For the second year in a row, the House hovers on the edge of moral turmoil and the potential ouster of a member.
Twice this year, Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, has been recorded making inflammatory comments about race and immigration, and stories of private comments he made away from cameras and recording devices have come to light.
In June, he lamented that there aren’t “enough white kids to go around” in Arizona’s public schools.
In November, he said African Americans “don’t blend in.”
Now he faces numerous calls for his resignation, including from prominent members of his own party, and suggestions that he be recalled or expelled from the House if he refuses.
The controversial episode has parallels to the lead up to the 2018 legislative session.
In November 2017, the Arizona Capitol Times reported on a series of sexual harassment accusations made against then-Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma. Soon after, he was suspended from his duties as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee amid calls for him to leave the Legislature altogether.
Shooter wouldn’t quit, and ultimately he was expelled February 1 by his fellow House members by a 56-3 vote.
Unsurprisingly, Shooter was among the three who voted against the motion. So was Stringer, who lamented on the House floor the process that had led his colleagues to that point.
“I must vote no,” Stringer said that day. “And I hope that this procedure is never followed again. I would hate to be a victim, I would hate for any of you to be subject to this kind of a process.”
Stringer’s sin differs from Shooter, whose expulsion stemmed from graphic sexual comments he made toward women and men, including lobbyists and his fellow lawmakers. Investigators hired by the House also determined his actions, including lewd hand gestures and notes left for a fellow lawmaker, created a hostile work environment in violation of House policies.
Although Stringer’s words weren’t sexual or graphic, they have also had an impact on his colleagues and constituents, leading some to believe he simply cannot be an effective lawmaker anymore.
House Speaker-elect Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, was quick to take action after the Phoenix New Times reported on Stringer’s latest comments on November 30.
In a written statement, Bowers said the comments were “vile” and had personally offended him. He asked Stringer to resign as chair of the House Sentencing and Recidivism Reform Committee that day and removed him entirely from the committee Stringer had fought for years to create.
Bowers has since dissolved the reform committee, and the issues that would have gone before it will be absorbed into the House Judiciary Committee, from which Stringer was also removed. Bowers additionally stripped Stringer of his seat on the chamber’s Education Committee, though he remains on the Government Committee.
Not everyone has been satisfied by the punishment, but Bowers told the Capitol Times he believes he has sanctioned Stringer appropriately and will go no further.
“The Constitution permits the Legislature to expel a member for their behavior but not for their beliefs or views, however repugnant they may be,” he said.
Instead, Bowers will leave the decision up to the voters of Legislative District 1, who just a month ago overwhelmingly re-elected Stringer. They could now choose to launch a recall effort against the lawmaker five days after he is sworn into office.
“That’s up to the people of District One,” Bowers said. “It sounds like they’re plenty upset and that that’s a course that they could take.”
On December 6, the newly elected House Democratic leadership – Reps. Charlene Fernandez, Randy Friese, Reginald Bolding and Athena Salman – sent a letter to Bowers saying he had not gone far enough. They agreed with his “well-reasoned rationale” for removing Stringer from three of his committee assignments, but they argued the same logic must apply to his remaining seat.
Additionally, they asked that Bowers call for a vote to censure Stringer if he does not resign before session begins on January 14.
“In November, Arizona voters chose to send one of the most diverse groups of legislators that we’ve ever seen (to the Capitol),” the Democrats wrote. “What our caucus celebrates as a symbol of our country’s unique strength and progress, Rep. David Stringer clearly sees as an existential threat to the American way of life.”
Friese, the incoming assistant minority leader, said while Stringer has already proven himself an ineffective legislator to his district, it’s too early to determine if he’ll be a drag on the entire body of the House.
If that turns out to be so, Democrats could make the case that Stringer is creating a hostile work environment in violation of House policy, Friese said.
“I think that there will be a hyper focus on how Mr. Stringer interacts with the body… as a whole, and what environment does that create,” he said.
Stringer’s views may have attracted widespread attention this year, but they came as no surprise to some in Yavapai County who’ve known the Republican for years.
Long before either recorded episode, Stringer reportedly made numerous other disparaging remarks that left the impression he was, as Prescott City Councilwoman Alexa Scholl put it, “morally flawed” and unfit for office.
Jonathan Conant, treasurer of the Yavapai County Bar Association and a Republican in LD1, said Stringer has been more careful with his words in the past, but he’s been emboldened the longer he’s got away with it.
“I feel dirty when I’m around him,” Conant said, describing Stringer as a man who is easily frustrated and quick to lash out with “morally reprehensible” speech.
He recalled several conversations with Stringer that suggested the lawmaker holds anti-Semitic views in addition to the disparaging beliefs he has expressed about people of color.
In July 2017, Conant’s wife Ali was a teacher and felt personally attacked when a conversation with Stringer about education turned “scary.”
She wrote about the interaction in a Facebook post, recalling someone present during the conversation who told Stringer he didn’t know who he was speaking to.
“At this point Representative Stringer looked directly at me and said, ‘I know exactly who I am speaking to,’” she wrote. “‘I see the San Francisco t-shirt with the peace sign and that… that…. that…Star of David. Oh, I know exactly who I am speaking to. She’s advertising it!’”
Even if giving Stringer the benefit of the doubt, Conant said Stringer’s choice of words tells a different story.
“He could be doing the best thing for the state, but if the appearance is not that, he’s not serving the state,” Conant said.
Following Stringer’s comments about “white kids” in Arizona schools in June, Gov. Doug Ducey called on Stringer to resign, arguing his words disqualified him from serving in the Legislature. It’s an opinion Ducey reiterated after Stringer’s latest episode.
AZGOP Chairman Jonathan Lines has also sought Stringer’s resignation, and the Prescott City Council voted on December 4 to pass a resolution adding to the demands that he step down.
Despite the outcry, Stringer has given no indication he’ll yield.
Over the summer, he defended his June comments as an honest attempt to discuss race, and appeared at Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles to deliver an apology some found lacking. Since the Phoenix New Times report on his latest comments, Stringer has made no public statements, nor has he returned multiple requests for comment.
His fate may rest in the hands of his constituents, as Bowers and some Republicans balk at further punishment.
Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said he doesn’t see representatives going so far as to expel Stringer. While Shope said he personally has no love for the lawmaker, expelling Stringer for what amounts to his beliefs is a step too far for most lawmakers.
“I don’t think he deserves to be there,” Shope said. “But by God, the people in his district knew what he said a few months ago, and they sent him back.”
“Voters can be wrong,” Conant said.
The results may be different if given another chance, Conant said. That could happen if Stringer were ousted, be it by recall, impeachment or expulsion. Conant suggested that Stringer could be impeached under Article VIII of the Arizona Constitution, arguing his conduct constitutes malfeasance. And a petition is being circulated among attorneys in Yavapai County to ask the House to expel Stringer.
“People are tired. Do something once, shame on you. Do something twice, shame on me,” Conant said.
Pressure to do something may mount as more reporting on Stringer emerges. He has already been caught on tape twice, Shope noted, and more could come.
“Don’t you gotta think there are other recordings of Stringer that are going to come out? This is just going to be a slow leak that continues,” Shope said. “Do we get to the point where somebody’s personal feelings on race are an expellable offense? I don’t know.”
Ben Giles contributed to this report.