Redistricting 'gerrymandering' claims escalate

PHOENIX -- Republicans on the Independent Redistricting Commission accused Democrats Monday of "political gerrymandering,' trying to create unusual shaped districts in a desperation bid to get more party members elected to the Legislature.

At an often contentious meeting Monday, Democrat Linda McNulty proposed crafting legislative districts in Pinal County with the line between then bisecting both Casa Grande and Eloy. McNulty said the result would be that one of the districts would have enough minorities of voting age to possibly qualify as a "majority minority' district, helping to achieve one of the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act.

But Republican Richard Stertz saw something more sinister in the move.

He said the new lines essentially take lots of Republicans who had been on one side and shifts them into the adjacent district, a district that already had a Republican edge. So those extra Republicans do not help a GOP candidate in a general election.

But Stertz said moving those Republicans improves the Democrats' chances of getting one of their own elected in the other district.

Fellow Republican Scott Freeman said Democrat Jose Herrera was also trying to "pack Republicans' together with his plan to create a heavily Republican district running all the way from Paradise Valley to New River.

Herrera acknowledged that would move Republicans from an adjacent Phoenix district, making it easier for a Democrat to get elected there. But he said that the 2000 ballot measure which created the commission to draw political lines requires the panel to look at creating as many competitive districts as possible.

Freeman, however, countered that the Arizona Constitution says competitiveness is important only when it does not impair other goals, like keeping communities of interest together and creating districts as compact as possible.

The ongoing fighting means the commission will not meet its self-imposed goal of adopting final maps for the state's 30 legislative and nine congressional districts by Christmas. And delays will make it more difficult for both incumbents and candidates want to know in which district they live and have to gather nominating signatures and campaign.

Central to the debate is exactly how the districts should reflect the state's voter registration.

The most recent numbers show 35.5 percent of registered voters are Republican, with 30.8 percent Democrats and the balance not with either party. Taking out the independents, Republicans have a 53.5 to 46.5 edge.

But federal law requires states to protect minority voting strength. That means the commission needs to create at least nine districts with sufficient voting-age minorities to be able to elect someone of their own choice.

Stertz said more than 75 percent of Hispanics are registered as Democrats. He said packing them in to those minority districts basically means much what's left will be Republican.

"There's just less Democrats to be spread around,' Stertz said. Initial maps envision at least 16 of the 30 districts would be places where Republicans would find it easier to win; the Democrat-dominated districts are largely those created to protect minority voting strength.

Herrera bemoaned the fact that would leave only three politically competitive legislative districts for the whole state.

"This is unacceptable,' he said. And McNulty, speaking in favor of the change Herrera wants, said it would be "fabulous to have a truly competitive district in the middle of Phoenix.'

Freeman said, though, to do that the commission would have to break up what he said is a community composed of Paradise Valley and the Arcadia section of east Phoenix. He said that amounts to "political gerrymandering where you stuff Republicans into certain districts so you can give a party that has a big registration disadvantage in the county an artificial leg up.'

Not all the proposed changes were so acrimonious.

Stertz pointed out the draft map would split the Rita Ranch community at the southeast edge of Tucson, with those on one side of Rita Road in a district including everything from downtown Tucson all the way to Nogales, and the folks on the other side in a district dominated by Cochise County communities. He said that makes no sense, as residents of this bedroom community have common interests and even common employers, with many of them working at either Raytheon or Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Potentially more significant, Stertz worried that the division would leave residents without any political clout.

The plan approved by the commission moves the entire Rita Ranch into that Tucson district.

BY HOWARD FISCHER

Capitol Media Services



PHOENIX -- The final division of the state's nine congressional districts could come down to who gets to represent residents of Tucson's northern suburbs and Cochise County.

Members of the Independent Redistricting Commission are closing in on final plans for the nine districts. The two maps for discussion even shared common elements.

First, they keep together the communities of Marana, Saddlebrook, Catalina and Oro Valley. There had been some testimony from area residents that they have common interests.

Second, both maps eliminate any split of Cochise County.

But it how those changes are accomplished could create some last-minute hurdles to the commission's goal of having final maps ready by Christmas.

A map prepared by Linda McNulty, one of the Democrats on the panel, encompasses all of Cochise County into a district that would be dominated by the east side of Tucson. That district also includes the Foothills area and Casas Adobes.

That pushes Marana and Oro Valley into a far-flung largely rural district that runs not only northwest all the way into Maricopa County but encompasses the entire eastern edge of the state, the Navajo and other reservations and all the way to the Grand Canyon.

There had been some testimony from area residents that the northern Pima and southern Pinal communities would have more in common with relatively nearby Tucson where many shop and work. But McNulty said they appear to be a better fit not only kept together with each other but paired with rural areas.

She cited testimony in September by Oro Valley resident Lynne St. Angelo who said that Casa Grande and points north, in Pinal County, were much more similar than Tucson to the south.

McNulty also said there is a political benefit to her plan: By having a district that dips into Pima County, It would give the Tucson metro area a third congressional representative.

Republican Richard Stertz also wants to keep those communities together, albeit in a different fashion.

His map, too, has Cochise County in a single district -- but now part of the huge rural district stretching through the Navajo Reservation to Grand Canyon.

That shift, in turn, requires expanding the eastide Tucson district to include adding Oro Valley, Marana and Saddlebrook , stretching to Eloy.

Politics also is at play.

McNulty complained that Stertz's map reduces the percentage of Democrats in what would be left in that eastside Tucson district, the one currently represented by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords. But Stertz said the change is minor, in the range of increasing the GOP edge by one percentage point from earlier proposals.

McNulty was unconvinced it did not matter.

"It's one percent further from 50-50 than it was,' she said.

McNulty said the commission is going to create four congressional districts with solid Republican majorities and two where Democrats clearly have an edge. She said she will oppose anything that degrades the competitive nature of the remaining three.

Much of the final decision will depend on how the panel members define what are "communities of interest,' which the 2000 ballot measure creating the commission requires its members to protect to the extent possible. But there is no definition of what that means.

McNulty said she considers cultural and historical common factors.

"I think it's our job to respect, to the extent practicable, ability of communities of interest to draw together and have their voices heard as communities with other voices in their district,' McNulty said.

Stertz said he wants districts where each member of Congress have areas of "commonalities of interest.' And he argued that Cochise County has more in common with rural parts of the state than it does with the Tucson area, including mining, ranching and tourism.

"Someone who has a clear understanding of all of those issues would make a great representative in Washington,' he said. Similarly, he said it makes sense to combine places with "the greatest area of expansion,' including northwest Tucson all the way up the Interstate 10 corridor.

"Somebody going back to Washington is going to have a clear and concise understanding of what those needs of his or her constituents are going to be,' Stertz said.

Republican Scott Freeman noted, however, federal law puts a limit on what the commission can do. He said the Voting Rights Act requires that two of the nine congressional districts be places where minorities have enough voting strength to elect someone of their choice. And that, he said, has meant altering the maps to ensure there are enough minorities in those two districts.

That issue of community of interest also is showing up in the commission's efforts to divide up Maricopa County into legislative districts.

One of the issues deals with the Town of Guadalupe, whose population is made up largely of members of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Too small for its own district, it will have to become part of another.

The latest plan puts it in with parts of Tempe and Mesa. That has drawn fire from tribal members.

Luis Gonzales, a tribal council member, said residents have much more in common with the South Mountain area of Phoenix. That includes not only sharing a common Spanish language but also the community's long-term link with South Mountain Community College.

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