Even in a town as wonky as DC, a movie called Gerrymandering doesn’t sound especially sexy. Luckily, as far as stars go, it’s hard to find someone who better bridges the gap between Hollywood’s and Washington’s definitions of the term than the Terminator-turned-governor-of-California who’s married to a Kennedy. Arnold Schwarzenegger joined director Jeff Reichert, former Texas congressman Martin Frost, and Tennessee representative John Tanner last night for a screening of the movie and a panel discussion moderated by the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart. The governor, who features prominently in the film, admitted that gerrymandering is a tough subject for a movie. “How do you educate people about something so complicated?” he said.
But Gerrymandering overcomes that challenge to offer an insightful look at the obscure and peculiar political process that allows elected officials to draw their own district boundaries—and to improve their own reelection prospects. Reichert, who until recently was a senior vice president at Magnolia Pictures, spent three years studying gerrymandering and then two more shooting and editing. The film focuses on Kathay Feng, executive director of the California chapter of Common Cause, a national electoral-reform group. California Common Cause helped secure the narrow 2008 ballot initiative that established a commission to handle redistricting, rather than giving control over boundary lines to the state legislators directly impacted by the process. Feng explains gerrymandering bluntly: “Right now, the legislators pick the voters rather than the voters electing the politicians.”
Reichert’s take on gerrymandering is solidly bipartisan. The movie details how one Barack Obama failed to win a congressional seat in 2000 but made it to the Senate in 2004 after a subsequent redistricting gave him a large portion of white, upper-middle-class Chicago (known as the Gold Coast). “That’s not really democracy,” one commentator says. “That’s coronation.” The movie also examines then-congressman Tom DeLay’s singular use of gerrymandering to rid Texas of seven Democratic representatives in 2004 and how Texas Democrats tried to avoid the tactic by decamping en masse to a Best Western across the border in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Their departure earned both praise and scorn—a scene features Jon Stewart ripping the congressmen on The Daily Show while Willie Nelson sends them a case of Jack Daniel’s.
During the Q&A session after the screening, Governor Schwarzenegger relied on Hollywood terms to map out the political future. “I believe in sequels,” he said. “There is a sequel to [the passing of Proposition 11], and the sequel is the primaries.” Martin Frost, one of the Democrats ousted by DeLay’s gerrymandering, was hopeful that electoral reform might help fix Washington. “Gerrymandering tends to drive politicians to their corners,” he said. “The effect of it has been to polarize the parties.” Representative Tanner agreed: “Politicians are punished by the right and the left if they try to move to the center. Time is of the essence. If we don’t get this done now, it’s going to be another ten years before we can change it.”