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Head Of Ariz. Redistricting Commission Fired


Arizona is one of a handful of states that hands the redistricting to an independent commission, instead of its legislature. At least that's what's supposed to happen. In a stunning move last night, though, the Arizona Senate and its governor ousted the head of the state's independent commission.

NPR's Ted Robbins joins us from our bureau in Tucson to explain. Good morning, Ted.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What exactly happened?

ROBBINS: Well Renee, in a sentence: Governor Jan Brewer invoked her constitutional authority to call the Senate into session, and Republicans -- who make up more than two-thirds of the Senate -- all voted to oust Colleen Mathis, the lone Independent on the commission.

MONTAGNE: Well, that sounds like a pretty dramatic move. And what was the controversy?

ROBBINS: Well, at its heart, it sure seems like politics. Republicans say there was misconduct which led to unfair district maps. Democrats say Republicans are just complaining that the maps give the Republicans a little bit less power than they now have. So, more about that in a minute. Let's step back and look at how this process works in Arizona.

Voters created an independent redistricting commission 11 years ago, to take the process out of the hands of incumbent legislators who have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. So the legislature appoints two Republicans and two Democrats to the commission, and those four commissioners choose a chair, who's supposed to be a registered Independent -- that was Colleen Mathis. It's a political process, and dozens of public meetings; there's bound to be some disagreement. But the Republican complaints about Mathis, they started almost as soon as she began, almost a year ago.

Her husband is a Democrat. She supposedly colluded with fellow commissioners to appoint a mapping firm which has Democratic ties. The state's Republican attorney general began an investigation, until he was removed for conflict of interest last week, by a judge. So finally the governor accused Mathis of neglect of duty and gross misconduct in office and the Senate voted to remove her.

MONTAGNE: Republicans said the congressional maps the commission drew up ignored legal mandates. Is that true?

ROBBINS: Well, the governor says that the proposed maps -- and keep in mind, the maps have not been adopted; they are proposed -- the governor said the maps don't respect the Justice Department guidelines. And Arizona is under the same mandate that Texas is. But the Justice Department makes that determination, ultimately, not the governor or the legislature.

What's more troublesome for Republicans is that the commission said, up front, that it wanted more competitive voting in Arizona. So now let's get back to the way things are. The state's registration is roughly a third Republican, a third Independent, and a third Democratic.

But every statewide office, and a supermajority in both the House and Senate in Arizona, are Republican. The new maps still give Republicans in the Arizona congressional delegation a four to two advantage and there are three competitive districts. They did force some incumbents to face each other, but Republicans still held most of the power, even under the new maps.

MONTAGNE: So what now?

ROBBINS: Well, the redistricting process in Arizona is now in chaos. I mean a panel, which chooses judicial candidates, now has 30 days to come up with three possible replacements for Colleen Mathis. Meanwhile, an attorney for Mathis has asked the Arizona Supreme Court to stop her removal. The biggest issue is -- well, if the redistricting process starts all over again, there's a real question whether Arizona will have new districts in time for next year's elections.

MONTAGNE: Ted, thank you very much.

ROBBINS: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ted Robbins speaking to us from Tucson, Arizona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Ted Robbins
As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.