A Not So Simple Game

Even today, almost eight years after his death, the late Phillip Burton stands out as a giant of California politics. A 10-term Democratic congressman from San Francisco, Burton was an urbane and witty liberal who practiced the dark art of partisan gerrymandering better than anyone before or since. It was Burton who, with the help of a single aide, a pocket calculator and an encyclopedic knowledge of U.S. census data, drew up the exquisitely complicated redistricting plan that hamstrung the California GOP throughout the '80s. Before the Burton plan, California's congressional delegation was almost evenly balanced, 22 to 21, between Democrats and Republicans. After the Burton plan, Democrats dominated the delegation 28 to 17, and the state's 45 congressional districts resembled nothing so much as a mosaic of bizarre fishhooks, meanders and cul-de-sacs. Hated by the GOP, revered by Democrats, Burton took sly pride in the electoral map that is his monument. It was, he liked to say, "my contribution to modern art."

The Democrats could use an army of Phillip Burtons this year. Forget taxes, recession and the Persian Gulf: the secret obsession of all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives is reapportionment and redistricting. Though little understood by the voters, this once-in-a-decade process is recognized by political pros as a crucial strategic battle between the parties, second only to presidential elections in shaping the future of national politics. It is a key mechanism for distributing federal power among the states, and it is a life-or-death struggle for many House incumbents. This time, in dozens of state-by-state battles that will last until the '92 elections and perhaps beyond, the redistricting wars promise to be more divisive, more complicated and more litigious than ever before. Both parties are preparing to pull out all the stops - and the real winners, says Thomas Hofeller, redistricting director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, will be the lawyers.

Redistricting used to be an insider's game. Every 10 years, a handful of influential state legislators took a look at the latest census results and divided their states into roughly equal congressional districts. House incumbents were usually protected and, except for a few spectacular cases like the Burton plan, open warfare between the parties was rare. Gerrymandering was widespread, but it was accepted as the way the system worked. Today, both the census itself and the redistricting process have become the stuff of big-stakes controversy. The 1990 census, which shifts 19 House seats mostly to the sun belt, is likely to encounter ferocious challenges from frostbelt and rust-belt states. The federal courts demand House districts that are almost perfectly equal in population, and they may strike down flagrant gerrymandering.

But there are two new wild cards in the redistricting game. One is the ubiquitous personal computer. Because census data is now available on a disk that can be used on a personal computer, political-action groups and armchair strategists of every ideological stripe can get all the numbers they need to come up with their own redistricting plans. "Every nerd with a PC is going to be playing," says Bob Joffee, Florida director of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research. "The hidden designs are going to be a lot more visible." The other wild card is a 1982 amendment to the Voting Rights Act, which for the first time in the history of federal reapportionment will force the states to draw congressional-district boundaries so as to maximize the chances for minority-group candidates - chiefly blacks and Hispanics. The '82 law is already having an impact on state and local politics, and the Justice Department will use it to review some congressional-redistricting plans. "If there is racially polarized voting, and most people concede there is, then the failure to create majority black or Hispanic districts is a violation" of the law, says Frank Parker of the Washington-based Lawyers' Civil Rights Committee.

No one knows how much impact the law will ultimately have on Congress. Some experts, like Benjamin Ginsberg, chief counsel for the Republican National Committee, think minority-group representation in the House could double, from 35 seats to as many as 70 seats. There are now 25 African-Americans and 10 Hispanics in the House - or 5.7 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively, of the overall membership. A doubling might mean black legislators would achieve rough parity with the percentage of African-Americans nationwide (12.4 percent), but Latino representation would still lag well behind the percentage of Hispanics (8.3 percent) in the U.S. population. In terms of the overall partisan balance of the House, of course, the shift would be hardly noticeable, since most of the new minority-dominated districts would wind up electing Democrats.

The push for minority representation could shake up the status quo anyway - and the real losers, paradoxically, may well be white Democratic incumbents. The core states of the Old South, where most congressional delegations are still all white, seem especially ripe for change. If the '82 law has its predicted effect, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia could all be required to create new House districts with heavy majorities of black voters. "Look at all those Southern white-boy senators who wouldn't be there if it weren't for the black vote," one Democratic strategist says. "The same principle applies to the House." In other words, redistricting will deny some Southern House Democrats the black votes on which their careers are based, forcing them into heavily white - and more heavily Republican - districts. The creation of a second black-majority district in Georgia, for instance, could jeopardize any one of five white incumbents.

Elsewhere, in the big cities of the North and Midwest and the burgeoning metropolises of the sun belt, the effect of minority districting may be just as large. Black and Hispanic voters, concentrated in the inner cities, are typically grouped in Democratic districts with white suburbanites: incumbent liberals rely on the inner-city votes to offset Republican strength in the suburbs. Redistricting now poses large risks to white incumbents. In Massachusetts, for example, Republican Gov. William Weld is backing a redistricting plan to create a black-majority district in Boston. That in turn could force Rep. Joseph Kennedy, Robert Kennedy's eldest son, to move his legal residence out of Boston if he wants to keep on representing the Eighth Congressional District.

Democratic Rep. Morris Udall's home turf in southern Arizona is likely to be part of the trend toward increased Hispanic representation in the West and Southwest. Udall, 68, a liberal stalwart and former presidential candidate, plans to retire at the end of his current term. His district will probably become predominantly Hispanic when Arizona adds a sixth House seat in 1992. In Texas, which gains three House seats from reapportionment, state Rep. Roman Martinez of Houston says he'll settle for "nothing less" than a Hispanic-majority congressional district in the Houston metro area. In California, which gains seven new House seats, the two parties are still fighting over the Burton gerrymander. The state's congressional delegation has named Democratic Reps. Vic Fazio and Howard Berman and Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter and John Doolittle to draw up a preliminary redistricting plan - but the old wounds are still fresh, and no one can say whether compromise is possible. Meanwhile, Latino activists are pushing hard for more Hispanic districts. "Of the seven new seats, we'd want two or three," says Arturo Vargas of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Projected nationwide, in scores of congressional districts and dozens of states, the ripple effect of minority districting on white incumbents has the national GOP licking its chops and Democrats howling. Democrats own the House, 267 seats to 167. They also control both houses of 30 state legislatures which will draw up the redistricting plans. But the GOP, with its computer disks and platoons of lawyers, hopes to fan the flames of black and Hispanic political activism and, if necessary, outflank the Democrats in court. That leaves many Democrats grumbling about an "unholy alliance" between minorities and the GOP - but in Republican circles, at least, there is quiet satisfaction at the blooming romance between strange bedfellows.

In the hands of a master, redistricting can work wonders for incumbents and party growth. The maps show the shapes of four Los Angeles County districts before and after the notorious 1981 gerrymander in California. To increase Democratic seats, Congressman Phillip Burton created meandering districts, many of which crossed city and county lines. By 1983 the map was redrawn slightly to get rid of some of the most blatant contortions.