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Steve Farley: A wonk with a dream to be governor

As the primary draws near — forcing Democrats to choose sides in the governor’s race — Farley is counting on his wonkiness to help him win it all.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, makes a point during a campaign stop July 24, 2018, in his run for governor. (Photo by Carmen Forman/Arizona Capitol Times)

State Sen. Steve Farley can rattle off details of the state budget until your eyes glaze over.

After 12 years in the Arizona Legislature, he has transformed into a full-blown policy wonk. He loves policy so much he claims he even dreams about it.

But Farley is trading in his legislative office for a chance to take on Gov. Doug Ducey this fall.

Locked in a three-way race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Farley is relying on his legislative experience and superior fundraising to help him win the August primary.

But victory is far from assured. Polls show Farley, the only candidate in the race with any experience as an elected official, trailing Democrat David Garcia, an associate professor at Arizona State University who ran for state superintendent of public instruction four years ago.

As the primary draws near — forcing Democrats to choose sides in the governor’s race — Farley is counting on his wonkiness to help him win it all. After all, it was Farley’s ability to explain complicated budget issues that had teachers flocking to his Capitol office during the “Red for Ed” strike and now he’s using that same tactic to win over primary voters.

After representing Tucson for six years in the House of Representatives and six years in the Senate, Farley is banking on his legislative experience to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Farley, 55, became interested in state politics after he helped form Pima County’s Regional Transit Authority.

A graphic designer, Farley’s professional claim to fame stems from his creation of tilography — a way to transfer photographs to glazed ceramic tile. He likes to joke that with his political career and his work as a public artist, he gets to exercise both the left and right sides of his brain.

Democratic candidate for governor David Garcia speaks with a voter June 10 as he canvassed a west Phoenix neighborhood. (Photo by Carmen Forman/Arizona Capitol Times)

Democratic candidate for governor David Garcia speaks with a voter June 10 as he canvassed a west Phoenix neighborhood. (Photo by Carmen Forman/Arizona Capitol Times)

Compared to Garcia’s Bernie Sanders-style populist campaign, Farley is largely seen as the “safe” choice in the gubernatorial race. He better fits the mold of rare Democrats, like Janet Napolitano, who have broken through the GOP stranglehold on Arizona to win higher office.

But this is no ordinary election year.

With President Donald Trump in the White House, Democrats are energized and ready for change. As a result, some voters feel reliable Democrats just aren’t enough anymore.

Nationally, a spate of women and minority candidates are winning elections, which could mean good news for Garcia, a Latino, and Kelly Fryer, the third candidate seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

But Farley’s not too concerned with his primary opponents.

“I’m not running to beat a Democrat. I’m in this to win this race and beat Doug Ducey,” he said in a recent interview.

He jumped into the governor’s race because he saw this as an atypical election year. After Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential loss fired up Democrats across the country, the Governor’s Office suddenly looked winnable.

“I saw this year as a tremendous opportunity with the energizing of the Democrats … that there was a real possibility of turning this state around,” he said.

Farley doesn’t like labels. But if he has to choose, he likes to consider himself a “responsible liberal,” co-opting the words of an Arizona Republic columnist.  

Much like the details of complicated state policies that Farley likes to dig into, he sees himself as a long-form kind of person. He dislikes running for office in an age where policies are reduced to quick-hit hashtags, like #AbolishICE.

Just look at his Farley Reports — Farley’s weekly blog posts to update his constituents on legislative sessions. He has posted hundreds of lengthy Farley Reports.

“I go on at length. I’m not 140-character guy,” he said.

Even Farley’s pitch for himself at fundraisers and other campaign events isn’t quick and snappy. Instead, it’s lengthy and thorough. He often cites a plethora of specific budget figures to make his case.

Numbers are important 

Farley’s wonkiness fits into his belief that better policy equates to better living for everyday Arizonans.

“People get bored with numbers,” Farley said. “But the numbers, because people tune out, they’re the most important thing we have. If you don’t pay attention to the numbers, there are people who will pay attention and they will not have our best interest in mind.”

It’s Farley’s grasp of state politics and his understanding of what goes on behind the scenes at the Capitol that won Beth Ballmann over. A Democrat from Cave Creek, Ballmann votes every election cycle, but she’s trying to get more involved this year.

“I am encouraged to hear that he has been in the Legislature for 12 years,” she said. “I think that really does make a difference. He knows how to win elections.”

Farley’s 12 years in the Legislature culminated in a fiery education speech at 4:45 a.m. on May 3 as lawmakers finished debate on the state budget.

Hopped up on Dr. Pepper, adrenaline and no sleep, Farley launched into an 11-minute tirade criticizing the state of public education in Arizona, praising the “Red for Ed” movement and repeatedly slamming Ducey before voting in favor of the education budget, including the 20-percent teacher pay raises the governor proposed.

Sticky situation

As the teachers in the gallery rewarded the gubernatorial candidate with silent jazz hands — a move he taught them so they could maintain the quiet decorum of the Senate chamber — Farley made the rock on sign with his hands.

“Universal public education is one of those things that made us into the country that we are today, and our decreasing commitment to it, particularly here in Arizona, is threatening that greatness that we achieved,” Farley said.

The state budget put Farley in a sticky situation. Democrats typically oppose all parts of the GOP-proposed spending plans. But if Farley had voted against the K-12 funding plan, Ducey’s campaign — with its massive war chest and support from outside groups — could have run ads slamming his vote against significant teacher pay raises.

Garcia, who is not a member of the Legislature, said he would have opposed the budget.

Farley, the son of teachers, has been fighting for public education since he was 15-years-old and tried to get a local newspaper reporter to expose the shady administration at his mother’s school.

A California native, Farley went to the California Daily Report in Ontario to blow the whistle on overly controlling school officials who were micromanaging his mother’s classroom.

“I had a big sense of justice at the time,” Farley said. “It just didn’t seem right.”

The reporter didn’t bite on the story.

Now, Democrats and Republicans alike are recognizing Farley’s commitment to public education.

Misty Arthur, executive director and lobbyist of the American Federation of Teachers Arizona chapter, praised Farley as a knowledgeable fighter for public education. The federation was looking for a pro-public education candidate who could elicit bipartisan support, she said.

“He just wants what’s best for teachers and it seems like he’ll go out on a limb for it,” said Arthur, a Republican.

The teachers union endorsed Farley in the primary.

Garcia did not seek the chapter’s endorsement, Arthur said. But even if Garcia had, his past history sitting on the board of a charter school would have hurt his chances, she said.

Garcia was endorsed by the Arizona Education Association, and he often says that he will be the most education-friendly governor the state has ever seen because he is a teacher. He is an associate professor at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

But at a recent Farley campaign event, teacher Phaedra Culley said she had switched her support from Garcia to Farley.

In 2014, Culley was firmly behind Garcia’s schools superintendent bid. Now, she’s on the Farley-for-governor bandwagon.

“I don’t know what it is, I just can’t get behind David Garcia,” she said.

When Culley visited the Capitol during the “Red for Ed” strike, she appreciated Farley’s efforts to keep the visiting teachers informed by posting meeting notices and budget updates on his official Facebook page.

As Farley likes to say, he turned his Facebook page into the village newspaper of “Red for Ed.”

Culley, a teacher at Gilbert Classical Academy, said she is impressed by Farley’s breadth of knowledge and his tangible education plans.

“There is just something about Steve Farley that is strong and informative,” Culley said.

One of Farley’s top priorities, should he be elected, would be to cut $3 billion in corporate sales tax loopholes in order to better fund K-12 education and reduce sales taxes. Farley won’t say which loopholes he wants to scrap because he envisions it as a bipartisan process involving members of the Legislature.

During the “Red for Ed” movement, most Arizona teachers were united against Ducey. Then, many of them refocused their energy in backing the Invest in Education Act.

Anyone’s race

But now, Arizona’s teachers — easily one of the most impressive and engaged political forces this election cycle — are splitting up as they line up behind various gubernatorial candidates.

It’s not clear yet which Democratic candidate will capture the bulk of the teachers’ support.

On the campaign trail, Farley touts a history of bipartisanship and working across the aisle, aspects that could play well among independents and Republican voters should he make it to the general election.

He boasts of playing an integral role in working with former Gov. Jan Brewer to usher in Medicaid expansion.

The Medicaid expansion vote happened in 2013, Farley’s first year in the state Senate. A newbie in the upper chamber, he caught Brewer’s attention when he offered to help her with simplifying the state’s transaction privilege tax. As someone who sometimes has to pay TPT in his business, Farley had ideas for how to simplify the state’s tax code.

Last year, Farley introduced a bill that would require periodic review of the state’s more than 300 sales tax exemptions and exclusions. With Republican support, he was able to push the bill out of the Senate in a 28-2 vote. The bill later stalled in the House.

But Farley worked with Republicans long before he joined the Legislature in 2007.

For years, he worked with former Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup, a Republican, to improve Tucson’s public transit — a widespread partnership that led to the creation of the Sun Link streetcar.

Walkup has endorsed Farley in all of his campaigns since.

“I endorsed him throughout all these campaigns because I knew that his heart was in the right place,” Walkup said.

Farley has shown his colors in the Legislature, Walkup said. He said Farley was instrumental in pushing Medicaid expansion and through that, he showed he was capable of working across the aisle.

Whether Arizonans like it or not, they are being driven by what is happening in Washington D.C., and what’s happening across the country has voters rethinking the kind of leader they want here at home, he said.

“I think we want the old-style leadership where you care about all of the people and you care about our friends and our allies,” Walkup said. “Those are the kind of people this country is going to put back into office.”

Recent polls show Garcia leading the pack in the gubernatorial primary. And some national media outlets act as though Garcia winning the primary is a foregone conclusion. A recent Politico Magazine article on the state of Arizona’s gubernatorial contest and U.S. Senate race didn’t even mention Farley.

But polls, like the one put out by Data Orbital this month, show roughly half of Democratic voters are still undecided in the governor’s race, which could indicate there’s no clear winner yet.

Citing his campaign’s superior financial resources — he has double the cash on hand of Garcia’s campaign — as a major advantage heading into the primary, Farley seemed unconcerned by recent polls.

His campaign recently filmed a statewide TV advertisement to air sometime before the primary, and is ramping up events and outreach to sway those undecided voters.

“This is anyone’s race and we’re the only ones with the ability to communicate at this point,” Farley said.

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