Former Navajo gaming official is fourth redistricting commissioner

By: - November 5, 2020 10:23 am
arizona map redistricting

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The four partisan members of the next Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission are set after Senate Minority Leader David Bradley chose Derrick Watchman, the former head of Navajo Nation’s gaming operations who now runs a banking and finance advisory company, as the panel’s second Democrat.

Watchman joins Republicans David Mehl, a Tucson developer, and Douglas York, who owns a Phoenix-based landscaping and irrigation supply company, and Democrat Shereen Lerner, an anthropology and archaeology professor at Mesa Community College, on the next AIRC, which will draw the legislative and congressional districts that Arizona will use for the next decade.

Bradley, D-Tucson, cited Watchman’s 35 years of professional experience in tribal government, economic development and business as qualifications that will serve him well on the IRC.

“We believe his experience as a leader in the business community gives him the consensus building skills that will make him successful in this very important role,” Bradley said in a press release.

The four partisan members will select one of five independents as the redistricting commission’s fifth and final member, who will serve as the panel’s chair.

Watchman was one of the only unanimous selections when the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments vetted applicants for the redistricting commission. The nominating panel was impressed with his interview, with Commissioner Tracy Munsil saying he “exude(s) confidence and knowledge.”

In his interview with the appellate commission, Watchman touted his background in the business, tribal and nonprofit worlds.

Watchman served as chief of staff to former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah, and later ran the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, where he led the opening of four casinos that created 2,000 jobs. Prior to joining Zah’s office, he served as director of Indian affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Watchman has extensive experience in the banking world, working as a senior executive in JP Morgan Chase Bank’s Native American banking group, as a commercial loan officer at Wells Fargo and as an investment manager at Prudential Capital Corporation. For the past three years, Watchman has run Sagebrush Hill Group LLC, a finance, banking, economic development and gaming advisory acquisition and development company based in Window Rock, where Watchman lives.

“I bring to the table a business focus. I bring to the table a balanced approach,” he said. “I’ve been a job creator. I’ve been a consensus builder.”

Watchman received his undergraduate degree from the University of Arizona and his MBA from the University of California, Berkeley.

When it comes to how he would conduct himself on the redistricting commission, Watchman said it’s important to try to not let politics get in the way, and said decisions should be made collaboratively and should be balanced, taking everyone’s interests into account.

“Yes, you’re going to have partisan issues and politics will get in the way,” Watchman told the appellate commission, but the IRC should be “looking at the best interests of the people and where they’re from and making sure there’s a balance.”

As a member of the Navajo Nation and a resident of Apache County, Watchman brings some racial and geographic diversity to the IRC, whose first three members are white residents of Maricopa and Pima counties. In a letter to Watchman, Bradley said his appointment “remedies the historical underrepresentation of Indigenous people in the redistricting process.”

“Arizona is deeply diverse, and Mr. Watchman’s time and experience on the Navajo Nation and traveling across our state provides him with a unique and vital perspective that will be an essential contribution to the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission,” Bradley said in his press release. “As a member of the Navajo Nation, Mr. Watchman is an important and essential addition to a commission where Indigenous perspectives and values have never been adequately represented.”

Throughout the selection process, Democrats repeatedly chided the appellate commission for the relatively low number of applicants of color selected for interviews or chose for the list of 25 finalists. Four of the 10 Democratic finalists were minorities, and after House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez selected Lerner with her pick, that left Watchman as the lone eligible non-white candidate for Bradley. 

The other three non-white Democratic applicants are from Maricopa County and were ineligible for Bradley’s pick due to the Arizona Constitution’s prohibition that no more than two of the four partisan members can live the same county.

Now that the four partisan members have been selected, they must choose someone from the five-person list of independent finalists to serve as chair. The five candidates are:

  • Megan Carollo, the owner of a luxury floral boutique in Scottsdale
  • Thomas Loquvam, general counsel and vice president of corporate services at the utility company EPCOR. He previously served as general counsel at Pinnacle West, the parent company of Arizona Public Service
  • Erika Schupak Neuberg, a psychologist with a practice in Scottsdale who serves as a national board member for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
  • Gregory Teesdale, an Oro Valley resident and former executive at venture capital companies
  • Robert Wilson, who owns a business consulting practice and gun store in Flagstaff

Democrats have raised objections to three of the independent finalists and are suing to remove two from the list. 

Bradley and Fernandez alleged in a lawsuit that Loquvam should be disqualified under a provision of the Arizona Constitution prohibiting anyone who’s been a registered paid lobbyist in the preceding three years from serving on the commission, and argue that Wilson’s recent history of hosting events for Donald Trump’s campaign at his gun store, as well as hosting Republican candidates for other offices, shows that he’s not truly an independent, though he does meet the constitution’s requirements to serve on the IRC as an independent.

A Maricopa County judge refused to halt the selection process while litigation moves forward, ruling that the Democratic lawmakers are unlikely to succeed.

The Arizona Democratic Party has also taken issue with Neuberg over $10,000 she contributed to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s campaign and political action committee, though she’s also given tens of thousands of dollars to many other candidates from both parties, including most Democratic and Republican members of Arizona’s congressional delegation.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs must now call a meeting for the four partisan commissioners to select a chair. The Arizona Constitution doesn’t specify when she must call that meeting, and it’s unclear if Hobbs, a Democrat, will wait until the lawsuit is decided before scheduling the meeting. Spokeswoman Murphy Hebert said the office has had some preliminary discussions about the meeting, but it’s likely that Hobbs won’t make any decisions until after vote counting from the Nov. 3 election is completed.

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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.”