A former staffer of Gov. Doug Ducey, a former chief of staff of the Arizona House Democrats and a former Independent Redistricting Commission employee are among the final list of five candidates vying to be the commission’s executive director.
The finalists include Kristina Gomez, who worked on IRC staffs in 2001 and 2011 and was liked by all commissioners except David Mehl, a Pima County Republican. Gomez was the deputy executive director from the 2011 redistricting cycle and she served in a community outreach role for the inaugural commission.
The five commissioners narrowed the field of 43 candidates down to five, who will interview in 30 minute intervals on March 16 beginning at 9:30 a.m.
The other candidates are: Trevor Abarzua, the Vice President of Business Attraction for California at the Arizona Commerce Authority and former Ducey staffer; Tom Augherton, executive director of the state massage board; Keely Varvel Hartsell, former House Democratic chief of staff; and Brian Schmitt, the chief of staff to Phoenix City Councilman Jim Waring.
Due to state law, candidates who apply to a state position can keep their names private until they are being “seriously considered” or are on a final list. The 43 people who applied for the position were all identified as numbers so the commissioners could discuss their applications at a March 9 meeting without identifying them. All five accepted their interviews, which allowed their names to be made public.
Abarzua received unanimous support for an interview, but was clearly better liked by the Republican commissioners and seemingly was Chairwoman Erika Neuberg’s top choice, based on Neuberg’s praise of his cover letter, communication skills and being a Flinn Brown fellow.
Mehl said he liked Abarzua’s “extensive background” working for a major government agency and that he has knowledge of Arizona’s Open Meetings law. Commissioner Shereen Lerner, a Democrat from Maricopa County, was reluctant at first because she did not view him as an “independent,” which isn’t a requirement but served as a criticism of his Republican ties.
However, Neuberg shot down that notion of trying to find someone who is nonpartisan.
“We need the most competent person who can transcend any kind of partisan issues,” she said.
Neither Neuberg nor Republican Commissioner Douglas York, from Maricopa County, supported Augherton for an interview. Neuberg said she didn’t feel like he was ready for the job.
“I saw some real potential in [Augherton],” she said, adding, “I didn’t feel [he] was as ready to hit the ground running as the other candidates.”
York said he was concerned about Augherton’s many job changes over the past decade.
The Democrats liked Gomez’s experience, given that she knows how the IRC process works, and Neuberg agreed. York was concerned that last cycle’s IRC was not “flawless,” but still voted for Gomez to be interviewed.
Hartsell was seen as too partisan for Mehl, but both Democrats liked her experience in state and county government. Neuberg also liked Hartsell saying, “I personally was very attracted to this person’s significant experience with the state Legislature [and her] willingness to work all across the aisle.”
Mehl thought Schmitt was one of the “stronger candidates” and liked his communication skills. York called him “seasoned” and Neuberg thought he was pragmatic. Schmitt’s application didn’t warrant much discussion in the meeting, but he still received unanimous support for an interview.
Hartsell did not receive support from Republicans; and both Democrats voted for all five finalists.
Picking an executive director will not only be the first major decision the commission will make, but it’s likely to be the first decision that could peel behind the curtain of the partisan history the commission tries to avoid.
Neuberg also addressed the latest Census Bureau data delay that will put the commission in a time crunch waiting for pertinent information for map drawing until the end of September. Neuberg said she met with the state Elections Director Bo Dul last week to discuss the 2022 election calendar to figure out a game plan and set a tentative deadline for submitting the final maps. Arizona is widely expected to pick up a 10th congressional district.
Neuberg said she wants to aim to send the Secretary of State the maps by January 2, 2022, if feasible. The first key deadline on the election calendar is April 4, 2022 when candidates who want to seek office must submit their nomination petition sheets.
A bill moving through the Legislature from Chandler Republican Sen. J.D. Mesnard, would allow candidates to begin collecting signatures as soon as possible based on the current lines despite what new legislative and congressional lines may look like over the next decade. It would allow more time and pressure for office seekers to get their affairs in order. There’s an emergency clause attached, so it needs two-thirds vote in both chambers and it already passed the Senate and the House Government and Elections committee both unanimously.