A divided Independent Redistricting Commission adopted a plan late Tuesday for Arizona's nine congressional districts that Republicans contend is politically unfair and unnecessarily splits up communities with common interests.
The controversial plan keeps Cochise County in a single district as preferred by residents there. An earlier map had split it between two districts.
But to do that, the commission put SaddleBrooke, Marana and Oro Valley into a sprawling district that goes all the way to Camp Verde and Sedona, through most of the state's Indian reservations through Flagstaff, and all the way to the Utah border.
And a crescent-shaped district carved into Maricopa County runs from the Ahwatukee area on Phoenix's far south side, circumventing midtown Phoenix and going through Tempe and parts of Mesa, Chandler and the south side of Scottsdale. That, however, splits Paradise Valley from the closely aligned and nearby Arcadia and Biltmore sections of Phoenix.
Commission Chairwoman Colleen Mathis, a political independent, sided with Democrats Linda McNulty and José Herrera in approving the plan. Herrera said it creates a map with four districts with a Republican voter edge, two districts that should be safe for Democrats and three districts in which the number of voters in each party is close enough to make them politically competitive.
But Republican Scott Freeman, visibly angry, said the final version adds enough Democrats to those supposedly competitive districts to essentially make it difficult for a Republican to get elected.
"The scales are being manipulated to get a desired political result," Freeman said. He predicted the outcome after the 2012 race could be a congressional delegation of five Democrats and four Republicans despite the GOP registration edge in the state.
A big point of contention involves Tucson's far northern suburbs.
"Why would we pull away these cities that are tightly aligned with the city of Tucson away from urban Tucson for their congressional representation?" Republican Commissioner Richard Stertz asked.
He preferred a plan that kept Cochise County whole, but included that county with the rural district that covers Central and Northern Arizona. That would have kept the Pima County communities in the same district as the east side of Tucson and also with much of southern Pinal County.
McNulty pushed for the version adopted. "It's truly a competitive district" and will benefit Southern Arizona, she said.
"We're talking about having three (congressional) representatives who share the job of representing over a million people" in the area, she said. Whoever represents that vast rural district will have to pay at least some attention to what voters in the Tucson area want, if they want to get re-elected, McNulty said.
Freeman said that ignores the fact that most of Cochise County, with the possible exception of Sierra Vista, is rural. He said it would be a more logical fit to have it in a district with other rural areas of the state.
And Stertz read a letter from the Oro Valley Town Council saying it feared the town's 41,000 residents would get little or no attention from a Congress member who also has to represent that vast rural district.
"These are connected communities to Tucson," not linked to rural Eastern and Northern Arizona, Stertz said.
McNulty was unconvinced those suburban communities will lose political clout. "I don't think inclusion in a competitive district of this nature will result in them not being represented," she said. "Whoever has the fortune or misfortune to represent that district is going to be all over it and is going to have to pay attention to everybody in it."
McNulty also said she does not believe Cochise County residents want to share a congressional district with Flagstaff.
Freeman said the rural district he proposed is very similar to the existing, competitive congressional district. It is now represented by Republican Paul Gosar, who ousted incumbent Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick.
The map adopted, Freeman said, tilts that balance. "A lot more Democrats have been piled in," giving Democrats a registration edge of about 10 percent, he said.
Stertz also said he believes the district being created out of the east side of Tucson and Cochise County, much of which mirrors the district currently represented by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, will lean Democratic even though Republicans have slightly more registered voters. He said the political independents in the area tend to side with Democrats.
Commission attorney Mary O'Grady said she believes the map complies with the 2000-voter-approved constitutional provision. It has various requirements of what the panel must consider, she said, ranging from having equal population in all districts to complying with the U.S. Voting Rights Act that forbids states from diluting minorities' voting strength.
That amendment also requires the commission, when possible, to create compact districts and protect communities of interest, and make politically competitive districts if that does not impair other goals.
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Later Tuesday night, the panel also adopted a plan for the state's 30 legislative districts. But that move was bipartisan. Read details of that legislative plan in Thursday's Star.