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Tackling Redistricting with Both Money and Zeal

Charles T. Munger Jr. has spent millions to back Proposition 20, which would give a citizens panel control over redistricting congressional lines
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Charles T. Munger Jr. has spent millions to back Proposition 20, which would give a citizens panel control over redistricting congressional lines
 
Prop. 20's biggest backer is a Republican, but casts his cause in civil rights terms

Correction appended

 Charles T. Munger Jr., wearing a smooth herringbone blazer and a bow tie, sat in a downtown Palo Alto office one recent morning and discussed his decision to give $7 million to support Proposition 20, a ballot initiative that would wrest Congressional redistricting powers from legislators and hand that control to a citizens panel.

Some Republicans believe that the measure may deliver them a political advantage in a state where Democrats have a lock on the Legislature.

But Munger, a media-shy researcher at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, was casting the initiative as a civil rights issue. He pointed to the long list of liberal-leaning groups, like the N.A.A.C.P. and Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, that have vocally backed his campaign.

“They have been on the losing side of prejudice; they have been on the losing side of the rules of society being used against them, and they recognize it,” said Munger, 53, his voice beginning to waver.

Suddenly, his eyes welled with tears.

Munger’s emotional connection to a subject that is arcane even to political geeks, let alone most voters, could have big implications for state politics. His recent political awakening has made him a force in the state’s fractious Republican Party.

Munger, the son of the billionaire Charles T. Munger, has built a coalition in support of Proposition 20 that is an unlikely collection of election-reform groups, civil rights nonprofits and former officials from both major parties who say that the current system of redistricting has left politicians unaccountable.

Munger’s backers include two former governors — Gray Davis, a Democrat, and Pete Wilson, a Republican — and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, all of whom have experienced legislative gridlock firsthand.

“We pulled together some odd bedfellows,” said Kathay Feng, the executive director of California Common Cause, who is leading the campaign’s operation.

Munger has emerged this election cycle as the state’s biggest individual donor to a single ballot proposition. If Proposition 20 passes, the Citizen’s Redistricting Commission will gain the power to draw district lines for Congress. It already has authority to redraw state legislative district lines.

About a dozen states have independent commissions for state legislative districts, but many other states are waiting to see how California’s commission of non-experts fares before trying their own overhaul at the Congressional level, said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School.

The California commission was formed in 2008 by the passage of Proposition 11, and was given the power to draw state legislative districts. Munger was Proposition 11’s largest financial backer, giving $1.25 million. But the commission has not yet been constituted, although more than 30,000 Californians have applied for its 14 seats.

A competing ballot measure this year, Proposition 27, seeks to abolish the body.

Redistricting power gives the majority party the ability to redraw district lines into oddly shaped ribbons and wedges that favor its candidates. The long tradition of gerrymandering, as it is known, has made it much easier for incumbents to keep their seats.

In 2000, the last time district lines were drawn in California, some of the state’s rapidly growing Latino communities were split to protect non-Latino incumbents, experts and former legislators said. And even within the same party, incumbents redrew lines to remove their foes. “It’s a blood sport,” Levitt said.

Munger’s opponents have characterized Proposition 20 as a quixotic quest for a simple fix to the complicated ills of Sacramento and Washington.

Daniel H. Lowenstein, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Proposition 27, said politicians “are already running scared” of their constituents.

Jason McDaniel, a political scientist at San Francisco State University, said Proposition 20 “might have a marginal effect on the number of moderates in the [Congress], but that’s doubtful to end polarization.”

Munger faces stiff opposition from Democratic legislators and labor unions who have funneled millions of dollars into Proposition 27.

Judy Chu, a first-term Democratic congresswoman from Los Angeles, has spent $600,000 to promote the measure. Many of her colleagues, like Representatives Anna G. Eshoo, Jackie Speier and Michael M. Honda, have given $10,000 each. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, has also given $10,000.

Munger’s obsession with redistricting coincides with his becoming much more active within the elite Republican circles of Northern California. But his allies bristle at the suggestion that Munger is motivated by partisan concerns.

“You know I’m hard pressed to agree with what a Republican says,” said Alice Huffman, the president of the California N.A.A.C.P. “But it’s plain wrong to say just because he’s a Republican, he’s doing something bad. This man is a do-gooder, plain and simple.”

Friends and colleagues of Munger said in interviews that his evolution into a political activist spanned less than a decade, and reflected his intensely cerebral and idealistic nature.

Within the tight-knit Republican enclaves of the wealthy Peninsula suburbs, the high-wattage personalities are figures like Condoleezza Rice and Wilson. But Munger, who appears at nearly every social event in a bow tie and a cabbie hat, has quickly become a “mover and shaker,” said Martha Ryan, chairwoman-elect of the Lincoln Club of Northern California.

Munger is now a member of the club’s Partisan Affairs Screening Committee, which vets candidates and doles out endorsements and campaign money. He has not given to any state-level candidates since the primaries in June.

His political involvement began in earnest in 2004, when Steve Poizner ran for the State Assembly and Munger joined as a volunteer at the headquarters, attaching addresses to envelopes. Shortly after starting, Luis Buhler, Poizner’s campaign manager at the time, said, Munger handed him a neatly typed three-page memo with his suggestions for the campaign. Poizner ultimately lost, but Buhler said it was a formative experience for Munger.

 “He saw in that race that the way that district was drawn prevented the election of a man he thought was much better qualified,” Buhler said. “That was really the first time he realized how it all worked.”

In 2005, Munger gave $100,000 to the campaign for Proposition 77, a redistricting measure that failed. In 2008, sponsors of Proposition 11 sought to bring him into the fold and tap into his wealth.

But before Munger agreed to donate money, Feng said, he exchanged a stream of e-mail with the campaign staff, asking detailed questions about the citizen commission.

 “He went over everything with a fine-toothed comb,” she said with a chuckle. “But it forced us to do our homework. He’s a thoughtful, geeky guy.”

Given his financial clout and rising profile among Republicans, Munger said he could have easily pursued his party’s nomination for a down-ticket office like secretary of state or at least put the money behind party candidates.

“I would’ve been very welcome in Republican circles if I decided to go chuck 10 million in a bunch of races up and down the state to fight for Republican control of Congress,” Munger said. “It isn’t a worthy ambition compared to doing this.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

Correction: This article incorrectly stated that the proposed Citizens Redistricting Commission would be the first in the nation to draw district lines for both the state legislature and Congress. Other states, including Arizona, Washington and New Jersey, have panels with similar powers. Also, due to an editing error, the article said that Jason McDaniel, a political scientist at San Francisco State University, said Proposition 20 ''might have a marginal effect on the number of moderates in the Legislature.''  McDaniel was referring to Congress, not the State Legislature.

 

 

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