SACRAMENTO — State Democratic Party officials are being accused of a campaign of intimidation against fellow Democrats who support the ballot initiative that would give power to draw political boundaries to an independent commission.
There has been an "attempt to bring everybody into line" now that the state party has come out against the redistricting measure, said Kathay Feng, the measure's main author and director of California Common Cause. The initiative qualified for the November ballot last week.
"There's tremendous pressure on any person who's intimated they'll come out in support of the measure, to back away from that," Feng said. "And there's been a tremendous amount of lobbying, going after people who've already taken a position to try and silence them."
She cited the case of John Smith, a Southern California regional director for the state party who had been vocal in his support of the measure until the party's executive board voted overwhelmingly last week to oppose it. Smith's voice, among others, Feng said, has been important in convincing voters that the ballot measure is not a Republican power grab, as Democratic Party leaders have charged.
"He was approached before and after the vote and encouraged to fall in line with (the party)," Feng said. "He feels very uncomfortable about speaking up about it now. In the last few days, he's been noticeably reluctant to assert his position. I can't say what's been said, but for him to feel he has to slink around about what he feels passionately about is unfortunate."
Smith was denied a bid for a seat on the Democratic National Committee at the executive board meeting. He declined to comment for this story.
Democratic leaders said there has been no attempt to silence or pressure redistricting supporters.
"Smith was campaigning on behalf of the Republican redistricting measure, so certainly he didn't have good support," said Bob Mulholland, the campaign adviser to the state Democratic Party. "That's a phony allegation. I sent him one e-mail saying, 'let's move forward.' And I doubt if anybody from the party has contacted him since."
Mulholland said Feng was mistaking basic political communication with bullying tactics.
"Is someone saying the Democratic Party shouldn't let its views be known to others?" Mulholland asked. "I'm surprised that Common Cause thinks the Democratic Party should suppress its free speech. When a person doesn't have merits to their argument, they start making a lot of outlandish allegations. That's a disappointment to me."
The flare-up between traditional political allies — the Democratic Party and Common Cause have a long history on the same side of battles — comes as the opposition campaign is trying to organize its own operations.
The pro-redistricting campaign, California Voters First, has been running since the beginning of the year, spending millions to put the issue on the November ballot. Most of its contributors are Republicans, including the New Majority, a Republican organization devoted to electing Republican legislators, which has contributed more than $500,000.
The campaign insists it has Democratic support, pointing to Steve Westly, the former state controller and gubernatorial candidate, who serves as is its co-chairman, and former Gov. Gray Davis. But Westly, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has yet to contribute money, and other wealthy Democratic donors, such as Angelo Tsakopolous, have contributed small sums.
Supporters are expecting other big-name Democrats to buck the state party, including state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, whose spokesman confirmed he is likely to support the measure. The spokesman, Tom Dressler, added that Lockyer has not felt pressure from party leaders to back off the support.
"He would never support a redistricting system that results in a power grab by anybody or that disfavors or favors any particular demographic group," Dressler said. "He's interested in finally erecting a reapportionment system that's independent and that reflects California's population."
No organized opposition has emerged, but the Democratic Party's official position on redistricting appears to have planted the seeds of a campaign.
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, wrote supporters this week indicating he was ready to fire up a campaign to defeat the initiative. In the letter, Perata said:
"The latest Republican attempt to take control over redistricting away from Democrats has now qualified for the November ballot. Proponents know this represents their last best chance to prevent us from protecting and expanding our majorities in the Legislature in the decade to come."
He added the California Voters First campaign is "highly motivated — and they've already given their proposal the patina of good-government reform." Perata invited activists to join him at his first meeting Friday at the Capitol to discuss campaign strategy and organization.
Reach Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101 or email@example.com