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What the Devil won't tell you

Redistricting win doesn't mask how IRC failed in state races

Flip side shows IRC gave Legislature to GOP to make D.C. races flashier

Well, it's just be raining liberal love from the U.S. Supreme Court chambers.

Obamacare stands. Gay bashing falls. Arizona's Independent Redistricting Commission can continue to draw congressional boundaries.

Folks, this was fait accompli in Democratic circles. The High Court was sure to smack down Arizona's independent redistricting committee. House Speaker David Gowan was fashioning a stump speech for the new district he wanted drawn for himself. U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, the sweetheart of liberals during her days in the Arizona Legislature, was starting to vote like a latter-day J.D. Hayworth in Congress.

All of this was in preparation for what "court watchers" expected was a ruling striking down a 2000 constitutional amendment passed by Arizona voters to take redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature, insofar as Congress was concerned. 

Democrats I talked to were despondent. Republicans were jubilant.

Then Justice Anthony Kennedy pulled a switcheroo — or didn't really because predicting a decision based on one freaking question is dangerous — and the law was upheld.

Start the celebration, Blow the noise maker "WVVVVVVVVVVT!" The Arizona Legislature is in troubbbllle ... you just sued the people of the state of Arizona and lost. Oh man. This is going to get bad....

Just a bit outside

Wait. Wait. It won't. It won't and I will tell you why. The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission blew it. They gaffed it. They ganked it. They shanked it and hardly anyone has said a word about it.

Giving Kyrsten Sinema a solid shot at a seat in Congress was done at the expense of actual competitive districts where they matter most — right here at home.

All the attention around the Independent Redistricting Commission from 2011 until now has focused on the maps they drew determining who would represent Arizona in the U.S. House of Representatives. That attention was misplaced because political types can't keep their eyes off that humid acreage snugly wrapped inside the Beltway.

If you haven't heard the "Ballad of Colleen Mathis," you should. It's a story of a woman being attacked for a year, impeached and removed from office for following the state Constitution. She deserves a life on a beach with cabana boys serving her rum drinks poured into hollowed-out coconuts. Still, she and her commissioners blew it to satisfy the long-time dream of political aspirants in Phoenix with a competitive congressional district in the Valley of the Sun.

The IRC could have saved a lot of time and trouble if they had just acted like Republicans. When Republicans have an edge, they press it because they know whatever they do, it's going to piss off the Democrats. So why not piss them off to the point where reality matches the hyperbole?

Democrats think if they just piss off Republicans a little, the GOP won't go out of their minds. So, the Democrats and independent chairwoman on the IRC didn't do that much. They drew a Republican-leaning U.S. House seat in Phoenix that a Democrat could win. They also moved some Republicans out of then-U.S. Rep. Ron Barber's seat but not enough to keep Barber the current representative. And then they tweaked U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick's seat, but but it remained highly winnable for a Republican. Meanwhile, they gave the GOP four safe house seats and two to Democrats at a time when the Republican edge in voter registration was just three percentage points.

The B-side to that single that no one talks about is a different tune. From the same pool of voters granted a chance to send five Democrats and four Republicans to Washington, the commission drew legislative boundaries that amount to an impregnable wall guarding a Republican majority.

If Mathis made a deal to work with commission Democrats on the House side and Republicans on the commission to lock in the Legislature, thinking that it would save herself grief — oops. Working with Democrats at all got her impeached and removed from the commission. She was only reinstated by the Arizona Supreme Court, which ruled that doing her job wasn't gross misconduct.

Run and find out

I spent three election cycles trying to convince Democrats that it doesn't matter what you do, Republicans are going to attack you for it anyway. They never believed me.

I remember the cartoon Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, based on the Rudyard Kipling short story of the family that saves a mongoose who in turn saves the family from cobras. There's a line in the animated TV special where one of the cobras, Nagaina, has the family cornered at a dinner table and the father says, "Don't move."

Nagaina says in total bad-ass cobra dialect, "If you move, I will strike. If you don't move, I will strike. Oh, foolish people!" 

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Republicans play for keeps. If you move they will strike. If you don't move they will strike.

Had the commission focused on the Legislature and made 10 districts safe Republican, 8 districts safe Democratic and 12 toss-ups, a suit would have been much harder to file. "Vote for me. I'm suing you," doesn't look good on a bumper sticker during a tight race.

I suppose he's tame because we've been kind to him

Yet Republicans don't have to worry about tight races. Ask yourself if this isn't sweet deal for a party with a thin lead in voter ID:

Republicans hold a 10,000-voter registration advantage over Democrats in 18 of the 30 legislative districts. In 13 of those districts, Republicans hold at least a 15,000-voter advantage. Democrats outpace Republicans in voter registration in 12 districts but in just eight do they enjoy a margin of 10,000 voters. There are four true swing districts in the Arizona Legislature and all four are carved out of the Democrats' minority.

In those four swing districts in the last election, Democrats held the four Senate seats and six of eight House seats, but in LD 8, Republicans swept.

Republicans in 2014 went 35-1 in the house races among their 18 likely wins. Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Mesa: nice work.

Democrats never tried to challenged for the House majority. It never entered their playbook. In the four most competitive legislative districts (where the Republican edge is between 10,000 and 15,000 votes), Democrats ran "single-shot" campaigns. As voters elect two representatives from each district, the minority party often runs just one challenger for two seats to concentrate the party's fire. They are ceding a seat to potentially pick one off.

Even if the Democrats won all four of those races, they were letting four Republicans win. So they were giving up on 32 Republican seats.

That's the hand the commission dealt them to get Kyrsten Sinema to Congress. If they ran two candidates in those races, the votes would be more split among the minority party challengers and they'd have almost certainly lost bigger.

Meanwhile, the structural edge the commission granted Republicans allowed the party to focus on gaining seats among those four swing districts and they picked up two from that small cluster.

In the Senate, not a single Republican candidate running in those 18 Republican-leaning districts lost. Only Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, was seriously challenged and that was by an independent. Meanwhile, Democrats held all their seats, while Sen. Barbara McGuire did eek out a win in LD 8, beating Republican Irene Littleton by fewer than 500 votes in a district that saw two Republicans cruise to House victories.

Independents outnumber Republicans and Democrats but those non-party voters tend to break the way of their neighbors. You can't put 20,000 Republicans in a district with 32,000 Democrats and call it competitive because the district includes 30,00 independents. It doesn't work that way. The D-R split is still the best way to make legislative districts competitive especially if voters are more prone down-ballot to cast votes for their party and not split.

If the goal is to make elections more competitive and districts less safe, how the hell is the Legislature this safe? If the idea was to avoid too much controversy, was Mathis trying to avoid being "super double" impeached? Is there such a thing?

Hiding down-ballot 

Voters aren't stupid, but voter behavior is pretty simple to predict. It's Political Science 101. The more information voters have the more likely they are to make a nuanced decision. They are more likely to vote across party lines if they have a reason to do so. The less information they have the less likely they are to go against their party. If all they know about a candidate is that candidate is a Republican or Democrat because all they know is what they see on the ballot, that's good enough. They vote their party.

Sinema and Kirkpatrick held their seats in a tough Democratic year because voters knew who the hell they were, for one, and each ran good to great campaigns.

In the Legislature, it works differently. People don't know the candidates to start with and tend to vote along the party line. If one party is starting with a 10,000-vote edge, it's damn near impossible to have a real competition.

Republicans control the Legislature year after year, because they don't have to work for it. They live down-ballot below the president, senators, congressmen, governor and attorneys general — who are the recipients of the biggest doses of cash to get their message out and inform/slime voters. Maybe they're slimed, but voters at least are aware of who has done the sliming and are forced to make a decision.

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This institutional advantage is bad for voters when Democrats enjoy it in Tucson, and bad for Arizona voters when Republicans luxuriate in it, statewide.

It's called competition. It works.

The flip side of competitiveness was always "communities of interest" — the concept that certain communities deserve representation. During redistricting, conservatives, Latinos and the tribes used it to press their causes. Conservatives, it is impossible to draw a map that leaves white Maricopa County Republicans anything less than an enormous power in Arizona politics. I would also argue that Latinos and the tribes would benefit greatly if conservatives were forced to represent their interests. As it stands now, those groups are packed away in a party guaranteed to be a permanent minority.

Competitive races would simply force the balancing of communities of interest in the same way good governing should.

Crowded out

Clean Elections public campaign financing compounds the problem, vastly limiting what a candidate can do to get their face out there in a field that is way too crowded. This is the exposure needed to make competitive races, with an even playing field. When a challenger is asking for 30 percent of party voters to split their ballot on their behalf, the candidate is asking for the pointless if he or she can't make the case. The voters lose because the politicians serving them don't fear them.

Candidates can choose to not run clean (sounds so dirty) but in even-numbered years, all the money and support goes to the Maxim/GQ crowd at the top of the ballot. Who wants to spend a bunch of money on the bush leagues? Not the players. Definitely not the media.

As a former political writer for a daily newspaper serving Arizona's second city, I can tell you the press isn't staffed to cover the legislative races with anything beyond candidate grids (5 issues, you get 50 words). That's the coverage. It's called "issues-based coverage" but it's shorthand for "we got a crap budget and can't staff up for this sort of thing."

I can tell you right now there is one reform that would change everything in a hurry. Hold state elections in odd-numbered years. Devote one year to state and local issues and the next to national issues. Make them run closer to the top of the ballot, and watch what happens.

Daydream believers ...

Serving in the Legislature is not the stuff of high ambition or the fulfillment of a sense of status. That's on the other side of the country. The marble columns and iconic memorials arranged geometrically among the high-minded scuttlebutt dominate political daydreams and coverage.

Southern Arizonans may not be able to pick state Rep. Victoria Steele out of a lineup today, but by election day 2016, she'll be famous around these parts as she runs for Congress. People will want to shake her hand, they'll want to tell her what a great job she is doing in the numbers they haven't during her time in the Legislature.

Martha McSally was a ground-breaking U.S. Air Force pilot unknown to most of the world, but today she's an up-and-comer on the national political stage — I wouldn't be shocked to see her at the top of a presidential ticket at some point, unless Steele can upend her.

I don't know either of them, and won't hazard to guess their motivations, but the allure is alluring and often hard to pass up.

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The game of thrones is played on television. Politics, by and large, is a game of egos. To be blunt: It's often the long search for daddy's love and a way to stick it to the girl in middle school who wouldn't go out with you, by climbing up and being part of the big leagues. For the real game players and the hopeful ascendants, its about the red carpet of national politics, where the lights, cameras, and action search for you.

For those with the money on the sidelines, it's a chance to access power. They can bump into Steele or state Sen. Jon Kavanaugh at Walgreens. They want to call Kirkpatrick in Washington because that's what people of circumstance do. 

There are plenty of the "Jesuits" fighting for the cause: the Cheryl Cages, the Matt Salmons, the Steve Farleys and the Jeff Flakes. Hell, even Russell Pearce had a crusade he would and did politically give his life for. There are even some Jim Kolbes and Raul Grijalvas who just love the job. For all I know, McSally and Steele are a part of this crowd, too.

Even for them, Washington is where it's at.

Losing it ...

So what are Arizona Democrats celebrating today? They are celebrating a blow against gerrymandering, to be sure.

It's been done all over the country. Both sides do it, but Republicans have become masters. In Ohio, a state that twice voted for Barack Obama, Republican lawmakers drew their own boundaries and sent 12 representatives to Washington. Democrats sent four. In North Carolina, where Obama won once and lost by four points in 2012, Republicans have 10 seats to the Democrats' three. In Pennsylvania, a state with a Democratic governor and that hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate in six election cycles, Republicans sent 12 of their own to Congress to just six Democrats.

So there's that. Blow that noise maker. WVVVVVVVVVVVT!

Without the threat of losing on Election Day, the Legislature has a budget that keeps busting, schools going broke as the economy lags. What's it to them?

What is the net effect on the quality of life in Arizona by having two more Democratic members of Congress in Washington? Next to nothing compared to a Legislature that wonders if it could lose.

The Legislature (and governor) determines how Arizonans relate to government day-to-day. It's the Legislature that determines the quality of Arizona's schools — not Washington. It's the Legislature that writes the traffic laws, the rules that give you or your boss rights in the workplace. It's the Legislature that defines the terms of who has rights and who has obligations (I will spare you the search through the statutes, if you have money in Arizona, you have rights. If you don't, you have obligations). The Legislature decides the state's priorities with the budget and we live with those priorities daily.

But that's not glamorous enough for the stakeholders in the Democratic Party.

In 2006, with the war in Iraq melting down under an unpopular president and a very popular governor in Janet Napolitano, Democrats picked up six seats in the Legislature. Then 2008 looked like an even worse year for Republicans who held the three-seat majority in the House and two-seat edge in the Senate. The next cycle came around and things got worse for the Republicans nationally. Democrats lost seats in the Arizona House and Senate.

Working at the Citizen, I called the Democrats' state party HQ and and asked what was up. They were flabbergasted that I would suggest the had anything but a bang-up year. After all, they'd elected Kirkpatrick, while holding congressional seats held by then-U.S. Reps. Harry Mitchell and Gabrielle Giffords. Everything was good in D.C., what did Phoenix matter?

The state Democratic Party said that. Two months later, Tucson activist Paul Eckerstrom threw a fit at the state organizing meeting about this point and the rank and file were so swept up in agreement that it made him state party chairman by acclimation — something Eckerstrom never sought (he resigned a few weeks later).

It's bigger than any party. If the state were run by Democrats and in this kind of awful shape, I would bitch too (in fact, I just did a few days ago). It's about voters having the power to chart the course of the state by selecting their leaders, rather than leaders dictating the course of the state in the comfort of safe districts.

The commission had a chance to alter the course of Arizona by exposing politicians to a wider swath of voters. Instead they chose to push for the real prize: Sending a popular kid in Phoenix to Congress.


Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.
Correction: This column has been updated to correct the title of state Rep. Victoria Steele.

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3 comments on this story

Jul 9, 2015, 9:07 am
-0 +0

So what are Arizona Democrats celebrating today? They are celebrating a blow against gerrymandering, to be sure.

This is where I stopped reading. Partly because this piece was way too long, and partly because the inaccuracies stated whittled away at my interest.

A blow against gerrymandering? You’ve got to be kidding me. All it does is allow a different group with a different agenda the power to gerrymander. Gerrymandering is gerrymandering regardless of who is doing it, and why.

I have long and repeatedly advocated for the laws to be observed when drawing districts. No, not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law. I passionately believe only three things should be considered when drawing district boundaries

-They should be equal in population
-They should be contiguous
-They should be as close to geographically rectangular as those two above criteria will allow

No where in there should skin color, political party, or anything else be considered. In the manner I advocate, a computer and some software can have the job done in about half an hour, and there wouldn’t be months or crybabies, lawsuits, and shitstirrers.

Here’s a link to what truly unbiased district maps would look like:


Jul 1, 2015, 2:42 am
-0 +0

Thank you for pointing out that Steele is a Rep and not an Sen. Other than that you are proving the point of the story. The Dems big win on redistricting was CD 9. The same map that gave neither party an edge in U.S. house seats was carved up in a way that handed the GOP the legislature for 10 years.
My point wasn’t that the goal was to send Sinema, specifically, to Congress (that was more Grijalva in 2002). That was the net effect. The goal was to create a competitive seat in Phoenix. I’m not not arguing that that was wrong. I’m arguing that once they got that, the IRC stopped pushing.
There are 18 of 30 LDs where the Republicans barely need a pulse to win. The IRC’s job was to protect the VRA, establish competitive districts with respect to communities of interest and have those LDs add up to the same number of people. It’s a bitch. But c’mon ... 18 of 30? The only four swing districts carved out of Democratic LDs?
I also point out that for all I know McSally and Steele are the believers fighting for a cause.. 
Chernei is a great point that I wanted to use but the column was running long. The allure of DC makes a guy like that say ‘I know I made promises but screw it, my precious ...” right? That’s where the action is. It sounds like you are involved with local politics, and i have been there, too. So I don’t need to convince you that the money and power is geared toward the higher profile races, while the people walking neighborhoods are zeroed in on the Legislature. (I would also suggest that the reason that no one wanted to run was because the smart money was on the IRC map being thrown out. Watch what happens now).
Latino voter turnout is a huge problem for Democrats in the state and is the most over-looked element of state politics by those who write about it. It does no good to engage any community when they know their vote won’t have any real impact on the outcome, which again is the point.
I apologize if it came off as if this thing were about slamming Sinema or Steele.

Jun 30, 2015, 10:08 pm
-0 +1

The errors in this article are almost too many to list. One crucial mistake is claiming that CD 9 was drawn for Kyrsten Sinema. While she was a state senator she and her staff worked on submitting maps to the AIRC. Andrei Cherney and David Schapira ran against her. Cherney, as you may recall had been elected to ADP chair. After giving many of us personal assurances that he would stay there for two years he jumped at the chance for CD 9. He also took a rolodex with the contact information of Democratic donors. He won ADP chair against Rodney Glassman, a former Tucson city council member. Ron Barber made a phone call to the ADP during that election claiming that Gabby Giffords had agreed to support Cherney. She could not be reached for comment as she was in a hospital with a bullet wound. Andrei left after a year. That new CD was too tempting. Victoria Steele is a Representative not a Senator. Unlike the author, I do know this woman and have worked to get her elected and to pass her bills in the House. I have never met McSally but that was her second run at that House seat. Ron Barber did not want to run for a second term but was convinced to run again. Dr. Eric Meyer is not from Mesa, he lives in East Phoenix in LD 28. Barb McGuire ran in LD 8 on a ticket with the two Republican House candidates. They did events together and I have a flier with the three names. Finding candidates to run in many districts is very difficult. Right now there is a search for a Democrat to run against Arpaio. The AIRC created a web site for the public to interact with maps. There were hundreds of people, many in groups, submitting maps. Claiming that the AIRC was a Democratic led organization is a fallacy. They were charged with creating political divisions that followed a number of complicated laws. CD 7, and CD 3 were nearly impossible to divide. The amazing thing is that neither congressman ran commercials on television. Two Latinos who were in bulletproof districts could have brought out the Latino vote. The three districts that are most heavily Latino, 17,29, and 30 were three of the lowest turnout districts. When the Governor race is won 809K to 660K and you leave nearly a million voters without any attempts at communication that is unforgiveable. Kenny Jones was sitting in LD 29 screaming for resources to do voter outreach. It wouldn’t matter if we had 30 competitive districts, if we don’t communicate with our voters they won’t come out. Oh, BTW, one slight problem. There is a heavy religious influence in the west valley. There is opposition to marriage equality and abortion. Reaching out to these voters won’t work within the same parameters as anglo Democrats. Our next election, removing Arpaio, will be the test of how we can raise our numbers. Catherine Miranda has expressed her desire to run for the seat Ann Kirkpatrick is leaving. She doesn’t live there but she has a number of devoted followers. She will be running as a Democrat that is anti-choice if she runs. One comment I hear a lot in Maryvale is “un gringo o el otro”. One white person or the other. We have the votes in the state to take over but we don’t want to compromise our language. I tell people we need to find common ground then tell them that the best way to stop abortion is to stop the pregnancy. I get cussed at for that.
The author may have been a political reporter for 15 years but seems seriously lost in the makeup of our legislature. I have had the pleasure of meeting all of the people he has not met. I have worked with them on issues. Blaming the AIRC for our less than stellar political power is wrong.

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