Tribes may get less voice in new congressional district

By: - October 5, 2021 6:01 pm

Members of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission met Oct. 4, 2021, in the Phoenix city council chambers to discuss initial changes to the grid maps approved the previous month. L to R: Shereen Lerner, Derrick Watchman, Erika Neuberg, David Mehl, Douglas York. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

Navajo and other Native American voters could find they have less say in who represents them in Arizona’s sprawling, northernmost congressional district, which has traditionally been among the most competitive in the state.

As the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission spent its second day adjusting the lines on preliminary maps, several commissioners raised the possibility that the proposed 2nd Congressional District might lean more Republican than does the current 1st District, which covers much of the same territory. If the district becomes less competitive, that could have major implications for the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe.

The 1st Congressional District, as it’s currently drawn, has been highly competitive over the past decade. Though no Republican has won the district’s congressional seat during the past 10 years, the races there are usually competitive. And Republican candidates have won the district in two of the past three presidential races. The predecessor district that existed from 2002-2010 was also highly competitive, electing a Republican in four of five election years.

However, the need to create congressional districts with almost identical populations, and the abundance of Republican voters in adjoining areas, may make it difficult to recreate the current district’s political makeup. The issue arose as the commission considered the first round of changes its consultants made to its proposed grid map based on input from Monday’s meeting

Commissioner David Mehl, one of the AIRC’s two Republican members, wants to create a more geographically compact district in the area. That means lopping off the southern part, which juts into Graham County, taking in the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. Mehl wants to remove Arizona’s “copper corridor” into a different district. 

To make up the population that the district would lose, Mehl proposed adding Mohave County. That concerned Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner, who questioned whether the addition of a GOP stronghold — Mohave is the reddest county in the state, and more than half of voters there are registered Republicans — would dilute the votes of the Native Americans, who are heavily concentrated in that district.

“That will not necessarily be a district that will then provide Native Americans with a voice,” Lerner said.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Democratic Commissioner Derrick Watchman, a member of the Navajo Nation who has repeatedly emphasized the importance of ensuring tribal representation in the new maps, shared those concerns.

“I think if you look at the tribes and what they consider their party of choice, I would think that, at least from what I’ve seen in the last couple decades, the Democratic Party has provided more insight and more resources,” said Watchman, a former chief of staff to the Navajo Nation president.

Mehl countered that, whatever the 2nd District ultimately looks like, it will be difficult to not make it a Republican-leaning district. The version of the district the AIRC was considering was already predominantly Republican, and the commission’s online mapping tool shows the district as being only about 43% Democratic. 

Erika Neuberg, the commission’s independent chairwoman, agreed with Mehl — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Native American voters won’t have a voice, she said. Even if the district leans toward the GOP, the commission can ensure it’s as competitive as possible, and she said Native American voters will be enough of a force to make their voices heard.

“When I look at the Native American community, they’re going to be such a dominant demographic in that congressional area that, even if it’s not perfectly competitive, I can’t help but imagine that they’re not going to be represented, that a member (of Congress) is not going to pay due diligence to that constituency,” she said. 

Watchman emphasized that the AIRC needs more input from Arizona’s tribal communities. The commission has only heard from three or four of the state’s 22 tribes, and hasn’t heard from the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, either. 

After the meeting, Watchman told the Arizona Mirror that many of the issues the tribes deal with aren’t Democratic or Republican, and that they often take a “middle-of-the-aisle approach” to them. And he acknowledged that the Navajo Nation has in the past fared well with a GOP representative. Republican Rick Renzi represented the area from 2003-2008, and Watchman said he was generally responsive to the tribes’ needs.

Nonetheless, the tribes have largely favored Democrats. Watchman said if the tribes have opportunities to elect the candidates they prefer, they’ll feel better represented.

Little focus on Phoenix area in legislative maps

The northern part of the map also occupied much of the commission’s time when it turned its attention to the legislative districts.

The commissioners supported the idea of adding Flagstaff to the predominantly tribal District 7 in northern Arizona, which would then shed the southern part of the district that extends to the northern boundary of Cochise county. That, Mehl said, will help the AIRC comply with the Voting Rights Act while cutting out residents of the copper corridor who don’t want to be lumped in with northern Arizona. 

However, that might force the commission to put the Verde Valley area into the same legislative district as Prescott, which many residents of the region oppose. Mapping consultant Doug Johnson said that would likely also preclude the commission from including the Apache tribes in District 6. 

To remedy the issue, several commissioners said they should consider splitting Flagstaff between two districts, keeping the eastern part in the heavily Democratic District 6 while putting the western part of the city in with the more Republican-leaning area to the south. 

Johnson warned that splitting up Flagstaff may make it difficult for District 6 to meet its population requirements. 

On the southern end of the map, the commission focused heavily on where the congressional and legislative district boundaries will fall in and around the Tucson area.

Republican Commissioner Douglas York reiterated his previous desire to see the proposed District 7, a heavily Latino district, cut out the portion that extends into the western Phoenix metro area. To make up for the lost population, he suggested that it take in the whole of the Yuma area, rather than split the city in half as the current map does, and as the AIRC has signaled it will continue to do on the legislative map.

“I just don’t think the I-10 corridor has anything to do with southern Arizona and Yuma,” York said.

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Mehl, who lives in Tucson, also outlined his wishes for legislative districts in the area. He proposed three Democratic majority-minority districts that he said would help satisfy the requirements of the Voting Rights Act: a district whose “keystone” would be in Santa Cruz County, extending north into the Tucson area; a southern Tucson-based district; and a third district that would extend from western Tucson to Yuma, taking in the Tohono O’odham Nation.

At the northern end of the Tucson area, Mehl suggested two districts that would likely be more favorable to Republicans. One would take in the Catalina Foothills region and extend into eastern Tucson. The other would include Oro Valley, Marana and other communities in northern Pima County and southern Pinal County. 

Though the commission dedicated some time to legislative and congressional districts in the Phoenix metro area, it largely focused on areas outside the state’s population center. 

The AIRC’s consultants will work on new drafts of the two maps based on the commissioners’ input. The commission will hold its fifth and final hearing to get public input on the grid maps on Thursday in Surprise. It will hold its weekly business meeting next Tuesday. And it will meet on Friday, Oct. 15, to continue adjusting the congressional and legislative district boundaries.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”

MORE FROM AUTHOR