Redistricting commission plans for milestone vote between Republican, Dem proposals
The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission met Dec. 13, 2021, in Phoenix. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror
Final maps are still a little ways off, but the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission will hit a major turning point at its next meeting when it will decide whether to move forward with either the Democratic or Republican proposals as its only template.
At the commission’s meeting on Monday, independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg said it would be the last meeting in which commissioners would be able to draw up separate maps based on their differing visions and goals for the congressional and legislative districts that Arizona will use for the next decade. On Thursday, when the AIRC meets next, the commissioners will choose maps to use as their new starting points. And those are the starting points that the commission will stick with until it makes its final decisions, Neuberg said.
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That means the commissioner will have to choose between competing maps proposed by the AIRC’s Democratic and Republican members. The commission’s mapping consultants will prepare four new maps for Thursday’s meetings — Democratic and Republican proposals for both the congressional and legislative maps based on recommendations the commissioners made on Monday.
In the case of a partisan split between the commission’s two Democrats and two Republicans, Neuberg will be the tie-breaking vote. And Neuberg has regularly sided with her GOP colleagues against the two Democrats so far this year.
Nonetheless, Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner opened Monday’s meeting by criticizing members of her own party who have attacked Neuberg for her numerous 3-2 votes with the Republicans.
“Ten years ago, the independent chair of the commission was treated unfairly and criticized by members of one party because of her votes that were seen as favoring one party over another,” Lerner said, referring to Colleen Coyle Mathis, who was so opposed by Republicans that they attempted to impeach her, but were rebuffed by the Arizona Supreme Court.
“I’m seeing the same treatment of our current chair, where one party in particular is upset about the votes,” Lerner continued. “I believe our chair has the best interests of the state in mind and will work toward that end.”
Where we begin really does matter, because when we start with something that we then have to work uphill, it’s much harder. All I can do is hope that we’re being heard.
– Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner
Neuberg defended her conduct as chairwoman, saying the redistricting process has been ethical and fair and that her decisions have been based on merit.
“There are no deals being made. There is no backroom anything. This is a fair, honest, intellectual process of understanding very complicated guidelines to do what’s right for as many in our state as possible,” she said.
Asked about the string of 3-2 votes in which she sided with Republican Commissioners David Mehl and Doug York, Neuberg told the Arizona Mirror that she’s made her priorities clear, and that “one side tried to move the maps even further” from what she wants. That was the case last week when Neuberg chastised Lerner for pushing for changes that would remove Yavapai County from the 2nd Congressional District, despite the chairwoman’s repeated opposition to such a move.
Chair: ‘I’m very sympathetic’ to bolstering the Native American district
On Monday, Neuberg laid out several of her top priorities early in the meeting. Among them were keeping neighboring retirement communities united in the same district, honoring city boundaries and ensuring that the 1st Congressional District includes a sizable portion of Phoenix.
Neuberg also indicated a willingness to make a change requested by Lerner and fellow Democrat Derrick Watchman, which their Republican colleagues oppose. The Democratic commissioners want to adopt a proposal by the Navajo Nation that would remove Flagstaff from the predominantly tribal Legislative District 6. The tribe, along with Lerner and Watchman, who is a member of the Navajo Nation, have expressed concerns that white Democratic voters from Flagstaff could make it more difficult for Native Americans to elect tribal lawmakers, as happened when a similar district existed from 2002-2010.
“I’m very sympathetic to the Native American concerns about their opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice in the primary. There’s been sufficient data … that there were several occasions in which the Flagstaff Democrats really had very different opinions about the Native American choices, and I need to study that,” Neuberg said.
Most of the meeting was dedicated to the Democratic and Republican commissioners laying out requests for competing versions of the congressional and legislative districts.
Mehl and York proposed a series of changes to the congressional map that would likely make the Tucson-based 6th Congressional District more favorable to the GOP, along with revisions in Phoenix that could reverse gains the Republicans would make in the 1st District under changes that Neuberg proposed last week.
Tension over how to divide Tucson
In southern Arizona, Mehl proposed moving areas of central Tucson east of the University of Arizona into the heavily Democratic 7th Congressional District. That would shift Democratic areas out of the competitive 6th Congressional District, making the district more favorable for Republicans. While Tucson Mayor Regina Romero wants the boundary between the two districts to be at Campbell Avenue north of Broadway Road in order to keep downtown and the university together, Mehl wants it two miles to the east at Alvernon Way.
If the 7th District still needs additional people to increase its population — each congressional district must have about 794,000 people — Mehl said the AIRC could add the area within Alvernon, Broadway, Grant Road and Swan Road. He also proposed moving Sahuarita into the 7th District.
Though Romero, a Democrat, wants the boundary to lie further to the west, Mehl said his proposal does a better job of granting her request to include the university area in the 7th District.
“I’ve lived in Tucson over 50 years and I lived down in the university area for a number of years in that area,” Mehl said. “East of Campbell is totally a university area.”
Mehl’s son, Carson Mehl, who is vice president of his father’s company, Cottonwood Properties, contributed $5,800 in August to Juan Ciscomani, a Republican who is running for the vacant 6th District seat. Mehl told the Mirror that his son’s contributions had no bearing on his decisions as a commissioner.
“Our family has donated to politicians forever. If my son wants to make a donation, that’s certainly his prerogative and up to him. It’s not influencing anything that I’m doing as a commissioner. That’s silly,” he said.
Mehl also insisted that the 6th District will still be competitive if his proposed changes are implemented, noting that it’s a relatively small area that would be moved into the 7th District. Under the proposed map that Mehl was working off of, the 6th District has a GOP advantage of 3.2%. The commission considers anything within 7% to be competitive and anything within 4% to be highly competitive.
1st District competitiveness remains in the balance
Changes that Neuberg and the Republicans proposed on Monday left the 1st District, which largely covers northern Scottsdale and parts of north Phoenix, underpopulated. To remedy that, York proposed moving Scottsdale’s southern neighborhoods and Arizona State University region of Tempe back into the district. He’d repeatedly advocated for the neighboring regions to be united in one district, though he’d previously sought to include them in the more heavily Democratic 4th Congressional District. In addition, York proposed moving areas of eastern Phoenix from the 3rd District into the 1st District.
York said he expects the proposed changes to make the 1st District more competitive. If that’s the case, it would diminish some of the Republican advantage caused by changes Neuberg proposed last week based on recommendations from Phoenix City Councilwoman Laura Pastor.
Pastor, a Democrat, asked the commission to add the part of Phoenix north of Interstate 10 between Interstate 17 and State Route 51 to the 3rd District, along with some adjoining areas in the eastern part of the district. The changes converted the 1st District from a competitive district to a solidly Republican one. Those changes moved predominantly Democratic areas out of the 1st District, shifting the GOP advantage from 2.4% to 11.3%.
The areas Pastor asked to be added to the district are mostly parts of the city council district she represents. She is widely expected to run in the 3rd District at some point.
When Pastor proposed her changes, she did so in a letter that also bore the names of fellow city council members Carlos Garcia and Betty Guardado. But Garcia and Guardado sent a follow-up letter to the commission that indicated they did not support any of the suggestions in Pastor’s letter. In their letter, they described themselves as “neutral parties” in the redistricting process.
Pastor did not return a message from the Mirror.
Lerner preferred an alternate map with more competitive versions of the 1st and 6th districts, and proposed changes that would likely improve Democrats’ chances there.
In Tucson, Lerner wanted to adhere to Romero’s recommendations and keep the border between the 6th and 7th districts at Campbell in central Tucson. And in Phoenix, she suggested a “mild adjustment” to Pastor’s proposal that would move the boundary between the 1st and 3rd districts from Missouri Avenue south to Indian School Road. East of State Route 51, she proposed moving the boundary south from Indian School to Oak Street.
Those proposals would balance the population between those districts while granting Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego’s request to have multiple Phoenix-centric congressional districts.
Lerner acknowledged after the meeting that most of the commission’s split votes have favored the Republicans. She expressed hope that at least one of the votes on Thursday, when the commission will choose new starting points in the congressional and legislative maps that will largely be set in stone, will go the Democrats’ way.
“We’re at a critical point now. Every vote makes more and more of a difference,” Lerner told the Mirror. “Where we begin really does matter, because when we start with something that we then have to work uphill, it’s much harder. All I can do is hope that we’re being heard.”
The commission’s next meeting is on Thursday, and has meetings scheduled on Friday, and next week on Dec. 20, 21 and 22. The AIRC’s goal is to finish its work by Dec. 22. If the commission doesn’t make sufficient progress this week, Neuberg said it might add another meeting on Sunday.
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