LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When Stanley Forbes is not helping to redraw California’s electoral map, he is growing almonds at his ranch or running his independent book store.
Forbes, 64, is one of 14 state residents named to a newly formed state commission tasked with striking a blow against political gerrymandering by assuming from state lawmakers the politically sensitive job of redistricting.
A draft map recently released by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission radically alters the shape of the state’s 53 congressional and 120 legislative districts.
The proposal has drawn the ire of some long-time incumbent office-holders who would be forced to seek re-election in less familiar, more politically diverse territories, and from Latino groups who feel their political clout would be diminished.
But Forbes, who lives in the rural community of Esparto outside Sacramento and describes himself as primarily a farmer, said the criticism does not affect him or the commission.
“We recognize that we’re not going to make everyone happy, it’s just not possible,” he told Reuters this week.
The redistricting commission was the creation of a 2008 voter-approved initiative championed by former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.
Other members of the commission include an architect, a business consultant, a doctor and a law professor.
Last week, Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, a 10-term liberal Democrat who represents Marin and Sonoma counties north of San Francisco, became the first member of the state’s congressional delegation to call it quits since the new political map was released. She announced on Monday that she would not seek re-election in 2012.
Woolsey, 73, said she was retiring because she was tired of the job’s demands, not because of redistricting.
But she also lambasted the new map for her district, which encompasses a 375-mile stretch of territory along the coast. She said voters should “write the commissioners and remind them” her current territory is “a perfect, compact district.”
Meanwhile, Hispanic groups accuse the commission’s draft map of diluting Hispanic votes.
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials called the proposal a “worst-case scenario for the Latino community.”
The group said that despite the state’s growing Latino population, the number of congressional districts where Hispanic voters can control an election outcome would remain unchanged at seven, or even decline. Latinos make up 38 percent of California’s population, according to the U.S. Census.
Political districts are redrawn across the United States every 10 years in a process tied to the U.S. Census.
California and Arizona are the only states that leave redistricting to a commission independent of state legislators, according to the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.
“Redistricting is absolutely a political blood sport for those who know about it, and it really determines the balance of power in state legislatures and Congress,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
But Forbes said the commission’s independence helps ensure against the perpetuation of safe districts for incumbents, a problem cited by many political analysts under the old system.
“The main thing to understand is what gives us credibility is we’re not politicians,” Forbes said.
As a small business owner and a farmer, Forbes said he has a unique perspective that informs his work on the commission.
“It makes me aware that when people say they want an agricultural district, I know what that means, and I know why they want that sort of thing,” said Forbes, a former City Council member in the northern California town of Davis.
“Also, as a bookseller I’ve made a point of reading a whole bunch of stuff about California politics.”
The redistricting commission is charged with creating districts of equal population that respect the boundaries of cities and counties while keeping intact what the 2008 voter-approved initiative called “communities of interest.”
It must also comply with the 1965 Voting Rights Act to ensure minorities have fair representation.
“Creating Latino districts is not one of the criteria of the commission, complying with the Voting Rights Act is,” Forbes said, when asked about criticism from Latino groups.
The commission has five Democrats, five Republicans and four members who decline to state their party affiliation. They were chosen in a multi-step process that involved the Bureau of State Audits, legislative leaders and a random drawing.
The commission can expect more controversy ahead, as it continues to work on its maps for congressional districts and members of the state legislature. It has an August 15 deadline to complete the maps, and any legal challenge to their work will go directly to the California Supreme Court.
Editing by Steve Gorman