After the 2000 census, many states used politics and innovative mapping technology to gerrymander new electoral districts to lock in gains for one party or the other. California politicians, for example, drew new “safe” seats and the result was hyper-partisanship and politicians who didn’t need to pay attention to anyone that wasn’t singing from their sheet music. Unfortunately, the results may also be dirtier air and a less sustainable future.

Alarmed by the partisanship and its resulting gridlock, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger led an effort to reform the system and convinced voters to put re-districting in the hands of a non-partisan commission of retired judges and ordinary citizens. After the 2010 census, new districts were drawn and many became politically balanced and competitive, opening opportunities for new voices.

This seems like a good thing, but the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court gave companies and wealthy donors the chance to buy outcomes in these newly competitive elections. For example, California state Senator Fran Pavley served for a decade in a safe seat, facing little serious opposition in each election. But this year she has a serious challenger in a newly drawn district that includes more balance of Ds, Rs, and independent voters. She may welcome the chance to debate issues with a challenger that has other views on important public policy goals, but special interests are flooding the race with ads that claim she doesn’t pay taxes (false) and otherwise attack her character.

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The ads are primarily funded by companies like Chevron and Philip Morris and the Koch brothers recently poured more money into the campaign. Pavley is being targeted by these very powerful special interest groups for defeat, not because she has failed, but because she has an astonishing record of success. In her ten years as a member of the Legislature, she was the primary architect of the first comprehensive environmental education law in the nation; a law that cuts greenhouse gases from vehicle emissions, effectively improving their fuel economy at the same time; and the state’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32), which became a model for seven other states and numerous governments around the world. By the way, she got her laws passed with bi-partisan support, signed over the years by both a Democratic and a Republican governor.

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Of course there are many approaches to sustainability challenges, so a robust debate about how to reduce pollution and make the country more energy self-sufficient is indispensible, but there can’t be a fair hearing of these choices when one side is allowed to shout while the other can only whisper. The loser is not any one politician, but anyone who has something to say that isn’t aligned with the holder of the megaphone.

Two years ago, the Koch brothers spent millions on a ballot measure that would have effectively overturned AB32. Campaign ads were ubiquitous and misleading, but the American Lung Association testified the real result of the measure would be dirty air and higher asthma rates. The measure failed, so apparently the new strategy is to shoot the messenger, or in this case, the author of the legislation, with ammunition supplied by the Supreme Court.

Governor Schwarzenegger, Common Cause, and others that worked on making the redistricting process in California more fair, certainly did not intend for those reforms to weaken the system of transparent, honest political discourse and policymaking, but unless we figure out how to offset the corrosive influence of disproportionate campaign spending, the result will be harmful to us all.

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