Redrawing Arizona's districts: Independent chair sides with Democrats on maps that are up for discussion

The Arizona commission that is redrawing legislative and congressional district lines appeared poised to tilt congressional maps heavily toward Republicans before votes on Friday made that seem less likely.

Friday’s decision by the independent chair to side with the commission’s two Democrats was a surprise for many because Chairwoman Erika Neuberg has only broken with the panel’s two Republicans twice in recent months. The decisions come as the panel races to finalize next week the new maps that will be used for the coming decade.

The congressional maps have appeared likely to allow Republicans to pick up at minimum two additional seats, tilting the state’s nine-member congressional delegation from its 5-4 Democratic majority to a 6-3 Republican makeup. But even with the changes made by the commission Friday, Democratic seats held by Reps. Tom O’Halleran and Anne Kirkpatrick, who had previously announced she planned to retire, could flip.

The congressional map adopted by a 3-2 vote Friday starts with three solid Democratic districts and four Republican. Two others are very competitive. Changes the commission made and more in the coming days will determine the final outcome.

The Republicans had proposed a map that had six solid Republican seats, two Democratic and one competitive district that leaned slightly toward Democrats.

The legislative map is also very much in flux, and the five members of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission spent much of Friday morning rejiggering district lines after a 3-2 vote to start with a revised map suggested by the panel’s two Democrats.

Democrats are trying to lock in gains their party made in the past decade that saw them draw nearly even in the 60 member GOP-controlled House. The Republican majority in the 30-seat Senate has been fairly consistent at a one- or two-seat margin since the previous once-a-decade redistricting.Republicans hold single-seat margins in each chamber and their proposal for the 30 districts was tilted toward retaking some of those seats.

Democrats watching the process see little hope they’ll end up with a chance to win legislative control.

The panel, made up of two Republicans, two Democrats and Neuberg, an independent chair who has mainly backed Republican-backed versions of the maps, met three days this week and has four additional meetings scheduled. It will meet Sunday through Wednesday, when it plans to vote on final maps.

However, Neuberg sided with the Democrats on the legislative map Friday morning. She said their proposal better incorporated the needs of the state’s minority communities.

"I want the public to know we’re disappointed," Republican Commissioner Douglas York said after that vote.

Despite Friday morning’s disappointment, Republicans have successfully pushed their priorities in the Legislature, drawing a new safe seat in the heavily Democratic Tucson area where they were locked out in 2011.

Where they really have come out ahead — at least so far — is on the congressional maps. Draft maps adopted in October changed O’Halleran’s 1st District to a strong Republican District by adding conservative Yavapai County. The current and proposed districts run east and include the Democrat-heavy Navajo Nation.

An effort Democratic Commissioner Derrick Watchman made last week to erase the inclusion of Yavapai County fell flat, as Neuberg refused to go along.

The draft maps also remade Kirkpatrick’s 2nd District into a GOP-favoring district by excluding parts of Tucson and adding northern Pima County areas that are much more Republican.

Neuberg also made it exceptionally clear on Thursday that she disagreed with a Democratic push to focus on making more competitive districts. The commission created by voters in 2000 lays out a series of criteria the panel must consider, and she said her view was that competitiveness was the least of those.

MORE: View Arizona grid maps

She’s been more focused on "communities of interest," which other commissioners also focus on. In reality, those communities of interest have consistently equaled putting areas with like-minded political bent together.

Neuberg has also repeatedly acted as a peacemaker and consensus-builder, and drew praise earlier last week from Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner. She said Neuberg was being unfairly criticized by Democrats, as the chair of the 2011 commission was a decade ago by Republicans.

"I believe our chair has the best interest of the state in mind and will work toward that end," Lerner said. "And I know she has worked to understand the needs of our state."

Neuberg said she decided to start with the Democratic congressional map Friday because it better addressed areas she was concerned with. Whether that leads to a more balanced end product remains in doubt.

Continued Coverage

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