Redistricting commission will give mapping consultants time to respond to comments, criticism

By: - April 27, 2021 4:39 pm
arizona map redistricting

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Before the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission chooses the mapping consultant that will help turn its proposed district boundaries into reality, it wants to give the three finalists an opportunity to respond to the criticism that’s been leveled at them.

All three finalists have partisan baggage that has animated Republicans and Democrats to oppose the firms they view as hostile to their interests.

The commission heard presentations from and conducted interviews with the three firms last week, and could have made a decision on which one to hire at its meeting Tuesday. Under the state’s procurement system, the five commissioners must give each of the three applicants a score based on a set of predetermined criteria, and that score guides their decision on who to hire. 

Instead, they decided to extend the official public comment period regarding mapping consultants through the end of Thursday, and the consulting firms will have until Monday to submit written responses. The commissioners will address the comments at their next meeting on Tuesday.

After discussing the mapping consultant situation in a closed executive session, independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg said they had two options. They could move forward with their scoring of the three applicants, or the AIRC could give them a chance to provide “clarifying information based on the volume and intensity of the public comments we’ve received”

“It sounds like the best sweet spot for us may be to provide these firms with an opportunity to respond to the complaints,” Neuberg said.

The three finalists to be the AIRC’s mapping consultants are:

  • HaystaqDNA, which is partly a successor agency to Strategic Telemetry, the mapping consultant for the last commission that drew Arizona’s current congressional and legislative districts in 2011. HaystaqDNA CEO Ken Strasma was the founder and president of Strategic Telemetry and Vice President Willie Desmond was its senior analyst.
  • Taylor English Decisions, LLC, is an Atlanta-based firm that specializes in government strategy, economic development and election and campaign compliance, which includes “extensive familiarity with redistricting,” according to its website.
  • Timmons Group is an engineering firm headquartered in Richmond, Va., with offices across the U.S., including in Phoenix, which provides services in the areas civil engineering, structural, environmental, electrical, geotechnical, GIS/ geospatial technology, landscape architecture and surveying services. The company is partnering in its proposal with National Demographics Corporation, which was the mapping consultant for Arizona’s first redistricting commission in 2001.

Last week’s presentations and interviews were held behind closed doors, in executive session, a requirement of Arizona’s procurement laws. The commissioners are barred from publicly discussing anything that occurs in executive session. Republican Commissioner David Mehl said all three firms interviewed well and provided a lot of details.

“I’m sorry the public was not able to observe that,” he said.

The commission has received dozens of comments regarding the firms through the public comment periods during its weekly meetings, and has received many more submitted by members of the public through its website.

Democrats have mobilized against Timmons Group and, to a lesser degree, Taylor English Decisions.

Opposition to the Timmons Group largely revolves around its partnership with National Demographics Corporation, which served as the mapping consultant for Arizona’s first redistricting commission in 2001, and the company’s president, Doug Johnson. Democratic organizations and individuals objected to the company’s Republican ties and its history drawing maps that they allege disenfranchised Latino voters.

The U.S. Department of Justice rejected the legislative map that Arizona’s first redistricting commission drew with NDC’s help in 2001, saying the map did include enough districts that gave minority voters the opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice. At the time, Arizona was still subject to the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states and other jurisdictions with histories of discriminatory practices to receive federal pre-approval for changes to election and voting laws, which included redistricting plans.

Democrats also cited a number of other cases elsewhere in the country in which NDC and Johnson worked on redistricting plans that were later deemed by the courts to be gerrymandered or that denied representation to Latinos.

“Johnson and NDC have shown time and time again that they are willing and ready to draw and defend maps that give partisan advantage to Republicans and undercut the voting strength of communities of color,” Charlie Fisher, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, said in a press statement ahead of last week’s interviews at the AIRC. “The numerous court cases in which their maps have been rejected and Johnson’s work has been discredited should immediately disqualify this firm for the role of Arizona’s mapping consultant.”

Johnson declined to comment on the Democratic opposition to his firm.

Some also questioned the credentials and Republican affiliations of Taylor English Decisions. In addition to questioning the firm’s lack of experience in redistricting work, critics keyed in on CEO Earl Ehrhart, a former Republican lawmaker from Georgia. Commenters noted that he’s the former national chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is reviled by Democrats for its long history of drafting conservative and pro-corporate model legislation on a wide variety of issues that GOP lawmakers sponsor in statehouses across the country.

Critics also pointed to controversial comments and positions by Erhart defending the rights of male college students accused of rape, saying the men are often denied due process in “kangaroo courts” at university campuses, and criticizing cheerleaders who kneel for the national anthem. He has described critics as “men-haters” and “intolerant snowflakes.”

Erhart could not be reached for comment.

On the other side of the partisan divide, Republicans are rallying against HaystaqDNA, whose CEO and vice president were both part of Strategic Telemetry, the firm that served as the mapping consultant for the last redistricting commission. 

In 2011, Strategic Telemetry had recently worked for Barack Obama’s campaign, specialized in microtargeting for Democratic campaigns and had little experience in redistricting. Republicans were already deeply suspicious of the AIRC after independent Chairwoman Colleen Mathis and the two Democratic commissioners voted together to choose both Democratic and Republican legal counsel, over the objections of the two GOP commissioners. 

The legal counsel fight opened a deep partisan schism with the three-person bloc of Mathis and the Democrats on one side and the two Republicans on the other side. When the commission selected Strategic Telemetry, again with the Republicans losing a 3-2 vote, it triggered a firestorm of GOP criticism and marked a point-of-no-return between the two factions on the AIRC.

Republicans are now wary of choosing what they view as Strategic Telemetry’s successor in HaystaqDNA, and some GOP lawmakers have urged people to voice their concerns to the commission.

Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, called HaystaqDNA a “spinoff” of Strategic Telemetry.

“They are nothing more than a campaign machine, referring to themselves as the Democrat’s ‘secret weapon,’” Townsend posted on Facebook. “It is wholly inappropriate to hire a firm that has ties to such a partisan organization.”

HaystaqDNA CEO and co-founder Ken Strasma, who is also the founder and president of Strategic Telemetry, told the Arizona Mirror that the firm is “tripartisan,” with Democrats, Republicans and independents. 

“On the question of sort of partisan attacks on Haystaq, I’d say what I did 10 years ago: that it’s either not true or not news,” he said. 

Strasma said the firm has meticulously documented all political contributions and other activities by members of his team and sought to dispel concerns about partisanship by adopting “radical transparency.” He said HaystaqDNA has partnered with a California company, Q2 Data & Research, which he said has a lot of experience with independent redistricting commissions.  And he noted that the legislative and congressional maps that Strategic Telemetry drew for Arizona 10 years ago were completed on time, received Justice Department preclearance on their first attempt and withstood multiple lawsuits.

Other redistricting news

At its Tuesday meeting, the commission authorized Executive Director Brian Schmitt to post job openings for two positions — an information technology officer and a deputy director who will also serve as a public records manager. The commissioners also plan to hire a public information officer and a community outreach coordinator.

Last week, the AIRC hired its second full-time staffer when it approved Schmitt’s selection of Valerie Neumann as the commission’s executive assistant. Neumann has served as executive assistant to the U.S. attorney for Arizona for nearly two years, and held the same position for Arizona’s chief deputy attorney general for six years before that.

Neuberg said the commission is also considering hiring expert witnesses who can provide expertise on the Voting Rights Act — though Arizona is no longer bound by preclearance, it still must follow other provisions of the landmark 1965 civil rights law — as well as experts like statisticians and historians.

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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.”