The following story is the second of five to be published over the next two weeks based on voting data the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting pulled for the 2017 legislative session. The nonprofit group analyzed the number of floor votes that each lawmaker cast the same as every other lawmaker. The result is a first of its kind look at voting patterns between Arizona legislators, revealing alike votes and disparities – some known anecdotally, others not seen before – between lawmakers, at times regardless of party affiliation. Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting set a minimum threshold of 230 alike votes in the House of Representatives and 435 alike votes in the state Senate to gauge how often lawmakers vote alike with one another.
The threshold could be expanded or shrunk, but think of the analysis like a microscope: zooming in too far, or not far enough, won’t reveal anything of interest. Finding the right magnification, or in this case, the right threshold of alike votes in each chamber, produces significant results and visualizes alike votes among legislators.
Unlike their Republican counterparts, Arizona’s Democratic lawmakers are a less cohesive voting bloc. And it’s the example set by the minority party’s leadership that differs the most.
In the Senate, minority leaders don’t often vote with the GOP. In the House, it’s the top Democrat, Rebecca Rios of Phoenix, who casts the most votes with her Republican colleagues, according to an analysis by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.
Rios serves as the minority leader of the House Democratic Caucus, but she also voted alike with Republicans more often than any other Democrat in the chamber. Only one other House Democrat, Rep. Mark Cardenas of Phoenix, came close to casting as many alike votes with Republicans as Rios.
None of Rios’ fellow Democrats in leadership – Assistant Minority Leader Randy Friese of Tucson and Whip Charlene Fernandez of Yuma – voted alike with GOP lawmakers at a threshold of 230 alike votes, according to the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting analysis.
[Use the interactive data tool created by AZCIR to discover the alike votes between each representative HERE.]
Current lawmakers and former minority leaders were surprised to learn that a Democratic caucus leader would vote with Republicans so often. Even Rios was at first put off by the distinction.
“Ew,” she said. “I don’t want this title.”
There’s no single bill that exemplifies that discrepancy, but perhaps Rios’ background as a lawmaker best explains her bipartisan streak, some said.
Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, said Rios came from a rural district that is tough to represent, and she has worked in the mining industry as a lobbyist.
[Use the interactive data tool created by AZCIR to discover the alike votes between each senator HERE.]
“. . . so those the folks that represent those areas tend to be the Democrats that don’t always vote in line,” Hobbs said.
That’s not the district Rios represents now – her Legislative District 27 is overwhelmingly blue, but that doesn’t mean she lost the characteristics of her rural background while representing parts of Pinal County, Hobbs said.
Rios’ length of service at the Capitol also may have an impact on the way she votes, said former legislator Eric Meyer, who served as House minority leader in 2015 and 2016.
Rios served in the House from 2005 to 2010 before returning in 2015 after a five-year hiatus. That gives her some familiarity with the legislative process, and connections with other lawmakers, that other members of the House’s Democratic leadership team don’t have.
That’s perhaps why Rios’ leadership team doesn’t have the same pattern of alike votes with Republicans, Meyer said.
“They just don’t have as much experience. And with the amount of turnover, it takes time to build relationships maybe and feel comfortable,” he said.
Rios agreed that her “heart is still in rural Arizona,” and that her length of service has given her a perspective that shapes the way she votes.
“You learn to vote based on issues, as opposed to the party or the bill sponsor,” she said.
Besides, she said, “the majority of the votes we take typically are not high profile, partisan issues.”
While she leads her caucus on votes that matter, particularly on core issues that Democrats identify as a caucus each year, she’s still a reliable party leader.
Hobbs credited Rios for leading efforts to keep her caucus unified in votes against certain bills, such as a university bonding package in the fiscal year 2018 budget.
Being a leader also can mean being more flexible when voting on bills.
Meyer noted that it’s natural for minority leaders to form some connections with Republicans given how frequently minority and majority leadership must interact.
There is plenty of negotiating done behind the scenes to keep the House running smoothly, and that takes steady hands and good relationships between Republican and Democratic leaders, he said.
As for the Senate, Hobbs said it makes sense that Democratic leadership would vote infrequently or not at all with Republicans, since it’s often leadership’s job to keep Democrats in unison as the opposition vote against the Republican majority.
Still, at a threshold of 435 alike votes, even two members of the Senate minority leadership team cast alike votes with one GOP senator: Assistant Minority Leader Steve Farley of Tucson and Whip Lupe Contreras of Avondale, according to the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting analysis.
Rios said relationships among GOP and Democratic leaders do impact voting, “to the extent that when you’re in leadership, you don’t have the luxury of just saying ‘no’ and being partisan for the sake of being partisan.”
And if any member of her caucus has a gripe about Rios’ bipartisan streak, she’ll be happy to hear them out.
“Show me the votes, and I would be more than willing to sit down and discuss each and every vote,” Rios said.