Erika Neuberg

Erika Neuberg speaks in front of a crowd at Congregation Beth Tefillah, her synagogue. Rabbi Pinchas Allouche leans against a wall in the background.

Erika Neuberg spent 25 years in private practice as a clinical psychologist before transitioning to a life-coaching practice three years ago. Over the course of her professional life she carefully honed her listening and negotiating skills. She now stands ready to use both as part of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

It’s been 10 years since the state’s congressional and legislative districts were drawn, and with new census figures being issued, Neuberg threw her hat in the ring to serve as the IRC’s independent chair. Along with two Republicans and two Democrats, she will draw new districts for the state determining how voters will be represented. She won her position with unanimous support, which could be a boon for her efforts in bridging the state’s political divide.

A political science major in college, Neuberg is also a student of history and recognizes that for democracy to thrive, voters need to feel secure that their voices will be heard. She is ready to foster consensus with her new colleagues as well as to listen closely to what the public has to add.

Neuberg spoke to Jewish News about what inspired her to get involved in the sometimes “full contact sport” of politics and how her background helps her to bring people together and find common ground.

Why did you want to be involved in this process?

Over the last few years I have become increasingly concerned about the tone and tenor of our public discourse. I see a rise in identity politics, a rise of a tribal mentality, and I see less productivity and civility on Capitol Hill. I’m somebody who takes action when there’s something that concerns me. I began to think a year ago of what I can do to help the country that I love and that affords me so many freedoms.

I have particular political expertise of bringing Republicans and Democrats together and the redistricting process could use somebody who is truly independent and beholden to nobody, somebody genuinely committed to the common good, somebody with the skill sets to be resilient and fight through what is oftentimes a challenging, tense and mistrustful process.

I talked with a couple of people to get their perspective about ways I can make a difference and I got positive feedback from both the left and the right. They recommended I put myself up for service to the state.

What in your background gives you the confidence you can do this?

My psychological background has led me to have the skills to bring different groups of people together.

And I also credit the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. I ended up getting involved in AIPAC in my very early 20s as a way to advocate for the US-Israel relationship that fit with my broader beliefs.

To help promote democracy and good things for the world, I spent over 30 years involved in AIPAC and pro-Israel politics — to some degree. It really trains people to stay laser-focused on a policy issue and to see things through a nonpartisan or bipartisan lens. It’s the combination of my psychological background and my experience with AIPAC that helps me work with everybody.

How can you ensure Arizonans that something as technical and consequential as redistricting will be a fair process?

We are going to make every effort to be as transparent and as accessible as possible. At every meeting so far we have been collecting public comments. We’re a little bit restricted right now with COVID and meeting

virtually. We can’t have people come and publicly testify. But we’re tapping into a wide range of public opinion.

Shortly, we’ll begin to go out into the community and meet with all different communities of interest, all over the state, to understand their needs and their perspectives.

You’re going to be talking to different communities?

We’re going to make sure that we’re meeting with rural communities that have very different needs, communities on the border that may have unique challenges and our tribal nations that have unique needs. Different religious groups may have different needs and different ethnic groups in our state need to have representation. There are different economic levels, and real urban blighted areas.

There’s no one agreed upon definition of what a community of interest is. And we will listen to all groups.

Do you have confidence you and your colleagues can effectively listen to so many disparate communities?

I am a good listener, and I will listen to feedback on the left, right and middle. With the open meeting laws in Arizona, we’re actually somewhat limited and I’m not able to really do much work directly with my commissioners behind the scenes at all. All work is done in the public eye. My skills will have to be used in those public meetings. I’ll try to keep the temperature down.

The commission that narrows down the applicants and selects the finalists did an excellent job of picking people. And the state leaders who picked the four other commissioners, my four colleagues, are people of great character and have a background of getting things done. They’re mature, seasoned people and I have a really good feeling about our ability to be collaborative and avoid some of the nastiness that can happen.

Politics is a full contact sport and these are very serious issues. We fully expect things to get heated, but I have a lot of confidence in the five of us that we are in it for the right reasons.

How can you improve upon the work of the previous commission?

I am deeply appreciative of the efforts of the previous commission. Ten years ago they worked very hard, but they struggled from the beginning because they didn’t all enter the process with the same vision in mind. The Arizona Constitution is very clear about our requirements for redistricting — it’s not open to personal interpretation. There’s a hierarchy: We’re first responsible to fulfill all voting acts and requirements, then we’re creating districts with equal population, then geographic compactness, then communities of interest, and the very last requirement — if all these other criteria were satisfied — we consider competitiveness of districts.

If you go back and really study the way they did their work, they didn’t see eye to eye on the constitutional priorities. I made it very clear how I interpreted the Constitution and how I would lead the process. Given that I was selected unanimously by the Commission on Appellate Court and unanimously by the four commissioners. I see that as collective bias that we’re all on the same exact mission.

At least we’re a little clearer about the rules that we’re going to follow.

How can you ensure transparency?

There’s an agenda that by law we’re required to put out to the public 48 hours in advance, and the public has an ability to know each and every week what topics are going to be discussed. And we’re limited to only discussing those items on the agenda so the public isn’t left out. They have the opportunity to participate as much as possible.

We want a transparent and accessible process. And I can be a helpful conduit to encourage the community to learn about our process and to engage in political expression and engage in government.

The process can get in the weeds, so how would you describe the big picture?

The basic foundation of democracy is representation of all different communities of interest. If the job isn’t done properly the people of our state won’t be adequately represented. That’s just foundational.

For me, the opportunity to serve my state that I love and believe in is an incredible honor. I encourage the entire community to learn about and be involved in the process and partake in American government. The more we understand and the more we do together, that helps break down barriers, because the process is bringing people together for a shared goal.

That’s something that can be really positive and exciting.

With all the recent political news and anxiety, do you feel added pressure?

This has to be done. Our mission is the same and is equally necessary whether there’s political drama out there or not. This is a process that’s just fundamental to democracy and it’s best for us not to bring emotions into this process at all actually.

The more we apply data, facts, science and the Constitution and leave emotion out, we’ll get a better product.

The early months are focused on building the commission from the ground up really, it’s entirely independent so we’re addressing things like updating a website, finding office space, hiring our staff, those kinds of things. It’s going to be a little logistical for a while. We’ll also be hiring attorneys. A very important part of the process will be hiring mapping consultants.

Our hope is to have everything as organized and the infrastructure in place so that as soon as the census data comes out, we can hit the ground running. JN