When the California Citizens Redistricting Commission was holding hearings and collecting public input last year, there were any number of local civic groups that came before commissioners to offer sincere but unhelpful opinions. Ditto for several city councils and local government entities. In most cases, these folks had some vague ideas about what they wanted, but no knowledge of actual job that the commission had to perform and not a clue about the rules they had to follow or even an awareness that the fundamental purpose of redistricting was to equalize the number of residents in each new district it created.
On the Central Coast, there was one striking exception: the community-organizing group CAUSE, which presented the commission with a detailed vision of what it believed new political districts should look like, accompanied by data and arguments rooted in law.
The person most responsible for shaping that vision was a community organizer named Chris Lanier, a New York-raised former actor who learned the art of grassroots organizing on the streets of Brooklyn. He was relatively new to California, having come here in 2008, when he worked on the state Senate campaign of Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson.
Under Lanier's leadership, CAUSE developed a coherent set of principles it believed that redistricting efforts should reflect. Chiefly, it argued that large concentrations of low-income workers, largely Latinos who work in the agricultural industry, in the Santa Clara Valley and on the Oxnard Plain should not have their interests diluted by being split into separate political districts. It drew proposed maps that met the population requirements, and presented economic and cultural data to back up its argument that these areas constituted a community of common interests.
CAUSE didn't get everything it wanted. But its arguments clearly had an impact on the commission, which in the end created both a state Senate and a congressional district that united those two communities. As a result, politicial candidates in those districts this fall and for the rest of this decade will have to reach out to groups of voters that have historically been largely ignored or taken for granted.
Chris Lanier died last week, at age 50, after a year of battling cancer. It's clear that he made a lasting impression. In an email to CAUSE supporters, executive director Marcos Vargas informed them about Lanier's passing. "Chris' passion for social justice brought him to CAUSE and made CAUSE a more powerful and special place," Vargas wrote. "Chris was an amazing man and a passionate warrior for social justice!"
Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, adjourned the Assembly in Lanier's memory one day last week. Lanier replaced Williams at CAUSE, and Williams has no hesitation about praising the skills of his successor. "He took the job I had to a whole new level," Williams told me.
There have been a number of tributes to Lanier written on Facebook and elsewhere over the last several days. Perhaps the most moving among them included this quote from Lanier, describing the work to which he committed his life.
Politicians will let you down and the petty personal bullshit will drive you crazy, and absolutely none of that matters compared to the importance of the work we do. Politics affects real people's lives and you have to look beyond individual cycles, candidates, and personal vendettas at the broader agenda you are trying to enact.