redistricting reform? How do you convince people that their needs will be better served under a reformed redistricting process?
Lowenthal: I haven't completely figured it out yet. I've been working at both the public and legislative level, and I'm just now starting to see wider support. I haven't been successful at making the link yet on a broad scale, but I do know that we're moving along. I think a critical mass is growing and people are taking notice.
PT: We're going to see Proposition 77 on the ballot. What does this indicate?
Lowenthal: It indicates that people are frustrated and they signed petitions. It has nothing to do with the legislature, or what it could or couldn't do. People want to see some real change. My problem with the proposition is that I don't think it's the best fix for the problem. I like the idea but I don't like the implementation of it.
PT: What are your main concerns about Proposition 77? Can you explain why they are important?
Lowenthal: My first concern is that Proposition 77 uses old data. Most likely, it won't come into effect until 2008, which means it will be using eight-year-old data.
My second problem with the proposition is that it isn't self-executing. Whatever commission you have doing the redistricting, once they make a decision, it should go into effect. This initiative sends it back to the legislature, then to the people. If the people vote it down, then you have to start all over again.
Finally, I think redistricting should be carried out by an independent commission of citizens, not retired judges. Retired judges can create the initial list of who should be on the commission, but I think it should be comprised of independent citizens that have had no previous involvement in any redistricting or political process. You could balance things in terms of party registration and ethnicity and the other things you need to balance. I think it's a much fairer process in terms of building public support.
PT: Senator, thank you for your time.
Alan S. Lowenthal represents Long Beach and Los Angeles county communities in the 27th Senate District. Lowenthal graduated from Hobart College and earned a Ph. D from Ohio State University.