Arizona State Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs (R) speaks to Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission Chair Colleen Coyle Mathis on Wednesday, Dec 7, 2011, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Matt York

PHOENIX — The final division of the state’s nine congressional districts could come down to who gets to represent residents of Tucson’s northern suburbs and Cochise County.

At a meeting Thursday, members of the Independent Redistricting Commission were closing in on final plans for the nine districts. The two maps for discussion even shared common elements.

First, they keep together the communities of Marana, Saddlebrook, Catalina and Oro Valley. There had been some testimony from area residents that they have common interests.

Second, both maps eliminate any split of Cochise County.

But it how those changes are accomplished could create some last-minute hurdles to the commission’s goal of having final maps ready by Christmas.

A map prepared by Linda McNulty, one of the Democrats on the panel, encompasses all of Cochise County into a district that would be dominated by the east side of Tucson. That district also includes the Foothills area and Casas Adobes.

That pushes Marana and Oro Valley into a far-flung largely rural district that runs not only northwest all the way into Maricopa County but encompasses the entire eastern edge of the state, the Navajo and other reservations and all the way to the Grand Canyon.

There had been some testimony from area residents that the northern Pima and southern Pinal communities would have more in common with relatively nearby Tucson where many shop and work. But McNulty said they appear to be a better fit not only kept together with each other but paired with rural areas.

She cited testimony in September by Oro Valley resident Lynne St. Angelo who said that Casa Grande and points north, in Pinal County, were much more similar than Tucson to the south.

McNulty also said there is a political benefit to her plan: By having a district that dips into Pima County, It would give the Tucson metro area a third congressional representative.

Republican Richard Stertz also wants to keep those communities together, albeit in a different fashion.

His map, too, has Cochise County in a single district — but now part of the huge rural district stretching through the Navajo Reservation to Grand Canyon.

That shift, in turn, requires expanding the eastide Tucson district to include adding Oro Valley, Marana and Saddlebrook , stretching to Eloy.

Politics also is at play.

McNulty complained that Stertz’s map reduces the percentage of Democrats in what would be left in that eastside Tucson district, the one currently represented by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords. But Stertz said the change is minor, in the range of increasing the GOP edge by one percentage point from earlier proposals.

McNulty was unconvinced it did not matter.

“It’s one percent further from 50-50 than it was,’’ she said.

McNulty said the commission is going to create four congressional districts with solid Republican majorities and two where Democrats clearly have an edge. She said she will oppose anything that degrades the competitive nature of the remaining three.

Much of the final decision will depend on how the panel members define what are “communities of interest,’’ which the 2000 ballot measure creating the commission requires its members to protect to the extent possible. But there is no definition of what that means.

McNulty said she considers cultural and historical common factors.

“I think it’s our job to respect, to the extent practicable, ability of communities of interest to draw together and have their voices heard as communities with other voices in their district,’’ McNulty said.

Stertz said he wants districts where each member of Congress have areas of “commonalities of interest.’’ And he argued that Cochise County has more in common with rural parts of the state than it does with the Tucson area, including mining, ranching and tourism.

“Someone who has a clear understanding of all of those issues would make a great representative in Washington,’’ he said. Similarly, he said it makes sense to combine places with “the greatest area of expansion,’’ including northwest Tucson all the way up the Interstate 10 corridor.

“Somebody going back to Washington is going to have a clear and concise understanding of what those needs of his or her constituents are going to be,’’ Stertz said.

Republican Scott Freeman noted, however, federal law puts a limit on what the commission can do. He said the Voting Rights Act requires that two of the nine congressional districts be places where minorities have enough voting strength to elect someone of their choice. And that, he said, has meant altering the maps to ensure there are enough minorities in those two districts.

That issue of community of interest also is showing up in the commission’s efforts to divide up Maricopa County into legislative districts.

One of the issues deals with the Town of Guadalupe, whose population is made up largely of members of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Too small for its own district, it will have to become part of another.

The latest plan puts it in with parts of Tempe and Mesa. That has drawn fire from tribal members.

Luis Gonzales, a tribal council member, said residents have much more in common with the South Mountain area of Phoenix. That includes not only sharing a common Spanish language but also the community’s long-term link with South Mountain Community College.

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