Redistricting panel decides contours of northern congressional district

The new district is poised to pit Paul Gosar against Tom O’Hallleran

By: - October 19, 2021 8:35 am
arizona redistricting

Image credit EzumeImages | iStock / Getty Images Plus

Arizona’s northern congressional district that includes the Navajo Nation and numerous other tribes won’t include Mohave County, leaving it with a solid GOP advantage but not overwhelmingly Republican. And the new district potentially sets up a contest between moderate Democratic Congressman Tom O’Halleran and Republican Paul Gosar, a Republican who has become the darling of white nationalists.

The Democratic and Republican members of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission ultimately reached a compromise on the contours of the proposed 2nd Congressional District on Monday, though one that gave the panel’s Democrats more of what they wanted.

Republican Commissioner David Mehl proposed that the CD2 take in staunchly conservative Mohave County. That would have given the district a Republican performance edge of about 15% based on recent election results. Mehl’s Democratic colleague, Shereen Lerner, pushed for a different proposal that would have gone further south to take in Graham and Greenlee counties, as well as a significant portion of Pinal County.

Mehl has expressed concerns that CD2 sprawled too far into southern Arizona, the way its predecessor district currently does. The plan that put Mohave County into the district was “a much more coherent northern district,” he said.

“Frankly, I think that’s just a far better solution for our state, I think it’s a more balanced solution for our state,” Mehl said. 

But other commissioners worried about the effect that Mehl’s plan would have on Native American voting strength in the district. Though the two plans had similar percentages of Native American residents, the version of CD2 that Mehl supported was significantly more heavily Republican, which Lerner and independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg said could negatively affect tribal voters, who largely vote Democratic. 

“From my perspective, I’m most thinking about how we honor the entire state and also not marginalize those northern tribes,” Neuberg said. “How far that (partisan) spread becomes may be relevant to how well that minority group may be able to advocate for themselves.”

Democratic Commissioner Derrick Watchman, a member of the Navajo Nation, said Mohave County had much different interests than the other parts of CD2. Mohave’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture and tourism, he said, while forestry, mining and ranching dominate in the rest of northern Arizona.

And Lerner countered Mehl’s desire for a more compact district by saying that CD2 is going to be geographically spread out no matter what.

“There’s no avoiding it as a primarily rural district. So, to me, I’m focusing on, what do they have in common?” she said.

Lerner, Neuberg and Watchman voted down Mehl’s plan, which had the support of his fellow Republican commissioner, Doug York. But Neuberg also opposed Lerner’s plan, which led the AIRC to adopt a compromise plan that kept Mohave County out of CD2 while leaving Greenlee and more of Graham and Pinal counties out of the district. 

The compromise district has a Republican performance advantage of just over 8 percentage points, similar to the plan Lerner and Watchman favored. Lerner said that would give Native American voters more of a voice in the district.

If the version of CD2 that the commission tentatively approved stays intact — the AIRC expects to approve its final draft maps either later this week or sometime next week — it would have major implications for two incumbent congressmen.

The new CD2 would replace the current 1st Congressional District, a competitive district represented by O’Halleran. If his district gets more Republican, it would leave him more vulnerable to a GOP challenger — and that challenger could be a fellow incumbent who currently represents a different district. 

Gosar, a controversial firebrand known for far-right, extremist affiliations and positions, would also represent the district. Gosar hails from Flagstaff but switched to a neighboring district that includes Prescott for his first re-election in 2012, ditching a highly competitive district for one that is overwhelmingly Republican. He currently represents the 4th Congressional District, which stretches from the northwest corner of the state to wrap around the east side of Maricopa County.

The AIRC’s decision leaves Mohave County connected to the West Valley. As it’s drawn now, it takes in parts of Glendale, along with Goodyear, Avondale, Buckeye and neighboring areas, along with La Paz County and the northern part of Yuma County. 

The district would be similar to the district that Congressman Trent Franks represented from 2003-2012. But much of Franks’ old district, which is now represented by Republican Debbie Lesko, of Peoria, would have no incumbent, potentially leaving an open, heavily GOP district up for grabs in next year’s election.

Much of Monday’s debate centered on how to draw the southern Arizona-based 7th Congressional District as a majority-minority district to comply with the Voting Rights Act. An earlier iteration had the district, which runs from to western and southern Tucson along the U.S.-Mexico border, taking in part of the West Valley around Avondale and Tolleson. 

York reiterated his objection to including part of the Phoenix metro area in the district, arguing that the region had no commonality with Tucson and Yuma. But Lerner preferred to go into the West Valley, as the Arizona Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting proposed in a map it submitted to the AIRC.

Meanwhile, Neuberg focused on how the commission should attempt to get the district’s Hispanic voting-age population above 50%, with Lerner favoring the inclusion of Avondale, Tolleson and part of Glendale, as the coalition proposed. Mehl suggested taking in predominantly Latino areas of Tucson that are currently drawn into the neighboring 6th Congressional District, while jettisoning predominantly white parts of southern Pima and eastern Santa Cruz counties, as well as part of Yuma, to CD6. 

The commission directed its consultants to draw up both proposals, which the AIRC will consider at its meeting on Tuesday. It will meet every day this week except Friday as it moves closer to its goal of approving draft maps that will go to the public for review.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. 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.”