First Democrat named to Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission

The selection by Rep. Charlene Fernandez came hours after a lawsuit she filed to stop the selections failed in court




arizona map redistricting
Photo by omersukrugoksu | iStock / Getty Images Plus

House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez has selected Shereen Lerner, an anthropology and archaeology professor at Mesa Community College, as the first Democratic member of the next Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

Lerner, a Tempe resident, has been civically active for years. She serves on Tempe’s census committee, parks and recreation commission, desert conservation commission and police advisory review board. She’s served as president of the Arizona Archaeological Council and Arizona Preservation Council and chaired Tempe’s historic preservation commission.

Prior to joining the faculty at Mesa Community College in 1992, Lerner worked as a historic preservation officer at Arizona State Parks. She received a Ph.D. from Arizona State University in 1984.

As an anthropologist and historic preservationist, Fernandez said Lerner “has a great sense of the history and of the people of Arizona, and she has built deep long-lasting relationships with diverse communities throughout the entire state that will serve her well.”

“Shereen Lerner was far and away the most qualified candidate we interviewed, and I’m proud to select her for this vital role in our state’s history,” Fernandez, D-Yuma, said in a press release on Thursday. “Redistricting is an intense and highly challenging process that requires a combination of intelligence, communication skills and strength of character to succeed. That is exactly what Dr. Lerner will bring to the Commission.”

Lerner said it was an honor to be appointed and that she looks forward to the work ahead.

“Creating fair and competitive legislative and Congressional districts that reflect Arizona’s diverse population and communities of interest is an incredible responsibility, and I will carry out those duties to the best of my abilities at all times,” she said in Fernandez’s press statement.

During her interview with the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, which vets redistricting candidates and selects finalists, Lerner said partisan interests are always a major component of redistricting, and that the difficulty of the process is figuring out how to get past that. She said she taught her students about voting issues, including redistricting, this semester, and spoke about the role partisanship has historically played in the process.

“I am a Democrat, but how do I go to the redistricting commission and say, ‘For the good of the state we need to put aside those partisan differences, and what can we do that’s best for our communities, best for the people of Arizona?’” Lerner said. “What I teach when I talk about voting is that we need to look to the future and what’s best for our country. The more we can put aside our partisan views, the better it’s going to be for all of us because we can actually find goals that we can agree on.”

Lerner said the commission should strive to draw competitive districts that reflect the political middle, where she said the majority of Americans are, while also balancing the needs of various communities. 

“They have their own interests and that needs to be taken into account,” Lerner said.

Lerner also said her work as an archaeologist gives her a lot of experience working with data and statistics, which she said would be useful as a redistricting commissioner.

Appellate Commissioner Linley Wilson was impressed by Lerner’s background as a historic preservation officer and archaeologist, and by her experience working with data. She called Lerner a pleasant person who would work well with others, but is passionate about redistricting and recognizes the uniqueness of Arizona’s communities of interest, which is one of six criteria the Arizona Constitution directs the AIRC to consider when drawing legislative and congressional districts.

The next pick goes to Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott. The Arizona Constitution gives her seven days to make her choice. Once she appoints a member, Senate Minority Leader David Bradley, D-Tucson, will have a week to choose someone.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers appointed Tucson developer David Mehl as the AIRC’s first member on Oct. 23. Thursday was the last day for Fernandez to make her selection.

The Commission on Appellate Court Appointments selected 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats and five independents as finalists for the next AIRC. Democratic and Republican leaders in each legislative chamber select the first four members, and those four commissioners choose a fifth person from the list of independents to serve as chair.

No more than two of the first four commissioners can be from the same county. Given that seven of the remaining nine Republicans are from Maricopa, there’s a high likelihood that Lerner will be the only Democrat from the state’s most populous county. Five of the remaining Democratic finalists are from outside Maricopa County.

Democrats have also put a high premium on diversity, accusing the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments of overlooking qualified non-white applicants. Lerner was one of six white Democratic finalists. Of the four non-white finalists, only one is from outside Maricopa County.

Eight of the 14 commissioners voted for Lerner to be on the list of Democratic finalists.

Fernandez had hoped to temporarily halt the selection process and give herself more time to announce her decision. She and Bradley filed a lawsuit last week alleging that two of the five independent finalists are ineligible to serve on the AIRC, and asked Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Janice Crawford to issue a temporary restraining order that would stop the clock  

The two Democratic leaders argued that Thomas Loquvam, an attorney who works for the utility company EPCOR, is disqualified under a provision of the Arizona Constitution prohibiting anyone who has been a “registered paid lobbyist” within three years from serving on the AIRC. Loquvam is registered to lobby on behalf of his employer at the Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, but not with the Secretary of State’s Office, where people must register to lobby the legislature.

Democrats are wary of Loquvam because of his previous employment with Pinnacle West, parent company of utility giant Arizona Public Service, which spent millions against Democratic candidates for the Corporation Commission in 2014 and 2016. They’ve also noted that Loquvam is the brother of Jessica Pacheco, the former APS lobbyist who quarterbacked the company’s campaign activities during those years.

They also sought to disqualify Robert Wilson, who owns a gun store and a business consulting firm in Flagstaff. They alleged that Wilson is not truly independent and is actually biased in favor of the GOP because he hosted an event for President Donald Trump’s campaign in the parking lot of his gun store, had hosted Republican candidates for other offices, and had voted in Republican primaries several times over the past decade.

The Arizona Constitution’s only criteria for someone to serve on the redistricting commission as an independent is that he or she be registered as an independent for at least three years prior to the appointment.

Just hours before the deadline for Fernandez to make her decision — legislative leaders forfeit their picks if they don’t make them within seven days — Crawford rejected the request to stop the clock, ruling that the Democratic lawmakers waited too long to bring their lawsuit and were unlikely to succeed anyway.

Crawford said Bradley and Fernandez’s position that Loquvam’s lobbying history disqualifies him may have some merit, but that she wouldn’t substitute her opinion for that of the appellate commission, which vetted him before naming him to the list of finalists. And she said she wasn’t convinced that Loquvam’s presence on the list would deprive either lawmaker of the ability to make their selections to the AIRC or to select another candidate whose place Loquvam might have taken.

Joseph Kanefield, who serves as chief deputy and chief of staff to Attorney General Mark Brnovich, argued on behalf of the appellate commission that the constitution’s ban on lobbyists serving on the AIRC was meant to bar people who lobbied the same lawmakers whose districts they would be drawing, a concern that doesn’t exist for the Corporation Commission, whose members are elected statewide.

Kanefield also noted that the legal definition of a paid, registered lobbyist in 2000, when voters approved the ballot measure that created the AIRC, applied strictly to those who lobby the legislature and state agencies. The Corporation Commission’s lobbyist registration system was created by an agency rule, and didn’t even exist in 2000.

As to Wilson, Crawford said it’s undisputed that he’s been registered as an independent for at least three years, and that the appellate commission was well aware of the allegations of bias. 

Jim Barton, an attorney representing Bradley and Fernandez, acknowledged during Thursday’s court hearing Wilson’s eligibility was a “more subtle question.” Kanefield said it’s irrelevant that Wilson has voted in Republican primaries, or that he voted in the Democratic primary this year — independents are free to vote in either primary — and that Bradley and Fernandez are free to take the allegations of bias against Wilson into consideration when they make their selections.

Crawford also said Bradley and Fernandez should have filed their suit before Bowers made the first pick to the commission. They had publicly opposed Loquvam and Wilson’s selection as finalists and were well aware of the issues that they raised in their lawsuit.