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Swing-district Dems use divergent vote tactics in Legislature

The following story is the first 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.

No legislative votes are picked apart come election season quite like those of lawmakers from Arizona’s swing districts.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle must consider the repercussions at the ballot box on controversial votes when they serve a district with roughly even splits among Democrats and Republicans, or a strong base of independents.

In a state as conservative as Arizona, it’s still rare for Democrats to hold those seats. Conventional wisdom is for such a lawmaker to vote in a pattern slightly left of center – reliably with Democrats on most issues, but they will sometimes vote with lawmakers across the aisle when it comes to policies that divide the electorate in a given district.

First-term Sen. Sean Bowie is a perfect example of that wisdom. The Phoenix Democrat won a competitive race in Legislative District 18, where GOP voter registration outpaces Democrats by nearly 5,000 voters.

[Use the interactive data tool created by AZCIR to discover the alike votes between each senator HERE.]

So it comes as no surprise that Bowie voted alike with Republican senators more than any other Democratic lawmaker, according to the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting’s analysis of votes during the 2017 legislative session. Whether it’s because his votes are politically expedient, or achieve the goals of his more conservative constituents, Bowie’s voting pattern fit the model for an Arizona Democrat in a swing district: play to both sides of the aisle.

Reps. Mitzi Epstein, D-Phoenix, and Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, don’t play by those bipartisan rules. Epstein, who represents the same district as Bowie, and Butler, who represents a district where registered Republicans outpace Democrats by nearly 11,000 voters, cast no alike votes with Republicans at a threshold of 230 alike votes, according to the analysis.

Find the interactive data tool below. (Data by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting; Graphic by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Find the interactive data tool below. (Data by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting; Graphic by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

[Use the interactive data tool created by AZCIR to discover the alike votes between each representative HERE.]

Voters in those swing districts will have the final say in 2018 on whether they prefer a bipartisan voting record like Bowie’s or a solid blue streak like Epstein and Butler’s.

“That is what they both will be held to, not only the fact that they are both Democrats, but what is your actual voting record?” said Janie Hydrick, chair of the LD18 Democratic Party.

Independent streak

In LD18, Bowie and Epstein both boasted of their efforts to meticulously analyze bills, meet with stakeholders and arrive at independent decisions to cast votes on bills. While their methods were similar, the decisions they made were far different.

Sen. Sean Bowie (D-Phoenix) (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

Sen. Sean Bowie (D-Phoenix) (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

Bowie said his votes often hinged on thinking what’s best for his entire district. Sometimes that meant ignoring calls to vote with his own caucus, and instead joining Republicans to approve bills.

“There were a couple of bills, especially toward the end of session, that were bills that were going to impact my district,” he said. “Something like the university bonding bill, which I know every Democrat in the House voted against it. I worked in higher education before getting elected, I’m very aware of the cuts to higher ed by the Legislature, and I thought that was a very important bill, not just for the universities, but for my district.”

Bowie’s district is full of ASU employees, himself included. Bowie worked at ASU in an administrative role prior to his election, and now serves as an adjunct professor. The fact that so many of his constituents also work at the university made his vote to approve more funding for the state’s three public universities a no-brainer, Bowie said.

So, too, was a vote on the final day of session to offer a manufacturing tax credit that would apply to Intel and Honeywell, two of the largest employers in LD18, he said.

“They were looking to expand their facilities in my district, and we had a lot of pressure from Democratic groups to not support that, but at the end of the day, I knew it was going to help my district,” Bowie said.
Epstein voted against the university bonding bill as part of a show of force by House Democrats, all 25 of whom opposed the bill.

She gave preliminary approval of the tax credit bill in a committee vote, but she missed the vote on the floor when it was narrowly approved in the House by 32 votes.

Epstein said her business experience provided crucial insight when researching bills and considering their economic impact. Her decisions to vote against bills that most Republicans support comes from a fierce independent streak, she said, not towing the Democratic Party line, and that voters in her district “should be dancing in the streets that I don’t bow to somebody else’s prior decisions.”

Find the interactive data tool above. (Data by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting; Graphic by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Find the interactive data tool above. (Data by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting; Graphic by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

“It’s not about whether I voted with the Democrats or Republicans. It’s about, was I willing to stand up to power and say, ‘Hold it. You have to actually give me a good reason to vote for this, or I’m not going to vote for it,’” Epstein said. “And if Democrats were in the majority, I’m that person who’s going to stand up to them, too.”

For Bowie, representing his constituents means sometimes voting with the Republican majority.
“It’s a moderate, high income, well-educated district, and I think they’re looking for legislators who care more about what’s best for the community and what’s best for the cities there than necessarily what’s best for the party or ideology,” Bowie said.

Pragmatic wing

The LD18 election will be a perfect test of disparate voting patterns of the district’s two Democrats. Darin Fisher, himself a former legislative candidate, is now a Democratic precinct committeeman in the district. He said Bowie fits the mold of LD18 Democrats and has the voting record to prove it.

“We’re not the hardcore progressive wing, we’re the pragmatic wing. People call us blue dogs, people call us all sorts of things – DINOs,” Fisher said. “But the reality of it is, particularly when you’re in the minority, you have to understand that you still have to govern. Sean understands I think so much better than Mitzi the nuances of governing, and how things actually work, particularly in a state like Arizona.”

Governing means being willing and able to cross party lines when you vote, and Bowie’s got a reputation that proves he’s capable. Even Republicans have taken notice, Fisher said, giving Bowie support from moderate Republicans in LD18.

At the other end of the voting spectrum, Epstein is “a little bit too beholden” to the hardcore progressive Democrats of the district, Fisher said.

“Mitzi, she’s just not a policy wonk, so rather than digging into the details, she takes more direction from leadership as opposed to actually staking out her own positions,” he said.

Hydrick, the Democratic Party chairwoman in LD18, said Epstein’s well-versed in the subject that matters most to voters in the district: public education.

Rep. Mitzi Epstein (D-Phoenix)

Rep. Mitzi Epstein (D-Phoenix)

“There were a lot of votes this session about education, and Mitzi is absolutely firm – she’s always been an advocate, outspoken for public education. And that’s what she ran on. That’s what she promised people she would do. And that’s what she did when she got into the Statehouse,” Hydrick said.

Bowie, on the other hand, is “looking at it not as, particularly as a Democrat who will vote down the line on what Democrats hold, but what the district, as a whole district, would favor,” she said.

Bowie’s varied voting record will help him gain bipartisan support in the 2018 election, Hydrick said, while Epstein will be leaning on her votes on education policy to cut across party barriers, Hydrick said.

“There are a lot of moderate Republicans who support public education, there are a lot of independents who support public education. Of course, that’s one of the tenants of the Democratic platform,” Hydrick said. “So she has a broad base.”

To Fisher, Epstein’s base is not as broad as Hydrick believes. Epstein will have to rely on overwhelming support from Democrats to overcome a voting record that shows little deference to GOP interests.
Bowie likely won’t find as strong support as Epstein among Democrats, but given his penchant for crossing the aisle, he has appeal with centrist Republicans and conservative independents, Fisher said.

Bad ideas

When Butler won in 2016, she continued a trend set by former Rep. Eric Meyer of a single-shot Democratic candidate winning a seat in Legislative District 28, where Republicans hold a healthy voter registration majority.

Despite her lack of alike votes with Republicans, Butler said her votes “absolutely” represent her district’s values.

Rep. Kelli Butler (D-Paradise Valley)

Rep. Kelli Butler (D-Paradise Valley)

“I got elected to go down there and fight for education and for the economy, and I was focused on those priorities,” Butler said. “And when there was something that was not going to create a good solution that was going to help our schools and our teachers and our students, I had no problems voting against it.”

In a Legislature where Republicans decide which bills get through the legislative process, a Democrat must cast more votes on bills sponsored by Republicans. And Republicans had a lot of bad ideas, Butler said.

“I was not down there to play games, and I had absolutely no trouble voting against bad ideas. And so I saw far too many things that were bad ideas, and I was not going to support those,” she added.

Butler’s voting pattern is contrasted by the district’s senator, Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix. She was one of a handful of GOP senators who voted alike with Democrats most frequently, according to the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting analysis. So while even a Republican in a swing district fits the conventional wisdom of spreading out votes across the aisle, those bipartisan votes Brophy McGee took were often related to education, an issue that plays across party lines in LD28, Butler said.

As for how her voting pattern will affect her campaign in 2018, Butler said that never came up during the legislative session.

“I wasn’t thinking about my re-election strategy when I was voting. I literally was doing my best to understand the issue and vote the way I thought I will be able to talk to, answer to my voters for,” she said.

Meyer, the former representative Butler replaced, said Butler’s voting pattern may have something to do with post-presidential election pressures from the progressive left – an influence that can be significant on a freshman lawmaker.

But like Epstein, Meyer argued that Butler’s strong support of public education will play well in an issues-based campaign in LD28. Democrats, independents and Republicans in LD28 with kids in Arizona’s public schools will all favor a candidate who took votes to ensure as much money as possible is available to public schools, he said.

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