What a ride. Very bumpy. But satisfying.
That’s how the head of Gila County’s volunteer redistricting committee described the complicated, contentious and often confusing effort to redraw the district lines for the board of supervisors and the Gila Community College board.
“It became a political thing,” said Bob Sanchez, head of the citizen’s group that spent months coming up with new boundaries for the three supervisor seats and the five community college board seats. Sanchez made his remarks at a recent meeting of the Northern Gila County Democratic Club.
He also drew contrasts between the civil, citizen-driven, evenly balanced process in Gila County to the political carnage that has attended the work of an Independent Redistricting Committee, established by voters in 2000 to draw the boundaries for congressional seats and state legislative districts.
The voters approved the committee to take the line-drawing authority out of the hands of politicians. But after the committee’s preliminary maps upset many people, the Republican-dominated Legislature impeached the head of the committee. Giving vague reason, the state supreme court overturned that action and ordered the chairman restored to her position.
By contrast, despite the political overtones the bipartisan citizen’s committee evenly balanced between north and south worked harmoniously through the complicated process, said the former chairman.
Crash course for county committee
Sanchez said the volunteers on the committee spent months getting a crash course on things like “stacking, cracking and packing” of minority voters and the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.
The job also required the committee to hold public meetings throughout the county, from the distinctive world of the San Carlos Apache Reservation to the four-hour rattle along a waterboarded dirt road to Young.
“We had all kinds of meetings all over the county. I really enjoyed working on the committee,” he said.
In the end, the committee worked closely with hired consultants to craft maps that reflected the shift of population to the north in the past decade without violating the Justice Department’s rules on protecting the political clout of minority voters.
A version of a map submitted by the Tonto Apache Tribe ultimately won the support of the supervisors. It created a northern district centered on Payson, a southern district centered on Globe and a swing district that includes Star Valley and the Tonto Apache Tribe that wound up almost evenly balanced between north and south.
That relatively harmonious process contrasts sharply with the effort to come up with new congressional and state legislative boundaries.
The Independent Redistricting Committee several weeks ago released draft maps that spurred fierce political reaction.
The preliminary maps gave protecting minority voting rights and creating competitive districts a higher priority than keeping counties and towns intact.
Redistricting maps cut up Gila County
As a result, the proposed congressional map would cut Gila County in two. Payson would end up in a district dominated by cities along the Colorado River.
The proposed maps divided Gila County among three different state legislative districts. None of the state lawmakers who now represent Rim Country live in Payson, although Rep. Brenda Barton recently bought a home in Payson to establish residency here.
After statewide complaints about the actions of the redistricting committee and its refusal to open up its records, Gov. Jan Brewer with the support of the Legislature removed the redistricting committee chair from office for “gross misconduct.” That included hiring a consulting firm that had previously worked for Democratic clients and meeting to discuss key decisions behind closed doors.
The state supreme court unanimously overturned that action on the grounds that the governor had not demonstrated constitutional grounds for the removal.
By contrast, the local process moved steadily along, despite initial strains between north and south — which surfaced immediately in a standoff about the choice of a chairman. Sanchez proved an amiable consensus choice.
“In our first meeting, we didn’t do anything but argue back and forth,” said Sanchez. “Every vote was six to six.”
Everyone who was willing to serve as chairman then submitted a list of qualifications. “I had the least,” laughed Sanchez.
He said the county had gained only 2,000 residents in the past decade, which contrasts with the explosive growth of Arizona. However, south county actually lost population, which means district lines had to shift to the north to end up with equal populations.
He said the hearings to gather public reactions to the maps took him to every corner of the county.
He said the San Carlos Reservation “is a whole different world.” He recalled that a translator rendered all the comments into Apache. “I didn’t understand a word they said, but it was beautiful.”
But the road to Young is such a torture that “I don’t think I’ll ever go there again.” The committee “piggybacked” on a Miami Town Council meeting and he was surprised at the overflow crowd. On the other hand, only one person showed up for the meeting in Tonto Basin.
As the committee labored to master the complexities of the map-drawing software and the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, politics intruded from outside.
Key was Tonto Apache Tribe map
The key moment came when the Tonto Apache Tribe proposed a map that would shift 200 tribal members and a chunk of the surrounding area from district two to district three. The move would unify the Tonto and San Carlos Apaches, but would also turn district three from a mostly southern district into a balanced swing district.
“The Tonto Apache map did not qualify” under the terms of the Voting Rights Act, since it would slightly reduce the number of minority voters in District 3, said Sanchez. “But all of a sudden I read in the paper that Payson and Star Valley had both approved that map — and we hadn’t even seen it.”
Ultimately, the mapping consultants fine-tuned the Tonto Apache map to minimize the shift of minority voters. “There are only 230 people on the Tonto Reservation, so we didn’t mind.”
The county has submitted the proposed maps to the U.S. Justice Department, which will review all Arizona redistricting plans due to past concerns about lines that diluted minority voting rights in Pima and Maricopa Counties.
On the whole, the process proved more practical than political.
“Once we got away from that stigma of north versus south, it really worked out nice.”