Maybe Gail Simmons and her neighbors in northeast Phoenix wouldn't have been so surprised--and so angry--if her city councilmember, Skip Rimsza, had just answered her question the way a pol might in, say, Chicago:
"Of course we're gonna draw up districts to keep ourselves in power, lady. Whaddaya think we are, stoopid?"
But that's not what Simmons was told about the new plan to redraw Phoenix's City Council districts, unveiled recently for public comment. "We were told this plan was about strengthening minority voters," Simmons says. "We were told it would build up the community and was not subject to political pressure. What a joke."
Simmons is among a growing number of critics who say the new plan, despite the flowery rhetoric of its designers, is mainly a recipe for fortifying current officeholders. "This is neither a terrific plan for minorities nor a plan to build leadership in the community," asserts veteran citizen activist Peter Martori. "It is a plan for consolidating power in the hands of the incumbents."
The proposed plan, devised by the Rose Institute of Claremont, California, would add two predominantly black precincts to Councilmember Calvin Goode's District 8 and eliminate overwhelmingly white Ahwatukee, which would become part of Linda Nadolski's District 6 in east Phoenix. But in order to connect Ahwatukee with District 6, precincts containing about 1,600 black voters would be taken away from Goode's district. Similarly, the proposed plan adds some Hispanic neighborhoods to incumbent Mary Rose Wilcox's west-side District 7, but leaves out more heavily Hispanic precincts to the east--among them the turf of Kay Torrez, a political rival of Wilcox's.
The escalating politicking about the new plan may even result in fights by councilmembers over renumbering the reshaped districts. That could affect whether some councilmembers will face their next election campaigns in two years or four years. Most of the talk so far, however, revolves around the new district boundaries.
Nowhere is the gerrymandering more blatant than in northeast Phoenix, where Skip Rimsza's proposed new District 1 fits his voter strongholds as snugly as a large hand inside a small glove. Most of the areas rocked by recent controversies, such as those involving nearby Scottsdale Airport and an unsuccessful amphitheatre proposal, would be excluded from his new district.
Overall, the Rose Institute plan would further divide school districts and urban villages, already badly chopped up by the existing district plan (done by the Rose Institute after Phoenix voters adopted a council-district system in 1982.)
Alan Heslop, a spokesman for the Rose Institute, tells New Times that his company's new plan respects those boundaries as much as possible, given the need to balance population among the districts.
"My reputation is on the line here," says a somewhat harried Heslop, who is taking steadily increasing heat at public hearings. "I've been doing this for twenty years and I believe deeply in what I'm doing. What we have developed is a unique process, which enables members of the public to participate fully in shaping the plan, which I would encourage you to do, and not to skate over its surface picking up political gossip.
"I challenge you, Miss Stanton, to find a better redistricting plan than the one going forward. If you had been involved in this as long as we have, you would appreciate how complex a process it is to design a balanced district system."
Actually, at least one such plan has been developed by a citizen. Working at home on his Apple computer, Peter Martori stayed up late one night last week and came up with a redistricting plan that creates minority voting districts as strong or stronger than those proposed by the Rose Institute.
Martori's plan carries no official weight--the City Council could choose to ignore it. But the Martori plan conforms more closely to existing urban-village and school-district boundaries than does the Rose plan. And it deviates from the ideal population number for each district by less than 1 percent.
About the only thing it doesn't do is protect incumbents. Indeed, Mary Rose Wilcox and Calvin Goode, representing Districts 7 and 8 respectively, would be in the same district.
"I wish Peter had consulted me when he was in the process of drawing this up," Goode says.
"I deliberately did not consult any of the council," Martori responds. "The purpose of my plan is to build the institutions from which future leaders can come, such as the urban villages and school districts."
Skip Rimsza, whose own voting stronghold would be cut in half by the Martori plan, contends he is not upset about his district, but that Martori has created a Hispanic district in South Phoenix that is so convoluted "it looks like a puppy dog."
"If someone at the city had come forward with the Martori plan, you'd be asking me why I created a puppy dog," Rimsza says.
By late last week, Simmons and most other neighborhood activists hadn't seen Martori's alternative plan. But they had plenty to say about the Rose Institute plan.
"Skip not only got rid of the neighborhoods that bug him the most, he's taken the nicest slice of the pie for himself," gripes Simmons, a leader of the North East Valley Citizens' Organization (NEVCO). "He's carved himself out a nice little area with high-income homes, the [Paradise Valley] village core, and no controversial issues on the horizon.
"We're being encouraged to come to public hearings on the plan, but Rimsza said there is no chance the proposed plan will be greatly changed."
Rimsza insists a geographical split was in the cards, because his rapidly growing district had become so much more populous than older areas of the city. "The only two choices were a north-south split or an east-west split," he says. "The east-west split didn't work because of problems on the west side, where Sunnyslope would've been split."
And Rimsza denies even knowing of the similarity between the configuration of the proposed district and the precincts where he ran strongest in the 1989 City Council primary. (Rimsza mustered 40 percent of the vote in the hard-fought primary and easily beat doomed incumbent Bill Parks in a run-off.)
"I've never even seen these [primary election] numbers before now," Rimsza says good-humoredly. "The only election figures I ever saw was for the run-off, and based on those, I think I would run well anywhere in District 1.
"The reason my district changed so much in shape is because we had to lose 55,000 people and this was the only way to do it, according to the consultant."
Rimsza claims he had minimal contact with the Rose Institute except for being interviewed along with other councilmembers early in the design process.
Heslop expresses outrage at the notion the new districts were arranged to suit incumbents.
"I deny that Skip Rimsza is the author of this plan or that he would prevent it from being changed," says Heslop. "You will do a signal disservice to the redistricting effort if you write a story suggesting there is a political agenda driving this process."
Heslop adds, "The citizen information packages we put out at the beginning of the process were directly designed to stimulate alternative plans. We've got a process that gives more room for involvement by the people than any other that I know of."
Heslop contends the proposed plan was guided by the need to balance population, strengthen minority voter representation and preserve community institutions. "And that is what it does," he says.
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Lately, however, Heslop has been getting a lot of guff on this point. After a relatively quiet unveiling, in which the plan received tepid applause from the City Council and the Phoenix dailies, reaction, particularly among neighborhood groups, has turned hostile.
City Councilmember Linda Nadolski, who was a neighborhood activist before winning a council seat in '87, says, "The whole idea behind districts was to strengthen people's sense of community, and this plan doesn't do that."
"We were told it would build up the community and was not subject to political pressure. What a joke."
"If someone at the city had come forward with the Martori plan," Rimsza says, "you'd be asking me why I created a puppy dog.