Let the games begin.

The politically fraught task of redrawing political district lines based on the just-completed 2020 Census will preoccupy politicians for the next six months — from Navajo County to the halls of the Legislature.

The Navajo County Board of Supervisors kicked the process into gear on Tuesday by hiring a consulting firm to redraw the boundaries of the five supervisor seats.

At the state level, the voter-created, Independent Redistricting Commission has already spurred both conflict — and hopeful signs of consensus.

As it happens, Apache County business leader and member of the Navajo Nation Derrick Watchman will play a key role as vice chairman of the state redistricting commission. Arizona will likely gain a 10th Congressional seat and the state legislature is narrowly controlled by the Republican Party — making this year’s redistricting a high-stakes exercise.

The Navajo County Supervisors contracted with former Justice Department attorney Bruce Adelson’s consulting firm, Federal Compliance Consultant LLC to draw up recommended district lines. The contract calls for payment of somewhere between $60,000 and $100,000, depending on how much work Adelson performs.

The supervisors also learned that the 2020 Census results are running late, with delivery of the detailed numbers and maps not expected before April 30. That will create a tight timetable for completing the redistricting prior to the 2022 election. The late completion of the Census will likely put a lot more pressure on the much more contentious state legislative and congressional mapping than on the much simpler Navajo County process.

Two of the five districts in Navajo County are dominated by the Navajo and Hopi reservations and almost always elect Democrats. One is dominated by the White Mountain Apache Reservation — and also generally elects a Democrat. Two are dominated by the White Mountain communities of Show Low, Snowflake and Pinetop and usually elected Republicans.

The process has a couple of extra wrinkles this year. Previously, the federal government reviewed proposed district lines throughout Arizona due to court cases that had established a pattern of redistricting that limited the voting cloud of minorities — particularly Hispanics and Native Americans.

However, a new US Supreme Court decision essentially overturned the previous cases that required Justice Department review of district lines in states with a history of limiting the voting rights of minorities. For years, that included Arizona but no longer. As a result, this year the state’s redistricting won’t automatically have to satisfy the US Justice Department. However, the new administration could change the rules to provide new oversight of the redistricting process generally.

The board cited that uncertainty in picking Adelson to once again help come up with maps that are “independent, depoliticized, and compliant with state and federal law.” Adelson previously reviewed redistricting plans for the Justice Department and helped the county come up with its maps in 2011 after the last census.

Jason Moore went over the process with the supervisors, which will likely include several town hall meetings to gain input and to go over the proposed maps — although the pandemic may complicate those plans.

“Mr. Adelson has a ton of Arizona experience. He’s really considered the gold standard here in Arizona – and hiring the consultant helps make the process a little more independent: You have someone on from the outside looking at it. If we should ever be challenged in the redistricting process, he’s the one who is really well placed to help us out.”

But the county process will be a breeze compared to the challenge of drawing district lines that create a 10th congressional seat and change the boundaries of most of the state senate and house seats, based on changes in population in the past decade.

The voters created the Independent Redistricting Commission in 2000, taking the task of drawing district lines away from whichever party controlled the legislature after a Census. The voters directed the commission to draw lines based on voting rights, population, geographic features, communities of interest while also creating as many competitive districts as possible. The law set up a careful process for picking commission members. The state commission that reviews judicial nominees comes up with a list of candidates. Republican legislative leaders pick two Republicans from that list and Democratic leaders pick two Democrats. Those four commissioners then pick the chairman, from a separate list of Independents also reviewed by the judicial commission.

The process worked pretty smoothly after the 2000 Census but spawned controversy and repeated lawsuits in 2010. The commission chairman often sided with the two Democrats and most important voted ended up 3-2. Then-Governor Jan Brewer tried to remove the commission chairman, but was blocked by the courts. Republicans then challenged the final maps, but once again lost in court.

The process this year got off to a wobbly start, when Democrats filed a lawsuit complaining Rep. Gov. Doug Ducey had stacked the screening commission, which they said picked overly partisan representatives for the Republicans. The court rejected the lawsuit.

However, the partisan bickering abated at least for now with the unanimous vote by the four party commissioners to appoint independent Erika Schupak Neuberg as chair of the commission. A psychologist and life coach from Scottsdale, Neuberg has frequently contributed to both parties and has also lobbied for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — promoting pro-Israel policies.

She vowed to make the process as bipartisan as possible. Democrats were further reassured when the commission named Watchman the vice chairman — who had been appointed by Democratic legislative leaders.

Watchman has an MBA from UC Berkeley and 35 years of professional experience in tribal government, economic development and business. He spent eight years in top positions in the Navajo Tribal government, chaired the National Center for American Economic Development, served as a board member for the Arizona Rural Development Council and worked as a political appointee at the US Department of Energy.

Senate Minority Leader said of Watchman, “his experience as a leader in the business community gives him the consensus building skills that will make him successful in this very important role. Arizona is deeply diverse and Mr. Watchman’s time and experience on the Navajo Nation and traveling across our state provides him with a unique and vital perspective…on a commission where Indigenous perspectives and values have never been adequately represented.”

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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