By Daniel Zarchy
Co-Editor in Chief
The story began 15 years ago, and today, Santa Cruz Assemblyman John Laird has nowhere to go.
Laird, 56, is a proud former Banana Slug, graduating from Stevenson College at UC Santa Cruz in 1972 with a degree in politics.
“I really look back with great fondness at my UCSC experience,” he said, chuckling. “My first paper to the core course, I got it back and my professor wrote on it, ‘If there was a point here, I missed it.’”
Throughout the years Laird served as a city councilmember, mayor, member of the board of trustees for Cabrillo College and, most recently, assemblyman. He served as the executive director for the Santa Cruz AIDS Project, and lives with his partner near campus.
In the Assembly, he has been an outspoken environmentalist, securing the Sierra Nevada Conservation Act in his second year on the job, and has fought long and hard for gay rights, including the first budget item in California history for a gay issue.
Laird is known for his quick wit and self-deprecating sense of humor, and is regarded as one of the top two or three assembly experts on state finances. He gained a powerful role this year as chair of the budget conference committee, the group that negotiates how to spend the state’s income.
But now Laird, who won re-election in 2006 with a landslide 70.2 percent of the vote (in an area that is 48 percent Democratic), faces the Achilles heel of all state politicians: term limits.
The state constitution limits each person to three two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year terms in the Senate. Though many members of the 80-person Assembly turn to the Senate, a 40-member body, Laird’s situation is a bit more complicated.
In 1993, a man named Bruce McPherson was elected to the State Assembly from Santa Cruz in a special election.
McPherson, whose family has lived in Santa Cruz since the 1840s and owned the Santa Cruz Sentinel for decades, ran for the State Senate in 1996. McPherson, a Republican, ran against a Democrat named Rusty Areias, and won a seat representing the 15th Senate District. Fred Keeley, another Santa Cruz local, won the vacant Assembly seat.
Keeley was an extremely popular legislator and Democratic leader in the Assembly, but is now known as a poster boy victim of redistricting.
Every 10 years, in line with the national census, the legislative leaders redraw the lines for senate and assembly districts to reflect changes in population — effectively solidifying very Democratic or Republican districts — and giving the majority party huge control over the next 10 years of state politics.
As the parties began to divide up the state, Keeley said, the Republicans threatened to put a measure on the ballot if the Democrats were overly greedy.
“[The Republicans would] go with two measures,” Keeley said. “One that says ‘shall the Legislature’s self-interested Democratic power grab be thrown out … and shouldn’t we actually adopt this wonderful fair, balanced thing that came from heaven, called, you know, the ‘Good Government Redistricting Program’?’ Yes.”
To avoid the referendum, Keeley said, the Democrats agreed to limit their presence in the Legislature to under a two-thirds majority, or 27 and 54 members in the Senate and Assembly, respectively. The two-thirds supermajority carries particular weight in California, where such a coalition is necessary to pass a budget or raise taxes, which would cut away any power of the Republican Caucus.
But other people began expressing different priorities. Robert Hertzberg, then-speaker of the Assembly, approached then-Senate President Pro Tempore John Burton to draw a Senate district for Dennis Cardoza.
“So you say OK, we need in redistricting to create a seat for Dennis,” Keeley said. “If you go north, all you find is more Republicans. If you go east, you find Republicans, if you go south, you find Republicans. The only way to go is west, into Monterey County, and a little piece of Santa Cruz County. … That way, you turn a district which is an ‘R’ into a ‘D.’”
But this complicated things, he said, because the Democrats would now have 26 seats in the Senate and they could not win any more if they wanted to keep their promise. Because Bruce McPherson is sitting in Santa Cruz and would most likely be succeeded by a Democrat, more districts had to change.
“When [McPherson] is termed out in 2004 … any credible Democrat is going to run and take this [district],” Keeley said. “Rusty Areias being the only Democrat who could lose it and Bruce McPherson being the only Republican who could win it.”
Because the Democrats had agreed not to win the 27th seat, and because they had already given the spot to Cardoza, the Democrats now needed to draw the lines to make McPherson’s district a permanently Republican district, Keeley said.
South Monterey County was added to a district that included San Luis Obispo, a solidly Republican district, and Salinas was added to Cardoza’s intended district. Santa Cruz, on the other hand, merged into the 11th Senate District, which skirts around the coast and includes most of Silicon Valley — a far cry from Santa Cruz.
“When I represented the 15th district in the state Senate, it included all of Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties, and the southeast portion of Santa Clara County,” said McPherson, who later became California Secretary of State. “That was a cohesive, common-interest district. When redistricting took place, the only full county that was in the 15th district was San Luis Obispo, and parts of six other counties.”
Now, looking at Keeley’s chances in 2002 and Laird’s in 2008, “It is very difficult to get a Santa Cruz representative to represent either one of those Senate seats now,” McPherson said.
Today, Keeley is one of the driving forces behind Proposition 11, an initiative on the ballot that would take redistricting out of the Legislature’s hands and instead appoint a bipartisan commission to the task.
Still, he describes the 2001 redistricting more as pro-Cardoza than anti-Keeley.
“The intent was not to end my legislative career, but the effect was that,” Keeley said.
But the fun didn’t end there. In May 2001, Congressman Gary Condit became embroiled in the Chandra Levy scandal: the missing-person hunt for a 23-year-old intern in Condit’s office with whom he had been having an affair. Cardoza ran for and beat Condit in the Democratic primary, vacating his intended Senate seat before the election.
“And who in the year 2004 did the Democrats nominate to run in that seat? Rusty Areias, who lost the seat to Jeff Denham,” Keeley said. “Again, the only Democrat who could possibly lose the seat becomes the nominee … in 2004 in another Democratic seat, specifically drawn for a Democrat, and loses it. Seven million dollars are spent to try to elect Rusty to the Senate in two Democratic districts, and he can’t win it.”
But not everyone sees it so clearly.
“I never considered myself [an underdog]. I was surprised when I got to Sacramento that there was such a huge belief that I was an underdog,” said Sen. Jeff Denham, a conservative Republican who currently represents the Central Valley area from Merced, and plans to run for lieutenant governor in 2010. “I ran a hard race. I think it came as a surprise to everybody. There were a lot of things that happened that year in particular to that race and politics in California.”
Areias, who served in the Assembly for 12 years representing part of the Central Valley, fit the ticket as a conservative Democrat with good name recognition. When the race began, he was confronted with a strong opposing campaign from Denham’s camp. But could Denham have beaten Cardoza?
“It’s a completely different dynamic,” Denham said. “I never really looked at it.”
Six years later, the effects of the 2001 redistricting continue to guide California politics.
Laird, who like Keeley has no Senate district before him, continues to review his options. Ironically, his best chances may lie in an even higher post, succeeding Santa Cruz Congressman Sam Farr when he retires, though that may not come for decades.
“I feel like I’m at the top of my game, and it’s hard to walk away from it,” Laird said. “I would run for Congress or the Senate if the situation presented itself.”
As it stands now, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass will most likely appoint Laird to a position on the state Integrated Waste Management Board, Laird said, a body that promotes recycling and coordinates safe disposal of the state’s trash.
But he added: “If President Obama says ‘Be ambassador to Fiji,’ that would be hard to turn down.”