Sometimes history is shaped by the most trivial of political machinations.
California, for the first time, will lose a House seat as a result of the 2020 Census. The redrawn Congressional map proposed by the state’s redistricting commission set off alarms in legislative offices, as some members will need to win over new constituents, and a few may end up having to run against each other.
No big drama in San Francisco. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s district would pick up some residents just south of Mount Davidson, and she would lose a chunk of voters in the Outer Sunset. Rep. Jackie Speier, whose district now extends just below Half Moon Bay, would see her district stretch almost to Santa Cruz.
Nothing in the latest draft, released on Nov. 1, is expected to alter the Democrat’s domination of the state’s Congressional delegation, which currently consists of 42 Democrats and 11 Republicans. Without California, Republicans would control both the House and Senate.
But Bay Area history provides a perfect example of how district line-drawing – which takes place after each census — can be consequential. Without such changes following the 1980 Census, it is likely that Pelosi’s historic speakership would never have been.
In the primitive days before the internet — the early 1980s — political operatives walked precincts and devoured canvassing data to figure out how to draw gerrymandered districts that would maximize their party’s advantage
The undisputed master of the game was Phil Burton, the domineering San Francsico congressman who came within a whisker of winning the speakership himself, and whose political machine helped launch the careers of fledgling powerhouses like Willie Brown and Art Agnos.
Burton’s objective was to divide the state in such a way as to send as many Democrats to Washington as possible. It was such partisanship — still the norm in most states — that prompted California to hand redistricting powers to an independent commission more than a decade ago.
Burton had another goal in 1980 — protect his younger brother, John, who represented Marin County in Congress. The younger Burton had struggled to win re-election and his brother carved a district that no Democrat could lose. He added liberal neighborhoods in San Francisco, including Bayview-Hunters Point, North Beach, Telegraph Hill and Chinatown to his brother’s district. He added working class neighborhoods in Daly City, and then, just to be sure, threw in Vallejo and other Democratic leaning portions of Sonoma County.
“It gorgeous — it curls in and out like a snake,’’ Burton boasted to his biographer, John Jacobs.
But aren’t districts supposed to make a pretense of being contiguous, Burton was asked?
“It is at low tide,’’ Burton bellowed.
Alas, John never ran for the seat. Cocaine and alcohol troubles drove him to rehab, and a young staffer named Barbara Boxer was elected to represent the district the elder Burton had created.
Fast forward five years. Phil Burton died suddenly from an aneurysm. His wife, Sala Burton, who succeeded him, died of colon cancer. Then, in 1987, a field of 14 Democrats — including former California Democratic Party Chair Nancy Pelosi — vied for the coveted seat in one of the most Democratic districts in the nation.
To this day, many in Washington, D.C. are stunned to learn that Pelosi was neither the most liberal candidate, nor the favorite. Those titles belonged to Supervisor Harry Britt, Harvey Milk’s protégé who would have become the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to Congress.
Britt boasted that he’d bring “a taste of San Francisco to Washington,’’ and branded Pelosi a “party girl,’’ mocking both her high-priced fundraisers and her connection to the political establishment. Pelosi presented herself as a pragmatist and “a voice that will be heard,’’ a phrase coined by her campaign manager Clint Reilly (who now owns The Examiner).
The vote on Election Day was a dead heat. When absentee ballots were added, Pelosi squeaked out a 3,900-vote victory over Britt out of more than 105,000 ballots cast.
Were it not for Phil Burton moving liberal neighborhoods in the Haight and Marina out of the district to help his brother, Britt would almost surely have prevailed. It was more conservative voters living in the Richmond and Sunset who pushed Pelosi to victory in the only close election she’s ever faced.
The final maps for the new district won’t be completed for months, allowing politicians and the public to offer testimony and suggestions. No one believes redrawing the Bay Area districts will change the balance of power. However, with Pelosi at age 81 and Speier at age 71, it is likely to impact the competition to replace them before the next boundary changes following the 2030 census.
Marc Sandalow is associate director of the University of California’s Washington Program. He has been writing about California politics from Washington for nearly 30 years.