The four partisan members of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission will hold their first meeting on Thursday, and their first order of business will likely be the most important decision they’ll ever make: choosing a chair who will decide the shape of state politics for the next decade.
Five independents are vying to be chair of the redistricting commission. If the two Democrats and two Republicans whom legislative leaders have already appointed to the AIRC can’t agree, it’s the independent chair who serves as the tiebreaker. That gives the chair tremendous power to determine the contours of the legislative and congressional districts that Arizona will use for 10 years, starting with the 2022 election.
With that in mind, partisans on both sides have spent months trying to divine the political leanings of the five candidates for chair. The last round of redistricting in 2011, when Chairwoman Colleen Mathis routinely sided with her Democratic colleagues against the two Republican commissioners, is still fresh in many people’s minds as the AIRC prepares to choose her successor.
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. 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 numerous tech startups
- Robert Wilson, who owns a business consulting practice and gun store in Flagstaff
The meeting will begin at 11:15 a.m. on Thursday at the Secretary of State’s Office. Members of the public will be able to watch remotely.
Political insiders on both sides of the aisle aren’t sure what to expect or who to root for. There appears to be little consensus among either Democrats or Republicans as to who the best the candidate would be.
Democrats have already deemed two of the candidates as unacceptable, even filing a failed lawsuit aimed at removing them from the list of finalists.
Wilson has hosted events at his Flagstaff gun store for President Donald Trump’s campaign and other Republican candidates, and Democrats who have worked with him at nonprofit organizations claim he’s clearly biased toward the GOP. And Loquvam’s work for Pinnacle West, which ran multimillion-dollar campaigns against Democratic candidates for the Corporation Commission, has made him suspect in the party’s eyes. It doesn’t help that his sister, Jessica Pacheco, was in charge of Pinnacle West’s political activities at the time, even though his job was unrelated to that work.
Things are murkier when it comes to who Republicans might favor or oppose. Loquvam told the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, which selects the finalists for the AIRC, that he would focus on creating more competitive districts, which is largely a nonstarter with Republicans, who often view such efforts as an attempt to dilute their longstanding legislative majorities.
And Neuberg is viewed with skepticism by some in both partisan camps. As a national board member for AIPAC, she is a frequent contributor to political campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans. The Arizona Democratic Party has pointed out that she has given $3,700 to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, but she’s given many thousands to politicians of both parties.
Some have also expressed skepticism about Carollo, though not for reasons of suspected partisanship. Carollo wasn’t one of the original five finalists chosen by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, which passed her over, in part, because her interview left them wondering whether she had the fortitude to handle such a high-pressure position. The commission later chose her to replace another finalist who withdrew.
Unlike the other three candidates, Carollo and Teesdale have no deep ties to Arizona politics and are wild cards when it comes to redistricting.
Teesdale describes himself as someone who’s conservative on fiscal issues but progressive on social issues, a moderate who has voted across party lines regularly for many years.
“There’s a reason why I’m independent,” he told Arizona Mirror.
Teesdale said he’s heard that no one seems to know what to make of him politically.
“Certainly, I have the credentials to be a worthy candidate,” he said. “But if they’re looking for political leanings, I’ve heard nothing that either side deems me to be one or the other.”
Wilson questions whether there’s any such thing as a true independent. The likelihood of finding someone completely neutral with no biases toward one side or the other, he said, is virtually zero. Wilson declined to comment on his own political leanings, but said he’ll have no trouble putting them aside as chairman of the AIRC.
“I can clearly set aside my personal, individual preferences and instead place ahead those the needs and desires of the citizens of Arizona,” he said. “I absolutely can put aside my personal biases, whatever they may or may not be, and do what the citizens of Arizona want us to do.”
Wilson said many of the accusations leveled at him by critics who oppose his candidacy for redistricting chairman are false. And his business is open to any candidate of either party who wants to meet constituents and voters, though he acknowledged that most Democrats would be unlikely to hold a campaign event at a gun store. The candidates he hosted reached out to him, not the other way around, he said.
Those protestations are unlikely to soothe any Democratic nerves. His social media postings over the past few years are replete with frequent criticism of Democrats and liberal policies, including a number of posts critical of 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and another showing him holding a Trump sign in front of a campaign bus.
The AIRC chair is chosen by a majority vote of the four partisan commissioners, which means a commissioner can’t be chosen without the support of at least one commissioner from each side. So if the two Democratic commissioners, Shereen Lerner and Derrick Watchman, take into account the desires of the legislators who appointed them, then Wilson, along with Loquvam, seems almost certain to miss the cut on Thursday.
The four redistricting commissioners will interview the independent chair finalists at Thursday’s meetings. They’ll also be able to look back at their interviews with the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, which provide insight into their experience, personalities, temperament, management styles and, perhaps most importantly, their philosophy on redistricting, which will be of paramount importance once the mapmaking begins.
The appellate commission asked every candidate how they would balance two redistricting criteria from the Arizona Constitution: communities of interest — a catchall term for groupings of people with similar interests, needs or backgrounds — and competitiveness, which the constitution says must be considered, but only if it doesn’t harm the other criteria.
Nueberg told the commission that competitive districts are good and that she would strive toward political fairness, but “within the context of understanding of what our constitution lays out.” She said the Arizona Constitution lays out a “sequence of hierarchy” in its six redistricting criteria.
Teesdale questioned the last redistricting commission’s work in creating the 1st Congressional District, where he lives, a sprawling district that stretches from the northern Tucson area up to Arizona’s northern border with Utah.
But although he doesn’t think communities of interest were well served with the creation of CD1, Teesdale also acknowledged that there may be a good reason the district looks the way it does. He said he’s been studying Arizona’s congressional district maps going back to the 1950s in preparation for his possible selection.
“I don’t want to be dismissive of the group that went before, because when I’m sitting in their seat, I may go, ‘Yeah, I don’t see how you could’ve done it much different,’” Teesdale said. “I want to do better than they did before, if it’s me that’s doing it. But I certainly want to learn from what they did.”
David Mehl, one of the two Republican commissioners, said he hasn’t yet spoken with any of the independent candidates and looks forward to their interviews on Thursday. He said he’s fielded a few phone calls about the candidates — he declined to say from who — but has been subjected to surprisingly little lobbying about the selection of the independent chair.
“I would assume we’re all looking for the same thing, which would be someone who has leadership capability, has strong integrity, loves the state of Arizona and wants to follow the constitution on the requirements of redistricting,” Mehl said.
Watchman said he’s looking for a chair who is “fair and open to all ideas.”
“The next chair of the Independent Redistricting Commission obviously should have some foresight, be a collaborator, a consensus-builder,” said Watchman, a member of the Navajo Nation. “Understanding the diversity of our state I think is key.”
The redistricting commissioners don’t necessarily have to make their decision on Thursday. The Arizona Constitution gives them 15 days to make a decision. If they can’t agree within that time frame, the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments will choose the chair.