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Maricopa Republican Smith runs stealth campaign for House speaker

Maricopa Republican Smith runs  stealth campaign for House speakerWhen Pinal County Republicans drafted Sen. Steve Smith to run for House speaker next session, they cited reasons why current House Speaker Andy Tobin isn’t conservative enough for the job.

They said Tobin has killed critical immigration legislation along with public employee union reform and pension reform, and he hasn’t directed enough money toward House Republicans in competitive races.

And they said Smith, a Republican from Maricopa, has the conservative credentials — from such organizations as the Pachyderm Coalition, the Goldwater Institute and Americans for Prosperity — to run the Arizona House of Representatives.

But Tobin, a Republican from Paulden, has heard the complaint before that he’s not conservative enough. It’s the same argument made by his GOP challenger in the primary election, Sen. Lori Klein, who ran an unsuccessful bid for the House against Tobin.

“Arizona bar-none is conservative,” Tobin said. “I would say my record more than speaks for itself… I’m probably the most conservative speaker in the country.”

He said he can’t take all the credit for the gains conservatives have made in the House in recent years. But he notes that in his four years in leadership, including two as speaker, he has fought for smaller government, fiscal responsibility, border security, pro-life issues, tort reform and Second Amendment rights, among other goals.

Still, Stephen Kohut, chairman of the Pinal County Republican Party, said the organization took the unprecedented move at its Oct. 27 meeting of endorsing a coup because they couldn’t stand two more years of Tobin’s “lack of performance.”

Kohut’s main problems with Tobin lie in a public employee union bill that never received a full vote from the House last session, and Tobin’s involvement with the Republican Victory Fund independent expenditure committee, which chose sides in several races in the Republican primary.

Tobin has long asserted he doesn’t have any control over how the Republican Victory Fund was spent, and that he wouldn’t have authorized the committee to wade into Republican primaries.

He has also maintained that the public employee union bill didn’t have the support of the majority of the members, so he held it from a full vote. Tobin pointed out that even former Senate President Russell Pearce had qualms with the government telling unions where they automatically donate money from their paychecks, as he wrote to the Mesa Chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters in an undated letter.

“After reviewing the bills targeting police officers and fire fighters, I concluded that the government has no business telling public safety personnel where they can directly deposit their money,” Pearce wrote in the letter.

The Arizona Capitol Times made several attempts to contact Smith about his bid to become speaker, but he did not return calls.

His sudden entrance into the race took many people by surprise, including the House Republicans whose votes he will need if he hopes to win. More than a half dozen Republican lawmakers who are hoping to return next year said they hadn’t heard even murmurs that Smith was interested in a leadership post until they learned the news from the Pinal GOP press release. None had previously been contacted by Smith.

Though Tobin is still viewed as the overwhelming favorite, Smith’s entrance wasn’t universally dismissed by members of the caucus.

“I didn’t see this at all coming, but I’m going to take a look at it,” said Rep. Steve Montenegro of Litchfield Park.

Rep. Carl Seel of Phoenix called the news “exciting,” though he didn’t say whether he would be supporting Smith.

Rep. Michelle Ugenti of Scottsdale placed herself firmly in the Tobin camp, saying he has helped her pass bills such as her consolidated election dates bill last year. She also said House Republicans had a successful year balancing the budget and passing conservative legislation.

Rep. Amanda Reeve, who also plans to support Tobin, said she first heard the news from a constituent who she thought was mistaken.

“I had never heard of Steve running for House speaker, so I just didn’t pay attention to it. So you’re saying this is a legitimate thing?” she asked a reporter.

Reeve said she saw Smith the week before at the U.S. Senate debate between Richard Carmona and Jeff Flake in Pinal County, and he didn’t mention it or ask for her vote.

“You would think that, when he had the opportunity to ask for a vote, he would have taken it,” she said.

Rep. Karen Fann, who is running as a team with Tobin in Legislative District 1, said she has been in contact with House members interested in leadership positions next year. Every time the issue comes up, people ask if any representatives are running against Tobin.

“Apparently [Smith] hasn’t spoken to the other people looking to run for these leadership positions. I think that’s very strange,” Fann said.

Kohut acknowledged that attempting to take down a sitting speaker carries its risks, and if Smith takes on Tobin and fails, he and the district will probably lose some clout at the Capitol.

“I don’t think (Smith) can expect to be chairman of anything if he loses,” Kohut said. “But he’ll be back in the Senate in two years.”

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