Be fair now, you guys on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

November 15, 1990|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Vic Fazio of California, head of a Democratic drive to improve his party's position for the 1992 congressional reapportionment, was talking right after the midterm elections about everybody's stated desire for fairness in the process.

"Fairness in reapportionment," quoth he, "is much like beauty." He meant, obviously, that it is in the eye of the beholder -- that each party considers the redrawing of district lines fair if it is favorable to itself.

With tongue in cheek, Fazio went on: "We will advocate fairness in those states where we will not be able to provide fairness directly."

It has ever been thus every 10 years, after a new national census. Parties that control governorships and one or both houses of the state legislature do their level best, under legal limits, to give themselves the most and the safest legislative seats, both in the state legislature and in Congress. If their lack of political strength in any state shuts them out of the action or at best gives them an inhibiting role, they call for "fairness."

There was a time, before the Supreme Court's one-person, one-vote ruling, that state legislatures were able to run hog wild in advancing their partisan interests in redistricting. The practice goes back at least to 1812, when the Massachusetts legislature under Gov. Elbridge Gerry hacked out a district so grotesquely in the shape of a salamander that a caricaturist of the day drew a head on the district map and dubbed it a "gerrymander."

The name has stuck to this day, although the extremes of the practice have been reined in not only by the Supreme Court ruling but also by the amended Voting Rights Act, which now requires protection of voting representation of minority groups living in a district. But creative imagination, plus the use of computers able to draw district lines swiftly in various ways to conform with the law, have kept gerrymandering alive, if somewhat harnessed.

The Republican Party, despairing of ever winning control of the House of Representatives through elections every two years, was looking to this year's midterm elections as a means of greatly improving its chances for a breakthrough in 1992. A total of 19 House seats are expected to shift to eight states that have gained enough population to warrant one or more additional seats. So the GOP set out to capture key governorships and control of key state legislatures in which the new lines will be drawn, subject to gubernatorial veto.

The Republicans set their sights on three states -- California, which is to gain seven seats, Florida, which is to pick up four, and Texas, in line for three more.

They held the governorship in California but the Democrats gained a seat in both the state assembly and state senate they already controlled, assuring a fight that probably will wind up before the state Supreme Court, controlled by Republican appointees.

But, in losing the governorships in the other two major target states, with the Democrats in firm control of both houses of the legislature, the Republicans' hope of using reapportionment to take a big step on the long road to majority control of the U.S. House went aglimmering.

Of the other five states that may pick up a House seat, three -- Georgia, Virginia and Washington -- have Democratic governors and legislatures. North Carolina has a Republican governor but he has no veto over redistricting done by the Democratic-controlled legislature. And in the fifth state, Arizona, where the Republicans hold the state assembly, the Democrats have just won control of the state senate and are in a runoff for the governorship.

Of the 14 states figuring to lose one or more seats, the Democrats control all three key elements in four and the Republicans in none, so the Democrats should be able to dodge losses in the first four and put up a good fight for "fairness" in the 10 others with split party control.

"You're going to see an awful lot of lawyers boning up on reapportionment," says Fazio. Ben Ginsberg, chief counsel of the Republican National Committee, who has been working on the legal aspects of reapportionment, agrees, but he says the GOP is better positioned than it was 10 years ago, after the last census, to achieve "fairness." The midterm election results, however, clearly indicate that fairness in most affected states will continue to be in the eyes of the Democrats.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of Th 1 Sunday Sun.

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