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Guest opinion

Redistricting: Ouster of Mathis not what it appears

Republican legislators looking for reason to 'blow up' committee

It can be hard for a citizen to wrap their heads around what the Legislature did this week. To recap, Tuesday night, the lawmakers voted to fire the woman who heads up the Independent Redistricting Committee.

There have been a number of confusing charges thrown at the IRC over the past few months, and our state's press has been less than helpful in clarifying what has gone on here. The weird part for those of us who have been paying attention to it, particularly Democrats like me, is Republican complaints come despite how good a deal they have gotten out of this process.

The first complaints about the commission came from Senate President Russell Pearce long before Colleen Mathis, the registered independent who is head of the IRC, rose to the top of the list. Back in December, Pearce complained about who was on the list of applicants.

Keep in mind, at this point the list consisted of people who had gotten their resumes in on time. Pearce's complaints forced the re-opening of the process, and candidates to his liking were added. Not too long afterward, Pearce and Speaker Kirk Adams were mad at the group that culled the list to qualified candidates. The group that did this is the commission on judicial appointments, a group dominated by Republicans.

Four members of the IRC panel were chosen by leaders by both parties in the legislature: two Republicans and two Democrats. The members then were tasked with choosing a chair who had to be an independent.

They turned to Colleen Mathis, a Tucson businesswoman.

Mathis seemed to be the definition of politically independent, a Republican-leaning one even: a member of the Federalist Society and donor to George W. Bush that also contributed to Democrat Andrei Cherny.

The complaints started immediately. Local legislator Terri Proud complained that Mathis's husband (not Mathis, mind you) had given money to Proud's opponent, Nancy Young Wright. Our state's Republicans apparently think that supporting a Democrat disqualifies you from being an independent.

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It got worse when it came time for the panel to hire a mapping consultant. These firms come in two flavors: Republican and Democratic. The IRC chose to hire a Democratic firm. The charges against the committee along with conspiracy theories about who was drawing the lines came out. The complaint was that the committee shouldn't hire a firm with Democratic ties. The only other firms are the ones with Republican ties, making me wonder what their definition of "fair" really is.

Throughout all of this, the commission got down to the business of drawing the maps. Here's the funny part: it turned out to be a pretty bad deal for the Democrats.

After this is all said and done, there will be nine members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Arizona. If the IRC's draft maps were used, four of them would be elected out of safe Republican districts, two out of safe Democratic districts. Two of the districts that are left lean Republican with one true swing district. As for legislative districts, there would be fifteen safe Republican districts and twelve safe Democratic ones, a near guaranteed Republican majority. Given that the Republican registration advantage here is 36-32, I'd say this is a pretty good deal.

So what's the beef?

Well, two freshmen Republican congressmen, Ben Quayle and David Schweikert, were drawn into the same congressional district. Immediately after the maps were released, Gov. Jan Brewer complained that incumbents weren't protected and that the commission was supposed to only "tweak" the lines rather than make wholesale changes.

The commission is not supposed to consider incumbency, and it would be hard to "tweak" the lines considering the big population changes over the last ten years and the fact that they have to fit a brand new district in there somewhere.

The discussion around the IRC was already ugly, but the governor's letter ratcheted things up. The attorney general got involved, and Jan Brewer sent a letter to commissioners detailing a list of charges and demanding a response. The Legislature has the power to remove a member of the commission, but they need to have committed "gross misconduct." It was obvious that Brewer was laying the groundwork for a showdown.

Within a few days, Brewer (well, technically it was Ken Bennett since Brewer was out of town) convened the Legislature and fired Mathis.

Interestingly, the main charge was a violation of the open meetings law. Mathis didn't violate the open meetings law, and the usual solution to such a thing is to nullify the decision made behind closed doors. By the way, the afternoon before the vote to oust Mathis, Republican Senators met in a closed caucus in violation of their own open meeting rules. This is all about transparency, though.

There are now a raft of questions about whether what the Senate did was legal, and Mathis will continue to chair public hearings since no votes will be taken.

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Given their behavior and threats over the last ten months, it has been obvious that Republican's goal has been to discredit this commission. Talk of the Republicans wanting to "blow up" the IRC came before Quayle was drawn into the "wrong" district, long before Mathis was even appointed.

The IRC was not imposed by a court or the federal government, but approved by the voters of the state precisely to keep legislators out of the redistricting process.

Unfortunately, the current legislative leadership can't stand that something, somewhere goes on without their control. Charges and counter-charges aside, that's what this really comes down to. 

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A draft map of congressional districts, under review by the IRC.


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