BY BRIDGETTE OUTTEN
At the center of new ethics allegations against Democratic Rep. Laura Richardson of California is a political practice that often runs into ethical questions all on its own – redistricting.
Recent press reports point to allegations that Richardson improperly used Congressional aides for tasks related to her political fate because of the longtime practice of redrawing legislative districts. Staff was reportedly used to prepare constituents for testimony before a meeting of California’s independent redistricting council and organizing related workshops. If the allegations are true, Richardson’s actions violate Ethics Committee rules prohibiting lawmakers from using aides for political work.
It’s not a good year for Richardson, previously the target of a dropped Ethics Committee investigation on a foreclosed home she once owned. She’s facing a tough primary battle from Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA) over a redrawn political map, pitting two Democrats – one Black and the other White – against each other. Richardson has already said that the Ethics Committee investigation into her conduct is racially motivated, highlighting her initial willingness to admit to some of the charges.
But while redistricting often gets a bad rap, it’s a useful practice, according to Doug Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College. The Institute provides research on California government and politics, including redistricting.
“Redistricting, at the heart of our democracy, is only to make sure things are fair,” Johnson told Politic365 in a recent interview. “It’s only when it gets turned away for improper purposes that it becomes gerrymandering and deserves the bad reputation that it generally holds.”
Gerrymandering takes place when the lines of the district are redrawn for personal or political gain, Johnson explained.
In an email inviting community leaders to a redistricting meeting last April, Richardson appeared to be concerned about minority representation in her Long Beach-based district. Sending the email from her Gmail account, she reportedly wrote, “African American, Latino, and [Asian-Pacific Islander] communities all could lose representation if we don’t assert ourselves in this Redistricting process. That would mean less influence in Sacramento and Washington D.C.”
Attorneys for Richardson have denied any wrongdoing by the Congresswoman in a statement, calling the accusations “groundless.”
Although pre-2001 House rules prohibited lawmakers from using any official staff, time or resources on redistricting-related matters, newer guidelines now allow for work related to official business, a change Johnson agrees with.
“The guidelines make sense,” he said. “The idea behind it is if someone calls up the district office and says, ‘I hear there’s a redistricting meeting, where and when is it?,’ it’s a little silly for someone at the office to say, ‘We know but we’re not allowed to tell you.’”
But pushing that line can become a dangerous area if someone tries to participate in or organize redistricting meetings on government time, Johnson explained.
“That’s really what your campaign side is for,” he said.
Primarily a research organization, the Rose Institute does not take action or investigate any redistricting wrongdoing and is not involved with Richardson’s case. However, considering Long Beach’s history, when Congressman Glenn Anderson got in trouble for campaigning on government time in the 1980s, the Institute “certainly hopes [allegations against Richardson] aren’t true.”
“We want to hope the folks in Long Beach are familiar enough with that history to have avoided it, and perhaps they did,” argues Johnson.