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An edgy agenda for California

Schwarzenegger's proposal to reform redistricting takes on the red-blue divide.

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For the ultimate political superhero, it is perhaps a curious decision. This is the man who smashed an automobile during the recall campaign to signal his opposition to a car tax. This is the man who has called legislators "girlie men" and turned "special interests" into an evil more loathsome than homicidal cyborgs.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ever been the avenger for the average Joe - a Mr. Terminator goes to Sacramento. So it is no small irony that in his State of the State address Wednesday, the "people's governor" staked much of his political future on one of the most arcane areas of insider politics: redistricting.

His speech touched on a suite of reforms from teacher pay to government spending. But in many respects, his effort to change the way politics works is the most far-reaching and ambitious - for California and the country. "This is not a California problem, it is a national problem," says Elizabeth Garrett, director of the USC-Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics. "Our representatives are much more partisan than we are ... and one reason is that this favors people with extremely partisan ideological positions."

To Dr. Garrett and others, the so-called red-blue divide so evident here and nationwide is less a function of changing American character or culture than it is of politicians' increasing desire to squelch any competition in election years. The result is hundreds of legislative districts across the United States that lawmakers have drawn to keep incumbents in office - artificially making them more "red" or "blue."

The practice is as old as the Republic. But in many cases, the motive is no longer for the party in power to gerrymander more seats for itself. The rising cost of elections has meant that both parties are now willing to settle for a divided status quo in return for an easier ride through election season.

Governor Schwarzenegger learned the lesson in the last election, when every California candidate he campaigned for lost. In all, there were 153 congressional and state legislative seats in play in California last November. None changed parties.

"It is the single biggest reason we have polarization in state legislatures," says Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant in Los Angeles.


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