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Census Data Will Likely Signal Loss of Political Power for Bay Area

Scholars expect Bay Area to lose a district to the fast-growing Central Valley

With the much-anticipated release of 2010 census data for California expected Tuesday, the San Francisco Bay Area faces the prospect of ceding political clout to its upstart neighbor: the fast-growing Central Valley.

The dramatic population shift under way in the state, redistricting experts say, will make plain that the Bay Area should probably lose a district. The population in the ascendant Central Valley has grown roughly 15 times as fast as the population in the San Francisco Bay Area over the last decade, according to federal population estimates.

In past years, powerful Democratic lawmakers from the Bay Area would have vehemently resisted any efforts to hand over a district to the more heavily Republican inland area. But the power to line-etch is now the province of the newly formed Citizens Redistricting Commission, created by a voter-approved initiative in 2008. The 14-member panel this year will try to combine communities that share common social, economic and other interests as it redraws California's Senate, Assembly, State Board of Equalization and congressional districts.

The congressional districts that the Bay Area already shares with the Central Valley — 1, 3 and 11 — could be stretched farther into the Central Valley, some political scholars say. But the pendulum may well swing the other way. Republicans say they fear that portions of Contra County County, like Congressional District 10, a heavily Democratic area represented by John Garamendi that is known as the “seahorse” for its odd shape, may be reconstituted to include localities like Danville and San Ramon — currently in the 11th District — making it even harder for Republicans to get elected.

Line-drawers might reason that it would be more logical for people in Danville to vote for a candidate from Walnut Creek — which is in the 10th District — than San Joaquin County, which currently makes up part of the 11th District. Danville and Walnut Creek are home to similar businesses, share a freeway and have similar economic qualities.

“It is doubtful that redistricting will lead to more Republican seats in the Bay Area,” said Tom Del Beccaro, vice chairman of the California Republican Party and publisher of politicalvanguard.com. “But it will serve a greater overall goal, which will be to stop creating crazy gerrymandered districts.”

Another region that will most likely be recalibrated is the awkwardly shaped area containing the 11th Congressional District, which includes the rural areas around Stockton represented by Democratic Congressman Jerry McNerney, and the 18th Congressional District, which stretches from Stockton’s urban center southward along Interstate 5, represented by Democratic Congressman Dennis Cardoza.

“The numbers certainly suggest the Bay Area will lose representation and the Central Valley will gain representation,” said Douglas Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Governments at Claremont McKenna College. “But the Bay Area has always been successful at getting a good share of resources even when it’s outnumbered. The sharp elbows of San Francisco and Oakland politics trains people well for Sacramento and Washington.”

Over the last decade, the Bay Area grew by roughly 65,987 people, or less than 1 percent, according to a Rose Institute report released in December. By contrast, the population in some Central Valley cities like Bakersfield increased by close to 50 percent over the same period.

The big question this year is how the line-drawing commission will approach its task. For example, will it start from scratch, or simply recalibrate existing districts based on the census data?

John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said: “Until you see the numbers and the districts, you have no idea what it will mean.”

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