Arizona Senate ejects redistricting chair, throws map into chaos

Lawmakers in Arizona's Republican-controlled Senate voted Tuesday night to oust the head of Arizona's bipartisan redistricting commission, leaving the state's congressional map uncertain and prompting Democrats to turn to the courts for relief.

The state Senate voted 21-6 to approve Gov. Jan Brewer's (R-Ariz.) decision to boot Colleen Mathis, who chaired the commission, for what Brewer alleged was "substantial neglect of duty or gross misconduct in office."

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The unprecedented nature of the move made it impossible to predict where the chips would fall, but it appeared all but certain that the draft map released by the commission in October would be discarded, and work would start again to draft new maps.

Democrats immediately announced they were asking a state court for a temporary restraining order to halt the state Senate's action. They also vowed to make good on threats made earlier Tuesday to start the recall process against four GOP lawmakers who voted with Brewer.

Republican state Sens. Rich Crandall, Adam Driggs, Michele Reagan and John McComish are all targets for a recall attempt.

"These are the so-called 'moderates' in the state who, if they're going to side with Brewer on this, we're cutting them loose," said Andy Barr, a spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party. "We want them to know that there is a price to pay if they're going to do this."

Barr said the state Democratic Party would immediately file paperwork to establish recall committees, then work to secure the petitions and other steps needed to move forward with a recall.

The increasingly frantic twists in Arizona's redistricting saga came as Republicans were racing against the clock to thwart a map they see as unfairly benefiting Democrats before the state's independent redistricting commission sets the map in stone. That could have happened as soon as the end of the week, when the map's public comment period expires.

While the independent commission has put forth maps for both legislative and congressional districts, the congressional map has drawn particular scrutiny in light of opposition from GOP members of the U.S. House, who argue their districts have been unfairly redrawn.

Last week, Brewer shook her fist at the commission, threatening to ask the Republican-controlled Legislature to remove the bipartisan commission's Democratic members. State lawmakers were alerted Tuesday morning that Brewer intended to call a special session later in the day to vote to remove at least one member of the commission, according to a memo obtained by The Hill.

While the special session came at Brewer's behest, Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett formally declared the session, because Brewer was in New York on a book tour.

"I have determined that you have failed to conduct the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission's business in meetings open to the public, and failed to adjust the grid map as necessary to accomodate all of the goals set forth" in the Arizona Constitution, Bennett wrote to Mathis in his role as acting governor.

Brewer's office did not respond to messages seeking comment on Tuesday.

The draft map that the commission released in October shored up some Democratic seats and made some Republican seats more competitive. It also created a new tossup district that Democrats have a chance of winning.

Arizona is gaining one seat in the House due to population growth over the past decade. The creation of that new district led to a redrawing of the lines in the Phoenix area that pitted two Republican incumbents, Reps. Ben Quayle and David Schweikert, in a likely primary showdown.

Eyeing an opportunity to present the conflict as local interests versus the GOP establishment in Washington, Democrats have also pointed critically to reports that Schweikert, Quayle and other House Republicans have called state lawmakers to persuade them to vote to undermine the commission.

"He's spoken to a lot of legislators," said Chris Baker, Schweikert's campaign consultant. "In terms of encouraging people to go into a specific direction, mostly what he does is just let them know what he thinks."

Baker added that Brewer wouldn't call for the special session and allow the vote to go to the floor until she has been assured it will pass.

Republicans, including Brewer, have argued the commission went about the process in the wrong way by holding closed meetings and prioritizing competitiveness when drawing the map. They have also challenged the neutrality of map consultants hired by the commission.

Adding to the uncertainty surrounding the future of the commission's maps is that Arizona is entering uncharted territory by challenging the commission. Hoping to remove politics from the once-per-decade redistricting process, the state moved to an independent commission system in 2000 through a voter-approved amendment to the Arizona Constitution.

There has been little opportunity to test the system, and no precedent for what comes next now that the chair has been removed. Strategists in Arizona anticipate the state will start over with a new batch of commissioners, and that another unsuccessful attempt to reach consensus in time could result in the courts taking over the map-drawing process.

Meanwhile, Democrats are arguing that by trying to undermine the draft maps, Republicans — who control the governor's mansion and both chambers of the Legislature — are trying to inject politics back into the process.

They also charged Republicans with hypocrisy for claiming the commission violated open meeting rules, then holding their own deliberations in closed caucus meetings and voting to gut the commission's membership in a special session announced at the last minute.

"There's a lot of members who are upset, because Arizona's a big state and at best we would have 90 minutes notice, or even less than that," said Arizona state Rep. Daniel Patterson (D). "All I can say is, a lot of the public won't be represented."

This story was originally published at 5:10 p.m. and has been updated.


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