Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission decided Wednesday to hire Strategic Telemetry, a Washington D.C.-based mapping firm, to serve as the group’s mapping consultant.
Much as it did last month when it chose attorneys, the panel split 3-2 on the decision to hire Strategic Telemetry, a firm that has strong ties to high-profile Democrats, including President Barack Obama. Independent Chair Colleen Mathis sided with the two Democratic commissioners. The two Republican commissioners jointly dissented, saying they would have chosen to hire the firm that served the previous commission, National Demographics Corporation.
The vote was taken after three hours of closed-door executive session discussion.
The panel’s two Republicans, Scott Freeman and Richard Stertz, joined with Republican observers in questioning the political leanings of Strategic Telemetry, which worked on the 2008 Obama presidential campaign and the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign. Additionally, the firm is currently working on the effort to recall Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
The firm’s principal, Ken Strasma, previously told the commission that he is a Democrat, but that his work requires him to deliver an unbiased product and that he intends to do so when drawing Arizona’s political lines.
Before the vote today, Freeman said he had a concerns that the selection of Strategic Telemetry could cause public perception problems, given their political ties, but said he hoped he would be proven wrong.
Several of the commissioners acknowledged that Strategic Telemetry provided a detailed bid proposal, and that it received high marks for its methodology and attention to detail.
Democratic Commissioner Linda McNulty said she also liked the way Strategic Telemetry proposed using social media and mobile phone technology to involve the public in the mapping process.
After the vote was taken, Mathis defended the choice she made to vote along with the two Democratic commissioners.
Hands shaking, she read from a prepared statement and explained that, as an independent, she represents the fastest growing segment of Arizona voter affiliation and must make decisions based on the information she is presented, not with preference to any particular partisan advantage.
Mathis said she understood that partisan connections had become the main focus of public comments surrounding the mapping consultants, and more broadly surrounding the entire redistricting process.
Mathis highlighted the fact that Strategic Telemetry has also worked for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who she characterized as the “best known independent in the country.”
“I’d also like to point out that Strategic Telemetry’s public input manager, who will attend mapping hearings and focus on all public input issues, is a Republican and former Texan who served in the White House as associate director of political affairs for George W. Bush,” she said.
Mathis also pointed out that the 2008 Obama campaign is recognized as one of the most technically sophisticated campaigns ever run, and that working with that campaign was not a negative in her mind.
Mathis said she made her decision based on who she thought had given the best proposal and who she thought would do the best work.
She urged the commission and the public to remain focused on their task at hand, which is to begin working on the maps.
The commission will meet again Thursday afternoon in Tucson. Its agenda includes the initial planning for public input meetings, as well as a briefing from the commission’s new mapping consultant.