As a general rule, I don’t take it particularly well when someone tells me — as has been known to happen — “Be reasonable.” First, it presumes I’m not. Second, it presumes they are. By framing it in these terms, they — whoever they are — have already claimed the argumentative high ground. That leaves me occupying the lowland terrain reserved presumably for hysterics, mystics, and those who argue with themselves on State Street and lose.
The only thing worse is people who smoke pipes.
I mention this particular bugaboo because a brand-new political organization has burst upon the Santa Barbara scene, purporting to usher in a new age of sweet reason. Naturally, it calls itself Reason in Government, and promises to become “The Voice for the Radical Center.” Why do I smell pipe smoke?
To give the new group props, they’re already hitting way above their weight class. You may never have heard of them; you might not ever. But they’ve already changed the way The Game will be played in terms of county elections and which way the teeter-totter of power tilts at the County Board of Supervisors. While most people have busied themselves frothing at the mouth, Reason in Government has been quietly collecting signatures — more than 16,000 — to place an initiative before voters to create a new independent commission empowered to redraw the boundary lines for each of the five supervisorial districts. Next Tuesday, they and their signatures go before the county supervisors, who have no choice but to place the matter on this November’s ballot. (There is talk, however, of getting a competing ballot measure on too. We’ll see.)
In exactly the same way most trials are won or lost with the selection of the jury, the political outcome of most elections is preordained by the drawing of the boundary lines. Whosoever draws the lines picks the winners. Every 10 years, we are required to redraw the boundary lines based on the latest Census results. The idea — at least on paper — is to draw the lines so that each district has the same number of people represented and communities of interest are kept intact. In reality, it’s all about stacking the deck and rigging the game so that your side prevails. It’s called gerrymandering.
If I just used the word “rig,” I did so advisably. The acronym for this new group — Reason in Government — happens to be RIG.
RIG? Redistricting? Really?
For the record, everyone hates gerrymandering. Everyone loves independent commissions to prevent it. That’s because the abuses are legendary and they’re real. For 10 years, Lois Capps — Santa Barbara’s nearly saintly Democratic ex-congressmember — represented a district known as “the ribbon of shame” that was drawn specifically to give her a 12 percent advantage in registered Democrats over registered Republicans. Capps’s district was a narrow blue band of the coast 200 miles long and so skinny that it was said to disappear at high tide.
RIG was started by Bob Collector, a former filmmaker and a longtime community agitator who’s lived in Montecito and Summerland. Joining him on the board is a guy who used to be head of the Federal Communications Commission under Ronald Reagan. Collector, usually not shy with his insights or opinions, said he was not yet prepared to talk on the record as he and his posse were “caught flat-footed” that the supes would be taking up their ballot initiative so swiftly.
My North County Republican friends tell me RIG is really all about splitting UCSB and Isla Vista into separate districts so that more conservative candidates have a better shot at winning the 3rd District, long the key swing district that determines the balance of power at the Board of Supervisors. To be fair, they say Collector insists the only agenda is fairness. They’re skeptical for a number of reasons. The first is the money. To date, RIG has raised more than $100,000 to collect signatures. Of the $42,000 itemized in the latest campaign filing statement, every cent of it came from North County ag, business, and Republican interests long exasperated by the eco-friendly, union-dependent tilt of the county supervisors. Conspicuously missing from campaign filings was any South Coast — or even centrist — money.
That may be because the signature-gathering effort was spearheaded by Bob Nelson — who did not return my phone call — who happens to be 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam’s right-hand man and political consigliere. Adam may be a whole lot of things, but a centrist has never been among them. He is and always has been exuberantly radical in style, tactics, and his conservative ideology. To the extent the board has an odd man out, it is Adam, who plays the role to the hilt with gleeful and outrageous abandon.
Four years ago, Adam floated a ballot initiative — Measure M — designed to starve the tapeworm of county government. On paper, it would have required the county to maintain all roads and infrastructures at their current levels of repair, a modest if reasonable-sounding proposition. In reality, Measure M would have required the diversion of $20 million to $30 million from other county departments and programs. In one respect, Measure M succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. It managed to unify every other county supervisor — liberals and conservatives — department heads, special interests of all stripes, and union bosses in opposition. By contrast, a homeowners’ rights organization that Collector was then leading — the Neighborhood Defense League of California — backed Measure M to the tune of $40,000. That was the biggest single donation received by either side.
In an interview back then, Adam described his measure as the political equivalent of a “temper tantrum.” I get temper tantrums. But I don’t pretend I’m being reasonable when I throw one. And I don’t ask others to pretend I am, either. When other people do, I smell pipe smoke.