Redistricting commission interviews chair candidates in first meeting

By: - January 14, 2021 9:49 pm
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The first and perhaps most important decision that the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission makes will have to wait.

After nearly three hours of interviews with the five finalists for the position of independent chair, the commission decided on Thursday to schedule another meeting next week to hopefully decide who to select. The commissioners said they wanted some time to contemplate the interviews and to pore over the more than 300 public comments they’ve received about the candidates.

The commission will meet again at 9 a.m. on Jan. 21. It has until Jan. 29 to make a decision. Otherwise, the choice will be made by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, which selected the finalists.

“I think we’ve got a consensus that we really want to read the public comments and we want to digest the interviews that we heard today. We’ve got very strong candidates we’re very thankful for,” said Commissioner David Mehl, who served as temporary chair during Thursday’s meeting.

The five independent chair candidates are:

  • Megan Carollo, the owner of Flower Bar, a luxury floral boutique in Scottsdale
  • Thomas Loquvam, general counsel and vice president of corporate services at the utility company EPCOR
  • 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 numerous tech startups
  • Robert Wilson, who owns a business consulting practice and gun store in Flagstaff

The AIRC is tasked with drawing the congressional and legislative districts that Arizona will use through the 2030 election.

The independent chair holds the key to the redistricting process, serving as a crucial tiebreaker if the two Democratic and two Republican members can’t come to an agreement. That dynamic characterized the last redistricting commission that drew the current maps in 2011, with Chairwoman Colleen Mathis routinely siding with her two Democratic colleagues on 3-2 votes, to the consternation of the Republican commissioners.

Neuberg said she wants to avoid such an outcome. Asked how she would define success as chairwoman of the commission — a question asked of all five candidates — she said, among other things, that she’ll consider the commission successful if it avoids “chronic 3-2 votes.”

“If I’m your chair, some 3-2 votes might be necessary, but if it’s always 3-2 — and especially if it’s always in one direction — that’s a warning sign. So, my success would be a robust majority,” she said.

Several of the finalists faced questions about potential conflicts of interest and political leanings, which partisans on both sides of the aisle have spent months trying to divine. 

Neuberg said she’s given money to many candidates of both parties, particularly members of Congress, due to her work with AIPAC, which promotes pro-Israel policy and strong ties between Israel and the U.S. She noted that she’s also given $3,700 to Gov. Doug Ducey, contributions that the Arizona Democratic Party has seized on in opposing her candidate, though she’s given to many Democrats as well.

She described herself as an honest broker, and said she’s heard that some Republicans, as well as Democrats, are wary of her candidacy.

Neuberg added that she disengaged from AIPAC and pro-Isreal policy after she decided to apply for the redistricting commission.

Teesdale said his political contributions lean more heavily toward Republicans than Democrats, but that he primarily gives to friends who are running for office. He cited three in particular, one Democrat and two Republicans, including Corporation Commissioner Lea Marquez Peterson. 

But when it comes to his own politics, Teesdale said he’s pretty solidly down the middle. He previously described himself to the Arizona Mirror as fiscally conservative and socially progressive.

“Tell me the issue and I’ll tell you which way I lean. And I think that’s the true definition of a moderate independent,” Teesdale said.

The Arizona Democratic Party has raised issues with four of the five finalists. Many Democrats view Loquvam as suspect because of his previous work as an attorney for Pinnacle West, the parent company of Arizona Public Service. His sister is Jessica Pacheco, a former Pinnacle West lobbyist who ran the utility company’s political activities at a time when it spent millions opposing Democratic candidates.

Loquvam addressed another issue raised by the Democratic Party, that Ducey’s political action committee paid him $5,000. He said he began calling friends and acquaintances when he started his own law practice, and that one of them, former Ducey aide Mike Liburdi, directed him to the governor’s PAC.

Wilson has generated the most Democratic opposition. He hosted President Donald Trump’s campaign bus for a campaign event last year, and has hosted other Republican candidates. In addition, he’s posted comments critical of Democratic politicians and policies on social media, and Flagstaff area Democrats who have worked closely with him describe him as strongly leaning toward the GOP.

Wilson has denied many of the allegations. As for the campaign events, he said he’s extended the offer to host events for Democratic candidates as well, though he said he hasn’t had any takers.

“As you can imagine, the Democrat party has a slightly different perspective of the Second Amendment than perhaps what a gun store owner might have,” said Wilson, who added that he respects those views and is even a member of the anti-gun violence group Moms Demand Action.

Another major focus during the interviews was the six criteria that the Arizona Constitution mandates that the IRC use for drawing maps, especially two that often generate disagreement and conflict: competitiveness, which the constitution says must be considered, but only if it doesn’t harm the other requirements, and respect for communities of interest, a broad term that can describe any grouping of people with a common backgrounds or concerns. 

Teesdale has questioned whether the last commission did enough to respect communities of interest, which he described as a vague term that can mean, among other things, groupings of people with similar ethnicities, religions or professions. He has cited the 1st Congressional District, where he lives, a sprawling expanse that stretches from the northern Tucson area to the northern border of the state.

But Teesdale also questioned whether the previous commission made enough competitive districts, noting that few Arizona congressional races over the past few elections are decided by less than 10 percentage points. 

“Our jobs as commissioners will be to create an environment where we have fair elections where everyone’s vote counts,” Teesdale said.

Neuberg took a different view, suggesting that the last AIRC focused on competitiveness to the detriment of other criteria. That echoes GOP complaints that the previous commission shortchanged Republicans by intentionally making some districts more competitive by making them less conservative.

“I think they did a good job creating maybe a few competitive districts, but it certainly came at the expense of those other principles,” she said.

Loquvam noted that the Arizona Constitution directs the commission to abide by most of the criteria “to the extent practicable,” which he said gives the IRC a lot of leeway.

The commissioners also probed the candidates on their strengths, weaknesses and qualifications for the position of independent chair.

Several of the candidates focused on the ways their professional backgrounds will aid them in chairing the commission, particularly when it comes to managing conflict and disagreement. Teesdale pointed to his experience pitching businesses to venture capital investors and managing big egos, Loquvam cited his experience handling complex litigation, and Carollo said her work in the wedding business have given her plenty of experience in that area.

“I’ve been in the wedding industry for a long while, and there’s a lot of conflict with families,” she said. “You have to mediate budgets and emotions, and ultimately you have to kind of find the common ground for everyone and keep everyone level-headed and focused on what’s really important.”

Carollo added that her previous work before she opened Flower Bar will help, too, calling herself a “numbers nerd” with extensive experience in statistics and data analysis.

If the start of Thursday’s meeting is any indication, the commissioners may have some trouble reaching a consensus on a chair. It took the commissioners four votes to select a temporary chair after Derrick Watchman nominated his fellow Democrat Shereen Lerner and Douglas York nominated his fellow Republican Mehl. After three 2-2 votes, with Hobbs abstaining, the four voted unanimously to have Mehl chair the commission until they name a permanent chair.

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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.”