New Census Figures Spell Political Gain

The US Census Bureau is releasing its latest data on total populations. These numbers determine how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives. Host Michel Martin discusses what the new figures will mean for U-S politics and ordinary Americans, with former US Congressman Albert R. Wynn, and Kathay Feng, executive director of nonprofit advocacy group, California Common Cause.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, it's the season for giving, but how much is too much? And how do you ensure that your little people, or even your not-so-little people, are sincerely grateful for the gifts that they do receive? We'll talk about that in our weekly parenting segment, the Moms, in just a few minutes.

But first, we talk politics by the numbers. We're talking about the Census. Every 10 years, the government is required to count the number of people living in the U.S., and those preliminary numbers were released today. Those numbers are used for all kinds of things, to determine how funds for certain programs are apportioned, and so forth.

But the most important thing by most lights is that they are used to determine how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives and the boundaries for those districts. It's a process that sounds dry and technical, but in reality, is anything but.

We wanted to talk about how the process of drawing those lines actually works. So we've called two people who know. Albert Wynn is a former member of Congress, a Democrat. He represented the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. He's now a lobbyist in Washington, but very early in his career, he worked with an advisory group in Maryland that was working to redraw the lines after the 1980 census.

Also joining the conversation is Kathay Feng. She's executive director of the nonprofit, California Common Cause. That's an advocacy group that aims to make public officials more accountable to citizens. She's been a leader in helping to pass two initiatives in California which have tried to make California's redistricting process more transparent. And they're both with us now.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. KATHAY FENG (Executive Director, California Common Cause): Thanks for having us.

Mr. ALBERT WYNN (Lobbyist): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So Albert, tell us how the process is supposed to work. We want to get to how it really works. But tell us how it's supposed to work.

Mr. WYNN: It's supposed to work based on one man, one vote, and we're supposed to use the new numbers to make sure that the districts are equal in terms of the raw numbers. Those are the kind of basic, civic lesson kind of principles. The reality's much different.

MARTIN: How is the reality different?

Mr. WYNN: Well, you've got two interests. One, the politicians. They're fighting for their lives. The composition of a district will determine whether a politician's likely to be successful in the next election. The second group is the citizens. They want to maximize their political influence in terms of like-minded communities, be they racial, geographic, occupational, whatever. Like-minded folks want to be able to exert the maximum influence within a congressional district or state legislative district or a county council district.

MARTIN: So Kathay, tell us how and why Common Cause got involved in this issue, as it has been over the years.

Ms. FENG: Well, when I was involved in redistricting in 2001, I was a naive, young attorney who believed what Albert just described. You know, citizens can get involved. We can organize. We can get folks to go to the hearings and talk about where your communities are and that we might actually be listened to, and when the lines are drawn, that they will really reflect, you know, where our community's, our city's interests lie.

But the reality was the real process took place behind closed doors after all those public hearings were done. The real lines, which was picking the winners and losers for the next decade, who got to have a plum seat, who got to cherry-pick their voters. And it got real ugly very fast. Sometimes it was about one incumbent versus a challenger. Sometimes it was about a party versus another party. Sometimes it was about race. And all of those elements reared their ugly head during the redistricting process.

MARTIN: I want to play a short clip from a documentary in which you were interviewed. It was called "Gerrymandering." It was produced and directed by a documentarian named Jeff Reichert. And I'll just play a short clip from an interview that he did with you about this. Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gerrymandering")

Ms. FENG: In 2001, I had a particularly pleasant experience with an assembly member who, during the redistricting process, she called me up. This was in San Francisco. And she called me up to say, Kathay, you're not going to put another F-ing Asian in my district. And it was that type of arrogance and, frankly, racism, that drove me to ask the question: Does it make sense for incumbents to be drawing these lines?

MARTIN: So, Kathay, just take us back for a minute. Why did this particular political official not want another F-ing Asian in her district?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FENG: San Francisco is one-third Asian-American, and I think she thought that if there were too many F-ing Asians in her district, that they weren't going to vote for her. They would support some other candidate of their choice. And she didn't want that. And in her mind, that district belonged to her and she was going to do what she needed to do - as Albert said, fighting for her political life, even if that meant drawing really strange lines around some pretty big communities to make sure that they weren't in her district.

MARTIN: But where is it written, though, that all Asians have to be together? You see what I'm saying? I don't understand.

Ms. FENG: Yeah. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Is it supposed to be that people are supposed to be grouped together along ethnic lines? Why is that an assumption?

Ms. FENG: You know, I don't think that there's that assumption. But I do think that we passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to ensure that communities that had traditionally been disenfranchised, left out of the political game, that were actually actively discriminated against in this game of redistricting, right? Where communities were purposefully split up so that they wouldn't have a political voice, that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 said, no, all of that comes to an end.

Now, sometimes it makes sense to keep a community together because they share interests. But you're going to have to look at, you know, each state and each community and decide if, say, one Asian-American community shares interests with another. And sometimes it doesn't make any sense. But the Voting Rights Act certainly does say that to the extent that a community has the ability to elect a candidate of their choice, we need to protect that ability and not use redistricting as a way of taking away their ability to make a difference.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about the impact of the new numbers released by the Census Bureau today. Those numbers are used to draw lines for political districts, among other things. And we're talking about how that process really works.

Our guests are Albert Wynn, former congressman from Maryland, a Democrat. He was once part of an advisory group that worked to draw political boundary lines. Also, Kathay Feng, executive director of the non-profit California Common Cause. It's a nonprofit citizen's lobbyist group, which has been very active in redistricting over the years.

So, Albert, when you participated in that advisory group, what was your objective?

Mr. WYNN: Well, you're talking about over 20 years ago. At that time, we wanted to maximize the number of African-American county council members that we could elect, and so we were trying to draw lines that had significant numbers of African-Americans in as many districts as possible. And that happens all the time, whether it's African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians. And there's a lot of sharp elbow work that takes place to make that happen.

Meanwhile, the politicians are looking at their interests, and they're saying, well, in the case of, I don't want another Asian or I don't want another black or I want more blacks - so, you know, so you've got all these dynamics at work, many times conflicting. And it makes for some tough politics.

MARTIN: Is the working assumption that whoever the incumbents are at the time that the boundaries are drawn, that they are to be protective, is that just understood?

Mr. WYNN: You mean the Incumbency Protection Act?

MARTIN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WYNN: Yes. That's what we jokingly call it. Most of us, that's what we...

MARTIN: I was going to say, is that such a - that's what it's called.

Mr. WYNN: Yeah, right. We call it the Incumbency Protection Act.

Ms. FENG: That's mostly because the people who draw the lines in most states and in most municipalities are the sitting incumbents. Now, they may occasionally create a commission, but in a lot of circumstances, it's those same elected officials who are picking the commission.

And so a lot of times, you see commissions where they've got a cell phone in one hand and they're talking to the elected official on the other side making sure that if a line moves this way or that way, is that OK with you. There's a few examples, California included, where we broke that mold.

MARTIN: How does it work in California?

Ms. FENG: Yeah, so, for the first time, we created - after an initiative passed in 2008 and then was expanded in 2010, we created a commission and we went through a very vigorous process to ensure that that commission would be impartial, would be respectful and appreciative of the diversity of California and would have a pretty good set of skills to bring to the table. And it's a very diverse group.

MARTIN: It's five Democrats, five Republicans and four unaffiliated with either of the Democrats or the Republicans. Now, so, Alvin, what about in a jurisdiction where as has happened in Maryland, where the governor is of one party and the state legislature is of another party? That is not the case now. But it is the case in some places.

Mr. WYNN: Sure.

MARTIN: How does it work there?

Mr. WYNN: Well, there's a horse trading, bottom line. You calculate what is the maximum you can get from an opposing governor or the governor (unintelligible), what's the most he can get from an opposing legislative body? And you say, well, look, I want this district, I want to change that district, move this line. A lot of times you'll have a commission. Unlike California, your appointed commission is a big brouhaha dog and pony show. The commission recommendation is not adhered to. The legislative body makes the decision after, as you said, after the mics are turned off.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask each of you for an opinion now. And, Kathay, I think by your advocacy, you've already determined that there's a better way, that you hope will be a better way. So, Albert, I'll ask you this, is there a better way? I mean, obviously, look, politics is the means by which government happens, OK? So, you know, other countries have other ways of doing this. Like, they have coups, you know. You know what I mean?

Mr. WYNN: Right.

MARTIN: They have dictatorships and so forth. But just looking at it now

Mr. WYNN: First of all, it's not so bad. We've got a very good governmental system. But, yes, it can be improved because the current system lends itself to intense partisanship. And you get highly partisan elected officials who then, in the case of the federal government, come to Washington and are not inclined to compromise. That's why you have a lot of the gridlock that you see now. Yes, I'd like to see an improvement.

MARTIN: What's a better idea?

Mr. WYNN: Now that's the difficult question. I'm not sure.

Ms. FENG: Come to California.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WYNN: Well, we'll see. I think a lot of people looking at California say, well, does this yield a fair system, OK, probably. Are the various diverse ethnic and racial groups going to be fairly represented in a system where you cannot negotiate over those issues as you can in the back room.

MARTIN: And, finally, Kathay, how will we assess? This is the first time that this new system in California will come into play. How will you assess whether it actually accomplished the goal of being more fair?

Ms. FENG: I think there's a couple of different things that we're going to be looking at. Number one is, do we have real citizen participation coming out to the hearings? We already, when we opened up this election process for the commission, some 30,000 people put their name in the hat to be involved.

And the second way that we'll know is when we see the actual districts being drawn, will people feel like their voices were heard? That their communities are respected? And that when they go to the polls on Election Day, for the next 10 years, right, are they going to have an ability to really feel like my vote matters?

MARTIN: Kathay Feng is executive director of the non-profit California Common Cause. She joined us from member station KPCC in Pasadena. Here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio, Albert Wynn, he's a former member of the House of Representatives. He represented a district in the Maryland suburbs right outside Washington, D.C. He served from 1993 to 2008. Now he's a senior adviser in government relations with the law firm Dickstein Shapiro, LLP.

Thank you both so much for joining us. Happy holidays to you.

Mr. WYNN: Thank you. It's been a real pleasure. And happy holidays to you.

Ms. FENG: Happy holidays to you.

MARTIN: For more on this subject, including a conversation with Jeff Reichert, the documentarian who did the film "Gerrymandering," please go to our Web site. Just go to NPR.org, go to the Programs page and click on TELL ME MORE.

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