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Democrats notch big wins in Arizona redistricting as final maps take shape

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Democrats notch big wins in Arizona redistricting as final maps take shape

Tucson boundary between new CD6 & CD7 was biggest point of contention on congressional map

  • The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission met in downtown Phoenix on Dec. 17, 2021.
    Jeremy Duda | Arizona MirrorThe Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission met in downtown Phoenix on Dec. 17, 2021.

Democrats got a pair of big wins Friday in determining the direction of the state’s next legislative and congressional districts when the chairwoman of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission voted to adopt their maps, a rare split in which she went against her Republican colleagues.

As its new starting point, the AIRC is using a legislative map with 13 safe Republican districts, 12 safe Democratic districts and five competitive districts. On the congressional map, two districts are hypercompetitive, with a partisan advantage of under a percentage point, and two others are barely within the range that the commission considers competitive, with one leaning solidly toward the Democrats and the other toward the GOP.

Throughout the mapping process, independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg has sided with Republican Commissioners David Mehl and Doug York on most split votes. Even her vote Thursday on the commission’s congressional map, only the second time she sided with the Democrats on a split vote, resulted in a map that became more favorable for the Republicans

The tide shifted on Friday morning, when Neuberg opened the commission’s meeting by announcing her support for the changes that Democratic Commissioners Shereen Lerner and Derrick Watchman proposed to the Republicans’ legislative map that she’d backed the previous day.

Neuberg said she could have been persuaded to use either map as a new starting point, but that she favored Lerner and Watchman’s proposal because it did a better job of respecting minority communities’ interests. 

Lerner focused heavily on those issues when she explained why she felt the Democratic map was superior. Unlike the Republican map, she noted that the Democratic proposal didn’t split Laveen from south Phoenix and the South Mountain area. The two districts in question are predominantly Latino, and have large African-American populations as well, and Lerner said Black leaders in the community wanted those two regions to remain unified in a single district. 

Watchman, a member of the Navajo Nation, also noted that the Democratic map pulled much of Flagstaff out of the heavily tribal District 6 in northern Arizona, which the tribes have requested. Neuberg said she’s not ready to make a decision on that issue, but is receptive to concerns that Native Americans could be out-voted by white Democrats in primary elections if Flagstaff remains in the district.

One sticking point that Lerner and Watchman sidestepped in their map was District 17, which unites the heavily Republican areas to the north and east of Tucson. Lerner has repeatedly objected to the district, which Mehl, a Tucson Republican, favors. Neuberg has consistently sided with Mehl and York, defending the district as a community of like-minded voters with similar interests.

Neuberg didn’t cite District 17 specifically, but she applauded the Democrats for taking to heart some of the “broader consensus” the commission has heard and incorporating it into their map. In previous meetings, Neuberg has chastised the Democrats for repeatedly seeking to relitigate settled issues in which she’s made up her mind, one of which has been District 17.

“I do believe that they are working with us now in good faith to really hone in the districts that are of most importance to them,” Neuberg said. 

That doesn’t mean the legislative map won’t change, and the commissioners spent much of Friday’s meeting debating those revisions.

District 25 extends from Yuma to Buckeye and takes in part of Surprise on both maps. York said he and Mehl were concerned about how far north into Surprise the Democrats’ district goes. Lerner agreed that the district should primarily run from north Yuma to Buckeye. Leaders in both cities have touted their shared agriculture interests as a reason to put them in a district together. Lerner and York also agreed to pull a portion of Goodyear out of District 25. 

In District 23, a heavily Latino and predominantly Democratic district running from southern Yuma to the Tucson area, Lerner wanted to remove part of the district that extends into the southwest metro Phoenix area and shift the population into neighboring District 22 to the east. Both districts are predominantly Hispanic and are drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act. 

Another change the Republican commissioners lobbied for was to move the unincorporated community of Liberty, which is adjacent to Buckeye, from District 23 to District 25. Mehl said he and York received a flurry of messages during the commission’s lunch break requesting the change. 

The change would move Republican state Sen. Sine Kerr from the heavily Democratic District 23 to District 25, which looks to be a GOP stronghold. The AIRC is constitutionally required not to take into account where current legislators live when drawing maps.

In the East Valley, Lerner and York discussed moving the boundary between District 13, a competitive, moderately Republican district based in Chandler, and District 14, a GOP stronghold centered on Gilbert. 

And in north and central Phoenix, the Democratic and Republican commissioners disagreed on where to move the boundaries of Districts 2 and 4, two of the five competitive districts on the map the AIRC adopted. 

Compromises emerge on congressional map, but conflicts remain

Neuberg said there were two primary reasons why she favored the Democrats’ congressional map over its Republican counterpart

On the Democrats’ map, the 1st Congressional District covered more of urban Phoenix. Neuberg said it’s important for the city to have two members of Congress who will represent its interests. 

The second issue was that she preferred the Democrats’ approach to the border between the 6th and 7th congressional districts in Tucson. Lerner and Mehl have sparred repeatedly over where that border should lie, an issue that has significant implications for the 6th District’s partisan inclinations. 

“We need a compromise,” Neuberg said. “I don’t know where I fall exactly on this boundary.”

The 1st Congressional District, which runs from central Phoenix through most of Scottsdale and up to Cave Creek, is highly competitive in the Democratic map, with a slight Democratic lean. The 6th District is also very competitive, leaning slightly toward the Republicans. Republicans would have three safe seats and Democrats would have two, while each party would have one marginally competitive district that favored them. 

The commissioners found some areas of compromise on the congressional map, primarily in the West Valley. They agreed to pull the portions of Glendale out of the 3rd and 7th congressional districts, both Latino Democratic strongholds, and move them into the heavily Republican 9th Congressional District. 

York proposed significant changes that would pull the bulk of Tempe south of Loop 202 and west of Loop 101 out of the 1st District and move it into the 4th Congressional District. The 1st District would gain some of the lost population by taking Phoenix’s historic Homesteads Historic District from the 3rd District. 

Lerner was hesitant, but warmed to the idea and was willing to consider it. She was particularly intrigued by the idea of moving Major League Baseball Spring Training facilities into the 1st District. 

“Don’t look at this as I’m saying no. I’m just saying it’s an interesting concept that I just would probably have to look a little closer at to see where maybe we would make that split,” she said. 

Neuberg reiterated her desire to see a 1st District whose representative would be attuned to the urban interests of Phoenix, which she noted is the fifth largest city in the United States. But though York’s plan would make the district more aligned with the interests of Scottsdale and Tempe, Neuberg said she liked the idea. 

“As long as we feel that the representative coming out of that district is going to serve our urban interests well, I’m going to be really comfortable with that,” she said. 

The biggest point of contention on the congressional map was the boundary between the 6th and 7th districts. 

Lerner wants Campbell Avenue to be the boundary between Broadway Boulevard and the Rillito River, while Mehl wants the line to be further east, at least at Alvernon Way. Tucson Mayor Regina Romero told the commission that she wants the 7th District to include the University of Arizona and downtown Phoenix, with an eastern boundary at least to Campbell. But Mehl, a longtime Tucson area resident, noted that the university area extends east of Campbell.

“Some of the most significant neighborhoods that are a huge part of the university community are east of Campbell,” Mehl said. “It’s nonsensical to suggest that, by drawing a line at Campbell, you’ve included the university community. Alvernon is the minimum to the east that makes sense for that line.”

Though Neuberg cited the Tucson split as a reason for favoring the Democratic proposal, she wanted to give Mehl the opportunity to put his suggested boundary on the map for the AIRC to consider. 

“I’m very interested in seeing where this goes. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be our new starting point. But I’d like to see it,” she said. 

The disputed area is largely Democratic, and would potentially change the partisan makeup of the 6th District, which is competitive but leans Republican. 

Lerner also proposed moving Casa Grande out of the portion of the 6th District that extends into Pinal County along the Interstate 10 corridor and moving it into the 2nd Congressional District. She said Casa Grande should be in the same district as the neighboring communities of Coolidge and Florence. 

The AIRC will meet next on Sunday for a half day. The meeting will begin at 1 p.m.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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