Legislative leaders sound off on redistricting, competitiveness

By: - December 2, 2021 4:16 pm
Arizona redistricting flag

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Democratic legislative leaders presented a laundry list of grievances over Latino districts, competitiveness and a GOP lawmaker’s attempt to influence his Tucson-area legislative district, while House Speaker Rusty Bowers urged the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission to put less of a premium on competitive districts, as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle got an opportunity to address the state’s remapping panel in person.

The commission, which is nearing the end of a mandatory 30-day public comment period on its draft congressional and legislative maps, invited Bowers, House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding and Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios to share their thoughts at a special meeting on Thursday. The AIRC will hold several more public hearings before it begins the process of adjusting the lines boundaries that will form its final maps on Monday.


The Arizona Democratic Party set the stage for the minority leaders’ comments as it unveiled emails and other public records showing that Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, played an active role in rallying support for a GOP-friendly district that he would represent.

Bolding and Rios, both Phoenix Democrats, submitted a letter to the commission on Thursday detailing a well-established list of issues in which they allege that the AIRC has favored Republicans and disregarded the interests of minority groups.

Some of those issues go back to the hiring of an executive director who worked for a Republican member of the Phoenix City Council and who had a background in GOP politics, and the hiring of a mapping consultant that Democrats view as hostile to Latino interests. But the bulk of their concerns pertained to the commission’s actual work in drawing the maps, specifically regarding the legislative districts that Arizona will use for the next decade.

Perhaps Democrats’ biggest concern with the AIRC’s work is the southern Arizona legislative map, which was submitted to the commission by a Pima County GOP operative and adopted wholesale at the urging of a Tucson-area business group that Republican Commissioner David Mehl helped create. More specifically, Democrats are incensed by the adoption of a heavily Republican District 17 that would take in the conservative suburbs and exurbs to the north and east of Tucson.

The narrow majorities that I have seen, like the one I serve in today, actually empowers the extremes of political rhetoric and action. And it makes governance very difficult.

– House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa

The Democratic Party said it found that Leach used legislative staffers to draft a letter for Marana Mayor Ed Honea to send to the AIRC on city letterhead lobbying for a legislative district that would put Marana, Oro Valley, SaddleBrooke and neighboring areas to Tucson’s north in a district with the Tanque Verde region and other areas to the east of the city. That would be largely similar to the current boundaries of the proposed District 17. And they urged the AIRC to keep Tucson and Casas Adobes out of the district, as Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner proposed to make the district more competitive. 

Leach, who lives in the proposed district and is expected to run for re-election there, signed the letter, along with other regional elected officials and political figures, including the Pima County GOP’s second vice chair, Anna Clark, who submitted the southern Arizona legislative proposal to the commission. 

The Democratic Party also found emails between Leach’s Senate assistant, Galen Kimmick, the Senate GOP’s deputy chief of staff, Grant Hanna, and Marana officials coordinating their activities regarding the letter.

“Senator Leach was not open and transparent about his role in crafting the southern Arizona Republican district. He hid behind a well-respected organization, and it was only through a public records request that his role was finally revealed. And despite his deception — or perhaps because of it — those legislative configurations in Southern Arizona have remained in the draft map despite not conforming to several constitutional criteria,” Bolding and Rios wrote in their letter, which they read into the record during Thursday’s meeting.

Leach did not respond to a request for comment from the Arizona Mirror.

Dems: Fewer people in GOP districts gives them more power

While the AIRC adopted the southern Arizona legislative districts at the urging of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, Bolding and Rios noted that it rejected a map proposed by the Arizona Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting, which would have created an additional Hispanic district to the legislative map, for a total of eight. The commission also rejected a proposal from the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission for the predominantly Native American District 6 in northern and eastern Arizona.

In the Latino districts that the commission did adopt to comply with the Voting Rights Act, which requires that minority groups have districts where they have the ability to elect the candidates of their choice, the Democratic leaders said the AIRC inappropriately packed Hispanic voters into the districts in a way that favors Republicans elsewhere on the map.

Federal courts have traditionally permitted a 10% deviation in legislative districts’ populations — 5% above or below average — for a range of reasons, the biggest being compliance with the Voting Rights Act. That has typically led to districts that are underpopulated in order to strengthen the voting power of minority groups. But many of the AIRC’s Latino districts are overpopulated, and many of the most underpopulated districts are heavily Republican.

Rios pointed specifically to her District 11, which covers south Phoenix and Laveen, and southern Arizona-based District 21. Both are predominantly Latino and are more than 4% over the average district population of about 238,000.


Erika Neuberg, the AIRC’s independent chairwoman, asked Bolding and Rios how they would address the population deviation issue. She queried the legislative leaders on what level of deviation they would find acceptable, and which communities they felt should benefit from that deviation.

“I would pose the question to the commissioners who have to make that decision,” Bolding responded. 

Neuberg said she appreciated that they were deferring to the commission’s judgment on the issue.

“But when we use our judgment and then you come back and criticize us or attack us that it’s not meeting criteria — as we’re going along, we’re deeply interested in your live feedback,” she said. “If you do have specific opinions on some of these detailed issues that we’re talking about, please feel free to weigh in.”

Neuberg also said the requests for both competitiveness and an additional Voting Rights Act district put the AIRC in a tough spot. She noted that the requirement to create those majority-minority districts often conflicts with competitiveness, leaving a relatively small number of Democrats in the rest of the map, which is dominated by Republicans. Previous commission chairs have said they had similar difficulties in balancing the two criteria

“Sometimes it is either-or,” she said. 

Mehl asked the Democratic leaders if they viewed the current legislative maps drawn by the 2011 commission, which put a higher premium on competitiveness, as a positive example, or if they found fault with the last AIRC’s work. Rios said she didn’t have the expertise to get into the specific details of the districts, but noted that Republicans have only a one-vote majority in each legislative chamber, the closest they’ve been since the 1960s.

“I guess long-term it could be argued that some of those districts have eventually become competitive to the point where we almost have parity in the legislature,” Rios said.

GOP leader: More competitiveness makes it harder to govern

Bowers, a Mesa Republican, used the closely split legislative chambers as an example of why he felt competitiveness, and a focus on that issue, is bad for the legislative process.Though Republican leadership in the legislature rarely seeks compromises with the Democrats, and in some cases refuses to allow votes on bills that have enough support to pass but are opposed by the majority of GOP lawmakers, Bowers said razor-thin legislative majorities make governance more difficult

“The narrow majorities that I have seen, like the one I serve in today, actually empowers the extremes of political rhetoric and action. And it makes governance very difficult. Not impossible, but at times so,” Bowers said. 

As Neuberg did with Bolding and Rios, Lerner asked Bowers for examples of how competitiveness makes it more difficult to govern. 

“When I look historically, I don’t see that,” she said.

Bowers didn’t provide any examples, but said narrow majorities discourage lawmakers from voting across the party lines. He said he often hears from Democratic colleagues who want to work with the Republicans, but can’t break ranks without putting themselves in political jeopardy. And without votes from the minority party, one-vote majorities mean one person becomes the king or queen of the legislature. 

Bowers urged the commission to focus less on competitiveness, which the Arizona Constitution says must be considered, but only if it won’t cause a significant detriment to the other five redistricting criteria. That prompted Lerner to note that the campaign in 2000 for Proposition 106, which created the AIRC, focused heavily on competitiveness.

However, Bowers countered that the wording of the law, not campaign rhetoric, is what policymakers have to follow. 

“The rhetoric of campaigns is so often reduced to three words on a sign — it’s for the children, save our schools — not about the details. And it’s those details that I think are most illuminative of what this construct and what your task presents you. And it very clearly says that competitiveness … is the last criteria,” he said. 

The commissioners asked all three lawmakers their thoughts on how to balance urban and rural interests in the legislative map. Some proposed districts include both rural and urban areas, which residents in both have objected to.

Bowers, who has represented both urban and rural districts in his long legislative career, urged the commission to keep them as separate as possible.

“They don’t want to have a spoke-and-a-hub system,” he said, referring to districts that begin in urban areas and extend outward into rural Arizona.

Rios, who has also represented both urban and rural areas, took a different view. She urged the commission to look also at proximity, and said there are sometimes common geographic interests that unite neighboring rural and urban communities. Rios noted that rural eastern Pinal County is currently drawn into a district that extends to Flagstaff. 

“Even though they might both be rural areas, that cannot be the only distinguishing factor,” she said. 

In their letter to the commission, Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann, who didn’t speak at the meeting because she was in San Diego for an American Legislative Exchange Council conference, also proposed specific changes to the boundaries of several districts. In the marginally competitive but Democratic-leaning District 9, which covers western Mesa, the GOP leaders suggested swapping population with a heavily Republican neighboring district in order to make District 9 more competitive. District 9 is home to Republican Sen. Tyler Pace, one of several incumbent lawmakers who is currently drawn into an unfavorable district

They also proposed putting all of the McCormick Ranch area of Scottsdale into District 4, a competitive district that includes Arcadia, Paradise Valley and parts of northern Phoenix. McCormick Ranch is currently split between District 4 and heavily Democratic District 8, which includes parts of Scottsdale, Tempe and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

Furthermore, Bowers and Fann, R-Prescott, urged the commission to make changes in several districts they allege were over- or underpopulated for purposes of competitiveness.

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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.”