PHOENIX — The Independent Redistricting Commission is circling in on what could decide the political future of Arizona for the rest of the decade.
But after weeks of meetings and public comments, elements of the latest version of the maps remain controversial, even with plans to put out what are billed as final draft maps on Thursday.
And the biggest controversy appears to be an effort — and, so far, successful — by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council to get the commission to draw lines that could help elect Pima County Republicans to the legislature.
That's not to say everyone is pleased with what else is moving forward for preliminary adoption on Thursday.
The congressional map, for example, draws everything from Kingman south to the edge of Yuma into a single district that actually stretches all the way into Glendale. That could impair the ability of Mohave County residents to elect someone from their area.
Tucson Mayor Regina Romero is unhappy with where the commission is drawing a line through the city to separate congressional districts.
But the commission is hobbled to a great extent by the laws that govern how it crafts the 30 legislative and nine congressional districts.
While they are supposed to respect communities of interest and be geographically compact, they also need to have equal populations. And the growth rate in the Phoenix metro area has outstripped most of the rest of the state, meaning fewer opportunities for relatively small districts in rural areas.
And then there's the requirement to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act which precludes changes that dilute minority voting strength.
The focus Tuesday, however, was on the legislative district map for Southern Arizona, the one that Commissioner David Mehl got the panel to adopt as its latest iteration. He said the aim was to put the communities of Oro Valley, Marana and SaddleBrooke into the same district as communities of interest.
But there are political implications.
On a prior version of the map, 51% of the residents voted for the Democratic contender for attorney general in 2018. That race is an indicator of relative party strength.
Under the new lines, the results would have given the Democrat just 45.6%. And the GOP voter registration edge would be 54.5% to 45.5%, not counting independents.
Similar changes in the SALC map reduced the Democratic edge in the district from Casas Adobes and the Foothills to Tanque Verde.
“There are still solid Democratic districts,” Mehl told Capitol Media Services of the Tucson area.
Those changes are based on concerns from the business-oriented Southern Arizona Leadership Council. Ted Maxwell, the organization's executive director, said it's hard to get desired changes in law from a Republican-controlled legislature without more Republicans from the area.
“As you know, the majority party is the one that gets to vote legislation,” he said. But he said there isn't a single Republican whose district is entirely within Pima County.
How bad is it?
Maxwell said when SALC was pushing for changes in the Regional Transportation Authority it needed to get Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge to sponsor it. Hence, the support for the map that Mehl, a member of SALC, submitted.
“This map does capture a district that would appear to have a significant Republican advantage, with a majority of the district residing in Pima County,” Maxwell said of the Mehl-backed plan. “It also preserves Democratic districts within the county as well.”
Further changes may be coming.
On Tuesday, Mehl asked the commission’s staff to draw yet another map ahead of the Thursday meeting. This includes moving the Flowing Wells area out of the district that currently stretches through Casa Grande into the Gila River Indian Community.
The redrawn boundaries would, instead, unite Flowing Wells with the district that takes in much of downtown Tucson.
But that has ripple effects. Moving Coolidge into the same district as Casa Grande, and out of the district it had shared with Florence and Vail, puts Coolidge into the district that encompasses Cochise, Graham and Greenlee counties.
A lot of what is being pushed by Mehl, a Republican, is drawing opposition from Commissioner Shereen Lerner, a Democrat.
Lerner said Tuesday she supports Mehl’s desire to connect Marana with Oro Valley. But she said that district also should include Catalina Foothills and Casas Adobes.
“These are communities that are contiguous, that are neighbors to each other,” Lerner said. Conversely, she said, it should not include the Tanque Verde area which is the way the current map draws the district.
“It would be mostly a suburban district,” Lerner explained, without adding largely urban areas.
Lerner is also less than happy with having a legislative district that includes Cochise, Graham and Greenlee county stretching all the way into not just Green Valley but actually into Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the surrounding area.
Her plan has the backing of Commissioner Derrick Watchman who also is a Democrat.
“It provides more compactness, it respects the communities of interest, especially for the Latinos,” he said.
Watchman noted that the panel accepted Mehl's submission on behalf of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, “which is great.”
“I think we also need to go back and look at the Latino community, especially for the Tucson area,” he said. “I think that's important.”
And Watchman also wants the commission to get more input from all the Native American tribes in the state about what they think of the lines.
Romero, for her part, is concerned about exactly how the commission intends to split the city into two congressional districts.
The latest version separates the city along Broadway, with the University of Arizona and Casas Adobes lumped into a district that extends through Cochise, Graham and Greenlee counties. More to the point, it separates the university and the Fourth Avenue area from downtown.
“In many ways, Fourth Avenue is an extension of downtown, with many restaurants, bars, and shops whose interests align closely with their counterparts in downtown Tucson,” Romero wrote the commission on Tuesday.
Then there's the fact that the “modern streetcar” connects downtown through Fourth Avenue to the university and continues to Banner University Medical Center. She said more than 100,000 people live and work within a half mile of the streetcar route.
“Simply put, it does not make sense to separate the University of Arizona and Fourth Avenue from downtown,” Romero wrote.
Beyond that, the mayor told the commission that the proposed boundary between the two congressional districts would separate some largely Latino majority neighborhoods in the Broadway and 22nd Street corridor from those on the city’s south side. That, she said, would dilute minority voting strength, something prohibited by the federal Voting Rights Act.
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