The Independent Redistricting Commission is moving to give Republicans an edge in electing members of Congress for the coming decade.
And one of the ways that is happening is with changes being pushed by David Mehl, a Republican on the commission, for the area in and around Tucson. Those changes could help Juan Ciscomani win the seat in what would become Congressional District 6, an area roughly comparable with the one that has been occupied for the past four years by Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, who is retiring.
Mehl’s plan would move many Democrats out of CD 6 and into Congressional District 7. That is the district proposed to run from midtown Tucson west to Yuma and north into the largely Latino areas on the western edge of Phoenix.
That is the area that, generally speaking, is currently represented by Raul Grijalva. And there already is little danger to Grijalva — or any other Democrat — as draft maps show that voter registration and historical voting patterns would give Democrats a 2-1 edge.
Mehl would push the boundary between the two districts all the way to Alvernon Way in Tucson.
That runs contrary to the wishes of Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, a Democrat.
Responding to her earlier concerns about dividing downtown from the University of Arizona, commissioners agreed to move the line to Campbell Avenue.
Mehl, however, said that’s not far enough, calling Alvernon Way “midtown.” Anyway, he said, all that area east of the campus, all the way out to Alvernon Way, should also be considered part of the university community.
That alteration, however, changes the political balance, giving CD 6 more of a Republican edge than if the line is on Campbell Avenue.
So does the change that Mehl wants south of Tucson, pushing Sahaurita from CD 6 to CD 7.
Mehl said that community has a large Hispanic population, making it a better fit with CD 7. But CD 6 then would have to pick up population elsewhere, likely from Republican areas.
There is a link between Mehl and Ciscomani who used to be a political adviser to Gov. Doug Ducey.
The candidate’s wife, Laura, sits on the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments. That is the panel which selected Mehl as a nominee for the Independent Redistricting Commission.
And the campaign finance reports for Ciscomani list $5,800 in donations from Jonah Carson Mehl, David’s son, who also is a vice president for Cottonwood Properties, the firm owned by his father.
Mehl does not dispute the partisan nature of some of what he is proposing. But he sniffed at the idea that there is a link between how he is drawing the lines and the support for Ciscomani by his son.
“We don’t have any business interests in this,” the elder Mehl told Capitol Media Services.
Like whether Republicans control Congress?
“I was appointed as a Republican appointee,” he responded. The 2000 voter-approved law creating the Independent Redistricting Commission requires two Republicans and two Democrats, with those four choosing someone to chair the panel who is not affiliated with either party.
“Our family’s contributed to candidates for 30 years, 40 years,” Mehl said.
“My sons are free to do whatever they want,” he continued. “They’re their own people.
Romero aide Nate Sigal would not comment on motives.
“Folks can draw their own conclusions,” he told Capitol Media Services. Sigal said “anybody could tell” that the moves are designed to give Republicans an advantage.
Partisan politics aside, Sigal said the changes also would dilute the influence of Tucson.
“It is in the city’s best interest to have two congressional districts that are anchored in the city of Tucson,” he said. “I think by pushing it all the way to Alvernon that increases the district’s share of population elsewhere.”
And that “elsewhere” in the map for CD 6 runs up to the edge of Casa Grande and out to Safford in one corner and Douglas in the other.
Mehl, for his part, defended his plan.
“If you’re trying to divide Tucson into two major districts, which is what we are, dividing it into the middle of the city is a pretty logical place to be dividing it,” he said.
And Mehl called Romero’s concern about losing Tucson influence “incorrect.”
The panel, which has a Dec. 22 deadline to adopt final maps, also is looking at other changes sought by Mehl that could have political implications.
One is putting Flagstaff into Legislative District 6, the legislative district that includes the Navajo and Hopi reservations, rather than have the tribes in an area that now includes communities in the White Mountains. Mehl argued that the tribes have more in common with Flagstaff.
“The Native Americans, they do their shopping in Flagstaff, they attend school in Flagstaff,” he said.
“Flagstaff’s a more diverse community with a younger population,” Mehl continued. “They share tourism and resources.”
By contrast, he said, the communities in the White Mountains “have nothing in common with Flag,” arguing that their positions on issues like water are in direct opposition with those of Native Americans.
The tribes, however, have made it clear they’re not interested in that configuration amid concerns that adding those Flagstaff voters would make it more difficult for them to elect a legislator of their choice, as they have been able to do for the past few years. Commissioner Shereen Lerner, a Democrat, said their concerns make sense even though it is not a partisan thing.
“Part of why we did not want to put Flagstaff in with the Navajo Nation is actually what we’ve heard what might happen with (Democratic) primaries which is why we think they need to be separate and be placed into LD 7,” she said, the one with the White Mountain communities.
That question on the ability of tribal members to have a say in the biennial legislative elections, in turn, could raise legal issues as the Voting Rights Act prohibits changes in election laws and procedures — including district boundaries — that dilute minority voting strength.
Commissioners appear sensitive to potential legal challenges like this. In fact, they got a closed-door briefing from their attorneys on a lawsuit the U.S. Department of Justice just filed against Texas over the fact that the Republican-controlled legislature there, which draws the lines, found ways to make both of its two new congressional seats largely Anglo — and Republican — even though more than 95% of the population growth of the past decade is attributable to minorities.
But any lawsuits there or here may have a hurdle.
While federal law precludes drawing lines to discriminate against minorities, courts have not been willing to extend those protections when districts are crafted for partisan advantage. That means anyone challenging changes would have to show that the real reason for any changes are racial or ethnic and not for political reasons.
Mehl acknowledged that, at least for the past decade, the reservation has been in a district that includes the White Mountains. And Flagstaff, by contrast, was in a district with Sedona, Cottonwood and Camp Verde.
The result has generally been there are two state representatives and one senator from tribal lands. But Mehl said there’s nothing magic about that, saying the lines drawn 20 years ago created a different result.
“It’s my opinion, a pretty strong opinion, that the White Mountains are a better fit with the valley down through Payson and with the other district” than with the reservation, he said.
But it’s far beyond Payson, with that proposed district stretching as far as Florence and San Manuel and Oracle.
This isn’t Mehl’s first foray into redrawing lines with political implications.
He is the one who insisted on crafting a legislative district that runs from Marana around the far northern suburbs of Tucson to Tanque Verde and Vail. That would create a safe district for GOP candidates, compared with earlier proposals which would have combined the Marana area with Casas Adobes in what would have been a politically competitive district.