10.31.11

Jan Brewer’s Sleazy Power Grab

Arizona’s hyperpartisan governor is trying to impeach her state’s redistricting board for trying to loosen Republicans’ grip on congressional seats. John Avlon on the unprecedented move.

This is low and cynical even by political standards.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is trying to impeach her state’s independent redistricting commission because it recommended political districts that do not disproportionately favor Republicans. 

Brewer’s actual charge is that the commission—composed of two Republicans, two Democrats, and one independent—tried to “elevate ‘competitiveness’ over other goals,” an outcome that is apparently now synonymous with “neglect of duty and gross misconduct” in her mind.

Brewer’s power grab is unprecedented, even in the long and sordid history of partisan gerrymandering—the collusive process that creates “safe” districts in which the party nominee is virtually assured of victory. In essence, it allows politicians to choose their voters, instead of vice versa. If you want to understand how Congress can have historically low approval ratings but still have an 85 percent reelection rate, the rigged system of redistricting helps explain the dynamic. That’s why voters in a growing number of states—including Arizona and, most recently, California—have rallied around ballot initiatives to create independent redistricting commissions.

According to the 2012 Almanac of American Politics, the voter-registration split in Arizona is 1.13 million Republicans, 1.01 million independent voters, and 1 million Democrats. But because the GOP has long dominated state governance, it has been able to retain a clear majority through the creation of safe seats, including two thirds of the state Senate and five of the eight congressional districts.

This year’s independent redistricting commission proposed increasing the number of competitive seats only slightly, giving the GOP an estimated 17 safe seats out of the 30 in the state legislature. “This isn’t anything more than Republicans trying to hold on to a majority in a state where they constitute less than a third of the voters,” explained former Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson.

“Whenever you take away the levers of power from the powers that be, they look for ways to subvert the process, but this is kind of nuts,” added Jeff Reichert, director of the documentary Gerrymandering. “It’s like a kid having a birthday party and getting all these presents, but then throwing a tantrum because they didn’t get a pony.”

The profile in cynicism is all the more pungent because Brewer invoked the language of independence and fairness in her effort to overturn those very virtues. 

Politicians try this crap because they believe they’ll get away with it.They are betting on voter apathy and distraction.

In a two-page letter outlining her case for impeachment, Brewer argued that the commission “has not satisfied its constitutional duty requiring it to conduct this vital electoral activity in an honest, independent and impartial fashion that upholds public confidence in the integrity of the redistricting process.”

To get a sense of the “integrity” of the process that Brewer is trying to preserve, take a look at the current Second District, presided over by Republican Trent Franks, perhaps best known in recent years for calling President Obama “an enemy of humanity” and saying that gay marriage “literally is a threat to our nation’s survival.” Brewer speaks of the importance of contiguous districts, but the current Second District is shaped like a sideways hairpiece with muttonchops, connected in its northernmost border by the stream at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

You can’t make this stuff up. With no sense of shame—or maybe just a really dark and cynical sense of humor—Brewer trots out a defense of the values she is trying to upend. This is the logical conclusion of the reflexive “fair and balanced” defense offer by Republicans since the rise of right-wing talk radio: only conscious bias in favor of conservatives can be called independent in ideologues’ eyes.

With Brewer officially throwing down the gauntlet of impeachment, we are in a jump-ball moment where it is unclear if her efforts will be successful. “It even caught her own party's legislative leadership off guard—the pressure seemed to come from the Republican congressional delegation,” former state legislator Ted Downing told me. “Now we are in uncharted waters—waters full of alligators and snakes." 

If there is a straight party-line vote in the state legislature, Republicans could conceivably impeach the commission and retain redistricting power at the cost of publicly admitting that they are shallow partisan hacks—a perception starkly at odds with the Western tradition of independence.

One gauge the Arizona politicos will be watching is the level of public outcry. Politicians try this crap because they believe they’ll get away with it. They are betting on voter apathy and distraction—people caring more about celebrity gossip, sports, and sex scandals than self-dealing efforts to rig the rules of our democracy. That’s precisely why you should give a damn even about redistricting lines on the other side of the country. If Brewer gets away with this power grab, it will suddenly appear on the menu of every other governor looking to artificially preserve his or her party’s hold on power, Republican or Democrat. It is nothing less than an attempt to hijack representative democracy. These are the stakes, and that’s why it's time to take a stand in Arizona.