Last year, Sen. John McComish, a Republican from Phoenix, embraced the political risks that came with voting against measures that were aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.
But for McComish’s Democratic opponent in the general election this year, the GOP incumbent is a political “extremist.”
“He’s been flying under the radar, but his votes have been exactly the same as the people who have been vitriolic and so he likes to paint himself as a moderate, but he’s not,” said Janie Hydrick, the Democratic nominee to the Senate in Legislative District 18. “He’s an extremist.”
It’s a characterization that would surprise many at the state Capitol.
McComish called the charge “risible.”
Indeed, McComish, a soft-spoken legislator who once served as president of a local chamber of commerce, is regarded as a centrist who believes in lower taxes but doesn’t think it’s a good idea to allow state lawmakers to declare that a federal law is null just because they say so.
He’s also part of the “mainstream” group of Republicans who have often butted heads with members of the majority’s Tea Party wing.
In a race that could turn the partisan split in the Senate, both McComish and Hydrick have positioned themselves as centrists while working hard to paint their opponents as candidates with fringe views and votes.
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In calling McComish “extreme,” Hydrick, an educator and former state director for the National Education Association, zeroed in on his support for the cuts to the education funding during the worst of the economic downturn.
Other Democrats have similarly pressed their Republican foes for agreeing to slash school budgets and then keeping appropriations flat even when the economy improved.
Hydrick complained that instead of restoring funding for cash-starved schools, McComish supported giving hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts to corporations.
“You can’t just give business incentives without building your community and your education foundation or else the thing is going to collapse in on itself,” she said inside her party’s headquarters in the East Valley.
Hydrick had just finished making hundreds of calls during the weekend, and she appeared buoyed by the contact with voters. The educator was eager to point out what she considers to be McComish’s flaws.
She laid down a familiar Democratic talking point: Education is an investment. There are moral and economic reasons for spending more for schools. McComish’s sin is that he voted, with his fellow Republicans and against his district’s priorities, to slash schools’ budgets by what Democrats say amounted to “$2.5 billion.”
Actually, data from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee showed that from fiscal years 2008 to 2012, the state subsidy levels for K-12 schools, universities and community colleges dropped by $1.6 billion.
During the same time, direct cuts to K-12 schools amounted to $768 million.
Still, Hydrick’s point is clear: McComish’s vote doesn’t match the district’s values.
McComish acknowledged he voted for cuts to education when the economy tanked, revenues took a nosedive and the government had to mortgage state properties, including the House and the Senate buildings to limp through the crisis.
“What I’d like for her is to answer is this question: Where would you cut to add the money for education? Because you have to take it out of somewhere, and people like her say, ‘Well, they cut education.’ Well, yes we did. (But) what’s your alternative suggestion?” McComish said.
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McComish has voted against measures that are championed by the Tea Party.
Take the issue of immigration. Like many Republicans, McComish voted for SB1070 two years ago.
But in 2011, McComish and several others balked at five immigration bills that then-Senate President Russell Pearce had championed. They included a proposal designed to trigger a court case aimed at getting the U.S. Supreme Court to ultimately deny automatic citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants.
That year, the Republican Party was sharply divided, and lawmakers’ positions on the issue defined their place on the political spectrum.
Still, when asked if she considered McComish a moderate on the issue of illegal immigration, Hydrick said she doesn’t think so.
When pressed to explain why she paints McComish as “extreme” on immigration, she hedged, “You’re focusing on immigration, and quite frankly, immigration is not an issue in LD18,” Hydrick said.
Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, had the immigration issue and tax issues in mind when he flatly rejected the suggestion that McComish is extreme. The chamber is supporting McComish.
“I just don’t think it even passed the laugh test,” Hamer said. “It’s a lazy comment to start calling names.”
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Other Democrats hesitate to call McComish a fringe lawmaker but question his leadership skills.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call him an extremist,” said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, who served with McComish both in the House and later in the Senate.
“However, he is a legislator that has no backbone. He is not that far to the right. However, I think he has a hard time saying ‘no’ to the ultra-right wing of the Republican Party and I think he has a hard time saying ‘no’ to his leadership, even when he knows that they’re wrong and he doesn’t agree with them,” Gallardo said.
The Phoenix Democrat said a case in point is McComish’s support for a proposal that would have permitted people to carry guns on public rights-of-way on college campuses. All 21 Senate Republicans backed the bill, which Gov. Jan Brewer ultimately vetoed last year.
The makeup of the new district provides an incentive for Hydrick to promote her narrative that she’s running against an out-of-touch incumbent. The district, which includes parts of Phoenix, Chandler, Tempe and Mesa, is more competitive than old LD20, which McComish represents.
By McComish’s own calculation, the new district extends further into Democratic territory in Tempe, grabs a portion of Mesa that’s historically competitive and lost a little bit of Chandler that leaned Republican.
More importantly, the Independent Redistricting Commission’s competitive index, which measures voters’ performance in past elections, gave the GOP a mere 3.4 percentage point advantage in the district.
The new LD18 also includes several school districts, including Kyrene.
Frank Camacho, a spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party, said the district is winnable and Hydrick is a good fit for it.
“Obviously, with her background, she knows the importance of education and she’s really done a good job of connecting with the voters out there,” Camacho said.
Hydrick is bullish about her chances of ousting McComish.
“Education is really a strong issue here, and if I say I have been a classroom teacher for 45 years, from that point on, I don’t have to say anything,” Hydrick said, adding she’s been knocking on the doors of Republican and independent voters.
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Hydrick generally agrees with her own party’s positions.
She doesn’t like guns in restaurants or schools, saying she wants an assurance she’s entering a safe area and guns on campus is “such a horrifying thought.”
When asked about state rights and local control, she replied, “I think we fought a war about that about 150 years ago.”
She said she understands the frustrations that fueled SB1070, Arizona’s famous anti-illegal immigration law, but added that the law is an “extreme knee-jerk reaction” that divided Arizonans and damaged the state’s reputation.
She also is pro-choice, saying decisions that deal with women’s reproductive issues should be made between the woman, her loved ones and her doctor.
Hydrick, who describes herself as a moderate, said her positions are aligned not only with Democrats, but with the values of Republicans and independents in her district.
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McComish rejects the characterization that he’s an extremist and swings back hard at his Democrat foe.
“Her comment is laughable because my reputation is the exact opposite,” he said.
McComish said the charge is ironic coming from someone who is “really, pretty far left.”
He said Hydrick is against “school choice” and also opposed proposals to use letter grades to rate schools’ performance and to tie teachers’ salary to how well their students perform on standardized tests.
It’s the same attack line that the Republican Victory Fund, an independent expenditure group that seeks to continue the GOP’s hold on the Legislature, employed against Hydrick.
The group accused the Democrat of being a union hack and “completely beholden to the education bureaucracy.”
Hydrick said she’s “amused” by the attack piece.
She fought hard for school accountability and teacher performance, but she disagreed with the idea of evaluating a teacher based on how his or her students perform on one test, she said.
“Don’t judge me on one little day of a standardized test. Judge me on what I’m doing for the class throughout the year,” she said, referring to the debate about tying teachers’ salary to students’ academic performance as measured by standardized tests.
She also gave a nuanced position on the system of labeling schools’ performance by letter grades. “I’m not against the lettering. I’m against the criteria,” she said.