Heated day of partisan fighting ends with unlikely agreement on congressional map

By: - December 21, 2021 8:05 pm

Members of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission met Oct. 4, 2021, in the Phoenix city council chambers to discuss initial changes to the grid maps approved the previous month. L to R: Shereen Lerner, Derrick Watchman, Erika Neuberg, David Mehl, Douglas York. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

After a day of accusations, recriminations and partisan sniping, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission found its way to what seemed like an improbable consensus and paved the way for a possible unanimous vote on the final version of the congressional map the state will use for the next decade. 

The AIRC reached an agreement on where to draw the boundary between two congressional districts in Tucson on Tuesday evening after making a series of changes to make one of the districts more competitive, a prerequisite for the Democratic commissioners’ support. 

Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner and Republican Commissioner David Mehl sparred throughout the day, eventually agreeing on how to split the 6th and 7th congressional districts in Tucson. The 6th District is a competitive, Republican-leaning district that covers the eastern part of Tucson and most of southeastern Arizona, while the 7th District is a predominantly Latino, Democratic stronghold drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act, which runs from western and southern Tucson to Yuma, extending into the West Valley in Maricopa County. 

After trading competing proposals earlier in the day, Lerner and Mehl worked out an agreement Tuesday evening for the boundary in Tucson that makes the 6th District, on the eastern side of the line, more competitive. The commission measures competitiveness using the vote spread and final results of nine statewide races in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Based on those metrics, the district leans Republican by about 2.4% and Republicans won six of the nine elections in the “basket” of races. 

Under the commission’s metrics, anything within a 7% spread is considered competitive and anything within 4% is deemed highly competitive. 

The map the commissioners ended their day with has four safe Republican districts, two safe Democratic districts and three competitive districts, two of which qualify as highly competitive. One of the safe Republican districts, the 2nd District based in northern Arizona, is just barely outside the range that would be considered competitive. 

The new Tucson boundary runs along 1st Avenue between the Rillito River and Fort Lowell Road. Between Fort Lowell and Speedway, the boundary will be along Country Club Road, and from Speedway to Broadway Boulevard, the border moves east to Alvernon Way. From there, the 7th District juts east into Tucson between Broadway and Golf Links.

In addition, the 7th District added the eastern half of Santa Cruz County and a sliver of territory along the U.S.-Mexico border that extends east to take in Bisbee and Douglas. 

The Democratic and Republican commissioners also hashed out an agreement for changes to the 4th and 5th congressional districts in the East Valley. Those new lines leave the 4th District, which includes Ahwatukee, Tempe, west Mesa and part of Chandler, as marginally competitive but leaning solidly toward the Democrats. The 5th District, taking in Gilbert, east Mesa, Apache Junction, Queen Creek, San Tan Valley and a portion of Chandler, remains solidly Republican.

Commissioner Erika Neuberg, the AIRC’s independent chair, lauded her colleagues after a day of mediating between the Democrats and Republicans. 

“I do get a very strong sense from my colleagues that you’re all equally unhappy and also maybe you’re all equally motivated to find consensus that does right by the state. I know today was tense at times, but you’re remarkable colleagues that are doing really hard work, public service work. And I’m deeply grateful and appreciative,” Neuberg said.

The commission plans to vote on Wednesday morning, which is expected to be the final day of work on both its congressional and legislative maps. Mehl and Democratic Commissioner Derrick Watchman wouldn’t comment on whether they expected to vote for the congressional map. 

At the start of the day, consensus seemed highly improbable. Neuberg ended Monday’s meeting by voting with Mehl and Republican Commissioner David York, and against the two Democrats, on a new congressional map that included changes that Mehl, who lives in the Tucson area, proposed that made the 6th District more favorable for the GOP. 

Though Neuberg made it clear that she wanted to see changes that would make the 6th District more competitive, Lerner opened Tuesday’s meeting at the Kimpton Hotel Palomar Phoenix with a jeremiad against the map.

“It’s going to be incredibly difficult to make this map competitive,” she said. “This map … is going to be virtually impossible to fix.”

Lerner said she and Watchman couldnt accept either the 6th District or the north Phoenix and Scottsdale-based 1st Congressional District as they were drawn on Monday’s map. She also criticized Neuberg for locking them out from making changes they wanted to the 2nd Congressional District in northern Arizona and the 9th Congressional District, which runs from the West Valley north through Mohave County.

She accused her Republican colleagues of seeking partisan gain for the GOP by making Republican-leaning competitive districts better for their party, while making the Democratic-leaning districts more competitive. And she criticized Neuberg for siding with Mehl and York on the bulk of the 3-2 votes the commission has had since it began its mapping work in October. 

“This has been very dominated by one side. It has been all the way through, as you know,” Lerner said. 

Neuberg said she was sorry Lerner felt that way, but urged her to continue negotiating, especially on the 6th Distdrict, warning that if she and Watchman didn’t do so, additional changes could be made without their input.

“That will be your choice how much you want to engage in,” Neuberg said. “We’re struggling on CD6. You shouldn’t pre-judge where the outcome is.”

Neuberg also said Lerner’s position was that if she didn’t side with the Democratic commissioners on their map Monday night, negotiations would come to an end. 

Tension remained high as the commissioners battled throughout the day on the districts in Tucson and the East Valley. Commissioners argued over each other, at one point prompting their transcriptionist to ask them to speak one at a time. 

The Republicans accused Lerner of digging in her heels on unreasonable positions regarding competitiveness. 

“We’ve tried to be patient, but we have as much pressure on us as I’m sure Commissioner Lerner has on her,” Mehl said. 

But though Lerner initially said she and Watchman wouldn’t consider the 6th District competitive, regardless of the vote spread, if the “basket” of nine races didn’t have a 5-4 split one way or the other — which was the case in her proposal that Mehl and York rejected — she eventually agreed to the proposed changes that fell short of that mark. 

“I think we’re all trying to find a compromise. Is this the compromise I want? No. I don’t think this map addresses a number of things. We can talk about it tomorrow. We’re trying to find some consensus. Did we say OK to that? Well, I don’t think it was going to move any further. We had a 5-4, and then we clearly did not have the votes to keep it,” Lerner told reporters after the meeting. 

Watchman, a member of the Navajo Nation, said he still hopes to see the 2nd District get more competitive. It currently has a GOP advantage of 7.2%, outside the range of competitiveness. And Neuberg has largely put her foot down when it comes to additional changes Lerner and Watchman have proposed that would alleviate that.

“I still have hope. As one of my old bosses said, we’re going to sleep on it. I’m going to take an opportunity overnight to look at it,” Watchman said after the meeting. 

Native American voters tend to support Democrats, and Watchman said Democrats have traditionally been better for the tribes. Democrats provide more resources to the tribes, and they’ll need those federal dollars as they recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit Native American communities especially hard, Watchman said. 

“Just in the last year, a significant amount of resources has been sent to tribes because of COVID. I haven’t seen that in my lifetime. Billions of dollars are now in the tribes’ hands. But that’s not enough. More is needed,” he said. 

Once the commission finalizes and approves its congressional map, it still likely has work to do before it finishes the state’s 30 legislative districts.

The AIRC reached a tentative compromise on the legislative map on Monday during a debate that largely centered on the contours of four competitive districts in the Phoenix metro area. That legislative map has five competitive districts overall, along with 13 safe Republican districts and 12 safe Democratic ones. 

Tribal issues are likely to be the biggest sticking point on the legislative map. In particular, the Democratic and Republican are still at odds over how to divide the predominantly tribal District 6 and neighboring District 7, a rural Republican stronghold. The tribes want Flagstaff excluded from District 6 over fears that white Democrats could outvote Native Americans in primary elections, but that would likely require non-tribal communities in the White Mountains to be part of the district, which the Republican commissioners oppose.

Mehl pitched a potential solution on Monday that would move more of Flagstaff out of District 6and some non-tribal areas of the White Mountains in. But it’s unclear if that will create a high enough Native American citizen voting age population in District 6 to satisfy the Navajo Nation and six other northern tribes that are part of the district. 

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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.”