Republican Ethan Orr spent the first half of his life as a Democrat, volunteering for the party on political campaigns, including Bill Clinton’s first presidential run in 1992 and Eddie Basha’s run for Arizona governor in 1994.
So it’s no surprise that when he’s on the campaign trail for a House seat in north Tucson’s new Legislative District 9, one of the state’s most competitive districts, he can talk the talk that the moderate voters there want to hear.
LD9 covers the north side of Tucson, running from midtown Tucson to the Foothills, Casas Adobes and Flowing Wells neighborhoods. Democrats have about a 3-point voter registration advantage.
But Orr’s Democratic opponents, Victoria Steele and Mohur Sidhwa, say Orr’s moderate rhetoric is false advertising.
“Yeah, I was a huge Democrat,” Orr said. “I was supportive of Clinton and that kind of centrist governing, and really addressing the issue of debt.”
Orr switched political parties sometime before Clinton was elected to his second term, he said, after being turned off because the president and the party weren’t addressing fiscal issues.
Since then, he has worked as an aide to former Democratic Tucson City Council member Carol West, as the economic and community development director for South Tucson and at the Tucson’s office of economic development. He got his master’s in Public Administration from the University of Arizona and currently works as an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Arizona, and as the executive director of Linkages of Arizona, a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities find jobs.
“The thing I’ve noticed, especially when I’m talking to Democrats who don’t particularly like Republicans, is once I tell them I run a nonprofit agency and we help 750 people with disabilities find jobs, that’s very important to them,” he said.
Besides taking his job-finding skills to the state Capitol, Orr would like to focus on restoring money to the various state funds that have been swept in recent years. He also said he would like to restore funding to the Joint Technological Education districts, and work on improving prisoner recidivism rates.
Orr says he fashions himself after moderate Tucson Republicans like former Reps. Pete Hershberger and Toni Hellon, and he hopes to work with the southern Arizona Democratic delegation to pass legislation that can help the people and Tucson.
Part of Orr’s stump speech when talking to possible swing voters includes the fact that if a Republican doesn’t get elected in the neighboring LD10, and it is a tight race, then Tucson won’t have any Republicans representing the city and it will be harder for Democrats in the minority at the Legislature to pass bills that the city and the University of Arizona need.
Orr takes a strong stance on several social issues, including abortion, saying it should be illegal in all cases except when the mother’s life is at risk. He said he doesn’t support making gay marriage legal, but doesn’t support a constitutional amendment against it either.
Though he said he wouldn’t sponsor social bills himself, he said when it comes time to vote, he would vote with his party and his conscience.
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For Victoria Steele, a political newcomer who worked for Tucson television and radio news stations before becoming a counselor, Orr’s resume and promises to work with Democrats isn’t enough to overcome his staunch positions on social issues.
“He’s trying to pass himself off as a moderate when his views aren’t as moderate as he wants us to believe, especially on social issues,” she said. “He can’t squeak by as a pseudo-Democrat.”
Steele said the biggest obstacle she has to overcome in the election is the idea that Orr is a moderate, when his positions on gay marriage, abortion and women’s reproductive rights issues put him squarely in the Republican camp.
She also hammered Orr on his support for vouchers for private and religious schools, and his position against Proposition 204, which would establish a permanent 1-cent sales tax increase and direct most of the revenue toward education.
Steele said women’s rights issues are going to be on voters’ minds this election cycle because of the “war on women” that the Republican Party has been waging, especially in Arizona.
It was reproductive issues that first got Steele involved in politics. When she was in high school in a working class neighborhood of Pennsylvania, she led a campaign to get sex education introduced at her high school and won.
She had a career in the news business, and later moved on to counseling, founding the Native Ways substance abuse program for Native American women. She earned a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Phoenix, where she also works as a counselor, besides having her own private practice.
She said she decided to get into get into state politics after she heard about a bill passed in 2011 that allows graduate students in counseling to not counsel gay people if it is inconsistent with their values. At the time, someone told her to lobby her lawmakers to stop the bill. Instead, she decided to become a lawmaker.
Since she started running, Tucson Democrat Dan Eckstrom took her under his wing, and she has picked up big-name endorsements from Tucson Democrats, such as City Council members Regina Romero, Richard Fimbres and Karin Uhlich, Pima County supervisors Ramón Valadez and Richard Elías, and state Rep. Bruce Wheeler.
She said that if elected to office, some of her first priorities would be to return state funding to Planned Parenthood, to repeal the law that prohibits abortions after 20 weeks, and to repeal the law that allows religious employers to deny their employees birth control as part of their health care plan.
“Women’s issues have been under attack. What else do you call it?” she said. “It’s a blatant attempt to repress women.”
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Her Democratic running mate, Mohur Sidhwa, agrees.
Sidhwa is an immigrant from India who came to the United States as a “gender refugee, if there is such a phrase,” she said.
When she was young, her family gave her a choice of staying in India or moving to the States. Knowing how limited her options would be as a woman in India, she packed up everything she owned and set off alone, in search of democracy and equality. Now, she’s worried that Republicans are taking the country and the state backward in the area of women’s health.
“I don’t want to fight the battles that I thought I stopped fighting 30 years ago when I came to the States,” she said. “We should never have to fight over women’s health rights.”
She has been active in the Democratic Party for more than 25 years, and has served as the vice chair of the Arizona Democratic Party as well as the first vice chair of the Pima County Democratic Party. Sidhwa has a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Arizona, and most recently, was a gadfly to the redistricting process, attending dozens of meetings and sending blow-by-blow updates to her friends on Facebook.
Sidhwa first ran for the House in 2010, and after losing by fewer than 500 votes, she vowed to try again. She has a slight name ID advantage over the other candidates, because about a third of the district that she ran in is within her current district. She also is the only candidate with experience on the campaign trail.
If elected to the Legislature, Sidhwa would like to work on improving educational system, especially science education. She said a vote for her is a vote to drag the Legislature into the 21st century. She also wants to support the solar industry in Arizona and work on developing public-private partnerships between the University of Arizona and high-tech industries.
She also wants to work on some of the same legislation that Steele cited, including restoring state funding to Planned Parenthood and repealing some of the contraceptives legislation from the 2012 session.
But longtime Tucson pollster Margaret Kenski said while women’s reproductive rights issues are going to play a role in the elections, they will not be a defining issue for most voters in the district. The people in the new LD9, and in the state, are more focused on education, jobs and the economy, she said, and Orr has a hard resume to beat on those issues.
In the end, it will come down to who is campaigning harder, and who connects with the voters on a personal level, Kenski said.
“It’s like your quintessential middle of the road district,” she said. “It’s really going to come down to who is better organized, and who people remember.”