Erika Neuberg is hoping her background, both professional and political, will serve her well as she embarks on a mission to reach maximum consensus on the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.
The commission’s first four members, two Republicans and two Democrats chosen by party leaders in each legislative chamber, selected Neuberg from among a list of five finalists to be the IRC’s independent chair. In that role, she’ll not only be one of five votes, but a potential tiebreaker who makes the call if her four colleagues disagree along partisan lines.
Her goal is to avoid that outcome to the furthest extent possible. She wants as many votes as possible to be unanimous. And she wants to avoid the 3-2 votes that marked the last redistricting commission, which was riven with partisan schisms and infighting.
“I can’t promise you. This is a herculean task. I don’t think anyone believes we can do this collegially,” she said.
Neuberg’s goal of finding consensus on the commission is obviously up to more than just her. For that to happen, her Democratic and Republican colleagues must agree with each other. If they can’t agree or won’t cooperate, there’s only so much she can do.
As a psychologist and life coach, Neuberg believes she has the professional tools and training to help forge consensus on the commission. Her political background as a national board member for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee will also serve her well, she said. The bipartisan organization works with both Democrats and Republicans to advance pro-Israel policy, and she touted her history of bringing people on the extreme left and extreme right together, both politicians and lay leaders.
“I go into this with eyes wide open,” Neuberg told the Arizona Mirror. “But I’m not sure Arizona’s ever had anybody with the type of experience of bringing such extremely different groups together before. It may be messy but I’m willing to give it a try.”
Neuberg acknowledged that much will also depend on her colleagues: Republicans David Mehl and Doug York, and Democrats Shereen Lerner and Derrick Watchman. She said she has a great deal of confidence in her new colleagues and that she believes they have the right experience and are in it for the right reasons. She urged the public to give them a little time to figure out their strengths and learn how they work together.
Politically, the stakes of the commission’s work couldn’t be higher. How the AIRC draws Arizona’s 30 legislative districts and 10 congressional districts — the state is widely expected to gain an extra congressional seat — will help determine which party controls the state legislature and Congress for the next decade.
As such, Democrats and Republicans pored over the résumés and backgrounds of the finalists for redistricting commission chair, trying to ferret out clues as to whether they’ll lean to the left or to the right. The last commission saw the independent chair and her two Democratic colleagues form a three-person bloc that routinely outvoted the two Republicans. Both sides are concerned they could end up on the losing side of a similar equation this time.
Neuberg is a former Republican who re-registered as an independent later in life. But she says people shouldn’t read much into her previous registration.
“Back when I identified with a party, I didn’t think it really communicated that much of a message. But now, in the last five-years-plus, it’s all about identity politics, as if a label implies something about what you believe or who you are as a person. And I felt the need to be an independent to reject everything about identity politics. I don’t fit in with any neat bloc or party,” she said.
When Neuberg uses the term “identity politics,” she said she doesn’t mean in the sense that Republicans often pejoratively use it to describe Democrats — as people who focus obsessively on identities such as race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Rather, she said she uses the term to describe political tribalism, or arbitrarily belonging to a team.
She turned to the world of sports for an example. Neuberg is a New York Giants fan, while her husband is a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. She likened “identity politics” to supporting a bad call on the field because it happened to favor the Giants.
Growing up with a politically engaged father who was also active with AIPAC, Neuberg got to know political figures such as former U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl. Arizona was more driven by right-of-center politics in her formative years, Neuberg said. But she said Democrats like former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords sat at her father’s table, as well.
“Even though I may have been registered with one party, I was always working both sides of the aisle. I wouldn’t look too much into that at all,” Neuberg said.
George Weisz, a longtime figure in Arizona politics who knows Neuberg through their joint work on pro-Israel policy, said the new redistricting commission chairwoman will be fair as she helps draw the next congressional and legislative districts.
“Because her trademark is dedication and hard work, along with common sense and simply a desire to serve our community, I think she will try to ensure that this constitutional process … is a fair and judicious one,” Weisz said. “I don’t think she’s going to favor anybody. I think she simply wants to serve our community and follow our constitutional process.”
Weisz, a Republican who has worked for political figures in both parties, described Neuberg as a good listener who’s research-oriented and committed to responsibility, accountability and transparency. Her political background will serve her well, he said, because it’s given her a deep understanding of the processes of government and how to ensure its integrity.
And Weisz is confident that Neuberg will be able to follow through on her goal of forging consensus on the redistricting commission. She strives to make sure everyone’s voice is heard and will take great steps to be as fair as possible, he said.
“I think the most important thing that a chair can do is to ensure that everyone is having input into that process and done in an appropriate manner. And that’s where I think she will excel,” Weisz said.
Neuberg’s selection was well received on both sides of the partisan aisle.
Democrats have been especially concerned about the process, given the way GOP Gov. Doug Ducey has loaded the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, which vets redistricting applicants and selects finalists, with Republicans and right-leaning independents. But many are optimistic, or at least cautiously so, about Neuberg.
Democrat Chad Campbell, a political consultant and former minority leader in the Arizona House of Representatives, said Neuberg seemed to be the best choice of the five finalists for independent chair.
Campbell said he’s spoken to people who know her, and they speak highly of her. He was impressed by her understanding of Arizona’s history and political dynamics. He also noted that her history of political contributions is bipartisan — she’s given propitiously to both Democrats and Republicans, a hallmark of AIPAC politics — which indicates she has the independence he wants to see in a chair.
“Hopefully she will kind of play that role moving forward, looking at things through a nonpartisan lens and helping navigate the land mines ahead, because we all know there are going to be plenty of them in this process,” Campbell said.
Republicans, who still resent what they view as Democratic hijacking of the last commission, are also optimistic about Neuberg.
Neuberg’s experience with AIPAC, a large organization with national and even global political pull, makes her adept in dealing with major issues and able to navigate difficult situations, while her professional background means she’s highly trained in reading people and looking for solutions, said Republican Doug Cole, a lobbyist and longtime advisor to former Gov. Jan Brewer.
Cole said he predicted Neuberg would get the nod from the other four commissioners after listening to her interview with the other four commissioners. Her interview made it clear that she has the leadership skills needed to direct the commission and help bring about consensus.
“Anybody who thinks there’s not going to be any conflict, I think is misguided. But I am optimistic that with … her apparent skill sets that this is going to be a change from the experience of 2011,” Cole said.
Campbell was a bit more skeptical that the new commission will be able to reach the unanimity Neuberg wants.
“It’s a noble goal. It’s not going to be realistic sometimes,” he said.