2016 Year in Review: Who’s Hot, Who’s Not

Arizona Capitol Times Staff//January 3, 2017//

2016 Year in Review: Who’s Hot, Who’s Not

Arizona Capitol Times Staff//January 3, 2017//

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Political fortunes rose and fell this year, but none more so than that of Treasurer Jeff DeWit, who began 2016 drearily but whose gamble to side with Donald Trump paid off handsomely.

Meanwhile, Gov. Doug Ducey’s luster looked a bit tarnished after taking some political hits in his second year in office, including a surprisingly narrow win for his signature initiative, Proposition 123, and chaos at the Department of Economic Security, where he was forced to fire the agency director he once had wanted to “clone.”


Jeff DeWit

State Treasurer Jeff DeWit (Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer)
State Treasurer Jeff DeWit (Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer)

Treasurer Jeff DeWit began the year looking like a political pariah, thanks to an intense feud with Gov. Doug Ducey over Proposition 123. In April, DeWit declared himself so dismayed by politics that he said he wouldn’t seek re-election. But Prop. 123 prevailed by a surprisingly narrow margin, taking away some of Ducey’s luster. DeWit’s political rehabilitation was in full swing after Donald Trump won the race for the White House. As the first statewide elected official in the country to endorse Trump, DeWit goes into 2017 as a trusted ally of the incoming president, with all the opportunities it affords. He had served as COO of the Trump campaign and is now special adviser for operations on the transition team. He has openly contemplated joining Trump’s administration or running for re-election, and has even left the door open to the possibility of challenging U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, a Trump nemesis from the campaign trail, in two years.

Andy Biggs

The outgoing Senate president is, indeed, a lucky man. He broke a curse that for years has hounded House speakers and Senate presidents who sought a congressional office. Biggs defeated a well-heeled rival in Christine Jones to capture the congressional district left vacant by Matt Salmon’s retirement. After some great suspense and a recount, Biggs won the race by 27 votes, proving that when it comes to good luck, winning $10 million from the American Family Sweepstakes several years ago wasn’t a fluke.

Education Funding

Jar for coinsK-12 education was the unequivocal winner this year. Proposition 123, which infused billions of dollars into the school system, won by less than a percentage point in May, and the victory spawned the trite, unofficial catchphrase of “4-5-6” as a rallying cry for coming up with the next steps in improving funding for schools. The slogan has yet to take off, but the lobbying, jockeying, and suggesting of things to do have begun. A council empaneled by Gov. Doug Ducey to reform Arizona’s school funding formula released a set of ambitious recommendations without a plan to achieve them. Meanwhile, Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas recently unveiled an education spending wish list (price tag: $680 million), while various special interest groups also offered their own ideas.

Arizona Public Service

The gamble by the state’s largest and most frequently vilified utility to openly spend millions of dollars to elect its regulators handsomely paid off. Pinnacle West, parent company of APS, unloaded about $4 million to help Corporation Commissioners Bob Burns and Andy Tobin, as well as former Chandler Mayor Boyd Dunn. All three won their races, keeping the regulatory agency firmly in Republican hands. Neither speculation that it funneled money through dark money groups two years ago nor the FBI’s investigation into that year’s electioneering activities stopped APS from whipping out the checkbook. The company must still contend with Burns, who has been a perpetual thorn in its side. Ultimately, APS still views Burns as a better option to any of the Democrats, who would likely be more pro-solar than the Republican. Meanwhile, other commissioners seem interested in putting the controversies surrounding the 2014 election to bed for good, a promising sign for the utility’s interests.

John McCain

This June 3, 2016, file photo shows Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., delivering a speech in Singapore. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

In the end, the toughest battle of U.S. Sen. John McCain’s political life turned out to be not as tough. But that’s probably owing to the veteran politician’s dominant fundraising prowess, and not taking anything for granted. A pro-McCain super PAC unleashed $2.6 million against former state Sen. Kelli Ward, the GOP challenger from the right. McCain then went on to defeat U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick by double digits in the general election.

J.D. Mesnard

mesnard-close-WEBThe young legislator proved that second time’s the charm. Mesnard’s bid to become the House speaker fell short two years ago, when David Gowan, who already secured support from his fellow Liberty Caucus members, forged an unlikely alliance with the caucus’ moderate wing to capture the speakership. With Gowan’s term ending this year and his speakership proving to be less than stellar, Mesnard emerged as the early favorite to succeed as the House’s top leader and secured the votes weeks before the leadership vote.

Lucid Motors

For several days, the Governor’s Office hyped up Lucid Motors’ decision to open a $700 million assembly plant in Casa Grande and potentially create 2,000 jobs in the state. What Ducey’s office didn’t talk much about was how much luring the company to Arizona might potentially cost the state: as high $46.5 million in tax breaks, proving that Arizona is, indeed, very friendly to business.



Hopes for a Democratic surge in Arizona failed anew, but the party still had a few memorable victories. Tom O’Halleran, a former Republican legislator who ran as a Democrat in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District, defeated Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu in November. In Maricopa County, Democrat Paul Penzone unseated Sheriff Joe Arpaio, while Adrian Fontes defeated Recorder Helen Purcell to become the first Democrats  to win a county-wide race in Maricopa County since 1988. Meanwhile, Democrat Sean Bowie secured the state Senate seat in Legislative District 18, proving that patience and consistency work. Democrats have been eyeing the swing district for years. On the other hand, Rep. Eric Meyer, the House minority leader, lost to Rep. Kate Brophy McGee in the race for the Senate, while Rep. Barbara McGuire also failed to keep her seat, losing to Rep. Frank Pratt in Legislative District 8.

Doug Ducey

ducey-1-webThe governor took some political hits in his second year in office, including a surprisingly narrow win for his signature initiative, Proposition 123, and chaos at the Department of Economic Security after he let longstanding problems there metastasize into a crisis that forced him to fire Director Tim Jeffries, whom he had long praised. But Ducey also had no shortage of wins. The governor successfully pushed through eight of his 10 priority bills last session, including legislation to eliminate a handful of professional licensing requirements and scrap regulations on the sharing economy. During the 2016 election cycle, Ducey raised around $12 million for candidate and ballot measure races. His fundraising helped keep key Senate races in Republican hands. Advocates on both sides of the fight also credited him with defeating Proposition 205, which would have legalized recreational marijuana in Arizona.


Michele Reagan

Secretary of State Michele Reagan
Secretary of State Michele Reagan

In her second year of office, Reagan made a handful of high-profile missteps. The Secretary of State’s Office failed to mail out about 200,000 publicity pamphlets on time for the May special election on Proposition 123, as required by law. Attorney General Mark Brnovich declined requests from the measure’s foes to postpone the election, but he gave Reagan a stinging rebuke, calling her mistake a “fiasco” and a “goat rope.” Reagan took further heat for her decision not to issue a new election procedures manual for county officials for the 2016 election cycle, the first time in years that a secretary of state had declined to do so. Some also blamed her for the long waits during the presidential primary. To her credit, the August primary and November general election went off without a hitch.

Ann Kirkpatrick

U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick gave up her House seat to become McCain’s strongest challenger in years, but his prolific fundraising and name recognition ultimately proved too difficult to overcome. Kirkpatrick’s candidacy never gained the traction it needed and she lost by almost 13 points. But Kirkpatrick fought till the end, and both candidates earned praise for keeping the race civil and hewing to policy issues, not personal attacks.

Recreational marijuana

(Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

Folks who want to toke up for fun without fear of legal repercussions will have to do it in other states because the initiative to legalize recreational pot failed in November. The pro-pot campaign was outspent by anti-marijuana fundraisers and got hammered by anti-pot commercials as the election neared. In the three months before Election Day, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol brought in $2.3 million in large contributions, while Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy brought in $4.9 million. The anti-pot campaign also had friends in high places, particularly Gov. Doug Ducey, who raised a ton of money for the group. Arizona’s potheads can still travel to California, Colorado and Nevada to get high, though.

Helen Purcell

Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell had never really been a hot political commodity, considering she held a low-profile office and didn’t face a political challenger in any of her seven terms in office. Even her mistakes in running elections didn’t seem to register high on the scale of public opinion, and she always publicly accepted responsibility for them. But her undoing could also be a cautionary tale for her successor, Democrat Adrian Fontes, who defeated her by a thin margin. People simply hate to stand in line. Her decision to cut the number of polling places for the March Presidential Preference election caused thousands of voters to wait as long as five hours to vote. When a House committee held a hearing into the debacle, Purcell compared it to a “public flogging.”

Paul Babeu

FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2012 photo, Pinal County Sheriff Sheriff Paul Babeu, left, is interviewed by KPNX reporter William Pitts at the Mesa Arts Center. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Tom Tingle)

Voters also gave Arizona’s other camera-hogging, scandal-plagued sheriff – this one from the county southeast of Maricopa — the heave ho in 2016. Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, who probably equaled or maybe even sometimes surpassed Arpaio in the self-promotion category, decided to shoot again for Congress, but he had too much baggage, including scrutiny over a possible FBI probe of his department’s use of civil asset forfeiture funds and allegations that he was privy to abuse at a boarding school he ran in Massachusetts before moving to Arizona. Babeu, who gave up the sheriff’s position he had held since 2008 to run for Congress, tried to leave his mark on county governance by supporting several allies running for other offices. Those allies, including County Attorney Lando Voyles and sheriff candidate Steve Henry, lost. Democrat Tom O’Halleran, beat Babeu in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District by 7 points.


Despite pouring millions of dollars into the race for the Arizona Corporation Commission, a SolarCity-backed independent expenditure committee failed to help Democrat Bill Mundell win a seat on the regulatory agency. Save Our AZ Solar backed Commissioner Bob Burns in the primary and helped him win with a healthy margin. But the group spent much more – nearly $2 million – on Mundell in the general election, to no avail. That leaves solar interests facing an all-Republican panel. Earlier, the solar company filed a ballot measure that would have cemented the net metering program in Arizona, prompting lawmakers to introduce counter-measures. The competing proposals were ultimately withdrawn as part of a deal, but negotiations toward an ultimate solar resolution fell flat.

Joe Arpaio

Sheriff Joe Arpaio finally wore out his welcome with Maricopa County voters. His margins of victory have steadily declined over the years and finally tipped in favor of his Democratic opponent, Paul Penzone’s, in November. The sheriff, once the darling of the electorate and the press, spent an hour on December 16 telling the media he has proof that President Obama’s birth certificate is a forgery. The 84-year-old lawman will also go on trial on April 4 for a criminal contempt of court charge for disobeying a court order in a racial profiling case. The sheriff faces the charge for prolonging his immigration patrols for 17 months after a judge ordered them stopped.

Christine Jones

Former GoDaddy CEO and Arizona gubernatorial candidate Christine Jones (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

For the second election cycle in a row, the former GoDaddy executive opened her checkbook to run for office, only to come up short. Jones spent about $1.9 million out of her own pocket in her bid for the Republican nomination in Arizona’s 5th Congressional District, and looked like the candidate to beat for much of the race. She flooded the airwaves with slick television ads, overwhelming rivals Justin Olson, Don Stapley and, most importantly, Andy Biggs, none of whom could keep up with her self-funding abilities. On election night, Jones clung to a narrow lead of 875 votes, which continually shrank over the next few days until Biggs took over by a mere nine votes. Jones went to court to force the inclusion of more ballots, only to see Biggs’ minuscule lead grow by a handful of votes.

The Begays

Sen. Carlyle Begay made local and national headlines last year when he switched parties and became a Republican. But his fame failed to translate as a staging point for a congressional career. Begay’s campaign in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District fell flat after barely registering on polls and raising a paltry sum, and he eventually dropped out of the race. Meanwhile, Candace Begody-Begay, his wife, was tossed from the ballot after failing to appear in court to defend herself against allegations that a majority of the signatures she submitted to run for the Senate in Legislative District 7 were invalid. Carlyle Begay appears to have landed on his feet, saying he secured a job in Trump’s White House.