Let the games begin.
The politically fraught task of redrawing political district lines based on the just-completed 2020 Census will preoccupy politicians for the next six months.
At the state level, the voter-created, Independent Redistricting Commission has already spurred both conflict — and hopeful signs of consensus.
As it happens, Apache County business leader and member of the Navajo Nation Derrick Watchman will play a key role as vice-chairman of the state redistricting commission. Arizona will likely gain a 10th congressional seat and the state legislature is narrowly controlled by the Republican Party — making this year’s redistricting a high-stakes exercise.
The process could have a big impact on Gila County, which is divided among three different state legislative districts. District 6, which includes all of northern Gila County, is one of the most competitive in the state — although it’s now represented by Republicans — Wendy Rogers in the Senate and Walt Blackman and Brenda Barton in the House.
The process has a couple of extra wrinkles this year. Previously, the federal government reviewed proposed district lines throughout Arizona due to court cases that had established a pattern of redistricting that limited the voting clout of minorities — particularly Hispanics and Native Americans.
However, a new U.S. Supreme Court decision essentially overturned the previous cases that required Justice Department review of district lines in states with a history of limiting the voting rights of minorities. For years, that included Arizona. As a result, this year the state’s redistricting won’t automatically have to satisfy the U.S. Justice Department. However, the new administration could change the rules to provide new oversight of the redistricting process generally.
The voters created the Independent Redistricting Commission in 2000, taking the task of drawing district lines away from whichever party controlled the legislature after a Census. The voters directed the commission to draw lines based on voting rights, population, geographic features, communities of interest, while also creating as many competitive districts as possible. The law set up a careful process for picking commission members. The state commission that reviews judicial nominees comes up with a list of candidates. Republican legislative leaders pick two Republicans from that list and Democratic leaders pick two Democrats. Those four commissioners then pick the chair from a separate list of independents also reviewed by the judicial commission.
The process worked pretty smoothly after the 2000 Census but spawned controversy and repeated lawsuits in 2010. The commission chairman often sided with the two Democrats and most important voted ended up 3-2. Then-Governor Jan Brewer tried to remove the commission chairman, but was blocked by the courts. Republicans then challenged the final maps, but once again lost in court.
The process this year got off to a wobbly start, when Democrats sued complaining Rep. Gov. Doug Ducey had stacked the screening commission, which they said picked overly partisan representatives in the pool of independents for the chairmanship. The court rejected the lawsuit.
However, the partisan bickering has abated — at least for now — with the unanimous vote by the four party commissioners to appoint independent Erika Schupak Neuberg as chair of the commission. A psychologist and life coach from Scottsdale, Neuberg has frequently contributed to both parties and has also lobbied for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — promoting pro-Israel policies.
She vowed to make the process as bipartisan as possible and Democrats welcomed her selection, despite earlier objections to her political contributions to Ducey.
Democrats were further reassured when the commission named Watchman the vice-chair — who had been appointed by Democratic legislative leaders.
Watchman has an MBA from UC Berkeley and 35 years of professional experience in tribal government, economic development, and business. He spent eight years in top positions in the Navajo tribal government, chaired the National Center for American Economic Development, served as a board member for the Arizona Rural Development Council and worked as a political appointee at the U.S. Department of Energy.
Senate Minority Leader David Bradley said of Watchman, “his experience as a leader in the business community gives him the consensus building skills that will make him successful in this very important role. Arizona is deeply diverse and Mr. Watchman’s time and experience on the Navajo Nation and traveling across our state provides him with a unique and vital perspective ... on a commission where indigenous perspectives and values have never been adequately represented.”
The Democratic appointees are Watchman, who lives in Window Rock, and Shereen Lerner, who lives in Tempe. The Republican appointees are David Mehl, of Tucson, and Douglas York, of Paradise Valley.