Send in the Clowns

Don't bother, they're here. After a decade of voter-mandated reform, the Arizona Legislature is as out of touch as ever

Five years after voters took redistricting away from legislators, the commission is bogged down in litigation brought by Democrats outraged by a map that overwhelmingly favors Republicans. Legislative races are as single-sided as ever, with nearly half the Senate and almost a third of the House getting elected in November with no opposition.

Commissioners argue that their map is more competitive than most folks realize, and they point out the commission put several incumbents in the same districts, something legislators never would have done. But creating competitive districts was last on their agenda.

Part of the problem is the language of the voter-approved constitutional amendment, which calls for keeping intact city and town boundaries while also preserving "communities of interest," an amorphous term whose definition depends on the eye of the beholder. Districts are also supposed to be "geographically compact" and comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, designed to ensure minorities have a meaningful voice in political institutions. And competitiveness? "To the extent practicable, competitive districts should be favored where to do so would create no significant detriment to the other goals." In short, the fine print says competitive districts come last, not first.

"The way it's worded is very unclear," notes Andi Minkoff, a Democrat and the lone dissenting vote on the map that landed the commission in court. "The other four interpreted it differently than I did."

Minkoff says she voted for the redistricting initiative, but other key players didn't. Steve W. Lynn, the commission's chairman (who is an independent), says he voted against it. Lisa Hauser, co-counsel for the commission and a Republican party attorney, also says she didn't think the commission was a good idea.

Former state representative John Loredo, a Democrat who chose not to run for reelection after last year's session, points out that all but one of the commissioners were chosen by legislators. "They're an arm of biased elected officials," he says. "You've got all the local politics that used to be played out in the Legislature with 90 people. Now, it's shrunk down to five, but it's still the same politics. They could put it together if they wanted to, it's just about the interests behind it that are opposed."

Hauser is considered one of the best election-law experts in the state, and some commission critics accuse her of hijacking the process to benefit the GOP. Instead of focusing on what voters wanted when they took redistricting out of politicians' hands, skeptics say, she's used ambiguities in the law to weave arguments that competitiveness really isn't that important. "The problem is, they have Lisa Hauser, who happens to be the 800-pound gorilla in the room who controls the process," complains Senator Ken Cheuvront, a Democrat. "It's a joke. Unfortunately, we would have been better off under the old system."

Hauser insists her ties to the GOP haven't colored her advice to the commission. "I'm not an evil genius," she says. "I don't consider the parties to be my client in any way, shape or form." The commission also has a Democratic attorney, Jose Jesus Rivera. He didn't return phone calls from New Times.

Hauser concedes there isn't a single right answer to the redistricting riddle. "There's no one way to draw a map -- there's an infinite number of choices," she says. "It's very subjective. If you took five different commissioners, they'd draw five different maps, and they'd all be right. It's possible for any group of people or any person to draw more competitive districts if that's their primary goal and they don't pay a lot of attention to the other criteria."

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields ordered the commission back to the drawing board a year ago. Only three of the state's 30 districts were competitive, he ruled, and commissioners rejected maps that would have more than doubled that number. The judge's order was stayed by a state appeals court, which now has the case, and voters ended up losers last fall as the commission stuck by a map that right-wingers played to full advantage.

When the courts will reach a final decision is anyone's guess, but at least one thing is clear: The commission has spent more than $7 million in taxpayer money creating a map that looks an awful lot like what legislators would have come up with for free. And what was supposed to be an open process has become cloistered as the commission meets in executive sessions to plot legal strategy.

Anthony Sissons, a redistricting consultant who drew a map that created nine competitive districts on behalf of Flagstaff (which didn't like being in the same district as the Navajo Nation), has stood in the hallway during many of those closed-door meetings.

Sissons isn't a beginner -- he's drawn redistricting maps for several counties and school districts in Arizona and California. He also helped with Arizona legislative redistricting in 1990. But the commission isn't interested in his map, which Judge Fields said satisfied the voter-approved constitutional amendment.

"I get ignored a lot," Sissons says. "When redistricting starts, all of the attorney types know everything there is to know about redistricting because it's all about the law. And all the election official types know everything there is to know about redistricting because it's all about politics.

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