PHOENIX — Gov. Jan Brewer and Republican legislators on Tuesday ousted the head of the state's redistricting commission, throwing the high-stakes political process of drawing new congressional and legislative districts into disarray.
Secretary of State Ken Bennett, the acting governor while Brewer was out of state, called the Legislature into special session, with a brief agenda that included a required Senate vote on Brewer's removal of Colleen Mathis as the commission's chair.
The Senate vote was 21-6 and along party lines.
Brewer said in a statement she would "not sit idly by while Arizona's congressional and legislative boundaries are drawn in a fashion that is anything but constitutional and proper. Arizona voters must live with the new district maps for a decade."
Arizona voters in 2000 approved an initiative measure to create the commission and take redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and governor. Supporters said that would remove incumbents' self-interest as a redistricting factor and lead to creation of additional districts competitive between Republicans and Democrats.
With Mathis' removal, a new chair for the commission will have to be appointed. Under the redistricting law, a state judicial appointment panel would nominate three people for other redistricting commission members to consider for appointment.
The commission had met Monday evening in executive session, later directing its attorneys to take action that was discussed during the closed meeting. Spokesman Stuart Robinson declined to elaborate Tuesday.
Another unanswered question is whether the commission's draft congressional and legislative maps move forward toward possible changes and final approval by the commission, or are cast aside in favor of drawing new ones from scratch.
Mathis, the sole independent on the commission, has provided the swing vote on several key votes by the commission, including her siding with the two Democrats to approve the draft congressional map and on several key staff choices that drew criticism from Republicans on and off the commission.
Those choices included the selection as mapping consultants of Strategic Telemetry, a Washington-based firm that has done campaign work for President Barack Obama and other Democrats.
Mathis attorney Paul Charlton said her removal was "anything but a fair hearing. In fact we think she was railroaded."
Charlton said Mathis would fight the removal in court but that it was unclear what avenues were available after the Senate upheld Brewer's action.
The commission was unsuccessful in getting courts to act late Tuesday on its request for an order blocking removal of any commissioners.
Mathis previously denied wrongdoing and said she worked diligently to follow the Arizona Constitution's redistricting mandates.
Both legislative chambers on Tuesday also overwhelmingly approved a non-binding recommendation to the redistricting commission, calling its draft maps fundamentally flawed and recommending a restart to mapping.
Brewer was in New York for a Wednesday promotional appearance for her book that was released Tuesday. That made Bennett acting governor, and he issued the proclamation to call the Legislature into special session and sent Mathis the removal letter on behalf of Brewer.
Democratic legislators castigated Republicans for moving to remove Mathis. They also chastised Brewer for being absent from the state.
"She should be here rather than selling her book," said House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix.
The Mathis removal letter recapped charges that Brewer made in a letter last week to the full commission. She accused its members of neglect of duty and misconduct by not following constitutional processes and criteria for mapping.
The commission and individual commissioners had formally responded by a Monday deadline set by Brewer.
The commission, as well as Mathis and the two Democrats individually, denied wrongdoing and said the governor's criticism undermined the commission's independence.
However, the two Republicans commissioners' separate responses provided support for Brewer's criticism. They said the commission's draft maps didn't adequately comply with the constitutionally mandated criteria for mapping. Those include equal population, minority voting rights, competition between the parties, compactness and communities of interest.
Republicans previously said the draft congressional map favored Democrats, though Republicans appeared to hold solid edges in four U.S. House districts, versus two for Democrats and three being labeled competitive.
During the Senate vote, Republican Sen. Linda Gray of Glendale said Mathis worked only with the two Democratic commissioners and engineered the award of the mapping consultants contract "under the cloud of open meeting violations and alleged bid-rigging."
Democrats said Republicans had no basis for removing Mathis other than partisan politics.
"What we have here is a witch hunt ... with a pre-determined outcome. It is a disgrace. We get it — you don't like the maps," said Sen. David Schapira, D-Tempe.
Republicans defended their action to remove Mathis, noting that the Arizona Constitution permits the governor to remove a commissioner with consent of the Senate.
"We are doing what is constitutionally correct. When we see malfeasance, we replace it," Sen. Steve Smith said.
A special House-Senate committee reported Monday that the commission's mapping process was flawed and gave short shrift to other redistricting criteria, including creating districts that are compact and that respect communities of interest.
Democratic legislators boycotted the special committee's meetings, calling it a power grab aimed at preserving GOP incumbents' seats by pressuring the commission to not emphasize creating competitive districts.
Besides holding solid majorities in both legislative chambers, Republicans now control five of the state's eight U.S. House districts, up from three before the 2010 election.