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UpClose with Jackie Thrasher

Jackie Thrasher, the band and orchestra director at Lookout Mountain Elementary School in the Washington School District, lost her re-election bid for the Arizona House of Representatives last year by 553 votes.

The District 10 Democrat was replaced by Republican Doug Quelland, who is facing an inquiry by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission that could force him from office.

Thrasher, meanwhile, is keeping in touch with her former colleagues and might run again. In addition to teaching, she serves on the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names, and was recently selected as the 2009 Yale Distinguished Music Educator.

Now that you are a political outsider, I guess, how active are you in what’s going on at the Capitol? Do you pay much attention or do you just set that aside?

I pay very much attention to what’s going on at the Capitol.

Where do you get your information? Do you talk to your colleagues or from the news?

I keep track through the news, and my former colleagues at the Legislature. We do still communicate quite regularly.

Do you plan on running again in 2010?

I’m considering it. I haven’t made the formal announcement or anything yet.

What are your concerns about running, something that might keep you from running? Are there particular things that might get in your way?

The only thing that could get in my way would be if I thought I could have a bigger impact on the outside. The reason I ran in the first place was trying to do better for public education.

Once again we’re seeing that we’re in a terrible situation as far as education funding goes. With the lack of a budget so far, and with what I’m hearing that’s coming out is additional cuts to education and I am just feeling pretty bad about what’s been going on down there as far as the education budget.

If I thought I could do better for education, be a better advocate, outside, I would. But it looks like I’m going to need to run again just to try to be an advocate for public education in the Legislature.

Have you returned to your position as a music teacher?

Yes. Still teaching. I think it’s 11 more days (and) I will have finished my 29th year teaching.

And when you were at the Legislature, you still taught, you didn’t take a hiatus.

Right I still taught.

You talked about the budget and public education. A lot of the stimulus dollars that were laid out were supposed to go to public education. Do you think the way the Legislature and the governor have handled stimulus money is appropriate?

Well, I don’t think public education has received what they should have yet, because there has been no decision how the money will be allocated. As far as I understand, that’s up to Governor Brewer. So that’s a concern for me.

For me, education is one of the top priorities. I would have wanted and hoped they would have figured out how they’re going to deal with this stimulus money for education right up front, right away, because you have lots of districts that are going through a reduction in force.

When you read in the paper that this money is supposed to go to education, and prevent major teacher layoffs, but that’s not the reality out there. That is a big concern for me, that we are not looking out for our children’s future by taking care of the teachers.

So you’re disappointed it has taken Brewer so long to make these decisions.

That is very disappointing that she has not made any sort of decision as far as stimulus money for education.

It’s not just teachers, though. It’s all education employees. A lot of these people just may not come back because they don’t even know if they’ll have a job and it makes it a very uncertain future for them.

I don’t think it’s good planning, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

Republicans in the Arizona House and Senate say they have to cut from education because the deficit is so large. Is there a way to leave education entirely alone?

Yes, from this part forward, I can understand that they made the adjustments and cuts that they did, not that I agree with them, but I understand that they did make them and that they are in power.

But that is not what the general public wants to see for the rest of the money going forward in the next budget. They want education preserved and no further cuts.

So for me again, it’s priorities. There are other things that could be done. I know that former Governor (Janet) Napolitano had left several different types of options that they could have looked at that would not have cut public education.

Were you supportive of the budget that Napolitano put forward before she went to Washington?

Yes. I was hopeful that they would consider it, but I knew better.

I’m sure you’ve seen the budget House Democrats have put forward. Does that budget do what it should or should there be changes there?

I don’t know all the pieces and parts of it. But I think it makes more sense to the broader electorate, what the people are looking for. They’re looking for common sense protections for school kids and the vulnerable. I think the Democrats’ budget does more of that.

It’s going to be bad no matter what, we all understand that, but when you have some corporate-tax loopholes that are just simply not necessary, we can look to those types of things.

The issue has gotten big enough that some of the Republicans have had a debate on bonding and increasing taxes. Is there one of those two that you prefer?

From all the information I have, which is not as great as it was when I was in the House, it appears they will have to do a number of things. They can’t just cut. They’ve got to try to increase some revenue someplace, and they’ve also got to make some adjustments in other areas.

Something that has been long neglected is our tax structure here in Arizona. It needs a revamping. It is not necessarily fair. Certain people don’t pay their fair share. We talked about closing some of those corporate tax loopholes. It needs a lot of reform to make it simpler, fairer, that then we can provide some revenue that’s more guaranteed for the things that are important to Arizonans.

We want to see education funded no matter what. Well, then we’ve got to make sure that we diversify our economy so that we always have revenue that can support the kind of education we want our kids to have.

The tax structure is complicated. Is that something the lawmakers have time to deal with right now while they’re also trying to deal with so many other things as the session closes?

I think they don’t have a choice but to do it, but I don’t see them working on it. I see too many ideologues being more interested in what they can do with the power that they perceive that they have versus trying to make Arizona a better place for everyone.

When you see the kind of bills that get through or don’t get through, and you see the amount of time they’ve taken to get nothing done… there are some really good people down there, but they’ve made themselves irrelevant again.

This should be the leaders of our state helping us in all kinds of ways, not getting in our way. This should be government helping people so that we don’t have to worry so much about taking care of education, that we believe in education and we’re going to fund it — period. Let’s work on that.

If the tax structure isn’t fair, we’re going to have to start working on it. The amount of time that they’ve wasted, I find just embarrassing. It’s unnecessary, and the people of Arizona deserve better.

You lost the 2008 election by a small number of votes. What was your reaction when the votes came in? What was your first thought?

I was, of course, disappointed. Working in the field I had had so much support. While I served, I had so much support. And I really felt that I would be re-elected. What I didn’t count on were some of the things that had happened during the campaign.

Such as?

Having a Green candidate run in my race.

Kind of threw the numbers a little bit?

Yeah, and I think that if you look at each precinct by precinct, you will see that in some cases the amount of votes the Green candidate got would have made a difference for either one or the other candidate. It made a little bit of a difference.

I refer to it as a kind of a trick to dilute the votes, and it did that very clearly.

When did you find out about the possibility that Rep. Quelland had violated campaign finance law? Was it after the race or did you know during the race?

I found out some things that seemed to me to be kind of strange information. During the race I just blew that off, I didn’t pay any attention to it. Several people, Democratic activists, would receive anonymous e-mails and different information, just like “Somebody’s playing a game, or somebody’s doing something,” and I just didn’t want to be any part of that.

Once the election was over, there were some people who looked at this information and were very concerned and felt that they wanted to have it investigated and that was certainly their right to do that.

What was your reaction when it came out that it’s might not be just somebody playing a game, that Representative Quelland might have actually exceeded his contribution limit?

Well, it seemed out of character, based on all the things he had worked on during his campaign as far as Clean Elections. That was disappointing.

And then the more I learned that it was possible that he had additional money, then it almost seemed like, if I had had $15,000 extra, which is what is alleged he had, what could I have done? Could I have sent out more mailers or contacted more voters. Could that additional money have made a difference in the race? And that’s going to be the question that’s always going to be out there.

If he indeed did have extra money that he spent on contacting voters, is that what put him over the top? I don’t know. I think there was a combination of things from the length of (John) McCain’s coattails, to the Green candidate, to this alleged improprieties with campaign finance. Ultimately what happened, I think, is it denied District 10 voters a fair race. And I don’t think they were actually able to get a clean election out of it.

Do you ever worry that maybe you losing by those 500 votes, even though it’s so slim, was your district saying “Hey, we don’t line up with what you want to do, we don’t value what you value.” Is any part of it your district speaking and just being opposed to what you stand for?

I think that’s entirely possible, but that wasn’t my experience out in the field and walking door-to-door. Based on responses I got, that’s not what I was thinking, because I had worked very closely with a lot of folks from different parties and gained the respect of some folks who had always been Republican voters who felt that they hadn’t been well represented.

So was there a group that specifically wanted to get me out? Well, that remains to be seen. The last two elections, ’06 and ’08, it was very close. So, I don’t know. I didn’t have the knowledge of any polling data that I should have been on top. It just seemed based on the people who door-to-door that I spoke to and the constituents that I worked with that there was an awful lot of support. So, I didn’t see that major disappointment with my representation in the House.

So how do you think things would be different if you had been elected? What difference could you have made?

Well, once again it depends on the numbers. If the numbers had been exactly the same when I was in or if there had been more Democrats, or fewer, I think that matters, so I think it depends.

Hopefully, I would have tried to be part of a culture at the Legislature that was interested in working hard and getting things done for the people of Arizona. My understanding is that the way things have been going in the House hasn’t been any different or maybe even worse as far as getting work done, having bills heard, lack of transparency, it sounds to me it’s worse than when I was there.

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