When one team has all the marbles, there’s not much the other team can do. One option is to simply concede defeat and go home. But that’s distinctly unsatisfying, especially when political power is at stake.

Another option is to change the rules and hope your team gets some marbles and a chance to play. But that requires team unity. And California Republicans right now are anything but united about how to change the rules. But at least not much is at stake — except, perhaps, control of the House of Representatives until the year 2012.

In this particular game, the team with all the marbles is the California Democrats. That happened when Gray Davis was elected governor last year and both houses of the state Legislature remained in Democratic control. After the 2000 census, when federal law requires new district boundaries be drawn for congressional and legislative districts in each state to accommodate the previous 10 years’ population changes, the Democrats can draw partisan district lines to maximize Democratic seats. The Legislature writes the bills; the governor signs them. This process is called reapportionment, and it drives some of the state’s most intense political battles.

The prospect of a Democratic “gerrymander” or partisan redistricting scares the Republicans to death, here and nationally. Right now, they control the House of Representatives by six seats.

Although there will be another election before the next reapportionment, Democrats could easily change enough districts in California alone to eliminate that six-seat margin. Already, there may be eight vulnerable congressional Republicans.

In 1981, California’s 43-member congressional delegation had 22 Democrats and 21 Republicans. Because of population growth, the state was getting two new seats. Reapportionment genius Phil Burton redrew the map so dramatically and in such a partisan manner that the new 45-member delegation contained 28 Democrats and 17 Republicans, a swing of 10 seats just in California. Republicans rightly fear it can happen here again now that California has 52 congressional seats and may get two more.

Here’s where changing the rules comes in. Outraged by Burton’s diabolically clever maps, Republicans in the 1980s went to the ballot four times with initiatives to take reapportionment out of the hands of politicians and give it to a panel of nonpartisan judges. All four times, the initiatives failed — three times by 64 percent or more.

Reapportionment is abstract and hard to explain. It does not lend itself to crusades; although politicians tend to see the composition of their district as political life or death, most folks don’t look at it that way.

Now the Republicans are back with yet another reapportionment reform initiative for the March 2000 ballot. This one has a populist, screw-the-politicians twist: not only would it hand reapportionment over to judges, it would also slash the pay of state legislators from their current $100,000 a year to $75,000 a year. It would also dramatically cut the per diem allowance they receive for expenses while the Legislature is in session, and it would freeze these totals unless raised by a statewide vote of the people.

The 24 members of the California Republican congressional delegation in Washington, led by senior Republican Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield, back the plan unanimously. Their $136,000-a-year salary and generous retirement plan would not be touched by the initiative. The 15 Republicans in the state Senate, whose pay and benefits would be slashed, oppose the initiative unanimously. The 32 Republicans in the Assembly are split, with one supporter saying, “We’re overpaid. This is the best job that most people up here have ever had. Most have never made this kind of money, and now they think they’re worth it.”

“Our first commitment is to our delegation,” Thomas said in a recent interview in his office in the U.S. Capitol. “We have the most to lose. It might just enter some California Republican’s mind to cut a sweetheart deal [with the Democrats] to gain his own congressional seat at the expense of senior Republicans here.”

Such talk enrages some Republicans in California, who say they resisted precisely such blandishments in 1991 and let Republican Gov. Pete Wilson veto the Democratic reapportionment plan that year, which was then sent to a panel of judges to redraw. That action preserved GOP congressional seats.

Aware of the sorry history of the failed initiatives of the 1980s, Thomas said, “You’ve got to have an engine to pull the boxcar.”

Everyone knows reapportionment alone won’t pull the boxcar: hence, slashing legislative pay. Thomas commissioned a poll of California voters and found that the pay-slashing element tested well. The same poll, however, showed that freezing legislative pay and benefits — but not cutting it — tested even better.

“I’m encouraging the idea of an initiative with some guarantee of a fair reapportionment,” said state Senate Minority Leader Ross Johnson, R-Irvine. “But anything the Republicans do will be attacked as a Republican power grab. So it becomes critical not just to have broad Republican support but broad bipartisan support. … Categorically, our caucus is unanimously opposed to this.”

One worry state Republicans have is money. Who will finance an initiative that requires $15 million to win? State opponents rightly predict Davis and Democratic leaders can tell prospective donors any money given to the cause will be regarded as a hostile act. That’s a powerful inducement for most interest groups to stay away. But Thomas promises there will be sufficient money from the National Republican Congressional Committee and from national business groups that want to see the House stay Republican.

Signature-gatherers have until Aug. 20 to obtain 1 million signatures. It’s too soon to know whether they will qualify the measure or whether the voters will pass it if they do. But it’s not too soon for some Republican legislators in California to be thinking about how, if the measure fails, they will reapportion Thomas’ district.

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