Map for Ariz. legislative districts disliked by political parties

by Mary Jo Pitzl – Oct. 17, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

Republicans and Democrats alike are lamenting a proposed new map for Arizona’s legislative districts, though for different reasons.

The draft map approved by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission could alter the political landscape by putting some Republicans into districts that would lean Democratic.

It also would pit incumbents against each other, most notably in a Mesa district that would be home to current Senate President Russell Pearce. Already facing a recall election next month, he could then face one of his biggest Republican critics in a Republican primary next year.

Republicans believe the map would allow them to retain their majority status at the statehouse because it contains 17 GOP-dominant districts out of 30. But they quarrel over where the lines are drawn and dispute Democrats’ assertion that more competitive districts are needed, especially given the need to draw districts that would protect minority voting rights.

Democrats are unhappy because they believe the map tilts too heavily toward the GOP. They argue there should be more toss-up districts, especially given that the state’s voting population is split almost evenly in thirds. Republicans account for 35 percent of the state’s voters, independents 34 percent and Democrats 31 percent.

Currently, Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature: 40 seats out of 60 in the House and 21 out of 30 in the Senate. The proposed new boundaries could eliminate the supermajorities but still retain Republican control.

The five-member commission is charged with redrawing Arizona’s political boundaries in the wake of the 2010 census to account for population shifts. The new lines will define political districts for the next decade, beginning with the 2012 elections.

The proposed legislative map and a draft of a congressional map are now the subject of statewide hearings. Both can still be changed based on public input. Public hearings are scheduled through Nov. 5; after that, the commission will adjust the maps before submitting them to the U.S. Department of Justice for “pre-clearance” with the federal Voting Rights Act. Federal OK is needed because of past violations of minority voting rights in Arizona.

If the lines hold – many believe they will change – the maps will create intraparty rivalries that incumbents were not expecting. The commission is directed by the state constitution to disregard the addresses of incumbents and candidates. Candidates must live in the districts they hope to represent.

Legislative District 25, which covers most of Mesa, could see a primary election involving Pearce and Sen. Rich Crandall.

Crandall, who has become increasingly critical of Pearce, said that the potential matchup wouldn’t deter him and that he plans to seek a second Senate term next year.

Pearce faces a recall election next month but has indicated that he is likely to run in the 2012 primary regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 8 vote. He was not available for comment.

Republican Jerry Lewis, who is challenging Pearce in the recall, would not have to face Pearce again. Lewis’ home is a few blocks west of the proposed district’s boundary, putting him in the revamped District 26, which covers central Tempe and western Mesa. That district leans heavily Democratic in voter behavior, though independents outnumber both major parties, according to commission data.

Likewise, four Republican House members are within the proposed boundaries of District 25: Majority Leader Steve Court, Cecil Ash, Justin Olson and Justin Pierce. Each district can send only two people to the House, setting up a potential primary battle.

District 12, which covers Gilbert, would be home to three sitting House Republicans: Eddie Farnsworth, Tom Forese and Steve Urie.

In the north/northeast Valley, GOP Sens. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, and Lori Klein, R-Anthem, have been drawn into the same District 15. In southeastern Arizona, Sens. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, and Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, are in the same district. Four Republican House members are also thrown together.

Antenori said crowding Republican candidates into the same district is further proof the commission is gerrymandering the map to benefit Democrats.

But Democrats are also negatively affected. The map puts three sitting Democratic House members in central Phoenix into a potential primary showdown: Minority Leader Chad Campbell and Reps. Lela Alston and Katie Hobbs. In Tucson, three Democratic House members are in District 2: Matt Heinz, Daniel Patterson and Macario Saldate.

Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, is in proposed District 28 with two sitting Republican lawmakers, Kate Brophy-McGee and Amanda Reeve. Meyer’s current east Phoenix/Paradise Valley district is one of the few swing districts in the state.

Antenori, who is eying a congressional seat, said he wasn’t worried about being pitted against a fellow Republican if he opts to stay in the Legislature.

The commission, he believes, will change the maps in the coming weeks.

“If they don’t, they’re going to have a hell of a time going through the (state) Supreme Court,” he said.

Many expect whatever maps emerge from the redistricting process to be challenged in court, most likely for not meeting constitutional requirements, such as protecting minority voting rights.

At the first public hearing Tuesday evening in central Phoenix, most of those testifying urged the commission to create more competitive districts.

Advocates of minority voting rights told the commission they were generally pleased with the legislative map. It includes eight districts with minorities as the majority as well as two others in which the commission believes minority candidates would have a good shot at election.

The districts were designed to ensure compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act and win approval from the U.S. Department of Justice. The federal “pre-clearance” is required because of past violations of minority voting rights in Arizona.

Mary Rose Wilcox, speaking on behalf of the Hispanic Coalition for Good Government, said these districts will gain bigger Hispanic numbers over the decade.

“Hispanics will grow into these areas,” she said, pointing to districts on the west side of the Valley.

State Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said he was pleasantly “shocked” the map was so favorable for minority candidates.

“If you are a minority politician, you’ve got to be happy with these lines,” he said.

Gallego is in one of those minority districts, which generally covers the south/southwest side of Phoenix.

But while the commission may have appeased minority groups with its legislative plan, people from both sides of the political aisle offer varying degrees of criticism.

So far, the legislative plan has not drawn the angry, unified response that Republicans launched earlier this month after a divided commission approved the congressional map. Gov. Jan Brewer led that charge, even hinting she might invoke her power to begin proceedings to remove commission Chairwoman Colleen Coyle Mathis. Last week, the governor was silent on the legislative plan.

The stronger reaction came from Democrats.

“This is a Republican map,” said Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party. “Even in the competitive areas, it favors Republicans.”

He said he’s not interested in removing commissioners but wants them to take a harder look at their data.

He pointed to a commission analysis that showed four competitive districts, based on voter behavior in the 2008 and 2010 elections. He thinks the commission can do better, saying it’s possible to get up to 10 competitive districts, or one-third of the legislative seats.

But others contend that it’s hard to create many swing districts since the state needs at least nine minority districts to keep level with the number of such districts created last decade. Federal law bars the commission from regressing on minority districts.

Brian Murray, a partner in the consulting firm Lincoln Strategy Group and a former executive director of the state Republican Party, said getting to nine or 10 such districts would take away so many Democratic voters that it would be hard to create more than a handful of districts in which Democrats would have the same chance as Republicans at getting elected.

The state Republican Party did not return a call for comment, and Maricopa County GOP Chairman Rob Haney declined an interview.

Other Republicans said the map’s flaws go beyond partisan concerns.

Antenori said the legislative map “throws southern Arizona under the bus.”

The plan splits the communities of Green Valley and Sahuarita from each other and divides each of the two communities into separate districts.

“The voters are going to go nuts,” Antenori said, adding he already has heard from disgruntled constituents.

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