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If you can’t beat them… Lawmakers shopping around for friendlier districts

If you can’t beat them, pack up and move to a new district.

That’s the lesson that a handful of legislators are taking with them as they prepare to run in the new districts drawn by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

The IRC left lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — though far more on the majority Republican side — facing the prospect of either running in a politically unfriendly district or squaring off with other incumbents from their own party.

The result is a campaign cycle dominated by candidates casting longing glances across the new district lines.

At least a half-dozen incumbent legislators are actively considering moving out of their homes and into new districts. And those lawmakers have a lot of sensitive factors to weigh: Can they afford it? Should they put their families through it? And is it worth the trouble to earn $24,000 a year to be one of 90 people at the Legislature?

For many lawmakers, the answer is yes, yes and yes.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, has represented her West Valley district for three years, but most of her constituents were redrawn into a different district. Lesko could easily run for re-election in the new District 20, but is looking for a new house in neighboring District 21 so she can continue serving the same constituents.

“It’s not really a job to us. It’s more of a passion,” Lesko said. “I can understand why people would … question why somebody would go through the whole effort of moving for a job that pays $24,000 a year. I’ve questioned that myself. But I’m passionate about what I’m doing.”

Unlike Lesko, Rep. Steve Montenegro’s political fortunes depend on the moving vans in his near future. The conservative Republican was drawn into the heavily Democratic District 19, and his defeat would be all but assured if he stayed.

Instead, Montenegro, R-Glendale, whose wife is about to have their first child, a girl, and must sell his house in a miserable market, is moving to the neighboring District 13, just blocks from his current home.

“It’s not easy to pick up and go. So we’re going to have to find another place in the (new) district to rent,” Montenegro said. “It was a calling. We feel that we’re not done yet.”

For some, moving presents less of a challenge. Rep. Tom Forese, R-Gilbert, faces a dilemma similar to Lesko’s: His new district includes few of the people he’s represented since being elected in 2010 and separates him from the two Republicans he teamed up with. Because he and his family rent a home, they are “lucky enough” to be able to move from District 12 to another rental property several miles away in District 17.

Others considered similar moves, but determined that it wasn’t feasible. Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, was drawn into a heavily Latino district with two other Democratic incumbents, not counting a third who will likely either move or run for Congress.

But Patterson said “family concerns” and “economic realities” set in as he considered moving to District 2, which runs from Nogales up through the Tucson area. Instead, he said he’ll probably stay in District 3.

“I thought that moving was going to be more feasible,” Patterson said. “I think it comes down to, how easy is it to move?”

While it’s not unusual for congressional candidates to move into new districts, or even run in districts where they don’t live, incumbent state lawmakers have unique obstacles if they want to pack up and find a new home.

Members of the Legislature must live in the districts where they run, but they can’t move out of their old ones without forfeiting their seats and their incumbency.

So lawmakers on the move must move into the areas where their new and old districts overlap.

Sen. Lori Klein, R-Anthem, faces such a dilemma. Klein was redrawn into a district based in Yavapai County, where Senate President Steve Pierce is running for re-election. Now, she’s considering moving to a neighboring district to challenge another GOP incumbent, Sen. Nancy Barto.

Rep. David Burnell Smith, who was drawn into the same Yavapai County district as Klein, said he also will move to a property he owns in the north Phoenix-based District 15, and will run for office from there, rather than run against two Republican incumbents in the primary.

Others are taking their chances in unfavorable districts. Rep. Justin Pierce, who likely would’ve cruised to re-election in his old district, now faces a GOP primary with two other incumbents.

But Pierce said he won’t move.

“It just doesn’t make sense for me and my family. I don’t want to uproot my kids, even if it’s only a few miles,” Pierce said. “I think it would be a little selfish on my part to say that we need to leave our home and go find something else so I can run for political office.”

Rep. Russ Jones, R-Yuma, set out on a similar course. Jones was drawn into the southern Yuma-based District 4, a Democratic district with a majority of minority voters. He was later redrawn into a neighboring Republican district — the dividing line between the two districts actually runs along his property line — but said he had said he was willing to call it quits instead of moving to further his political career.

Even though Jones owns property in the neighboring Republican district, he said he was unwilling to move or run in a new area.

“It would’ve bothered me. I would feel like a little bit of a carpetbagger, frankly,” Jones said. “I would’ve had trouble with my conscience on it.”

Jones’ seatmate, Sen. Don Shooter, isn’t as lucky. He remains in the Democratic district where his Tea Party politics are unlikely to resonate with voters. His only options are stay in an unfriendly district, challenge another Republican incumbent in a neighboring district, or retire from the Legislature. He said he hasn’t decided what he will do.

Jones said he doesn’t begrudge his colleagues for moving into new districts, and believes it’s perfectly legitimate if they’re moving to continue serving the same constituents they’ve represented for years.

But moving just to keep alive a political career “is the height, to me, of being a carpetbagger,” Jones said. “We don’t own these jobs. The jobs we fill belong to the people of Arizona.”

Jennifer Steen, a political science professor at Arizona State University and former political consultant, said moving for a legislative seat seems “a little extreme.”

“I would guess that the kinds of candidates who are the most likely to go to that length are people who view politics as a vocation and would probably like to have a long career in elected office,” she said. “It’s a valuable thing to hold, but it’s not necessarily the greatest prize in the world.”

But then again, she said, it’s not that big a deal to move a few miles, and it doesn’t seem to hinder campaigns. The only time it might be a bigger problem, she said, is if someone moves from an urban area to a rural area, where voters are concerned about distinct rural issues.

Constantin Querard, a Republican political consultant, said voters don’t usually pay much attention to legislators’ moves and don’t really hold it against them, as long as they’re not moving into an area where they have no real connections.

If a lawmaker moves a few miles down the road to run in a new district, he or she is still largely representing the same area, he said.

And it’s hard to paint someone as a carpetbagger if they’re moving into an area that contains most of their old constituents, Querard said.

“It depends on … how far they’re moving,” Querard said. “For most of these people, they’re not moving that far.”

GOP consultant Nathan Sproul agreed that voters don’t usually pay attention to whether a lawmaker moved a few miles to get into the district. But there isn’t much precedent to fall back on, at least for legislative races. Prior to the creation of the Independent Redistricting Commission in 2000, the Legislature drew the new maps and usually made sure to protect its incumbents, Sproul said. But the IRC is forbidden from considering incumbents’ residences while drawing the new lines.

“Up until 2000, I think this was an issue that largely faced the minority party,” he said.

Some Republicans may also justify their moves by pointing fingers at the IRC. Republicans railed against the IRC and even removed its chairwoman, alleging that the commission went out of its way to lump Republican incumbents together in the same districts.

The Arizona Supreme Court later reinstated the chairwoman and the IRC’s maps, which were mostly drawn by her and the commission’s two Democrats, appear likely to stand. But even though Republicans lost their war with the IRC, Querard said they can still win their individual battles.

“You don’t want the IRC to beat you,” Querard said.

Congress on the move

Opportunity is trumping location when it comes to Arizona’s 2012 congressional races.

In six of Arizona’s nine congressional districts, candidates from outside the district are either moving in or planning to do so. Even so, federal law does not require members of Congress to live in the district they represent.

Candidates are eyeing moves to the following districts:

CD1: Jonathan Paton, *Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce
CD2: *Jesse Kelly, *State Rep. Matt Heinz
CD3: David Crowe
CD4: U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar
CD6: U.S. Rep. Ben Quayle
CD9: Andrei Cherny, Travis Grantham, Steve Moak, Vernon Parker, Gary Pierce, Kyrsten Sinema

*Pierce owns a cabin in Coconino County in CD1 but lives outside the district. Kelly lives in the current CD8, where he is running in a special election to replace U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, but not in the new CD2, the successor district. Heinz owns property in CD2 but lives outside the district.

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