Redistricting commission ends the week without approving maps

By: - October 22, 2021 7:39 am
Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission

Members of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission hear public testimony during a hearing at the Mesa Convention Center on Aug. 9, 2021. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

A dispute over legislative districts in the Tucson area kept the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission from approving new maps before the weekend.

The commission’s two Republican members favored approving the most recent iteration of the legislative districts as the panel’s official draft map, which is a significant milestone in the process. Once the congressional and legislative draft maps are approved, the commission must put them forward for 30 days of public review, with meetings across the state, before making more changes and approving the final districts that Arizona will use until 2032.

As Thursday wore to an end, it was clear that there would be no bipartisan consensus on the map. The main source of disagreement was the way the AIRC’s consultants had to rearrange legislative districts in southern Arizona to accommodate Republican Commissioner David Mehl’s insistence on keeping Oro Valley, Marana, SaddleBrooke and neighboring communities north of Tucson together in a single legislative district. 

Mehl, a Tucson developer, successfully lobbied for the legislative map to incorporate districts drawn by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, a civic and business advocacy group of which he’s a founding member. That proposal accomplished his goal regarding the communities north of Tucson, an issue that he’s repeatedly raised over the past week, as the AIRC met daily to hash out the details of the maps.

Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner, who has often been at odds with Mehl over various facets of the maps, voted to approve the map that included Mehl’s suggestions. But though she said she was willing to accommodate his desire to keep the northern Pima County and southern Pinal County communities together, she balked at the way that forced the mapping consultants to rearrange other districts in and around Tucson.

For example, she objected to the way the Marana-Oro Valley district wrapped around the to the east side of the Tucson area to pick up the Tanque Verde region. She also didn’t approve of the way a Cochise County-centric district reached into the southeastern side of the Old Pueblo to include Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. 

“The goal of this change was to combine Marana with Oro Valley. We have changed a lot of other things that didn’t necessarily need to be that dramatically changed,” Lerner said. “We’ve just made so many wholesale changes to accomplish one goal.”

Lerner said several times that she would prefer to go back to an earlier map that the commission considered but didn’t approve earlier in the week that largely included eight legislative districts submitted by the Arizona Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting, a group of Hispanic Democrats that is lobbying the AIRC. The commission must draw districts where minority voters can elect the candidates of their choice in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act. Lerner noted that the AIRC reverted to a previous legislative map on Tuesday after a more recent version wasn’t to the majority’s liking.

Independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg sounded frustrated, questioning why Lerner and fellow Democratic Commissioner Derrick Watchman voted for that version of the legislative map when they had so many concerns with it. And she flatly rejected the idea of moving backward on the maps.

“I’m confused why you supported it as a starting point,” Neuberg said to Lerner and Watchman.

Lerner said they were up-front about their concerns at the time, but were willing to move forward with Mehl’s proposal and look at it. Now that they’ve seen it, Lerner said her concerns haven’t been addressed.

“We’ve seen how this works, and it’s not working … for me,” she said. 

Lerner also noted that the commission incorporated the Southern Arizona Leadership Council’s proposed districts with little analysis. Earlier in the day, she and Watchman questioned why the AIRC would accept that outside map while rejecting others from the Latino Coalition and the Navajo Nation, which submitted a proposal for legislative District 6, which pulls together the state’s northern tribes. Lerner questioned whether SALC consulted the Latino community or other affected groups before drawing and submitting its plan. 

Mehl wanted to forge ahead by approving the legislative map as the final draft. Additional changes could be made after the 30-day public comment period mandated by the Arizona Constitution. Neuberg expressed interest in that path, as well.

However, rather than put the legislative districts up for a vote, Neuberg said she preferred to give the Democratic commissioners a few more days to propose changes to the southern Arizona portion of the map. She said the AIRC can also solicit more input from the Latino Coalition. 

“Given the way this conversation is going, I am really reluctant to force a vote when there’s strong disagreements,” Neuberg said.

The commissioners will meet next on Oct. 26, when Neuberg asked Lerner and Watchman to have their proposals ready. The AIRC will then meet Oct. 28, when Neuberg said she wants them to approve both the congressional and legislative draft maps.

Neuberg was eager to get the draft maps in front of the public, and urged her colleagues to minimize the “ripple effects” that their proposals will have on the rest of the legislative map. 

“The clock is ticking, and we do need to have a game plan about what’s going to work for us to instill the greatest level of confidence in the work that we’re doing,” she said. “There’s a diminishing return when the five of us ongoingly debate (when) we’re not out there in the public soliciting the kind of deep feedback that may dramatically change this anyway.”

There was a lot more agreement earlier in the day as the commissioners discussed their proposed congressional districts. They unanimously adopted a new version of the map that includes four districts that would be considered competitive under the metric the AIRC has adopted, which uses results from a collection of statewide races in 2016, 2018 and 2020 to determine a district’s partisan lean. 

Two districts would be highly competitive: the 6th Congressional District, covering northern and eastern Tucson, and pulling in Cochise, Greenlee and parts of Graham and Pinal counties; and the 1st Congressional District, covering Scottsdale and much of north and central Phoenix. 

The 4th Congressional District, which includes Tempe, Ahwatukee, and parts of Chandler, Gilbert and Mesa, would favor Democrats but is still within the range considered competitive by the AIRC. And the 8th Congressional District, in Peoria and neighboring areas of the northwest Valley, would be GOP-friendly, but also potentially competitive. 

There may be little work left to do on the congressional map. Most of the discussion over the proposed districts centered on changes that Lerner and Republican Commissioner Doug York wanted to see to the boundary between the 8th District and the 1st Congressional District in north and central Phoenix.

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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.”

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