At a meeting with a group of African Americans last month, Rep. David Stringer didn’t exactly apologize for his remarks that immigration is “an existential threat” to the United States.
An apology is not what Renee Huff wanted to hear from the Prescott Republican.
“I didn’t come here just because I was offended. I came here because I want to know what comes next,” Huff told Stringer on June 27. “And the judicial system and the criminal justice system is very important, and yes, it is overloaded with people of color.”
Stringer would like to keep working to improve outcomes in the judicial system. That day, he promised that he would continue efforts behind the scenes to advocate for criminal justice reforms at the Legislature.
As the chairman of an ad hoc committee formed to study that very topic, Stringer was poised to have a leading role in that endeavor. That committee was disbanded following news of Stringer’s remarks on immigration, as House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, feared Stringer’s comments would overshadow the committee’s work.
Stringer and the committee are still moving forward, although in a less public setting.
Reps. Tony Rivero, Ben Toma, Kirsten Engel and Tony Navarrete met with Stringer and representatives from various organizations advocating for criminal justice reform on June 26, to plan how to keep studying the issues they would have tackled as an ad hoc committee.
Sam Richard, a lobbyist for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, arrived at the June 26 meeting expecting an apology and for Stringer to step away from the conversation. Instead, Stringer expressed regret that his comments affected the committee’s agenda, and announced he’ll continue to be a part of discussions going forward.
That arrangement is disappointing to the American Friends Service Committee, which works closely with other groups advocating for criminal justice reform, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice on the left, and Americans For Prosperity and Right on Crime, more right-leaning organizations.
“His comments were deeply and gravely offensive to many of the people that we are in that room on behalf of,” Richard said. “So his continued presence is a distraction, both from a political perspective but also from a policy perspective, because it’s hard to divorce the two during an election year.”
“Mr. Stringer’s public involvement in the conversations at any level is a distraction to meaningful progress on these issues,” he added.
Stringer declined to comment, citing a desire to avoid hurting the committee’s effort, and referred questions to Rivero.
Rivero, a Peoria Republican, acknowledged that he’d been asked to be “somewhat of a spokesperson,” the public face of the group’s work, rather than Stringer.
The arrangement was struck as lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, try to find a way to keep the conversation moving forward.
Engel, a Tucson Democrat, said, “We all continue to think, especially Tony (Navarrete) and I and others, the work on criminal justice has to continue. And that’s really the most important thing to do. What we have done is committed to continue to meet.”
As for Stringer’s involvement, Engel said, “I think it’s up to him if he’ll continue attending the meetings… It’s fine so far as he’s not the face of this group.”
Rivero said he wasn’t aware that any organizations were concerned by Stringer’s continued presence in conversations about criminal justice reform, but said he’s happy to sit down and talk about any concerns.
“But as far as David Stringer goes, I don’t agree with his opinion or his comments, but the reality is he’s still a legislator. And if he’s re-elected, he’s one vote that’s needed on this specific issue,” Rivero said.
Kurt Altman, a lobbyist for Right on Crime in Arizona, said Stringer has a passion for criminal justice reform, and some insight. Stringer has boasted of pro bono work he did as a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C., and was the one who advocated for the creation of a committee to study the issue this summer.
And Stringer isn’t naive about the spotlight he’s placed on himself, and indirectly, the committee’s mission, Altman said. That’s why he’s stepping back a bit to allow someone else to address questions about the committee’s work.
“He’s a smart guy when it comes to these issues,” Altman said. “People might not agree with his views on all issues regarding criminal justice, but he has some insight, and I think his input is good.”
As an advocate for criminal justice reform, Altman said organizations have to make the best of their situation – in this case, like any other issue at the Capitol, that means working with whoever is in office and has the power to pass laws.
“We don’t get to make the choices on who’s driving policy. It’s a good policy. So whoever’s at the table, I would sit at the table with him,” Altman said.
Despite their disappointment with Stringer, the American Friends Service Committee will also take that approach, Richard said.
“If there is a conversation happening about criminal justice reform at the Capitol, we feel like it is our duty to be a part of that conversation,” he said.