Flashpoints emerge as Arizonans lobby redistricting commission for changes

By: - December 2, 2021 10:57 am
arizona map redistricting

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After weeks of hearings on the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission’s draft maps of its proposed legislative and congressional districts, members of the public have no shortage of gripes about how the lines are drawn or suggestions on how to make them better.

Various hotspots have emerged as points of controversy since the AIRC began its mandatory 30-day public review period on Nov. 6. Among them: How many legislative districts Gilbert should be split into, whether the northern and eastern outskirts of Tucson should be drawn into a safe Republican district, whether the Verde Valley should be joined with Flagstaff or Prescott, and whether the commission should create an additional legislative district that is predominantly Latino.

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The final meeting of the public review period will be on Saturday. Next week, the commission will return to the business of drawing the maps — adjusting the boundaries of its proposed districts based on the testimony they’ve heard throughout the past month.

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Many people urged the AIRC to make specific changes they’d like to see, such as moving the boundaries of a Scottdale-based congressional district out of central Phoenix, adding neighboring areas into a majority Native American legislative district or keeping the West Valley’s Sun Cities together.

Others have more general complaints, especially regarding competitiveness. Dozens of members of the public have lobbied the commission to create more competitive districts — only six of 30 legislative districts qualify as competitive under the AIRC’s metrics — which has long been a rallying cry of Arizona Democrats who hope that competitiveness can help them take control of the legislature for the first time since the 1960s. But few have proposed explicit changes that would make districts more competitive, indicating they’d rather the commissioners simply figure it out for themselves. 

East Valley

With nearly 268,000 people, according to the 2020 Census, Gilbert is the fifth largest city in Arizona. It’s population isn’t much more than that of the average legislative district, which would be 238,000. But the AIRC’s draft map splits Gilbert into five legislative districts — portions of the city are in districts 9, 10, 12, 13 and 14 — which isn’t sitting well with many of the city’s residents.

One of the biggest complaints is the so-called “panhandle” of the proposed District 12, as it’s often been described. The district is largely composed of Ahwatukee and the portion of the Gila River Indian Community to the south that’s part of the Kyrene School District. But a narrow arm juts out from Ahwatukee to take in parts of Chandler and Gilbert. 

“I live in the infamous Gilbert panhandle,” Gilbert resident Carol Cherry told the commission on Nov. 13. “The north Gilbert map looks like … a Jenga puzzle. It’s five different colors.”

Some residents objected to the ways some of the other large cities in the East Valley were split. Chandler, Scottsdale and Tempe are each split into three districts. Mesa, with more than a half million people, is split into four districts. 

Meanwhile, several people voiced their support for the proposed District 13. The district, which takes in parts of southern Chandler and Gilbert, is one of the most competitive on the draft map. 

North Valley

Among the most contentious parts of the legislative map in Maricopa County is the proposed District 3, which covers Fountain Hills, north Scottsdale, Cave Creek and Carefree, along with much of Phoenix north of the Loop 101. Residents argued that the districts lumps together very different communities that should be split up.

The western boundary of the district is Interstate 17. Some Scottsdale and Fountain Hills residents said they rarely even venture as far west as Desert Ridge, let alone the Deer Valley neighborhood at the western edge, and questioned why those areas should all be in the same legislative district. The north Phoenix section of the district should be separated and joined with neighboring parts of the northern Valley, they argued. Some proposed using Scottsdale Road as the district’s western boundary.

Others made similar arguments regarding the proposed 1st Congressional District, which covers nearly all of Scottsdale, along with Fountain Hills and parts of north Phoenix. Residents testified that they don’t like the way the district extends deep into central Phoenix, ending just north of downtown.

“It’s a totally different community of younger people, people that are living and working in the Phoenix area,” Nancy Ordowki, a Republican Party official in Scottsdale, said. 

Several people urged the commission to also pull Anthem out of the 1st District and move it into the Peoria-based 8th Congressional District, which takes in parts of central and northern Phoenix.

West Valley

The 8th Congressional District extends too far into northern and central Phoenix for some people’s liking, and the commission heard testimony from numerous people who want it to take in more of the West Valley.

Specifically, many residents of the area said they want the 8th District to include Sun City and other nearby retirement communities, possibly extending into Surprise and taking in Luke Air Force Base. That would make the district similar to the current 8th Congressional District. 

One frequent theme the commissioners heard from West Valley residents was their objection to being in the 9th Congressional District. The 9th District includes the bulk of the Valley west of the Loop 101, taking in Mohave, La Paz and part of Yuma County. Though the majority of the proposed district’s population is in the Phoenix metro area, some residents said they didn’t want to be part of a “rural” congressional district.

Latino districts

The commission previously rejected a proposed map submitted by the Arizona Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting that would have added an eighth predominantly Hispanic legislative district, with the new district going into the Phoenix area. The AIRC’s map has seven Latino districts, just like the map it would replace.

Several people urged the commissioners to reconsider that decision. 

“People of color have led population growth here in the state, and in particular here in Maricopa County. And there’s no reason that the Latino community, that’s a constituency protected by the VRA, shouldn’t have an additional ability-to-elect district,” said south Phoenix resident Victoria Grijalva. 

The federal Voting Rights Act requires states create districts in which minority voters have the ability to elect the candidates of their choice. However, Arizona is no longer subject to another provision of the 1965 law that required states and local jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination in voting practices to get federal preapproval, known as preclearance, for redistricting maps and other changes to election laws.

Grijalva also urged the commissioners to make changes to the predominantly Latino 3rd Congressional District. The district is anchored in south and west Phoenix, extending into Avondale and Tolleson, as well as into downtown Peoria and the surrounding area. Grijalva urged the commission to remove the Peoria section, noting that it does not have a large Latino population and said it has little in common with the rest of the district. 

Others asked the commission to revisit another decision in which it rejected another of the Latino Coalition’s proposals when it opted to not extend the southern Arizona-based 7th Congressional District, the second of the Latino congressional districts drawn to comply with the VRA, into the West Valley. The majority of the commissioners didn’t want the district to jut into the Phoenix metro area, as its predecessor district does. 

Yuma

Under the current legislative map, Yuma is split between two districts — a Democratic district based in southern Arizona, and a Republican district that includes large chunks of the southwest Valley. City and county leaders urged the commission to recreate that split in the new map. Instead, all of Yuma is in a southern, Democratic district, with the northern half of the county joining Mohave and La Paz counties in a strongly Republican district.

Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls submitted a proposed map that would once again divide the city between two districts, one of them stretching into Buckeye and Goodyear. Nicholls said the draft map splits agricultural and defense-related communities of interest, which his plan would keep together. 

Some, such as former Republican lawmaker Russ Jones, worried that the AIRC’s map would give Yuma less representation at the Capitol. Others preferred to not split Yuma all, instead favoring a district that encompasses the city and county as a whole.

“The Yuma County split was baffling. I have more in common with other Yuma County residents than I do with Buckeye or Prescott,” said Teri Koenig, who works as a home visitor for a nonprofit agency.

Tucson

The legislative map of the Tucson area was perhaps the biggest flashpoint of disagreement among the commissioners last month as independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg joined GOP Commissioners David Mehl and Doug York to approve a map drawn by a Pima County Republican operative and backed by a southern Arizona business group that Mehl is a founding member of. The proposed map creates a predominantly Republican district that takes in the areas north and east of Tucson. 

Democrats have decried the map — and District 18 specifically — as a partisan gerrymander designed to give Republicans a safe district in the Tucson area, and many people testified in opposition. 

“It is blatantly obvious that this map is designed to prevent competitive districts,” said Marana resident Dana Allmond.

Many others, however, voiced their support for the proposed district. Though the two parts of the district are separated by the Santa Catalina Mountains, they are joined by common interests, supporters testified. 

“One of the things that has become very clear is that the people who are outside the city of Tucson do not want to be linked in with the city of Tucson,” said Shelley Kais, who chairs the Pima County Republican Party.

On the congressional map, some people raised concerns that splitting Tucson between two districts, as has been the case for the past 20 years, would allow the city to dominate both of them. Some people suggested putting the City of Tucson in the proposed 7th District, a predominantly Democratic district that extends west to Yuma, while giving the neighboring 6th District the suburban and exurban communities outside of the city.

Others objected to the district’s “arm” that extends northwest from Tucson, largely following the Interstate 10 corridor. The way it’s currently drawn, some Pinal County residents objected to the way neighboring communities that interact closely, such as Casta Grande and Eloy, are in different congressional districts. 

Verde Valley

The fate of the Verde Valley in Yavapai County has been a hot topic of discussion since the commission held its first round of statewide hearings over the summer to hear testimony about communities of interest. Many residents asked the commission to put the region in the same district as Flagstaff, rather than with their fellow Yavapai County residents. Ultimately, the AIRC joined it with Prescott, keeping Yavapai County largely intact in a single legislative district. 

The Coconino County Board of Supervisors submitted proposals to redraw two northern Arizona-based legislative districts. The first would take the southern portion of the county, including all of Flagstaff, and attach it to the Verde Valley, along with much of Gila County and part of eastern Pinal County. The second would redraw the predominantly tribal District 7, increasing its percentage of Native American voters while removing Flagstaff, which it currently includes.

Flagstaff Mayor Paul Deasy and Sedona Mayor Sandy Moriarty were among the public officials who urged the AIRC to adopt the Coconino supervisors’ proposal. Deasy said Flagstaff has similar values with the Verde Valley communities, such as watershed protection and investing in forest health, and Moriarty said Sedona has little in common with other parts of Yavapai County.

“Sedona, Flagstaff and the rest of the Verde Valley communities work together as a region regularly and depend on the partnerships we have among us,” Moriarty said. 

Officials and others from Yavapai County strenuously objected to the plan. The Verde Valley is part of Yavapai County, they emphasized, and should be with the rest of the county in one legislative district. 

“I find this effort highly unusual and distributing that elected officials of another county wish to complicate the policy making and governing of our county and our relationship with our county citizens. We would never, as a board of supervisors, meddle or violate Coconino County or any other county’s sovereignty in dealing with their constituents,” Yavapai County Supervisor Harry Oberg told the commissioners. 

Meanwhile, residents of Sedona, including elected officials, urged the commission to put the city entirely in one legislative district. Sedona is split between Coconino and Yavapai counties, and the AIRC used the county boundary as the dividing line between districts.

Tribal concerns

The AIRC’s decision to put most of Flagstaff into the Democratic, predominantly tribal District 6 in its draft legislative map didn’t sit well with the Navajo Nation and other tribes in northern and eastern Arizona. Navajo Nation officials proposed a district that would have removed Flagstaff and added nearby communities such as Winslow, Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside that have large Indigenous populations.

The Navajo Nation is still hoping for changes that would bolster the percentage of Native American voters in the proposed district, and other tribes urged the commission to follow that recommendation. Steve Titla, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, spoke to the AIRC on behalf of chairman Terry Rambler, who penned a letter to the commission urging it to keep the boundaries of the current tribal legislative district largely intact.

By removing the communities that the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission included in its proposed district, the AIRC could dilute Native American voting strength by excluding tribal members who live off-reservation, Rambler said in his letter, which Titla read. 

“It is absolutely imperative that the commission maintains a robust Native American majority-minority legislative district capable of electing its preferred candidate into office,” Titla said. 

Titla noted that, in 2004, Native American voters were unable to elect the candidate of their choice because non-tribal voters in Flagstaff mobilized to defeat a tribal candidate. That could happen again if Flagstaff isn’t removed from District 6, he said.

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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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