Fractious final day ends with acrimony and accusations as redistricting commission splits on legislative map

By: - December 22, 2021 7:27 pm

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission debates legislative districts on its final day of deliberations at the Kimpton Hotel Palomar Phoenix on Dec. 22, 2021. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

After a brief burst of bipartisan consensus in the middle of the process, Arizona’s redistricting commission ended their work Wednesday with an acrimonious split vote and accusations of violations of the state constitution.

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission on Wednesday approved the final congressional and legislative maps that the state will use until 2032. Unlike the unanimous vote that approved the congressional map in the morning, the result of a hard-fought compromise, Democrats Shereen Lerner and Derrick Watchman voted against the final legislative map, ending with a 3-2 vote that saw independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg side with her Republican colleagues. 

Republicans hold an edge on the legislative map, but it has enough competitive districts that, under the right circumstances, Democrats would have a chance to take control of one or both legislative chambers. The GOP has controlled the Arizona House of Representatives since 1967, and has only lost control of the state Senate for brief spans three times in that period.

The map has 13 safe Republican districts, 12 safe Democratic districts and five competitive districts, based on the metrics the AIRC uses. That metric measures the cumulative results from nine statewide races in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Anything with a vote spread inside 7% is considered competitive, and anything within 4% is considered highly competitive. The commission also tracks how many of those nine races each party would have won in each new district. 

Of those five competitive districts, four lean Republican and one leans Democratic. Each of the five districts has a vote spread within 4%, though in one, Republicans would have won all nine of the statewide races.

“There are four genuine toss-ups that truly throw the balance of power in our legislature totally up in the air,” Neuberg said. “I truly believe that these maps will further encourage elected leaders to pay attention to their constituents. It empowers them in better districts to advocate for their needs overall.”

The commissioners largely agreed to a set of changes to the four competitive districts in the Phoenix metro area on Monday, setting the stage for a possible unanimous vote and smooth debate on the seventh and last day of deliberations over the final maps. But Lerner drew a line in the sand on Wednesday when it came to District 2, a competitive district that runs from Thunderbird Road and the north edge of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve to Sonoran Desert Drive, off of Loop 303. 

On Tuesday, Lerner was able to force Republican concessions that made the 6th Congressional District in Tucson and southeastern Arizona more competitive. But she was unable to replicate that success on the legislative map. 

Lerner said changes that Republican Commissioners David Mehl and Doug York pushed on Monday, which extended District 2 north of Loop 101 into the Deer Valley area, made the district less competitive, which she alleged was done intentionally to make it more favorable for the GOP. She pitched several proposed alternatives, none of which Mehl and York supported. They said they would consider the significant changes she wanted if she would agree to changes that would make Chandler-based District 13, the most competitive district on the new map, more Republican.

Lerner was unwilling to make trades elsewhere on the map, and Neuberg, a Chandler resident, said she wanted to ensure that her home district is highly competitive. She also suggested that Lerner limit her proposals in District 2 to only minor changes. When Lerner dug in her heels, Neuberg said she was ready to vote for the map. 

At that point, Lerner dropped a bombshell that fractured the amity she’d reached with Mehl and York earlier in the day.

In the morning, the commissioners agreed to a compromise proposal Mehl pitched regarding the dividing line between District 6, which is heavily Democratic and is home the Navajo Nation and six other tribes in the northern part of the state, and District 7, a staunchly Republican district that cuts a swath through rural Arizona from the southern edge of Flagstaff to eastern Pinal County.

Watchman and Navajo Nation leaders had long urged the commission to pull Flagstaff out of District 6 to increase the percentage of Native American voters and to ensure that white liberals in the city didn’t prevent them from electing Indigenous lawmakers in Democratic primaries, as happened several times from 2002-2010. Mehl and York opposed the plan, largely over the concerns of non-tribal Republicans in the White Mountains who didn’t want to be in a district dominated by Native Americans and Democrats. 

Mehl proposed moving more of Flagstaff, along with Snowflake and Show Low, into District 7, and moving Eagar and St. Johns and Springerville into District 6. Watchman said the Navajo Nation gave its approval, and the commissioners unanimously supported the change. After a break, Mehl came back with one more last-minute change that moved an area south of Route 66 into District 7, which the commissioners agreed to.

That change, however, moved Republican Sen. Wendy Rogers from District 6 into District 7. As negotiations broke down over District 2 and it became clear that Neuberg would vote with the Republicans on the legislative map, Lerner accused Mehl of making the change intentionally to benefit an incumbent. That would violate the Arizona Constitution, which states, “The places of residence of incumbents or candidates shall not be identified or considered.”

Mehl wouldn’t say after the meeting whether he knew an incumbent lawmaker lived in that area or whether he made the change at the request of anyone outside the commission. He defended the change, saying he made the change to accommodate Watchman and the Navajo Nation.

“That change was based on constitutional criteria that worked better in that area,” Mehl said. “The changes up in that area were driven by me trying to improve, and ended up getting the support of the Navajo Nation. So I’m really proud of the changes I made in that area.”

Lerner told reporters that Mehl told her during a recess, “I’d like to make this change for a friend of mine who asked me to make the change.”

“I said that’s fine, and then I laughingly said … ‘Don’t tell me it’s for an incumbent,’ and he said, ‘Then I won’t tell you,’” Lerner said. “I didn’t know who. But I assumed.”

She also noted that Mehl and York pushed a previous change on Monday after they said they were inundated with calls to move the unincorporated area of Liberty, adjacent to Buckeye, from Democratic District 23 into Republican District 25. Liberty is home to GOP Sen. Sine Kerr. And she pointed out that Republican Sen. Vince Leach played a behind-the-scenes role in lobbying for a solidly Republican Tucson district that he would represent.

Lerner said she had far bigger problems with the map, however. In a speech during the final vote, she laid out a litany of grievances with the map, including what she deemed insufficient competitiveness, selectiveness in which requests they granted from elected officials and members of the public, and the creation of a Republican district in the northern and eastern parts of the Tucson area that riled Democrats, and which was drawn by a Pima County GOP operative. She accused Mehl or York of refusing to compromise. 

“This could’ve been a great map. This could’ve been a map that truly showed compromise, that truly showed that we were here for the good of the state. I do not feel we ended up with that map. And it distresses me because I came into this, as all my colleagues did, I think, wanting to do best for the state,” Lerner said. 

Lerner also lobbed criticism at Neuberg, who sided with the Republican commissioners in most of the AIRC’s 3-2 votes. 

Neuberg said those votes were due to substantially different views of their commission’s duties when it came to competitiveness, respecting communities of interest and “different levels of responsiveness from my colleagues in understanding my vision and my needs.”

“I am aware that you were outvoted many times. I apologize that the votes happened that way. As I’ve said before, I think it actually stemmed from fundamental differences and understanding on constitutional responsibilities as it relates to redistricting,” she said. 

Respecting communities of interests is one of the six criteria the Arizona Constitution requires the AIRC to use when crafting districts. Creating competitive districts is another criteria, but only when it won’t cause “significant detriment” to the other requirements. 

Mehl touted the map as a success. He said the compromise they reached with Districts 6 and 7 were a “win-win” situation that ended up better than he thought possible; the districts they created in Tucson truly represent the community while also complying with the Voting Rights Act; and they made changes in Yuma that had genuine bipartisan support, he said.  

“I think this map is a terrific map for the state of Arizona,” Mehl said. “This map really represents what we heard from the public and what we see in the constitution.”

The commission began its day by finalizing the uneasy compromise they reached the previous evening, voting unanimously to approve a congressional map. 

After Lerner refused to support the map on Tuesday over concerns that the 6th District wasn’t competitive enough, Mehl and York, often at Neuberg’s urging, conceded changes in Tucson that brought more Democratic areas in the center of the city, near the University of Arizona, into the district, leaving it Republican-leaning but more competitive than on the Republican-drawn map the commission approved the day before. 

The result was a congressional map with four safe Republican districts, one of which falls barely outside the 7% range that the AIRC would consider competitive, and two safe Democratic districts, along with one that would barely meet the competitiveness qualification. The map has two genuinely competitive districts — the 6th District and the 1st District, which covers part of the northern Phoenix area, along with Scottsdale and Fountain Hills. 

The commissioners approved the map and then posed for a group photo before beginning the deliberations on the legislative districts.

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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.”