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Jim Pederson has a dream. He wants to make the Arizona Legislature safe for democracy.

That's a lofty goal for a man who's spent his career building shopping centers rather than political agendas. Then again, this is the guy who's bringing the In-N-Out Burger to Arizona.

Pederson is chairing the campaign for a statewide initiative called "Fair Districts, Fair Elections" -- Proposition 106 on the November 7 ballot. Right now, the Arizona Legislature has the power to redraw legislative and congressional districts. Proposition 106 would take that power away and give it to an independent commission.

The basic theory behind the initiative is that, under the current system, incumbent legislators put their personal interests like ensuring that they will still live in their own district, and ensuring their reelection by packing their district with their own party members ahead of creating compact districts. That creates funny-shaped districts and, critics say, a serious problem with representation. For instance: To achieve their personal goals, legislators sometimes split communities in two. The city of Casa Grande was split in the last redistricting, and the people there argue that they don't have a representative who is responsive to their concerns.

An independent commission would not consider voter registration or where an incumbent lives when drawing boundaries. The hope is that this would create districts that better represent communities rather than splitting them up. A predicted byproduct: Incumbents wouldn't be as safe at reelection time.

It's a once-in-a-decade chance at reform. Redistricting happens every 10 years when new census figures are released; the next redistricting will take place in 2001. So while Jim Pederson's developer cronies are wringing their hands and emptying their pockets to defeat the Sierra Club's proposed growth boundaries initiative on the fall ballot, Pederson is focusing on different boundaries -- legislative and congressional ones.

He is as committed to rehabbing the Arizona political process as he is to rehabbing his shopping malls. Pederson has turned over office space, half his time and almost $450,000 (and counting) to the Fair Districts, Fair Elections campaign.

Most of that money was donated in the form of a loan, but Pederson is having trouble getting it back. Word around town is that his pockets are deep, so why bother giving to a well-funded cause? Pederson keeps pouring money into the faltering campaign, which, its backers admit, has only a "modest amount in the bank" -- and a modest showing in the polls.

And early voting ballots will be in the mail by the end of this week.

There's no money for television ads; pro-106 radio ads began Wednesday, and a mailing went out to about 150,000 registered voters in Maricopa and Pima counties.

And more trouble is percolating; Republicans launched a "no" campaign this week.

Redistricting is a complicated concept with a simple goal: power. And no matter what either side tells you, the reality is that this battle pits Republicans against Democrats.

This is Jim Pederson's first real foray into politics since 1970, when he ran a U.S. Senate campaign for shopping mall mogul Sam Grossman, a Democrat. Grossman lost, and Pederson joined his business, then left in 1983 to start his own.

The Pederson Group survived the 1980s recession, rehabbing old malls all over the Valley and building the much-touted Promenade in north Scottsdale (soon to be home to the state's first In-N-Out Burger outlet).

Pederson is still a Democrat. And while the coalition that supports Fair Districts, Fair Elections includes high-profile moderate Republicans, it's hard to disguise the fact that this campaign is largely about the future of the Democratic Party in Arizona. The current redistricting system protects the status quo, and Arizona's status quo is solidly Republican: state House, Senate and governor. On the federal level, five out of Arizona's six congressional districts and both U.S. Senate seats belong to the GOP. Because the Republican-controlled legislature is now in charge of redistricting, it's in charge of the above largesse, along with the two additional congressional seats Arizona is getting this time around.

That is clearly the reason for the Republicans' "no" campaign on Prop. 106. In what may be the national GOP's first formal opposition to the idea of an independent redistricting commission, the Republican National Committee donated $75,000 to the cause.

RNC officials did not respond to New Times calls, but they desperately need to win the two new Arizona seats in Congress. And redistricting could help or hurt, depending on who draws the boundaries.

The state Republican Party has rounded up another $65,000 and is working on more, which should be easy with leadership from the likes of state Treasurer Carol Springer (campaign chair and a Republican) and support from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.

The "yes" campaign has drawn support from Greater Phoenix Leadership, firefighters and educators -- but fund raising has been slow.

Pederson claims he isn't worried. "I always anticipated opposition. Let's face it, there are a lot of people out there who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo."

What drew Jim Pederson to this esoteric issue?

Over a recent late-morning cup of lukewarm black coffee, Pederson said he and his wife, Roberta, having built their business and raised their kids, started looking around a while ago for a way to give back to the community.

"What do we do?" they asked themselves. "Do we support a charity? Do we support a foundation? We certainly are interested in education and kids and environmental issues, so what do we do?"

Then someone mentioned redistricting. A year and a half ago, Pederson sat down with former Attorney General Grant Woods, state Representative Susan Gerard (both Republicans) and state Senator George Cunningham (a Democrat) and mapped out an initiative campaign. Common Cause and the League of Women Voters joined up. Several other states have such commissions up and running, and it seemed a natural for Arizona, where voters have eagerly approved so-called reform measures such as term limits, open primaries and campaign finance reform.

If it passes, Pederson says, Proposition 106 will be a legacy for his great-grandchildren.

"It's not the type of thing where you're going to get a statue made of Jim Pederson and you get a big plaque on the wall or anything like that. But it's something that if it succeeds, it's going to give me a great, great deal of satisfaction," Pederson says, getting more excited than you'd expect of a graying fiftysomething in a button-down. His pale skin pinkens and his eyes mist.

"I mean, this thing has become so important to me that if we win, if we can bring about systemic change, if we can get a governing body that's really in tune with what most of the people in this state think -- I mean, the people in this state are so far ahead of their elected officials in terms of issues . . . ."

"Ahead" is in the eye of the beholder. But certainly the people in this state are not in step with their public officials. In the past decade, the state legislature has become increasingly irrelevant in the minds of the Arizona electorate, as the initiative process has taken hold as voters' preferred method of lawmaking. Largely against the legislature's wishes, Arizonans have said yes to medical marijuana (twice), yes to a tobacco tax and a state lottery and no to tort reform -- and even passed a ballot measure in 1998 prohibiting the legislature from messing with an initiative once the people have put it into law.

Again and again, polls show that voters don't agree with the legislature when it comes to key issues like education and the environment. And yet, instead of adopting a "throw the bums out" philosophy, Arizonans appear to have given up. Since 1992, 96 percent of Arizona incumbents seeking reelection have won. Party registration in this state is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, yet the Arizona Democratic Party hardly exists anymore. It's been years since the party fielded a serious candidate for the U.S. Senate; the Democrats have all but given up in Maricopa County. Voter turnout for all parties is low, public apathy is high -- and disgust is even higher.

Will a political face-lift in the form of independent redistricting really change Arizona that much? Even some of Proposition 106's biggest fans admit that districts drawn by an independent commission wouldn't likely look much different from those drawn by the legislature. Scrutiny by the federal government has eliminated the kind of outrageous "gerrymandering" you learned about in high school civics, and while districts still have odd shapes, now they're often drawn that way to meet U.S. Department of Justice racial guidelines set forth by the Voting Rights Act.

"I think people have to be clear," says Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano, a Democrat and supporter of Proposition 106 who served as counsel to the Democrats during the 1990 redistricting. "There are only so many ways, particularly for the congressional districts, that you can draw the lines. But some of the differences can be very important, and it should be done by folks who don't have their own vested interest at issue."

More than a dozen states already have redistricting commissions, although not all are completely independent; some require that the legislature or governor sign off on the final plan.

Washington state has a commission similar to the one proposed here. It's completely independent, established in 1980. Like Arizona's proposed commission, it has five members, two from each main party and a fifth from another party, chosen by the first four. (Arizona's five members would be chosen by legislative leaders from a pool of 25 candidates preselected by a judicial panel.)

Washington Secretary of State Ralph Monroe, a Republican, says it's worked "extremely well."

"From 1889 to 1980, our state didn't redistrict successfully once . . . . It was an absolute mess. And the independent commission has solved almost all of that."

But the Denver-based National Council of State Legislatures reports that redistricting plans by commissions have fared no better than legislative plans; they've been overturned by Justice and the courts in equal numbers.

GERRYMANDER: The term is derived from the name of Governor [Elbridge] Gerry, of Massachusetts, who, in 1811, signed a bill readjusting the representative districts so as to favor the Democrats and weaken the Federalists, although the last named party polled nearly two-thirds of the votes cast. A fancied resemblance of a map of the districts thus treated led [Gilbert] Stuart, the painter, to add a few lines with his pencil, and say to Mr. [Benjamin] Russell, editor of the Boston Centeniel, "That will do for a salamander." Russell glanced at it: "Salamander?" said he, "Call it a Gerrymander!" The epithet took at once and became a Federalist war-cry, the map caricature being published as a campaign document.

-- Political Americanisms, Charles Ledyard Norton, 1890

In the beginning, Democrats had the power.

"From whence we came is the radical past," says Louis Rhodes, a multigeneration Arizona native and former executive director of the state's ACLU chapter. "The joke at the Arizona state constitutional convention was that there were more socialists than Republicans."

For decades, legislators represented counties, not districts, a system that greatly favored the Democrats because of the way populations were concentrated in the state: Most of the Republicans lived in Maricopa County, and Democrats were spread across the rural counties. By 1962, the state had one of the most overpopulated and one of the most underpopulated legislative districts in the country.

In 1966, reapportionment and the creation of districts similar to those we have now (30 statewide, with two House representatives and one senator from each, with populations kept at least close to the same in each district) swept the Republicans into power.

And, in fact, the Republicans deserved control. "They were the majority," Rhodes acknowledges.

Rhodes credits the invention of air conditioning for the influx of Republicans. Whatever the reason, with a few exceptions, the GOP has dominated Arizona politics ever since, giving Republicans the edge when it's time to redistrict.

And it gives them the opportunity to redraw districts to suit their purposes. But the Republicans are not the only ones who have played this game in recent history. During redistricting in 1990, the Republicans controlled the House, but the Democrats controlled the Senate.

By that time, hard-core gerrymandering was a thing of the past, according to national political experts. That is because a series of court decisions and federal laws has brought a great deal of scrutiny to the redistricting process -- particularly to Arizona, one of 16 states under observation by the U.S. Department of Justice because of past violations of the Voting Rights Act. (Decades ago, Arizona required voters to pass a literacy exam.) Now all of Arizona's congressional and legislative redistricting plans must be cleared by Justice, and some districts must be what's called "majority-minority" -- they must contain a majority of ethnic minorities.

Trying to re-create what really happened with redistricting in 1990 in Arizona is like going on an archaeological dig. Memories are short, documentation nil. Stories conflict. But by all accounts -- from those who support Proposition 106 and those who are against it -- it was a mess.

With legislative infighting, court challenges and Justice Department scrutiny, Arizona's 1990 redistricting process stretched out over three years. The House and Senate never did agree on a congressional plan. In the end, a three-judge panel created Arizona's six congressional districts.

At the time, a number of legislators from both sides of the aisle came under fire for trying to manipulate boundaries to suit their own ambitions. Senate Majority Leader Alan Stephens, a Democrat, was the most blatant -- and his leadership role gave him extra clout in the process. Republican House members Stan Barnes and Bill Mundell were similarly criticized. When the courts redrew the boundaries, none had the district he wanted. And none wound up in Congress.

The legislature did set its own legislative districts; by and large that plan held up to federal and court scrutiny.

Alan Maguire, a Phoenix economist and former legislative staffer, served as a consultant to the Republicans during the 1990 redistricting, and later as special master to the court when the congressional plan went to the judges. He opposes Proposition 106, saying he thinks legislators know their districts better than anyone, and thus should be allowed to redraw their own boundaries. He readily admits that the process used then was designed to protect the existing power structure.

The foremost concern, Maguire says, was figuring out how to withstand a court challenge and federal scrutiny.

Then each legislator was allowed to draw his or her district. Susan Gerard recalls that a "war room" was set up in the basement of the House of Representatives, with huge maps on the walls. Each incumbent's home was marked with a red pin.

"There was one operating edict in 1990," Maguire says. "The agreement between the House and the Senate was that if one party controlled all three seats in a district, they got to draw the district . . . . In any case where there was a split, then the operating mandate was that the registration (proportions of Democrats and Republicans) remain as it had previously been."

The edict was stuck to "within one tenth of one percent," he says, adding, "I bet you that cost me 500 hours of my life."

Maguire won't talk about the nitty-gritty backroom negotiations that took place, and some former legislators say they don't recall such discussions at all.

David Schweikert, a Republican who represented north Scottsdale's District 28 in the House at the time and who does not support Proposition 106, says he doesn't recall any deal-making.

"If the Legislature was really that brilliant and Machiavellian, a whole lot more stuff would get done. Back then, we used to have trouble deciding where to go for lunch," he says.

But Schweikert's seatmate at the time, Republican Lisa Graham (now Lisa Graham Keegan, state superintendent of public instruction, and one of the chief backers of Proposition 106), had a much different experience.

In fact, she's able to point at District 28 on the current legislative map to make her point.

Graham Keegan says she was in a Republican House caucus meeting, where members were debating how lines should be drawn. There was much discussion over a man named Gary Giordano. Giordano, a former legislator who lived in New River, had indicated he would run for the legislature again, and Graham Keegan recalls that no one wanted him in their district.

"Everybody was fighting about who gets Gary in New River. I said, 'Oh, for God's sake, put him in 28.' So 28 went up around and caught New River," Graham Keegan recalls.

The list goes on. Sun City is divided among three legislative districts because senior citizens have high voter turnout and tend to vote Republican -- plus, they dilute the power of blue-collar voters who otherwise inhabit that section of metropolitan Phoenix. A Tucson district was redrawn to benefit Representative Marion Pickens, a Democrat. (She was reelected.)

State Senator Pete Rios -- who was Senate president at the time -- tells another tale. He received a visit one day, toward the end of the legislative redistricting process, from House Republican leaders. They came calling on behalf of Representative Roger Hooper, a Republican from District 6 in Pinal County. He had been redrawn into another district, which included parts of Holbrook and Show Low, and didn't want to deal with constituents so far north. Leadership wanted to put him in District 7, which was more similar to the former District 6. It was also Rios' district.

Initially, Rios refused. But he knew he would stall negotiations if he didn't give in.

"At the end, I said, 'Fine. We'll put him in Legislative District 7,'" Rios recalls. "They left, and came back a couple hours later and said, `We need another favor. Roger Hooper wants his parents in Legislative District 7, too.'"

And that is why, if you look at the District 7 map, there's a part off of Pinal Avenue in Casa Grande that juts out.

Did Hooper win?

"He got his butt whupped," Rios says, laughing.

Rios has taken his share of criticism for his own actions, as well. He says he didn't get what he wanted at all out of the 1990 redistricting, but observers say Rios reconfigured his own district to split Casa Grande in two and take out some of the "redneck" conservative (read: white) voters who wouldn't support him.

Rios is a strong supporter of Proposition 106. What a difference a decade -- and his party's loss of power -- makes. In 1992, after redrawing legislative boundaries, Rios told Phoenix Gazette columnist John Kolbe, ''It may be hard for you to believe . . . but incumbency is not something we were looking at.''

Last week, Rios told New Times, "Everybody, all 90 legislators, have a vested interest in how those lines are drawn. And every legislator, whether he or she admits it, has their own plan in their back pocket."

So will an Arizona commission make a difference? The consensus among local political activists: It can't hurt.

But can it pass? Doubt is mounting.

The people running Fair Districts, Fair Elections don't appear to be doing themselves any favors. If Pederson ran his development company the way he's running his campaign, he'd be out of business. The campaign is disorganized. No one's in charge. There's infighting. Consultants, activists and elected officials are packed into the campaign like clowns in a Volkswagen, and they've been spending their time squabbling over voice-mail messages and making up creative, insulting names for one another.

And now the "no" campaign, called "It's Not Fair" is up and running.

In the past, opponents of reforms such as Clean Elections, the public campaign finance system passed in 1998, have been afraid to show their faces. Who wants to oppose something with the word "clean" or "fair" in the title? So reforms have passed easily.

But with serious opposition, it might not take much to topple Proposition 106. Voters don't understand it. An Arizona Republic poll put support at 43 percent last month -- and that was before any opposition was launched. (The figures must have been disheartening to the Republic, which for years has made independent redistricting its political poster child -- both on its news and editorial pages. When support for the Citizen's Growth Management Initiative dropped to 62 percent -- still a very respectable showing -- the Republic screamed it on a Sunday front page. But a story about Proposition 106's dip to 43 percent was buried on Monday's A4 with the headline, "Voters Back Fair Districts Initiative.")

Even such cheerleading from the state's largest daily newspaper may not help. Further danger: Proposition 106 could fall victim to a crowded ballot. There's a record number of propositions on the November ballot, and many, like this one, are complex. Voters might skip over them, or vote no to be safe. Secretary of State Betsey Bayless has been traveling the state, hosting town halls to explain the propositions. Bayless, a Republican, is not taking a position on Proposition 106, but she cautions: "There's a lot less interest in that initiative than in many of the other initiatives out there."

But finding sincere arguments against Proposition 106 may be difficult. Nathan Sproul, executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, attacks Pederson.

"It's not fair that a multimillionaire developer can spend $350,000 of his own money to buy his way on the ballot," Sproul says.

Sproul also charges that the commission could be hijacked by special interests, that it will have a steep learning curve, that incumbents know their districts best, that 90 heads are better than five -- and that the one non-Republican/non-Democrat on the commission could wind up with all the power as the swing vote.

Republican legislator Susan Gerard, who was around for the last redistricting process, says her party is just trying to preserve its status.

"I don't see what kind of argument you would make in opposition," she says, "that wouldn't be transparent or hollow or make you look like a damn fool."

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