July 4, 2011 | San Francisco Chronicle | Original Article

Calif. redistricting triggers debate on hot issues

A deep cultural conversation is emerging in the Bay Area from the wonky new process being used to redraw California's maps for state and federal legislative districts.

Threaded into the battle over the new boundaries - and the political power and government funding that will be distributed according to where they are drawn - are feelings about class, race, ethnicity and culture that rarely get discussed in public.

Such sentiments have become louder since the 14-member California Citizens Redistricting Commission released its first draft of the new maps in June. The commission will solicit public opinion after the next draft is released July 14. Its final version is due Aug. 15.

One of the panel's priorities is to draw new maps that are based, in part, on how people define their "community of interest" - anything from where they shop to a local park or school, their socioeconomic status or the race and ethnicity of the people around them.

But one Californian's community of interest is another's worst political nightmare, as the commission is hearing.

As of last week, 2,728 people had spoken at commission meetings around the state, several of which have been held in the Bay Area, while more than 15,000 people had submitted online comments, and hundreds of individuals and groups had offered their own maps.

The gay-rights organization Equality California issued suggested boundaries for San Francisco and several other cities, including Oakland and San Jose.

In the East Bay, a group of Indian Americans in Fremont submitted a map that would keep their community together, while residents of suburban San Ramon protested being included with them, saying they had more in common with people in Walnut Creek.

New conversations

Those conversations didn't happen in the past when politicians or judges oversaw the once-a-decade drawing of the maps, often behind closed doors.

"Often, what we hear about one person's community of interest is that it contradicts another's," said Cynthia Dai, a commissioner who lives in San Francisco. "They will propose a community of interest that splits somebody else's up. What we have to decide is: How many communities of interest do we break up if we keep this one together?"

At a meeting in San Francisco last Monday, commissioners heard residents from Albany, a small city just north of Berkeley, explain that they identify more with the affluent Contra Costa County suburbs of Orinda and Lafayette than their middle-class but geographically closer neighbors in Pinole and Hercules.

In two-minute blasts over the three-hour meeting, conservatives bemoaned how they're being slighted in several spots around Northern California, while Marin County residents spoke of being like a family because their neighborhoods straddle Highway 101.

And gays and lesbians living in San Francisco's Twin Peaks neighborhood said they would rather be political compatriots with fellow gays in the Castro district than with people who live in the more conservative western part of the city.

Stronger voice

"It's important that we make sure the LGBT community is together as a community of interest," said Mario Guerrero, government affairs director for Equality California. It would make the community have a stronger voice to whoever represented it.

While Guerrero acknowledged that it's probable that gays in San Francisco - a powerful voting bloc with deep pockets - would be heard no matter where they live in the city, he said, "We want to be strong enough to be able to elect an LGBT representative."

And then there's the city of American Canyon, population 19,454, in southern Napa County, which is best known to many Bay Area residents as a place to drive through on the way to Wine Country.

Ten years after it received its own ZIP code and post office, American Canyon has started such a profound effort to be grouped with the rest of its fellow Napa County residents that the redistricting panel no longer has to double-check its maps to remember where it is.

"Keep us with Napa," American Canyon Mayor Leon Garcia said at Monday's meeting in San Francisco, touting the "1,103 names" on a petition asking for that.

Although 3 million more Latinos live in California than when political boundaries were last drawn, the proposed maps have fewer congressional districts with a majority of Latinos, said Arturo Vargas, executive director for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, citing an analysis done by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Since then, a coalition of African American, Asian American and Latino organizations has drawn its own maps and submitted them to the commission.

Similar communities

In the Bay Area, those maps reunite heavily Asian American parts of San Jose's Evergreen neighborhood and move San Leandro from an Assembly district dominated by Oakland to one that includes Hayward and San Lorenzo, to reflect similar ethnic communities and shopping patterns.

"Just because two groups of people don't want to be in the same district doesn't mean they don't like each other," said Eugene Lee of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, one of the organizations that helped draw the ethnic community maps. "It just means that they have different needs."

Political maps

Here are some of the proposed maps for state and congressional districts in California:

-- The California Citizens Redistricting Commission's first draft: links.sfgate.com/ZLAK.

-- Equality California, a gay-rights group: links.sfgate.com/ZLAL.

-- A coalition of African American, Asian American and Latino organizations: links.sfgate.com/ZLAM.

-- South Asian American citizens living in Fremont and nearby cities: links.sfgate.com/ZLAN.

For more information, go to wedrawthelines.ca.gov.