The state’s redistricting commission decided late Monday to revert to existing boundaries for legislative districts that cover much of the East Valley after an appeal from Republican leaders, including former House Speaker Jeff Groscost of Mesa.
Groscost told the commission that using districts that have existed since 2002 would prevent needless confusion for voters. But the move also appears to protect several incumbent Republican lawmakers from being forced to compete against one another.
The 4-1 vote came near the end of an all-day hearing at a Tempe hotel as the commission finished preparing district maps for submission to Maricopa County Superior Court. In January, the commission was ordered by Judge Kenneth Fields to create new maps that would increase the number of districts in which Republicans and Democrats are evenly matched.
While the commission has appealed that order, the agency started work in mid-February to create new districts so that it could meet a deadline for today set by Fields.
Maps proposed last week included changes to the boundaries of four districts that cover Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek.
During public testimony Monday morning, Groscost said changes to Districts 18 and 19 in Mesa would divide people who live in areas of common interest now set by "feeder" systems into Mesa High School and Mountain View High School.
Other changes to District 22 based in Gilbert would isolate some people living on the outskirts of that town and in Chandler, Groscost said.
He said new boundaries were unnecessary because they don’t improve the "competitiveness" of any East Valley district and Republican voters would continue to dominate.
"It looks like at some point, you realized that no matter how you sliced and diced those four districts, it’s probably going to look pretty much the same," said Groscost, who was elected the GOP chairman of District 18 in 2002. "Any demographic breakdown you give, you have a largely Anglo, very conservative, upper socioeconomic demographic. It’s not going to change much no matter how you slice it."
Groscost asked the commission to adopt a map offered by Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman.
Boundaries on that map closely follow the existing districts but were designed to work with new commission maps already under consideration, said commission member James Huntwork, a Phoenix Republican.
"If it’s simply going to be inconvenient to people (to change), why do it?" Huntwork said.
What Groscost didn’t mention is the Berman map appears to protect existing incumbent Republicans in those districts. In Mesa, last week’s proposal would have placed Reps. Russell Pearce and Gary Pierce in the same district with Sen. Mark Anderson, who had planned to seek a House seat this year.
The changes also would have put Rep. Warde Nichols of Chandler in the same district as Sen. Thayer Verschoor and Reps. Eddie Farnsworth and Andy Biggs, all of Gilbert.
Commission member Joshua Hall opposed substituting the Berman proposal.
"To adopt wholesale an outside map . . . at the 11th hour, it doesn’t pass the smell test," said Hall, a Democrat from St. Johns.
Monday’s vote didn’t affect new district boundaries that have been proposed for Scottsdale and the north East Valley.
One new district would be created to cover the city from roughly south of Pinnacle Peak Road and would include Fountain Hills. A second district would combine Scottsdale north of Pinnacle Peak Road with Cave Creek, Carefree, north Phoenix and rural areas south of New River.
The commission intended to file the proposed new maps with the court today.