Rep. Coleman changes mind, shakes up House race in District 16

Chris Silavong//July 18, 2016

Rep. Coleman changes mind, shakes up House race in District 16

Chris Silavong//July 18, 2016

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The Republican primary for two House seats in the East Valley’s Legislative District 16 claimed two victims before it even got started.

After four years at the Capitol living as something of an outsider from the conservative House leadership, Republican Rep. Doug Coleman of Apache Junction had decided not to seek re-election this year, and to instead pursue a seat on the Pinal County Board of Supervisors.

On his way out, Coleman endorsed a pair of moderate Republican candidates for the district’s two House seats, snubbing his more conservative seatmate in the House, Republican Rep. Kelly Townsend of Mesa.

But in May, Coleman changed his mind.

During a July 8 debate hosted by the Arizona Citizens Clean Election Commission, Coleman explained his decision to run for re-election, saying a major factor is that the Legislature and governor are finally taking education seriously.

“It was a very difficult decision for me, and to be honest one of the reasons I decided to go back, or try to go back, to the House of Representatives was because we were finally starting to talk about things seriously that I first ran on. For example, education funding in general,” he said.

Mara Benson, one of the two candidates Coleman had endorsed, told her campaign supporters the bad news on Facebook.

“Unfortunately, Doug has decided against running for another office and is now once again running for re-election to his seat. This has put me in a difficult spot to say the least,” Benson wrote, adding that she had decided to “do the honorable thing and withdraw from the race.”

Judah Nativio, the other candidate Coleman had endorsed, didn’t go so easily.

Coleman brought a lawsuit alleging Nativio had failed to collect enough valid signatures from Republican and independent voters in the district to qualify for the primary ballot. Though Nativio had collected 545 signatures, a judge sided with Coleman in disqualifying 85 of those, leaving Nativio three signatures short of the necessary 463 valid signatures.

“It’s disappointing,” Nativio said after Coleman got him kicked off the ballot. “Many of us thought Doug was of a very high character and caliber, and I always appreciate leadership, and a lot of us are questioning that (now).”

Stevens becomes adept at fundraising

With Nativio and Benson out of the race, the 2016 primary election matchup is the same as the 2014 primary: Reps. Coleman and Townsend are facing off against Republican Adam Stevens and former lawmaker John Fillmore.

But this race won’t be a re-run of 2014, according to Stevens. He came in dead last in 2014, but this year is different because, for one, he has gotten much better at fundraising.

As of the May 31 campaign finance deadline, he had already raised more than $43,000, and loaned his campaign $4,000. That’s way more than his entire 2014 campaign, when he raised only $10,000 and loaned himself $12,000.

Longtime Capitol lobbyist Barry Aarons said like many returning candidates, Stevens seems to be getting the hang of campaigning on his second attempt.

“Last time around (Stevens) was a rookie. He learned from his previous election,” Aarons said.

Aarons has already contributed money to Coleman and Townsend’s campaigns and said he plans to contribute to Stevens’ campaign, as well.

And Aarons is not the only Capitol lobbyist eyeing Stevens’ campaign. Many of Stevens’ contributions have come from the Capitol community, a strong sign that such candidates have some steam behind their campaign, though at the time, Coleman wasn’t in the race.

Still, Stevens could prove to be a challenge for Coleman and Townsend – he has raised more money than the two of them combined.

Stevens surpassed Coleman, who raised just $32,000 between Jan. 1 and May 31. For most of that period, however, Coleman wasn’t seeking re-election, and most of that money was transferred from his Pinal County campaign.

And Stevens’ fundraising clobbered Townsend, who raised a mere $6,700 in the same timeframe.

Townsend again struggles with money

This is the first time Townsend is fundraising for her campaign, and she’s struggling with it.

Townsend was first elected to the Legislature in 2012 using public funding via the Arizona Citizens Clean Election Commission. In 2014, she briefly tried her hand at traditional fundraising, but went back to public funding after her campaign struggled to raise money.

But even with public funding, Townsend was outspent more than two-to-one by Coleman in the last primary election, not including considerable outside spending on his behalf. And she still beat him handily in the primary election, just as she beat him handily in the 2012 primary.

Fillmore served in the Legislature from 2011 to 2012, when he lost his re-election race after being attacked for sponsoring controversial bills, including one to decriminalize marijuana.

Fillmore touts himself as “not politically correct,” which was on full display as he explained the marijuana decriminalization bill at the Clean Elections debate.

“We have a law on the books that was being utilized against what I call the white-bread kids, the middle class that are going to ASU. If a kid of color, or a minority, or a gangbanger, was caught with marijuana it was considered an add-on charge to be negotiated. If it was a young white kid from a middle class family going to ASU, they would threaten him with a felony,” he said.

Fillmore didn’t provide any evidence that prosecutors treat white kids more harshly than minorities.

In 2014, he attempted to make a comeback, but came up short, trailing Coleman for the second House seat by a wide margin.

But this time, Fillmore has an unlikely ally in Nativio. Though Nativio said he’s not officially endorsing Fillmore for the seat, he’s telling his supporters who ask to support Fillmore, and anyone except Stevens for the second seat. Nativio is a staunch critic of Stevens, who he said is dishonest.

“I’m afraid that people who are anti-Coleman will go pro-Stevens, and I just can’t have Stevens in that seat,” he said.

While Nativio, a former Democrat turned moderate Republican, has little in common politically with Fillmore, who sits on the far right end of the Republican spectrum, he said at least Fillmore is honest.

“He’s not very tame, but if you ask him, he’ll tell you exactly what he thinks. He doesn’t BS, he doesn’t lie,” he said.

Hank Stephenson contributed to this article.