Commissioners debate competitive legislative districts as final decision looms

By: - December 20, 2021 10:39 pm

The Arizona Redistricting Commission met Oct. 28, 2021, to approve draft maps. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

Members of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission reached potential compromises on proposed changes to a handful of competitive legislative districts, and are considering a possible solution to the vexing problem of how to balance Native American voting rights against the interests of non-tribal residents in the White Mountains, as they near their self-imposed deadline to complete their work later this week. 

On the congressional side, independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg sided with her Republican colleagues on which map to use as a new starting point. But she made clear that she isn’t happy with Republican Commissioner David Mehl’s proposed boundaries in Tucson, which has been perhaps the most contentious issue in the AIRC’s recent debates over the congressional map. At stake is the partisan balance of a competitive district based in Tucson, where the race for an open seat may be one of Arizona’s hottest elections in 2022. 

Much of Monday’s meeting at the Kimpton Hotel Palomar Phoenix focused on changes to four competitive legislative districts, a continuation of the commission’s deliberations from Sunday. The latest iteration of the commission’s legislative map has five competitive districts, four leaning toward the GOP and one leaning toward the Democrats. 

Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner effectively conceded in her attempt to roll back changes to District 4, a competitive district that runs from north Phoenix to south Scottsdale and Arcadia, which Neuberg and the Republican commissioners supported. Those changes swung the district further toward the GOP, though it’s still highly competitive.

Neuberg also supported a proposal by Republican Commissioner Doug York that would make north Phoenix-based District 2, the most competitive district on the previous version of the map, more favorable toward Republicans, though still competitive. And she opposed a push by Lerner to move a portion of the Deer Valley area of Phoenix out of District 2 and back into conservative District 3, which York proposed on Sunday. 

But Neuberg appeared to back Lerner’s proposal that would make Chandler-based District 13 more competitive. The district would add a region of Chandler with a sizable minority population to its northwest, while giving up conservative areas in Gilbert to a neighboring district to the east. 

And the five commissioners agreed on a proposal to move the Mesa’s Lehi community from competitive, Democratic-leaning District 9 in the western part of the city over to solidly Republican District 10 to the east. 

The commission has meetings scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, when it hopes to complete its work in crafting the congressional and legislative districts that Arizona will use through 2030. 

Lerner proposed changes that she said would make District 4 more competitive, largely by undoing changes her Republican colleagues made on Sunday. 

York on Sunday suggested moving a corner of Phoenix’s Arcadia neighborhood out of the district and into neighboring District 8, a Democratic stronghold that includes much of Tempe and west Mesa. Neuberg advocated for another change that brought a predominantly Republican area into District 4, proposing that the area around Desert Ridge move over from neighboring District 2. 

Lerner opposed both changes. Arcadia is a community where people live, she said, while Desert Ridge is simply a shopping area.

“I do believe that neighborhoods are true communities of interest compared to where people shop,” Lerner said. 

While Lerner has consistently sought to use the Loop 101 as a dividing line between districts in the north Valley, Neuberg viewed it largely as an arbitrary boundary and said there’s nothing “magical” about it. And Neuberg believed the Desert Ridge shopping area was more significant to the area than Lerner made it out to be.

“I don’t care about shopping. But I think the capitalist entrepreneurs understand the movement of society, they understand population shifts. So for me, some of that is compelling where we feel the hubs of communities will be and are on the cusp of changing,” Neuberg said. 

Nonetheless, District 4 remained within the range that the AIRC considers highly competitive. The changes shifted the GOP advantage from 2.7% to 3.5%. Under the commission’s metrics, a district is considered highly competitive if the partisan advantage is within 4%.

Lerner pushed back on Monday, looking to move what she called the “Arcadia light” area, northeast of 16th Street and Thomas, from District 1 into District 4. Arcadia is a distinct area with similar home values, incomes and demographics, Lerner said. People move there for a reason. And Lerner argued that it was being split up with no good rationale. 

But Lerner made clear that a big part of her desire to unite Arcadia in District 4 was competitiveness.

Lerner also sought to undo York’s revision from Sunday that put part of the Deer Valley area into north Phoenix-based District 2, one of the map’s most competitive districts. And she looked to move the Lehi area in the East Valley from competitive District 9 in west Mesa to solidly Republican District 10, anchored in the eastern part of the city.

Lerner accused her Republican colleagues of trying to pull competitive districts to the right, particularly by splitting up Phoenix’s Arcadia region and moving part of Deer Valley into District 2.

“District 4 in particular went from being a district that was leaning blue to now being 3.8% leaning red. And that was very deliberate changes that were made in that district,” she said. “Some communities were literally pulled out of that district that should be in there, and the only reason was they lean blue.”

“You are saying that the only reason you feel the changes were made were to turn it more partisan?” Neuberg asked. 

“I’m saying I think that was a big part of it,” Lerner said. 

Elsewhere in the East Valley, Lerner proposed adding a part of Chander with a large Latino and Asian-American population into District 13. The district has a 3.6% Republican advantage, making it one of five competitive districts on the map.

“I don’t see quite the reason for this aggressive change,” York said.

Neuberg agreed with the Republican commissioners that District 13 was already adequately competitive, but she was open to relatively minor changes that would improve it, and said she was inclined to support Lerner’s changes. 

York had his own proposal for District 2, suggesting that they take the area to the east of Arizona State University West, from 43rd Avenue to 19th Avenue, and move it into neighboring District 27. To make up for the lost population, District 2 would extend north between Cave Creek Road and Interstate 17 to Sonoran Desert Drive, near where the new Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. plant is being built.

While Neuberg signaled to Lerner that she didn’t want to make major changes in the name of competitiveness, she also warned York that she didn’t want to take the tossup districts, such as District 2, and make them less competitive. 

“I’ve already gone on record as saying that I think the fact that D2, D4, D9 … are tossups. I find that positive,” she said. “I’m open to the margins of highly competitive, but to take it away from that is a big concern to me.”

The next legislative map that the commission’s consultants will draw for Tuesday’s meeting will incorporate those changes. It will also include a proposal by the GOP commissioners to sever the northernmost part of southern Arizona-based District 23. The change will move a portion of Goodyear north of McDowell Road out of the Democratic, Latino district and into District 29, a Republican stronghold that covers much of the Phoenix metro area west of the Loop 101. And the mapping consultants will include a proposal from York to swap territory between Districts 3, 27 and 28 in north Valley. 

Flagstaff, the tribes and the White Mountains

Mehl pitched what he described as a compromise solution to the issue of whether to include Flagstaff in District 6, a predominantly tribal district drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act, which the Navajo Nation and other northern tribes oppose, or to put more of the non-tribal communities in the White Mountains in the district, which non-Native American voters in the area are largely against. 

The tribes want Flagstaff out of District 6, and are concerned that the white, liberal population of the city will make it difficult for Native Americans to elect the candidates of their choice in Democratic primaries. Democratic Commissioner Derrick Watchman, a member of the Navajo Nation, has noted that the predecessor district from 2002-10, which included Flagstaff, elected some white Democrats, while the current district, which excluded the city, hasn’t done so.

Though Flagstaff is an important commercial hub for Native Americans in the area, Watchman said tribal communities have far more in common with the White Mountains. 

“There’s a lot of similarities, and that’s agriculture, mining, water,” he said. “Flagstaff is a place to shop.”

If the tribes believe the makeup of the district hurts Native American candidates’ electoral prospects, they could sue under the Voting Rights Act. 

But moving all of Flagstaff into District 7 would require the district to give up non-tribal areas of the White Mountains to District 6, which Mehl and York are against, citing opposition from non-Native American residents of the area.

The city of about 77,000 is divided between the two districts at the railroad tracks on the current draft of the legislative map, with about 60% in District 7 and 40% in District 6, mapping consultant Doug Johnson told the AIRC on Sunday. 

Mehl’s plan would shift more of Flagstaff’s population into District 7, leaving about 25,000 of the city’s residents in District 6. District 7 would take Show Low and Snowflake from District 6, giving up Eagar and St. Johns and Springerville in return. 

That would give the tribes more of what they want in Flagstaff, Mehl said, while leaving some of the White Mountains’ non-tribal population in District 7. And those who remained in District 6 would still be able to turn to District 7’s lawmakers for representation if they needed to, he said.

“I’m just trying to deal more fairly with this part of our great state,” Mehl said. 

Neuberg lauded Mehl for crafting his proposed compromise, and Lerner voiced support for it as well, though her fellow Democrat Watchman was skeptical. Watchman said the tribes’ primary concern is ensuring there’s a high enough Native American voting age population in the district to ensure tribal representation. The commissioners agreed to have their consultants incorporate the changes into the map so they can see how the numbers look.

Tucson congressional boundary undecided

Neuberg sided with Mehl and York on their proposed version of the congressional map, but made clear that she’s likely to support changes in 6th Congressional District, a competitive district anchored in eastern Tucson and covering much of southeastern Arizona. 

The border between the two districts in central Tucson has shifted back and forth like a ping pong ball over the past two weeks as Lerner and Mehl sparred over changes that would determine how competitive the 6th District would be. 

Mehl, a resident of the Tucson area, wants the boundary further to the east to take in the University of Arizona community. He and York’s map sets that line well into eastern Tucson, along Craycroft and Swan roads between the Rillito River and Golf Links Road, giving the district a GOP advantage of 3.6%. 

Lerner’s preferred border in that area is at Campbell Avenue, the eastern boundary of the university. Hers and Watchman’s map has a GOP edge of just 0.3% in the district, making it the most competitive in the state. 

“It’s just amazing to me how half a mile one way or the other changes everything,” York told the Mirror

Neuberg said she favored the Republican proposal because of the way it included Phoenix’s historic neighborhoods and the hub of the city’s LBGT community in the 3rd Congressional District, and its inclusion of undeveloped land in north Phoenix in the 8th Congressional District. But she said she was uncomfortable with the maps’ treatment of Tucson. 

She voted 3-2 with Mehl and York to adopt their map, but signalled that changes are coming in Tucson.

“Nothing is set in stone, particularly CD6 boundaries.”

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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.”