Republicans hold the edge as Arizona redistricting nears completion

By: - December 17, 2021 8:21 am

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission met in downtown Phoenix on Dec. 16, 2021. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

Democrats at the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission notched a rare win as the independent chairwoman sided with them on a starting point for the congressional map, only to see the GOP make gains when the new districts were unveiled.

In one of those districts, Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner and Republican Commissioner Doug York forged an agreement that will bring it back into the Democratic column. Elsewhere on the map, there are still significant disagreements between the commission’s Democratic and Republican members. 

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When the AIRC ended its meeting on Thursday, the commissioners had little to say about the congressional map as they awaited revisions from their consultants. But Lerner made it clear she wasn’t happy.

“The first round, when we just got those back, were not good. They were a 7-2 split (favoring Republicans). But I’m hoping things move forward,” Lerner told the Arizona Mirror after the meeting ended at the Kimpton Hotel Palomar Phoenix.

The day started off on a relatively high note for Lerner and fellow Democrat Derrick Watchman. Chairwoman Erika Neuberg announced on Monday that, after that day’s meeting, she would no longer entertain separate proposals from the AIRC’s Democrats and Republicans, and that the commission would instead choose one starting point apiece for the legislative and congressional maps

York and Republican Commissioner David Mehl moved to adopt their congressional map, while Lerner and Watchman favored their map. Neuberg said she had problems with both, and said she preferred to go back to the congressional draft map the AIRC approved in late October. Lerner, Neuberg and Watchman voted 3-2 to use the draft map — a proposal with two safe Democratic districts, three safe Republican districts, and four competitive districts — marking only the second time that the chairwoman sided with her Democratic colleagues on a 3-2 vote. 

However, after the mapping team implemented a series of changes the commissioners sought for the draft map, the picture looked far less promising for the Democrats. The map still had three safe Republican seats and two safe Democratic ones. But all four competitive districts leaned toward the GOP, including one that barely qualified as competitive under the the metrics used by the AIRC.

Lerner and York hashed out a series of agreed-upon changes to two East Valley-based districts: the 4th Congressional District, which covered Ahwatukee, much of Tempe and all of Mesa, and the 5th Congressional District, which was composed of Chandler, Gilbert, Apache Junction, Queen Creek and San Tan Valley.

The 4th District, which was overpopulated by more than 100,000 people — each district must have about 794,000 residents — would cede staunchly conservative east Mesa to the 5th District while taking in the southwest portion of Chandler, which contains a significant Latino population. Republicans had a partisan advantage of slightly more than a percentage point in the 4th District, which shifts to a 4.4% Democratic advantage under the compromise proposal.

I think that’s a compromise between Commissioner Mehl and myself.

– Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner

That’s not a compromise.

– Republican Commissioner David Mehl

The Democratic and Republican commissioners had significantly different visions for how the other districts should change.

The heavily Democratic, predominantly Latino 7th Congressional District needs to lose nearly 100,000 residents, which Mehl and York sought to accomplish by moving Phoenix’s Maryvale region and part of Glendale into the Republican-friendly 8th Congressional District, centered on Peoria. The 8th District, which is heavily underpopulated, would take on Sun City and parts of Surprise and El Mirage under their proposal. And parts of Avondale and Tolleson, an extension of the southern Arizona-based 7th District that juts into the West Valley, would move into the 3rd Congressional District. (Both are predominantly Latino districts drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act.)

Lerner agreed with York about moving Sun City into the 8th District. But that’s where the agreements ended. 

Maryvale, a heavily Latino enclave, must be part of either the 3rd or 7th districts, Lerner said. And the northern tip of the 7th District and the southern tip of the 8th District, the regions of Glendale to the east of Luke Air Force Base, should go into the 3rd District, she said. 

Lerner’s proposed changes would leave the 3rd District overpopulated. She suggested remedying that by moving heavily Democratic areas of central Phoenix between Missouri Avenue and Indian School Road into the 1st Congressional District. The 1st District, which takes in parts of central and north Phoenix, along with most of Scottsdale and the southern part of Tempe, has a Republican advantage of 4.6%, which is considered competitive — and slightly outside the range deemed highly competitive — by the AIRC. Lerner’s proposed changes would reduce the district’s GOP advantage in the district.

Lerner also proposed that Anthem and New River, which are split between the 1st and 8th districts by the Interstate 17 dividing line, go completely into the 8th District. 

Perhaps the most contentious changes that Lerner proposed were in Tucson, where she and Tucsonan David Mehl have repeatedly battled over the boundary between the 7th and 6th districts. 

Mayor Regina Romero urged the commission in October to ensure that the 7th District included the area around the University of Arizona, at least to Campbell Avenue. Mehl has proposed that the boundary in central Tucson move several miles further east, to Alvernon Way, while Lerner wants to leave the boundary at Campbell. The map the commission debated Thursday afternoon had a boundary that lay between those roads. The disputed area is predominantly Democratic, and including it in the 6th Congressional District, which has a GOP advantage of 3.6%, would make the district more competitive. 

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Lerner proposed moving the boundary to Campbell north of Broadway Boulevard, while moving a couple other tracts on the eastern edge of the 7th District into the 6th District. She also proposed that the 6th District take territory that the newest map assigned to the 7th District, but suggested no transfers going the other way.

“I think that’s a compromise between Commissioner Mehl and myself,” Lerner said. 

“That’s not a compromise,” Mehl retorted. 

Lerner blamed the Tucson split for the 7th District’s overpopulation, while Mehl noted that the new plan, unlike the draft map, had the district extending into the western Phoenix metro area.

Despite Monday’s pronouncement that commissioners would no longer be permitted to have the consultants draw up separate maps based on their competing ideas, Neuberg said she was comfortable coming back on Friday morning with two congressional maps using the Democratic and Republican proposals.

On the Democratic map based on Lerner’s proposals, the 1st District would by hypercompetitive, nearly evenly split between the two parties, while the 6th District would have a Democratic lean of under a percentage point. The Democratic advantage in the 4th District would jump to 6.4%.

Competitiveness in the 1st and 6th districts wouldn’t change under the Republican map.

Working legislative map gives a leg up to Republicans 

Unlike with the congressional districts, Neuberg firmly took a side on the legislative map, voting 3-2 with Mehl and York to adopt the Republicans’ proposal as the new starting point.

That map creates 13 safe Republican districts and 12 safe Democratic ones, with five competitive districts. But four of the five competitive districts lean Republican, and some have become less competitive compared to the draft map the commission approved in October. Lerner described it as a 17-13 Republican map. 

“We’re not a state that should have a 17-13 split any longer,” Lerner said. 

Voter registration in Arizona is nearly evenly split among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.

Neuberg countered that Lerner was seeking to draw districts based on criteria that aren’t in the Arizona Constitution. The constitution establishes six criteria for drawing districts: equal populations, the Voting Rights Act, compactness, respect for geographic and political boundaries, communities of interest and competitiveness. 

“To focus on a map and saying it’s 17-13, I don’t see anywhere in our constitution where it says we’re required to take a poll of how it’s supposed to be apportioned. My understanding is we follow the constitutional criteria, and I do believe that when we do so, it will come out right,” Neuberg said.

Lerner noted that Neuberg cited partisan goals when supporting a GOP proposal for District 17, a Republican district that takes in the communities north and east of Tucson. When she threw her support behind the proposed district in October, Neuberg explicitly stated that the district would allow right-of-center voters in the Tucson area to have representation in the legislature.

Draft maps approved: 4 competitive congressional seats, 6 legislative districts

“When I talk about competitiveness, it’s in the same vein as saying we’re trying to give people a voice in areas that normally wouldn’t,” Lerner said.

Neuberg tried to distance herself from her October statement, saying she chose her words poorly. She said she’s also gone on record with her constitutional explanation that the regions that make up the district are politically cohesive communities of interest when it comes to topics such as water, transportation and infrastructure.

“I think we’re rookies, and we sometimes just aren’t as careful with language,” she said.

Neuberg emphasized to Lerner that the map is just a starting point and that she’s open to changes. The consultants will present the AIRC with a new legislative map on Friday based on the commissioners’ proposed revisions.

Lerner also objected to the way the proposed legislative map split Laveen from south Phoenix and the South Mountain region. She said the change, which the AIRC made after adopting Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls’ request to join part of his city with the West Valley in a legislative district, inappropriately allowed the mayor to change Voting Rights Act districts in the Phoenix area. 

One area where Neuberg said she’s open to a change but hasn’t yet made up her mind is in Flagstaff. The Navajo Nation has requested that the city not be part of predominantly tribal District 6 over concerns that white Democrats will outvote Native Americans in primary elections, making it more difficult for Native American voters to elect the candidates of their choice. The commission must create districts where minority voters can elect the candidates they prefer in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

Neuberg said she shares those concerns, which Watchman, a member of the Navajo Nation, has repeatedly voiced. But she said she must study the issue more before she makes a decision. 

The AIRC’s mapping consultants drafted two proposed legislative maps for the commission to review based on the changes the Democrats and Republicans proposed to the map approved on Thursday.

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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.”

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