PHOENIX — The Independent Redistricting Commission is pushing ahead with maps designed to help ensure that there will be more Republicans from Pima County in the Legislature after the 2022 election.
The panel is working with plans advanced by Commissioner David Mehl on behalf of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, of which he is a founding member.
Mehl told Capitol Media Services the goal is to unite the Pima County communities of Marana and Oro Valley into a district that would also run through SaddleBrooke in southern Pinal County.
But the executive director of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, Ted Maxwell, acknowledged there’s more at play here than what might be considered creating a “community of interest.” His interest is political.
Put simply, he said, it’s hard for a group like his to get desired changes in law from what is now — and could remain — a Republican-controlled Legislature unless it includes more Republicans from Pima County.
“As you know, the majority party is the one that gets to vote legislation,” he told Capitol Media Services. But he said there isn’t a single Republican legislator whose district is entirely within Pima County.
He gave an example of the impact: When the Southern Arizona Leadershiop Council was pushing for changes in Pima County’s Regional Transportation Authority, it needed to get a Republican from Pinal County — Sen. T.J. Shope of Coolidge — to sponsor it.
Hence the proposed legislative district map submitted by Mehl, as the five-member appointed commission works on drawing new lines for congressional and legislative districts to be used through the 2030 election.
“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.”
He said that’s only fair given that voter registrations in Pima County are about 40% Democrats, 28.5% Republicans and the balance, 30.4%, as independents, plus a handful of Libertarians.
Maxwell said he’s not looking to give any party an advantage, in getting Mehl to advance the agenda of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, which describes itself as “a business voice on public policy in Southern Arizona” through members representing “the largest employers and top professionals in the region.”
“I’m looking to make sure we have representation,” Maxwell said, acknowledging that the political pendulum could swing in 2022 and Democrats could be in charge of one or both legislative chambers.
“It’s the second largest county in the state, the second largest city in the state,” Maxwell said of Pima County and Tucson. “It should have the ability to have representatives from both parties.”
All that goes to the changes in the lines that Mehl, president of Cottonwood Properties, got incorporated into the latest proposed maps.
On a prior proposed version of the new map, 51% of the residents of what the commission said would be Legislative District 17 — the one along Pima County’s northern tier — voted for January Contreras, the unsuccessful Democratic contender for state attorney general, in 2018. That race is considered an indicator of relative party strength.
Under the new lines Mehl advanced, Contreras would have gotten just 45.6% of the vote in LD 17. And the GOP voter registration edge in that district would be 54.5% to 45.5%, not counting independents.
Other changes in the map reduced the Democratic edge in another district, which would run from Casas Adobes and the Catalina Foothills to Tanque Verde in the Tucson area.
“There are still solid Democratic districts,” Mehl said.
Further changes may be coming.
On Tuesday, Mehl asked the commission’s staff to draw yet another map ahead of the commission’s Thursday meeting.
This includes moving the Tucson area’s Flowing Wells area out of the district that currently stretches through Casa Grande in Pinal County, and into the Gila River Indian Community in southern Maricopa County, and instead unite it with the district that takes in much of downtown Tucson.
But that has ripple effects, such as moving Coolidge into the same district as Casa Grande and out of the district it had shared with Florence; and moving Vail, in the Tucson area, 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 understands Mehl’s desire to connect Marana with Oro Valley. “I know that has been a priority for him and I want to honor that request,” she said.
But she said that district also should include Catalina Foothills, Casas Adobes and, if it doesn’t upset the requirements for equal population, also possibly SaddleBrooke.
“When you lay that out, it will be a much more cohesive district that goes east to west,” Lerner said. “These are communities that are contiguous, that are neighbors to each other.”
What’s not cohesive, she said, is that Mehl’s map also included the Tanque Verde area in the same district. “Tanque Verde, without traffic, would be almost an hour’s drive,” Lerner said. “And a lot of the drive would actually take you out of the district.”
Her plan has the backing of Commissioner Derrick Watchman, also a Democrat.
“It provides more compactness, it respects the communities of interest, especially for the Latinos,” he said.
Watchman also said he hopes the consideration that the commission gave to the plan Mehl submitted is an indication that his colleagues are willing to hear from others who so far have not been able to get their plans adopted.
“That comes from a submission from the business community in Southern Arizona, which is great,” he said. “I think we also need to go back and look at the Latino community, especially for the Tucson area. I think that’s important.”
He also wants to be sure that the concerns expressed by tribal communities also are given consideration.
Next up, the commission will meet Thursday, Oct. 28, to put out what it considers its best maps for public comment. But changes are still possible until the final maps are adopted by the commission in late December.