Redistricting Commission chooses city council aide as executive director

By: - March 17, 2021 8:46 am
arizona redistricting

Image credit EzumeImages | iStock / Getty Images Plus

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission made its first staffing decision and saw its first notable partisan split, hiring Brian Schmitt, chief of staff to a Republican Phoenix City Council member.

Schmitt, who has spent nearly the past decade as chief of staff for Phoenix City Councilman Jim Waring, was selected on a 3-2 vote on Tuesday afternoon. Independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg joined Republican commissioners David Mehl and Doug York in voting to offer the position to Schmitt, while Democrats Shereen Lerner and Derrick Watchman opposed him.

“I know that this was hard. There were people of multiple perspectives. In terms of going back in the history of our state, with soliciting opinions from all sides with who could represent us from an honest perspective, as a staff member — not as a voting member who will have no say in the lines of the districts — I feel that, with the checks and balances, and the information that we received, I’m very comfortable with this choice,” Neuberg said after the vote.

Thus far, the commission has been staffed by personnel from the Arizona Department of Administration, while the Attorney General’s Office has provided legal counsel. Schmitt’s selection as executive director marks the AIRC’s first step toward becoming an independent and self-sustaining entity.

The commissioners put a high premium on experience in government as they vetted candidates. In his two interviews on Tuesday, Schmitt touted his years of work at Phoenix City Hall, experience that he said would serve him well as the commission’s executive director. 

Schmitt said he not only must work with nine city council members, who often have disparate views, but he frequently has to bring together diverse groups of stakeholders, various offices, city staff and others to sort out difficult issues. He said has extensive experience with procurement, an issue the commissioners will soon be dealing with extensively, as well as open meeting and public records laws — experience that the commissioners also cited as being important in an executive director. When constituents are having problems with the city’s planning department or water department, Schmitt said he has to help them sort out the issues.

“I’ve been in government for a while. I’m an expert at navigating through it. You guys shouldn’t have to worry about that. I should go and get all the answers, bring them back and let you all make the decisions,” he said.

Schmitt repeatedly emphasized that his role is to serve as a staffer, not a “sixth commissioner” who would have input on boundaries as the AIRC redraws Arizona’s congressional and legislative districts. In his work with Waring, Schmitt said he may not always agree with every decision the councilman makes, but his job is to carry out his wishes nonetheless.

“I … at the end of the day would be here to execute your vision. It’s the independent redistricting commission. I’m not a commissioner. I would just be here to help facilitate that process,” Schmitt said.

Mehl made it clear that Schmitt’s mindset is what he was looking for in an executive director.

“We are truly looking for a lead staff person who would minister and guide and work through the government issues and help us work with one another to maximize the reason that we’re all together as a commission, and not look for someone who wants to insert themselves into policy,” Mehl said while discussing Schmitt’s first interview.

Lerner was more skeptical of Schmitt’s background. She didn’t feel he had the level of experience the commission was looking for, especially in state government. Lerner also pressed Schmitt on the more partisan aspects of his background, particularly things that weren’t on his application and résumé.

Schmitt’s work for Waring is well established — he became the councilman’s chief of staff after running his 2011 campaign — and his work for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign was also on his résumé. But Lerner expressed concerns with campaign work he did last year that wasn’t disclosed on his application. Most notably, Schmitt organized an event for then-U.S. Sen. Martha McSally’s campaign in Prescott, for which he was paid more than $63,000, according to federal campaign finance records. He was also paid $231 for travel expenses by the Republican National Committee.

Schmitt described the work for McSally’s campaign as “kind of a one-off,” and said his résumé only lists his previous full-time employment. He has a background in event production, he said, and a friend asked him to help McSally. Schmitt noted that the event mimicked McCain’s end-of-the-campaign event on the steps of the Yavapai County courthouse, a tradition he continued from his predecessor Barry Goldwater.

“Friends have asked me for help before. I was willing to give them help,” Schmitt said.

Lerner later said she still had concerns that his work for McSally wasn’t on his résumé, but that she understood why he didn’t list it.

After the vote, Democratic officials and organizations criticized Schmitt’s selection. 

“Not a very good way to start the work of the Independent Redistricting Commission – hiring an Executive Director who worked for @MarthaMcSally,” state Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, tweeted.

Schmitt was one of five finalists, and the only one who was able to garner a majority vote of the commission. The others were:

  • Trevor Abarzua, the vice president for business attraction from southern California at the Arizona Commerce Authority and a former policy advisor to Gov. Doug Ducey
  • Tom Augherton, the executive director of the Arizona Board of Massage Therapy, former mayor of Cave Creek and chief of administration for Attorney General Grant Woods in the 1990s
  • Kristina Gomez, deputy executive director for the 2011 Independent Redistricting Commission and a community outreach staffer on the first AIRC in 2001
  • Keely Varvel Hartsell, a longtime aide to Democratic officials who spent the past four years as chief deputy recorder under former Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, previously served as chief of staff to the state House Democratic caucus, a former official in the Napolitano administration

Hartsell, whose partisan credentials made her suspect to Republicans, got the votes of Lerner and Neuberg, but fell short of a majority when fellow Democrat Watchman voted against her.

Gomez had the support of the commission’s Democrats, but was opposed by Neuberg and the two Republicans. York said she was by far the most experienced candidate based on her work with the first two redistricting commissions. But he worried about the appearances of hiring an executive director who was so closely connected to the fractious 2011 AIRC.

The last redistricting commission was marked by partisan infighting and frequent discord. Independent Chairwoman Colleen Mathis and the two Democratic commissioners routinely voted together against their GOP colleagues, and Republicans in general were deeply distrustful of the AIRC.

Neuberg said Gomez would do a good job, but reiterated concerns she’d aired in previous meetings that hiring her would make it more difficult for the current commission to forge its own path.

“I think that there are some limitations with that, because I think we all aspire to have some unique experience that is reflective of the five of us,” she said.

Augherton and Abarzua, whom York said was his favorite candidate, only got one vote apiece. 

The selection process hit a snag during the morning meeting due to technical difficulties. The AIRC has been meeting remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and live-streams its meetings on YouTube. But the commission and ADOA staff did not take into account the four-hour time limit on those livestreams, and the feed cut out while the commission was in executive session discussion of the first round of interviews.

That complicated the plans. Because the commissioners couldn’t come back into open session to narrow down the list to two finalists, as they had planned, and the Attorney General’s Office advised that they couldn’t select finalists during the afternoon meeting, the AIRC re-interviewed all five applicants.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. 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.”

MORE FROM AUTHOR