UpClose with David Schapira: Found some success at blocking legislation with ‘watchdog’ approach

Luige del Puerto//May 15, 2011

UpClose with David Schapira: Found some success at blocking legislation with ‘watchdog’ approach

Luige del Puerto//May 15, 2011

Senate Minority Leader David Schapira (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)
Senate Minority Leader David Schapira (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

The Senate minority announced an audacious goal this year — to put the spotlight on Republicans and their legislation. That task fell to a young father to articulate his party’s positions in a year when Republicans, who are control both chambers, don’t even need a single Democratic vote to pass emergency legislation.

The immediate challenge for Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, a Tempe Democrat, and his caucus was to avoid being relegated to irrelevance.

So they employed tactics and strategies they have honed through the years as a minority party. They made temporary alliances with Republicans in killing legislation, including controversial immigration and secessionist measures. Some succeeded in shepherding their bills by choosing topics that are non-controversial and pragmatic, and by capitalizing on good working relationships with members of the majority.

And when they couldn’t engage Republicans, they engaged the public. They knew they couldn’t do anything to stop significant cuts to core government programs, but they kept the pressure up on the transplant issue, for example, so that in the end Republicans capitulated — even if they don’t admit it — to essentially restore those Medicare services.

In this April 27 interview, Schapira looked back at the session and concluded that his party, despite its diminished numbers, scored important victories.

Early this year, you said the minority’s job is to act as watchdogs at the Capitol.

You don’t have everything I said this year, do you?

I do… Do you feel like you accomplished that goal, and if you do, how?

Yes, certainly. I think this year we kind of got to a breaking point where we had the mainstream media, beyond the Capitol Times, really kind of paying attention at the Legislature. So there’s a lot of coverage both on TV and in the mainstream newspapers and radio — whereas in the past they kind of ignored us.

I think a lot of that was due to our caucus and our sister caucus in the House really holding the governor and the majority leadership at the Capitol accountable publicly and making sure that people were aware at what was happening here at their state Capitol.

Can you cite some of your successes this session?

I think one of our better successes, frankly, was preventing the other side from being successful on a few issues. Stopping those immigration bills I think was a huge part of our success this year, working with many of the very reasonable members of the Republican caucus here in the Senate to make sure we had a coalition of people ready to vote against some of the more ridiculous immigration legislation that came up this year.

If their caucus did not split, even if you all voted against them, you still would not be able to stop them.

That’s right, which meant that we had a lot more work to do than just to make sure that all of our caucus members were not voting for that legislation. We had to work together with the other side to make sure that we had enough votes to kill those bills.

There was hope on your part at the beginning of this year that when you act as watchdogs and you bring these issues to light… that somehow there would be enough pressure from the public to help your cause.

And it worked. It worked on the immigration issues. It worked on some of the secession bills. There were various bills — as I spoke to you about the other day — that I think we were able to stop because members of our caucus brought to light some of the consequences and major issues with those pieces of legislation.

And we put pressure, alongside the public, on all of the members of this Legislature to make sure that those pieces of legislation did not leave this chamber.

Let’s talk about the budget. Do you think it’s partly your fault why Republicans did not invite you to negotiate the budget?

No, I don’t think there could have been anyone in any of our jobs on the Democratic side that would have changed that. One interesting thing about the Senate president — and I’ve had an opportunity to really get to know him over the last five years — and I can tell you one thing about President Pearce is he has certain ideas of what he wants and once he has formed an opinion on something it’s unlikely he’s going to change that opinion.

I asked the question because I’m wondering if you’ve taken positions in the past and even in this year that are so anathema, if you will, to fiscal conservatism, which is the dominant ideology this year, so that it makes it virtually impossible for either side to come to a middle ground?

Well, you know, here’s the thing again. When we have a D after our name as opposed to an R, in this year it wouldn’t have mattered what our positions were. They were not going to work with us. And in fact, there were members of the Republican caucus who consider themselves fiscal conservatives who were not in any way part of the budget process. They weren’t kept in the dark like members of my caucus, and members of the public and the press. At least they were informed a little bit more about what was going on. But many of them had not seen the budget until the rest of us saw it. So I don’t think it mattered what your views were this session. If you were not part of the extreme ideology that’s in charge of this Legislature, then you were not privy to and did not have the ability to have input on this budget.

I didn’t get the sense that you guys were prepared to make cuts… and I guess that’s one of the criticisms that the other party has.

Well, the other party never allowed us to the table to even convey that point of view. But I have publicly conveyed that point of view all session. You’ve heard me say this before. All session I have said it has to be a three-pronged approach. That you are going to have to make some cuts to get through these tough times. We’re going to have to continue to make cuts even beyond those that we’ve already made. You’re going to have to do some borrowing to get us through these times, and we’re going to have to have some additional revenue. And that doesn’t necessarily mean a tax increase although we shouldn’t take anything off the table when we’re in this level of a deficit.

Let me cite an example. You wanted to close tax “loopholes.” Republicans obviously view those tax breaks as well thought-out incentives. They’ve been in place for a number of years. They believe they have helped the economy and some Republicans regard, quite simply, suspending or eliminating them as a tax increase. You wouldn’t budge on that issue. They won’t either.

There’s $10 billion in tax loopholes in this state. I have no interest in closing every single tax loophole that we have. What I wanted and what I advocated for this year is to keep everything on the table and to have a three-pronged approach that looked at all the different ways of solving this budget crisis and not just saying, “We are just going to cut our state budget into oblivion,” which is what we did instead this year.