The most intriguing feature of Santa Barbara’s redrawn political landscape is State Senate District 19, a brand new, wide open piece of legislative turf that could be the most fiercely contested prize of the 2012 elections.
A wiggly rectangle covering all of Santa Barbara and the western half of Ventura counties, the district is one of 177 state and federal political jurisdictions overhauled by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, whose 14 members voted to approve their own handiwork last week.
“We were stepping on a lot of toes,” Commissioner Maria Blanco said after the crucial vote approving maps for new districts—53 for the U.S. House of Representatives, 40 for the State Senate, 80 for the Assembly, and four for the tax-regulating Board of Equalization. “And the reason we were is that we were following the law and we were getting rid of gerrymanders.”
For local voters, the new senate district represents one of two dramatic changes the commission made, glimpses of which came in a preliminary plan released in June.
Representative Lois Capps says she plans to seek reelection in what will be the new 24th Congressional District. It offers her far less of a partisan cushion than her current seat, a sprawling coastal area where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 19 percent.
Democrats have only a 4 percent edge over Republicans in the new district, which includes Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, plus a small piece of the City of Ventura. This sets up a potentially close race against former Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado, who has announced his intention to run, or other GOP candidates who may jump in.
Assemblymember Das Williams faces far fewer changes in either geography or electorate in what will become the new 37th Assembly District, which includes the South Coast, Santa Ynez Valley and part of western Ventura County.
But it is the new senate district that raises the most entertaining scenarios.
Since 2001, when the state was last redistricted, Santa Barbara County has been split between two senate seats held by Republicans, most recently Sam Blakeslee, who represents North County, and Tony Strickland, whose district includes the South Coast.
Now, the political maps drawn by the commission to reflect the 2010 Census push Blakeslee into a new district further north and Strickland into one further south. And the newly constituted 19th District, with a population of 928,850, leans strongly Democratic; the registered voter roll is 44 percent Democrat, 32 percent Republican and 19 percent decline-to-state independents, with the balance belonging to minor parties.
These voters supported Governor Jerry Brown and Senator Barbara Boxer in 2010, President Barack Obama in 2008, and opposed—slightly—the Proposition 8 initiative to outlaw same sex marriage the same year. The only recent hint of Republican sentiment was the plurality won by former L.A. district attorney Steve Cooley, the GOP candidate for attorney general, who narrowly outpolled Democrat Kamala Harris, the winner of the 2010 race.
So the senate seat could be tempting for a host of local Democrats, including Williams, Hannah-Beth Jackson, and Pedro Nava, to name just three, not to mention Republicans or independents attracted by the wild-card rules of the state’s new top-two primary system.
Williams is the only incumbent state officeholder who landed within the boundaries of the senate district, leaving him well positioned to run. Deciding to do so could provide him eight more years in Sacramento—two four-year senate terms—compared to the four years he would have remaining in the Assembly before being termed out.
Former Assemblymember Jackson, one of Williams’s political mentors, might try a political comeback, having lost a 2008 senate race to Strickland by the tiniest of margins. For those who enjoy campaigns as spectator sport, however, the most compelling possibility would be a match-up between political enemies Nava and Williams.
“We have created a new landscape,” said Commissioner Connie Galambos Malloy, who emphasized the possibilities for change presented to voters, after decades of state gerrymanders, “with opportunities for new leadership across California to emerge.”