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Leave it alone

OddYearElectionCollege governing board candidate urges district not to oppose law adding 2 seats

The Maricopa County Community College District may push for the Legislature to rescind a 2010 law adding two at-large seats on its governing board, just as the first candidate for one of the new positions begins his campaign.

The new seats were added to the five-member board to make it easier to outflank two members who were viewed by many as problematic, according to several sources. Now that those two members are gone, the need for the extra seats is gone as well, especially considering the concerns of some over the tendency of at-large positions to negatively impact minority votes.

But lobbyist and political consultant Mario Diaz, the first candidate to officially seek one of those at-large seats, said the board and the Legislature should leave things alone.

County residents will elect at-large members to the board for the first time in 2014. Under a 2010 law, voters were supposed to elect the at-large representatives last year. But the law was never implemented because it didn’t receive preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice, which expressed concerns about the impact of at-large seats. At-large arrangements tend to dilute minority votes and have long been a red flag under the Voting Rights Act.

The law was on hold until June, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Arizona and other states are no longer subject to federal preclearance for changes to their election laws. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office opined that the new at-large seats would go into effect for the 2014 election.

Since then, some Latinos and board members have expressed concerns that the at-large arrangement will disenfranchise Hispanic voters by making it difficult or impossible for their candidates to get elected to the new seats. Some have suggested lawsuits challenging the new law under the Voting Rights Act.

Legal action may be unnecessary, however. Board members such as Doyle Burke, the board’s president, and Ben Miranda have expressed interest in eliminating the new seats and maintaining the current five-member composition. The Legislature could make the change when the regular session begins in January, scrapping the at-large seats before anyone can vote on them.

Diaz said officials from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund have told him that it won’t challenge the law in court. Now that there’s a candidate in the race, he said the voters should decide.

Getting rid of the at-large seats, Diaz said, would be “regressing democracy.”

“As far as I’m concerned, the Legislature has spoken, and there is an election in 2014,” Diaz said. “We can’t cherry-pick democracy.”

The board discussed the at-large law in executive session at its Oct. 22 meeting. Burke said no decision has been made about whether the board will push for a change in the law, and emphasized that the district doesn’t have a position on the issue.

Burke said he prefers the five-member setup. If two additional members are elected at large, the board could have three members from one district, he said.

“I think the current makeup is representative and I like what we have,” Burke said.

An ideal candidate

Miranda and others have questioned whether Latino candidates can win countywide races for the at-large seats. Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act.

Diaz, who is Hispanic, said he can win the race. He announced his candidacy with a bevy of endorsements from across the political spectrum, including Mary Rose Wilcox, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors’ only Democrat and only Latina, and Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, a brash conservative whose battles at the City Council have riled Democrats.

Diaz said there’s no need for more “paternalistic and maternalistic oversight” of minorities. He said he’s not running as a Latino, but as a representative of Maricopa County taxpayers.

“I certainly respect the protection of voters’ rights. However, at some point, for a community to mature politically, the opportunity of a well-qualified, well-funded, supported by bipartisan community leaders individual — i.e. Mario Diaz — should be given an opportunity to test the waters,” Diaz said.

Gallardo said Diaz’ campaign will be a good test case for the new seats. Diaz is an ideal candidate, Gallardo said, and if he gets elected, then it will show that Latinos can compete for the at-large seats.

“If he’s successful, awesome,” Gallardo said. “We have representation at least on the countywide level. But if he fails, it can really be able to show voting polarization in Maricopa County. We really need one good test.”

No legal recourse

Some observers have speculated that it would be politically difficult to eliminate the new seats after candidates have already entered the race and started their campaigns. If the Legislature changes the board back to five members, the law likely wouldn’t take effect until mid-2014, after candidates have filed their signatures to get on the ballot.

Changing the rules in the middle of the game might look bad to some, but Diaz and other candidates would have no legal recourse, according to elections attorney Kory Langhofer.

“The courts have held that candidates have no due process rights to their office. So if the office goes away, they’re at the mercy of the Legislature,” said Langhofer, of the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

Sources said the 2010 law that created the two new seats on the five-member board was intended to add people who could counteract conservative members Colleen Clark and Jerry Walker. Not a single Democrat voted against the bill — Miranda, a House member at the time, voted for it, though he said he doesn’t recall the vote — and the opposing votes generally came from some of the Legislature’s most conservative members.

But Clark resigned before the 2010 election, and Walker lost his re-election bid that November. Now that they’re gone, there may not be as much interest in adding two new members who were meant to thwart them.

Rich Crandall, who sponsored the 2010 bill while serving in the Arizona House of Representatives, wouldn’t comment on Clark and Walker. He said only that the new seats were partially intended to create “a greater diversity of opinion” on the board.

 

 

Governing Board Members

• Doyle W. Burke, president, term expires Dec. 31, 2016.

• Randolph Elias Lumm, term expires Dec. 31, 2014.

• Ben Miranda, term expires Dec. 31, 2016.

• Debra Pearson, term expires Dec. 31, 2014.

• Dana G. Saar, secretary, term expires Dec. 31, 2016.

• TBD member at-large, to be elected November 2014, term would expire Dec. 31, 2018.

• TBD member at-large, to be elected November 2014, term would expire Dec. 31, 2016

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