Putting the ‘independent’ in the Independent Redistricting Commission

By: - September 15, 2020 8:42 pm
arizona map redistricting

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The pool of applicants who are vying for a chance to serve as the all-important chair of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission includes a lot of people with no discernible ties to the political world, while others have backgrounds that might be red flags for the Democrats and Republicans who want the tiebreaker vote to be as neutral — or perhaps as friendly to their own interests — as possible.

Both parties have an effective veto over any prospective chair they oppose. The five-member redistricting panel consists of two Democrats and two Republicans, chosen by the leaders of each party in the state Senate and House of Representatives, and a fifth person, traditionally an independent, who serves as chair and represents the swing vote if the four partisan commissioners deadlock.

The Commission on Appellate Court Appointments is tasked with narrowing the list of 138 total applicants down to 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats and 5 independents. It will hold its first meeting to screen the applicants on Thursday. 

Doug Cole, who served on the commission when it vetted redistricting applicants in 2010, said the commissioners put a high premium on neutrality for the independent who will serve as the swing vote.

“The scrutiny over the independents that have applied is going to be immense this round. And I would imagine that both parties are researching everybody that has applied (as an) independent,” said Cole, a lobbyist with the firm HighGround.

Twenty years ago, when Arizona convened its first redistricting commission, Democrats accused Chairman Steve Lynn of favoring the Republicans. Ten years later, Chairwoman Colleen Mathis routinely sided with her Democratic colleagues on 3-2 votes. Republicans accused her of effectively being the commission’s third Democrat and GOP lawmakers impeached her, a move that the Arizona Supreme Court later overturned.

Now, partisans on both sides are poring over the applications of the 39 independents who are seeking to serve as the IRC’s chair. Candidates must list all of their political activities during the past decade on their applications, giving anyone looking for partisan leanings a good place to start. 

“I would assume that both sides are kind of looking at the political backgrounds of all the applicants, particularly the independents, seeing what kinds of connections they have to elected officials, what their campaign donation history is, what kinds of boards and commissions they’ve served on, those sorts of things,” said DJ Quinlan, a campaign consultant who led the Arizona Democratic Party’s redistricting efforts in 2011-12.

How independent are the independents?

Several candidates will likely be immediate non-starters for one party or the other due to their political backgrounds. Republicans view Leezie Kim, a former aide to Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, with suspicion, while Democrats are wary of Nick Dranias, an attorney who for years worked for the conservative Goldwater Institute. Applicant Thomas Loquvam served for years as general counsel to Pinnacle West, parent company of Arizona Public Service, which could be a potential black mark with commissioners due to the utility’s controversial election activities.

And some candidates may have other things in their political backgrounds that give pause to Democrats or Republicans.

This is the second time Lawrence Mohrweis has applied for the commission, though it’s his first time as an independent. In 2010, the retired Northern Arizona University professor applied as a Democrat and was among the party’s 10 finalists. He wrote in his application that Democratic leaders didn’t want him on the commission because he had no background in party politics and was viewed as too independent.

Morhweis told Arizona Mirror that he and his wife registered as Democrats when they moved to Arizona because you have to register with a party in order to vote in presidential preference elections. Now he’s an independent, though he acknowledged that his past as a Democrat could hurt his chances of being selected.

“That’s what my son told me. He said, ‘Dad, you have no chance whatsoever,’’” Mohrweis said. “The question I had was, do they look at real substance or not? There are aspects of my background that would be very favorable to Republicans and there’s aspects of my background that would probably be viewed as very favorable to Democrats.”

Dana Allmond serves on the veterans advisory council for Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, though she said she doesn’t think that will hurt her in the selection process. 

“Trying to help veterans is bipartisan,” Allmond said. 

Eric Gorsegner said he comes from a “Republican pedigree” in Wisconsin, going door-to-door with his father and grandfather for Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. And he’s worked for former Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza and former Corporation Commissioner Barry Wong, both Republicans. 

But Gorsegner said he doesn’t view himself as partisan. He contributes to campaigns often, giving money to both Democrats and Republicans. He recently served as the plaintiff in a lawsuit that knocked Republican Corporation Commissioner Boyd Dunn off the November ballot. His co-plaintiff was Chispa AZ, a progressive environmental advocacy organization, and they were represented by a prominent GOP attorney.

“I am a lifelong independent. I remember voting in my first election way long ago. I’ve never been compelled to join a political party,” Gorsegner said. 

Anders Lundin, a retired attorney in Fountain Hills, has spent the past two years working with the religious liberty section of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale-based Christian legal advocacy organization. That won’t endear him to Democrats, who are hostile to the organization due to its opposition to same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues. Chris Verrill, who runs a theater company in Flagstaff, founded Beijing for Bernie, a group promoting the 2016 presidential candidacy of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, which won’t earn him any friends on the Republican side of the aisle.

Follow the money

Campaign contribution histories shed a lot of light on the applicants’ political leanings. About two dozen of the applicants have given money to state-level or federal political campaigns over the past decade, ranging from a couple $5 contributions to help a candidate qualify for Clean Elections funding to copious amounts of contributions every election cycle.

Some candidates have been strictly partisan in their contribution history. Steven Neil has written plenty of checks to Republicans over the past decade, while Sarah Smallhouse has supported a plethora of Democrats, with an occasional contribution to Republican candidates.

Neil used to be involved in Republican politics, serving as a GOP precinct committeeman — an elected, voting member of a political party’s legislative district organization — and as an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2012. 

“After four years of that, I said, ‘No, I can’t. This isn’t my cup of tea. I’m going to go back to listening to both sides and trying to find some happy ground in between them,’” he said.

But Neil said Democrats need not worry about his past partisan activities.

“If they get a chance to interview me, they’ll find I’m very independently minded and going to listen to all sides,” he said.

Others, like Gorsegner, have been quite bipartisan with their checkbooks. 

Erika Neuberg, a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s national board, has made contributions to dozens of candidates all over the country throughout the years, both Democrats and Republicans.

Mignonne Hollis, a resident of Hereford in Cochise County, has contributed money to Republican lawmakers in her legislative district, a conservative stronghold in southeastern Arizona. In 2014, she gave to Democratic candidates David Garcia and Felecia Rotellini, who ran for superintendent of public instruction and attorney general, respectively, as well as to Scott Smith, a Republican candidate for governor.

Hollis is close with Rep. Gail Griffin and Sen. David Gowan, Republicans who represent her legislative district. She initially met them because her daughter goes to kindergarten with Gowan’s son and Griffin’s granddaughter. And part of her job as executive director of the Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation is to know her elected officials, she said.

She wrote in her application that she has a history of working with both Democrats and Republicans.

“That’s the way you get things done,” Hollis told the Mirror. “When you’re for a project or you’re for economic development, it doesn’t matter what party you’re on.”

Campaign finance records for former Flagstaff Mayor Chris Bavasi showed only one contribution at the state or federal level over the past 10 years — to Art Babbott, a Coconino County supervisor who’s running for state House of Representatives as an independent.

Who do you know?

Some of the applicants have ties to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. The governor appointed Steven Krenzel to the Industrial Commission and before that to the Housing Finance Authority, which has since been dissolved. Ducey also appointed applicant Michael Hammond to the State Transportation Board in 2015. 

And Alec Thomson works as Ducey’s director of strategic initiatives while also serving as executive director of the governor’s committee that promotes Census participation. Thomson has bipartisan credentials, however: He was chief of staff to former Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell, a Democrat. And he worked as a regional field organizer for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group that spent years fighting for same-sex marriage, where he aided several campaigns, including Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid for president.

At least two groups, and likely more, sought to encourage people to apply for the commission, including for the position of independent chair. All On The Line, a group created by former President Barack Obama and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and Fair Maps Arizona, founded by businessman Steve Gaynor, the GOP nominee for Arizona secretary of state in 2018, urged people to submit applicants. They are among a handful of partisan groups that are looking to play a role in the redistricting process.

The Arizona Mirror spoke to nearly two-thirds of the independent applicants, and most say they weren’t recruited in any way or otherwise encouraged by people in the political world to apply for the commission. 

Adam Anderson, Eric Fischer, Daniel Hatch, Michael Jensen and Neil received text messages, emails or phone calls from Gaynor’s group encouraging them to apply. Gorsegner said he learned of the opportunity from an email he received from All On The Line. 

Shawn Watt said he became interested when his wife, a registered Democrat, got an email — he believes it came from a Democratic group — inviting her to an informational session about redistricting. Both attended, and he decided it was right up his alley. As a former governing board member of the Litchfield Elementary School District, he said he’s used to listening to all sides to make the best possible decision, including when he helped the district change its boundaries. Watt said he has “a passion for being independent.”

The game is afoot already

Partisans can vet the candidates all they want, but the most important part of the process may already be over.

Nathan Sproul, a GOP consultant who served as executive director of the Arizona Republican Party during the 2001-02 redistricting, the first in which the state used an independent commission to draw district lines, said there’s little need for either side to vet the independent applicants. Both sides know which applicants they’ve put forward, and while there may be some effort expended to block the people they find particularly worrisome, Sproul said they’ll dedicate most of their energies toward advocating for their chosen candidates.

Some of those lobbying efforts could take the form of public testimony and written comments, Sproul said. Members of the public can speak about the candidates at Thursday’s meeting, while written comments were due at the end of Monday, though they likely won’t be available to the public until next week.

But the most important and influential part of the process will happen behind the scenes, he said, where Republican and Democratic partisans will work with allied appellate commissioners to lobby for their applicants.

If both the Democrats and Republicans aren’t working in the backrooms, Sproul said, “then they’re derelict in their duties, because both parties have a responsibility to try to elect as many legislators and congressional officials as they can.”

“If they aren’t working that behind the scenes, they’re not doing their job,” he said.

That scenario wouldn’t bode well for the Democrats, due to Ducey’s maneuverings. The governor appoints members of the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, and has kept Democratic representation at a minimum. For more than a year, the commission didn’t have a single Democratic member, though Ducey recently appointed three Democrats to go along with eight Republicans and four independents. 

Cole said it’s common for appellate commissioners to receive calls, emails and texts from partisans, including elected officials, lobbying for particular candidates, though he noted that the commission’s code of conduct forbids them from committing their votes. But Cole said the written and spoken comments from members of the public can be influential, as well.

“I think that the Democratic Party and its operatives did a fine job of recruiting candidates that were independents that lean their way,” Cole said of the 2010 application process. “That’s their right, just as it’s the right of the Republican Party to do the same.”

Quinlan said “there’s a certain amount of truth” to Sproul’s comment that both sides know who their hand-picked candidates are and will promote their candidacies. But he said it’s “a bit overstated” that the applicant pool, especially the independents, includes a lot of candidates recruited by the Democrats and Republicans.

Quinlan said the primary concern for Democrats when vetting the independent candidates will likely be trying to weed out applicants who could be biased toward the GOP.

“In my opinion, I would think that both sides are probably more concerned about any applicant that has too strong a tie to the other side,” he said.

Determining who might be good or bad for one side or the other isn’t necessarily a simple process. 

In 2011, Republicans mobilized to lobby against Paul Bender, an attorney and law professor who made the list of the five independents selected by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments. The GOP believed Bender’s liberal inclinations would result in maps that favored the Democrats, and poured its collective energy into ensuring he wasn’t selected as chairman.

Instead of Bender, the first four commissioners selected Mathis. The resulting maps outraged Republicans, who complained they were biased toward Democrats. Some Republicans have spent the better part of the past decade regretting that Bender didn’t get the nod instead.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”