Home / Election 2014 / Feisty debate: Democratic legislative candidates duke it out in central Phoenix bar

Feisty debate: Democratic legislative candidates duke it out in central Phoenix bar

boxingIn downtown Phoenix’s Democratic stronghold of Legislative District 24, House Minority Leader Chad Campbell is stepping down from the post he has held for the past eight years as one of the district’s two representatives.  That is creating a power vacuum and a bitter battle between two Democrats vying to replace him.

Meanwhile, Rep. Lela Alston is attempting to hold onto the district’s other House seat and stay out of the crossfire as the two hard-nose campaigners throw everything they have at each other, trying to win the second place spot.

The two challenging Democrats — Ken Clark and Rich Bauer — would likely have similar voting patterns in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

The outnumbered Democratic Caucus is mostly resigned to voting as a bloc against Republican-sponsored legislation and complaining about the GOP’s policies. Democrats’ bills seldom receive hearings and very rarely become law.

As is often the case in Arizona’s Democratic primaries, the differences between the candidates are less ideological, and more driven by personalities, styles and backgrounds.

And although their votes would likely be similar, Clark and Bauer could never be confused for one another.

Bauer is a retired Phoenix firefighter who is making his first run for political office in the district where he was born and lived almost all his life. During his long career in public safety, he moved up the ranks to become captain.  He spent his weekends doing volunteer work and fundraising for various causes, including a pool safety program that donated and installed pool fences to reduce drowning.

He’s a big, blue collar guy with a firm handshake and a rough hand. Bauer speaks passionately about the district, where his wife owns Maizie’s Restaurant on Central Avenue and Camelback Road, and where he knows regular customers by name. But he’s unpolished on specific policies and doesn’t echo Democratic talking points on every issue.

Clark is a real estate agent and a former one-term lawmaker who served the district in the House from 2003 to 2004. Since leaving the Capitol — he did not seek reelection in 2004 — he has worked as the director of the energy office at the Arizona Department of Commerce, and has run campaigns for several ballot measures including the successful 2006 campaign to defeat a same-sex marriage constitutional ban and the 2008 campaign to eliminate payday lenders.

The 43-year-old has the air of a man who has traveled the world and seen it all — which he picked up as a young man at a NATO school in Holland and from years abroad in Europe working for non-profit and political organizations. He dresses sharp and looks perfectly at home in his office inside a hipster coffeehouse and art gallery on Roosevelt Street in the heart of Phoenix’s arts district.

Debate heats up

When the two met recently for an LD24 Democratic debate hosted at The Rock — a gay bar in the Melrose District of downtown Phoenix — their differences were on full display.

Against a shimmering backdrop on a stage lit by a disco ball, black lights and spotlights, Bauer and Clark duked it out in front of almost a hundred people while drinks flowed throughout the crowd.

Alston didn’t show up for the debate. And while there is always a chance an incumbent representative can be knocked out by two hard-charging challengers, Bauer and Clark say they’re not running against Alston, who has served more than two decades in the Legislature.

Besides, political observers say it’s unlikely that either could beat Alston, who has a school named after her in the district and won the most votes in the last election, even out-campaigning Campbell in both the primary and general elections.

Arizona Republic political reporter Mary Jo Pitzl, a central Phoenix constituent of the district, moderated the debate.

Bauer opened with a joke.

“I’ve been in several debates but they’ve all been with my wife Maizie at home, and I’ve lost every one of them. But this is my first political debate, so take it easy on me,” he said.

Clark cited his experience in the Legislature and dedication to political causes as reason to send him back to the Capitol.

“I’ve been out there fighting for this district both in the Legislature and out of the Legislature. I was out there working on things that are within the Democratic agenda when no one else was doing what we were doing,” he said.

But things started to heat up when Pitzl asked what sets each apart from his opponent.

Without mentioning Bauer’s poor record of turning out to vote — in the last decade, Bauer has only voted in one general election and he has not voted in a primary — or that Bauer briefly left the Democratic Party to become an independent, Clark noted that he has always voted, and always been a Democrat.

Clark had already made Bauer’s voting record a focal point in the race.  He hit Bauer in an attack ad that details the issues Bauer failed to address in city and statewide elections going back to March 2005, when “Bauer failed to vote for funding to support police and firefighters” by sitting out the city of Phoenix special election.

“Even when no-one was watching, I was out there fighting for this district and the causes we care about, and I think that difference is huge,” Clark said at the debate.

Bauer shot back that what sets him apart from Clark, who served two years in the Legislature, is that he is “not a life-long, career politician.”

Running into burning buildings

Pitzl later asked a question from the audience about how dedicated the candidates are to staying positive in their campaigns.  Clark addressed the issue regarding Bauer’s votes head-on.

“I’m happy to talk about this. We released a list of the elections over the last decade (in the political mailer), and if you look at that list, you’ll see that Mr. Bauer has voted 20 percent of the time,” Clark said.

“I would suggest to you, do not confuse the difference between facts and negative campaigning,” he told the crowd.

Bauer complained that part of Clark’s list of city of Phoenix issues Bauer failed to vote on is inaccurate because Bauer lived outside of Phoenix for three years.

“(But) some of it is accurate and I apologize and I’m embarrassed for the (elections) that I didn’t vote in. However, what I completely resent is (the charge) that I did not support firefighters and public safety. It clearly says Rich Bauer did not support public safety,” Bauer said.

“And while you were selling repossessed houses, I was running into burning buildings,” he said.

By the time LD24 chair C.J. Carenza asked for a few final questions from precinct committeemen in the audience, the alcohol and charged political atmosphere had already stirred up the crowd.

Several firefighters supporting Bauer got upset and one yelled out that it isn’t fair the questions could only come from party activists, which set off a brief shouting match between two camps’ supporters.

After the chatter died down, the candidates made their closing statements and Carenza reminded the crowd that at the end of the day, they have to stick together as Democrats.

“We have three very good Democrats (running for the office). This is all about getting Democrats elected,” he said.

The candidates and their supporters then gathered around the bar to have a drink and talk politics.

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