OK sought to raise funds for redistricting measure

WASHINGTON - Two semi-maverick San Joaquin Valley lawmakers hope to lure lots of other peoples' money into the fight over how California's congressional districts are drawn.

Borrowing tactics from their opponents, Republican Reps. Devin Nunes of Visalia and Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield are seeking approval for an ambitious fund-raising campaign. The money would support a potential ballot measure to transfer redistricting responsibilities from the Legislature to an independent commission.

"Someone has to step up and do the hard work," Nunes said Thursday.

Millions of dollars could be raised and spent in coming months, if history is any guide. The money would come through potentially unlimited "soft money" contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals.

But first, Nunes and McCarthy need Federal Election Commission approval. Not everyone thinks they should get it. The resulting conflict between redistricting and fund raising reveals how complicated political reform can become.

That's because the search for large "soft money" contributions to support redistricting reform, some believe, conflicts with recent campaign fund- raising reforms. These include bans on what money politicians can raise.

"This prohibition on federal candidate and officeholder solicitation and receipt of soft money is the very foundation of (campaign finance reform)," the Campaign Legal Center cautioned in a nearly identical case involving redistricting two years ago.

A 2002 law prohibits members of Congress from raising unlimited "soft money" contributions for elections. Instead, contributions must fit within strict guidelines. Corporations, for instance, cannot contribute directly. Individuals cannot give more than $2,300 to a candidate per election.

Nunes and McCarthy nonetheless hope to raise millions of dollars to help a redistricting reform measure qualify for the June 2008 California ballot. They don't think the campaign finance limits should apply.

Ironically, their opponents agree.

The Constitution requires congressional districts to be redrawn every 10 years. The California Legislature, like most others, draws political lines to protect incumbents. The state ran 106 general congressional elections in 2004 and 2006. Party control switched only once, when Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, lost his seat last year.

The Legislature could craft redistricting reform. Alternatively, voters could secure enough signatures to place a reform measure on next year's ballot. That requires money, similar to what happened two years ago.

In 2005, Democratic Rep. Howard Berman of Los Angeles and Republican Rep. John Doolittle of Granite Bay asked Federal Election Commission permission to raise unlimited soft money to combat a previous redistricting reform ballot measure.

"Doolittle ... believes adoption of the initiative could hurt Republicans," FEC Commissioner David Mason noted at the time.

The FEC staff concluded that campaign finance limits still should apply for members of Congress raising money in a statewide election. FEC records show that unhappy lawmakers, such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, now the House speaker, subsequently protested behind the scenes. The commission eventually permitted the California lawmakers to raise money in unlimited amounts.

The result was a torrent of dollars that helped sink the 2005 redistricting reform. Wal-Mart, E! Entertainment Television and the AFL-CIO, among many others, poured money into the 2005 campaign.

Several dozen California House members, including Democratic Reps. Dennis Cardoza of Merced and Jim Costa of Fresno, likewise contributed their own surplus campaign funds to help defeat the 2005 redistricting reform.

The FEC's 2005 decision covered election fund raising. Nunes and McCarthy want the same reasoning to apply to fund raising that helps get a measure on the ballot in the first place.

"We want to make sure we're not doing anything wrong," Nunes said.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Mike Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.