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3 competitive congressional districts shaping up in latest Arizona redistricting round

Redistricting commissioners split along partisan lines over how to draw Arizona’s new legislative districts but reached a compromise on a tentative congressional map that could create three competitive seats in the Tucson and Phoenix areas.

Meanwhile, a group representing Latino Democrats objected to moves the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission made on both maps that it said didn’t properly take the interests of Hispanic voters into account.

The AIRC’s mapping consultants presented a set of four congressional maps to choose from, sparking disagreement among the commissioners. The schism largely fell along partisan lines, with independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg voicing approval for a map favored by her Republican colleagues. 

Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner preferred an earlier proposal to any of them, but her top choice of the four iterations of the map was unpopular with the rest of the commission. Rather than push for either that map or another that she preferred, she motioned to approve a different plan that she viewed as a compromise. The other four commissioners agreed, adopting the plan unanimously.

The congressional plan approved by the commission creates three districts that would be considered competitive under the metrics used by the AIRC. 

The district covering eastern and northern Tucson and southern Arizona, currently the state’s most competitive, would be replaced by a new district with a slight Democratic advantage of less than 2 percentage points, based on an analysis of nine statewide races from recent election cycles. A district that includes Ahwatukee, Tempe and parts of Chandler and Mesa, similar to the current 9th Congressional District, would lean strongly toward the Democrats, but would still be within the range considered competitive by the AIRC.

And the map would create a new competitive district that covers Scottsdale and parts of north and central Phoenix. Much of the area is currently part of a strongly GOP-friendly district that is represented by Republican U.S. Rep. David Schweikert. The partisan lean of the new seat, the proposed 1st Congressional District, would be split almost evenly.

“I don’t know that we would ever get anything better than that,” Lerner said. 

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Two other proposed congressional districts are outside the range considered competitive by the commission, but weren’t far off. Neuberg, who has lobbied for more competitiveness on both maps, was happy that a district in the northwestern Phoenix area that includes the Republican stronghold of Peoria only sports an 8.2% advantage for the GOP. And a northern Arizona district that would replace one of the state’s most competitive districts — it has never elected a Republican to Congress, but favored GOP candidates in two of the past three presidential elections — has a Republican edge of 7.4%.

The congressional map is likely to undergo further revisions. Commissioners expressed interest in adjusting the borders between the Peoria-based district, the competitive Scottsdale-Phoenix district and a hyper-Republican district that would run from the westernmost part of the Phoenix metro area through La Paz and Mohave counties.

Neuberg questioned whether residents of Sun City West and Surprise would feel more comfortable with Peoria in the proposed 8th District than with Mohave and La Paz counties in the 9th District. Mapping consultant Doug Johnson, however, emphasized that the West Valley accounts for about 70% of the new district’s population, even though most of its physical area is outside of the metro area.

“Even though it looks like a rural district … it’s actually a West Valley seat,” Johnson said.

Legislative maps still hotly debated

The commission began its meeting on Wednesday by settling a dispute that emerged the previous afternoon about the legislative maps.

Earlier on Tuesday, the commission approved a new legislative map to use as a template for future changes, only for Republican Commissioner David Mehl to come back at the end of the day and suggest the AIRC scap the recent changes and revert to an earlier proposal. On Wednesday, the commission’s mapping consultants presented a pair of new plans, one based on the earlier map that Mehl favored and one based on changes it had approved earlier that day.

Mehl objected to the way the proposed legislative map incorporated eight districts drawn by the Arizona Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting. He wanted to incorporate some of the coalition’s concepts, but without increasing the number of predominantly Latino legislative districts from seven, as has been the case for the past decade, to eight. Mehl, a Tucson Republican, also wanted the district covering the northern Tucson area to include more of southern Pinal County.

“There’s challenges no matter what we do. But it does get us closer to — it has significantly more competitive seats,” Mehl said of the commission’s proposed legislative maps.

Lerner felt that growth in Arizona’s Latino population over the past decade warranted an additional seat on the legislative map. According to the census, Latinos were nearly 30% of Arizona’s population in 2010 and increased to nearly 32% in 2020. She also disputed Mehl’s claim that the map he favored was more competitive.

Ultimately, Mehl’s preferred map won as Neuberg voted with him and Republican Doug York, against Lerner and Democratic Commissioner Derrick Watchman. 

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At the end of the day, the AIRC’s consultants presented three potential legislative proposals they could adopt, based on the map the commissioners approved earlier in the day.

Only one of those three plans achieved Mehl’s goal of keeping Marana, Oro Valley, SaddleBrooke and other communities in northern Pima and southern Pinal county together. In order to balance the population of the proposed legislative districts — each one must have about 238,000 people, though federal courts have historically granted wiggle room to states on legislative maps — the consultants drew another district to run west from the northern edge of Tucson, through Casa Grande, along Interstate 8 to the north side of Yuma. 

“Commissioner Mehl asked us to get creative,” Johnson said as he presented the map.

“You have gotten creative, and I appreciate it,” Mehl responded. 

Mehl also asked the consultants to draw another proposed legislative map of southern Arizona for the commission to consider on Thursday, which was submitted late Wednesday by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council. Mehl, a developer, is a founding member of the influential civic and economic advocacy organization.

Changes that the commission made on both maps didn’t sit well with the Arizona Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting, which saw many of the proposals it submitted to the AIRC rejected by the commissioners over the past two days.

In a letter to the commission on Wednesday, Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo and Pima County Supervisor Adelita Grijalva, writing on behalf of the coalition, objected to the commission’s move to keep a predominantly Latino congressional district in southern Arizona from encroaching into the West Valley. The current district it would replace — represented by Grijalva’s father, Democratic U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva — pulled in predominantly Hispanic areas in the southwestern Phoenix area, as did a similar district used from 2002-11.

“While there has been talk of keeping the West Valley whole, it must be recognized that the West Valley is not a monolith, and that Tolleson and Avondale, with their Latino majority populations, more established communities, and towns that are not rapidly expanding like their neighbors, are significantly different than most of the West Valley,” Gallardo and Grijalva wrote.

The coalition’s letter said the proposed 7th Congressional District complies with the Voting Rights Act by increasing its Hispanic voting-age population above 50%, which the AIRC’s proposed district doesn’t. Gallardo and Grijalva said the coalition’s proposal already includes all majority or significantly Latino parts of Tucson. The commissioners have argued that though the Hispanic voting-age population of the district is about 47%, it gives Latino voters the ability to elect candidates of their preference, as the Voting Rights Act requires.

The coalition’s letter also pushed for an eighth Latino legislative district, as it proposed in the map it submitted. In order to achieve that eighth district, Gallardo and Grijalva said some of the proposed districts were intentionally drawn with a Hispanic citizen voting-age population under 50%, a “strategic decision” based on past Latino voting performance and expected future performance. 

“In our legislative maps, we saw the opportunity to not just maintain the current voting strength of the Latino community, but expand it,” the letter read. 

The Voting Rights Act requires states to draw congressional and legislative districts where minority voters can elect candidates of their choice, though Arizona is no longer subject to a provision known as “preclearance” that required U.S. Department of Justice pre-approval for redistricting maps.

The commission will resume its deliberations on Thursday at 8 a.m. Some commissioners have expressed optimism that they can approve draft maps by Thursday, ahead of their self-imposed deadline of Oct. 27.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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