Sam Blakeslee not running for re-election after court decision on California Senate maps

The Tribune

State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, made it official Friday night that he will not seek another term in the wake of the California Supreme Court decision to uphold the Senate maps drawn last year by an independent redistricting commission.

The high court announced its unanimous decision that the Senate map drawn by the commission should be used in the June primary and November general election, even though an initiative challenging the map is expected to qualify for the ballot.

Blakeslee told The Tribune in a December interview that he likely would not seek re-election if the court so ruled because the district map, as drawn, strongly favored Democrats over Republicans in party registration.

After the high court’s ruling Friday, Blakeslee said in a phone interview he would indeed end his time in the Senate when his term concludes in December.

“I feel a certain sense of gratitude to the community for this opportunity,” Blakeslee said about his nearly 15 years in public service. “There are times in life to be grateful for blessings and opportunities you have been able to experience. That is how I am looking at this.”

Blakeslee began his political career when he was elected to the Cuesta College board of trustees. He served six years before winning election to the state Assembly, where he served another six years. He will wind up serving 21⁄2 years in the Senate.

Asked what he might do once he concludes in the Senate, the 56-year-old Blakeslee said he is interested in starting a nonprofit that would focus on higher education or green energy.

Several rumors have surfaced about Blakeslee being a possible candidate against current 3rd District county Supervisor Adam Hill, or being considered for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Blakeslee denied having any plans to run for the Board of Supervisors and said President Barack Obama has not called him to serve on the NRC.

Democratic advantage

The court’s decision dealt a blow to GOP attempts to block Democrats from gaining enough seats so they can pass taxes on their own.More locally, it gives Democrats a significant advantage in voter registration for the new 24th District, drawn by the commission created by voters in 2010. The new district would contain 17 percent more Democrats than Republicans and would add more of liberal Santa Cruz County while losing conservative northern Santa Barbara County.

The district encompasses all of San Luis Obispo County.

Democratic Assemblyman Bill Monning of Santa Cruz has announced that he will run for the seat. In a phone interview, Monning praised the court decision and said he intends to continue making his case to voters in San Luis Obispo County.

He also had kind words for Blakeslee and said he has “great respect for him and what he has done for San Luis Obispo County.”

Blakeslee said in December that his decision whether to run would be dictated by the court decision and a talk with his wife, Kara.

“I want my community to understand that by making this decision, I’m not walking away from a fight,” he explained at the time. “But I’m not willing to lose the entire last year in office in (a vain) pursuit of office. I’m 100 percent engaged to make sure this last year is the most impactful as it possibly can be.”

The high court decided the Senate map drawn by the commission should be used in the upcoming elections.

Republicans are seeking an initiative to overturn the new boundaries and wanted the new maps tossed out until voters decide the issue. The court first had to find whether it even had the authority to act because the GOP initiative has yet to qualify.

The justices concluded that they did have jurisdiction “and that the petition presents issues sufficiently ripe for review.”

The court found that the maps drawn by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission were “clearly the most appropriate map to be used in the 2012 state Senate elections even if the proposed referendum qualifies for the ballot.”

Republicans stand to lose seats to Democrats under the Senate maps because of the state’s shifting demographics, giving Democrats a better chance of reaching the critical two-thirds majority in the Senate. If Democrats achieve that threshold, they would be able to approve tax increases without Republican support in one house of the Legislature.

Orange County Republican activist Julie Vandermost filed the lawsuit in October. She and GOP interests contend the commission did not meet the constitutional criteria for drawing the maps in a transparent way and in trying to keep communities together, violating the federal Voting Rights Act.

Peter Yao, the acting chairman of the citizens’ commission, called Friday’s decision “a great victory for the people of California” and said it was important for the stability of the electoral process in the state.

“It is regrettable that these challenges, based on partisan self-interest, have cost precious taxpayer dollars to defend the work of the people’s commission,” said Yao, a Republican from Claremont.

Multiple options

The Supreme Court justices had several options in considering the case: They could have allowed the use of the redistricting commission’s maps, as they did; used the state Senate districts that have been in place since 2001; devised an alternate plan; or created temporary Senate districts out of pairs of Assembly districts drawn by the commission.

The 40-member Senate has half the number of lawmakers as the state Assembly, where Democrats also are in the majority but any change in the balance of power is less certain under the newly drawn political boundaries.

California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said the court ignored the text of the original ballot measure passed by voters, which said the Supreme Court should hold off on using the commission’s boundaries if a referendum is likely to qualify.

“This is incredible, what they did,” Del Beccaro said. “The Supreme Court agreed with us on the merits and then chose to ignore the constitution. They severely undermined the rule of law today.”

Six of the seven Supreme Court justices were appointed by Republican governors. The exception is Justice Goodwin Liu, who was appointed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The state Senate boundaries were part of the work done last year by the 14-member citizens redistricting commission, an independent panel created by voters to take the once-a-decade redistricting process away from the Legislature. The commission also drew new boundaries for the Assembly, congressional districts and the state Board of Equalization based on 2010 census figures.

California voters created the commission in 2008 and expanded its authority to congressional districts in 2010, taking away the highly politicized process of redistricting from lawmakers.

The commission members — five Republicans, five Democrats and four independents — were selected in a random process overseen by the state auditor’s office. At least nine commissioners had to support the new boundaries, including at least three each from Democrats, Republicans and independents.

The state Senate districts were approved 13-1.

Supporters of the Republican referendum attempt have turned in petitions with 711,000 voter signatures. The secretary of state’s office said it will determine by Feb. 24 whether the petitions have the roughly 505,000 valid signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot.

All justices agreed the independent commission’s maps should be used, rejecting the Republicans’ contention that they should not be in use while they were being challenged.

The court pointed out that unlike any of the other proposed maps, the commission’s Senate map already has survived one legal challenge. In October, the state Supreme Court determined that a GOP petition seeking to throw out the commission’s maps “lacked merit.”

Tribune staff writers Tad Weber and Bob Cuddy and The Associated Press contributed to this report.