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Senate Dem leaders survive coup attempt, but caucus remains fractured

Senate Minority Leader Anna Tovar (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Senate Minority Leader Anna Tovar (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Senate Democrats held a closed-door meeting Tuesday afternoon that spiraled out of control, resulting in a bungled attempt at a vote to oust caucus leaders.

The meeting – called by Sen. Carlyle Begay, D-Ganado, immediately following the Senate’s vote on a $9.2 billion budget – began as a productive strategy discussion but ended with an 3-8 vote that left intact the Senate’s minority leadership team, lawmakers said.

Begay said he called the meeting to “clear the air” and discuss accusations that he would vote for the Republican-controlled budget. But the conservation devolved into an indictment of Sen. Anna Tovar’s leadership team by a small faction of the minority caucus.

Democrats elected Tovar, D-Tolleson, Sen. Steve Gallardo and Sen. Lynn Pancrazi into leadership in October 2013.

Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford said she initially called for a vote only to replace Gallardo, who is running for the Congress.  Cajero Bedford, a Tucson Democrat who voted against ousting Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor as the minority leader last year, said it was unfair of Gallardo to keep his position in leadership when lawmakers cited Landrum Taylor’s bid for secretary of state as a reason to remove her from her post.

Landrum Taylor, who has since dropped out of the race for secretary of state, also said she was concerned by Gallardo’s waning attendance since he announced in February he’d run for the 7th Congressional District seat.

She compared Gallardo’s decision to the path taken by former Rep. Ruben Gallego, who resigned his post as assistant minority leader in the House after announcing his own campaign for the 7th Congressional District seat. Gallego then resigned from the House  to focus on his campaign.

“It really boiled down to the concerns that Sen. Gallardo would not step down as whip,” Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, said. “Because of the fact that, you look at what happened with Rep. Ruben Gallego in stepping down out of leadership… because of the fact that he has high absences and is not available to members, that was something that had been discussed.”

In the meeting, Landrum Taylor also accused Tovar of lying to the caucus about holding weekly leadership meetings with Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, and not doing enough to repair the fracture in the caucus left by her own ouster in October or build on the success Democrats had in helping approve a budget in 2013.

“Olivia made a point early on, and that’s that divisiveness started back in October… and nothing had been done to try and bring the caucus together,” Landrum Taylor said. “The leadership team unfortunately hadn’t brought the caucus together to try and work through some of this.”

Tovar said the accusations weren’t true.

“That was discussed, and I asked (Landrum Taylor) where she heard that information. And there was no answer back,” Tovar said. “Leadership has had weekly meetings with Sen. Biggs, except for last week.”

As for repairing fractures in the caucus, “as far as this leadership team, we’ve been doing whatever’s possible,” Tovar said. “But it does take two. It takes the other party, as well.”

Tovar said Landrum Taylor is overstating the impact she had on last year’s budget negotiations when she led the caucus. Tovar said the resulting bipartisan budget had more to do with the unique circumstances of a push to expand Medicaid coverage than to Landrum Taylor’s work as minority leader.

Gov. Jan Brewer needed a coalition of Republicans and Democrats to approve a budget that included the controversial plan. Democrats’ lack of say in budget negotiations this year wasn’t a failure of leadership, but a return to normal, Tovar said.

“Last year was an extreme case with Medicaid expansion, and you had the governor pushing that and she wasn’t going anywhere,” Tovar said. “You’ve seen that maybe twice in the last decade.”

If anything, the leadership vote taken by Senate Democrats only confirmed how strong support is for the current leadership team, Gallardo said.

“I knew the support is there for us. And that’s what makes it so silly. They didn’t even attempt to garner votes to change the leadership, it was just off the cuff,” Gallardo said. “Why they would do this at the eleventh hour? It’s silly and childish and it’s just self-serving. They talk about building bridges and repairing the caucus and then you turn around and do this?”

Democrats on both sides of the leadership vote insisted that despite their differences lawmakers would still vote together on issues as a united caucus. But the chaotic caucus meeting left some of their fellow Democrats in the House scratching their heads.

“They lost their minds,” said Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson.

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