At a time when Arizona’s water future and questions of how to use a massive budget surplus should be dominating lawmakers’ time, the House is instead embroiled in a scandal that could end with the ouster of a Republican representative.
The circumstances have been widely reported by now: Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, was already under scrutiny for comments he made about race and immigration last year when the Phoenix New Times released a shocking report. The New Times revealed he was charged with multiple sex offenses, including child pornography, in 1983.
The latest allegations strengthened calls for his removal from office, either by his resignation or a vote of his colleagues. For now, he remains in office.
He did not return a request for comment on this story.
Whatever Stringer decides to do now, a process has already been set in motion for the state House to judge him and determine his fate.
Reps. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, and Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, both filed ethics complaints against Stringer following the New Times report, triggering a committee process the Capitol has not seen in years.
Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, announced on January 31 that the committee will contract outside counsel to investigate the complaints. He urged anyone with relevant information to come forward, and said the committee may still widen the scope of the investigation if additional evidence is presented.
“I cannot give members a sense of when the review may be completed at this time, but we will be working diligently to finish our work as soon as we can without compromising the integrity and fairness of the investigation,” he said.
Attorney Kory Langhofer has been down this road before.
He was tapped as special counsel in the ethics proceeding against then-Sen. Scott Bundgaard, who was accused of assaulting his girlfriend along the side of a Phoenix freeway in 2011.
Langhofer said that case represented the high-water mark for the ethics process, but there’s no telling if the process involving Stringer will rise to that standard.
Langhofer said there is no formula laid out in the committee’s rules or state statute, so the task of striking a balance in this process falls to Shope and the committee.
Best-case scenario: A wholesome investigation could be completed in about a week, he said.
Worst-case: six to eight weeks.
The former would require members to focus on the investigation and drop everything else they’re doing, he said. That may be a lot to ask during an already busy session, but he said the alternative could be messy. If left to fester, Stringer could try to trade his vote on important issues to get votes in his favor in the event of an expulsion vote.
And Langhofer does believe it will come to that – that members of the state House of Representatives will have to vote to expel a member for the second session in a row.
He said all Democratic members are presumably willing to expel him already, and the chances of all Republicans sticking by him are slim.
“And knowing that, he could take the Bundgaard option,” Langhofer said, referring to Bundgaard’s sudden decision to resign from the state Senate in early 2012 on the day he was scheduled to testify in his ethics investigation. “Something tells me, though, that it’s not going to end with a resignation. I think this one will end with a vote.”
It could have ended on January 28.
Bolding made a motion to expel that day. But Republicans sidestepped with a vote to instead leave the House floor for a recess.
Bolding told his colleagues they were enabling Stringer’s behavior in doing so, and while he has now decided to hold his motion until an ethics investigation is completed – or proves to be a farce in his eyes – he stood by that assessment.
“We could’ve expedited things yesterday,” he said on January 29. “But I do believe in due process. I also believe in getting the state’s work done.”
He said the Legislature has important issues to get to far beyond Stringer, not least among them being a drought contingency plan and education.
The case against Stringer has not only called his own effectiveness as a lawmaker into question. It has also been a distraction at the Capitol as lawmakers prepared to vote on urgent issues like the Drought Contingency Plan and tax conformity.
Stringer was already stripped of a significant amount of influence before the 2019 legislative session even began.
After he was recorded saying African Americans “don’t blend in” in November, Stringer was asked to resign as chair of the House Sentencing and Recidivism Committee, a post he had fought for years to create. House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, later dissolved the committee entirely, leaving the issues that would have gone before it to be absorbed by the House Judiciary Committee, from which Stringer was also removed.
And Bowers didn’t stop there. He also stripped Stringer of his seat on the House Education Committee, leaving him with the chamber’s Government Committee.
Now, he doesn’t even have that. Bowers has suspended Stringer from his final committee assignment until the ethics investigation has been completed.
Bolding said there was a cloud hanging over Stringer even before his removal from the committees.
“This cloud hanging over him affects him as a lawmaker and taints everything that he’s voting on here on the floor,” he said.
But perhaps more significantly, Bolding said the distraction of having him present has not allowed the House as a whole to move forward to business as usual.
The conundrum has left both Democrats and Republicans willing to remove Stringer from office if that is the Ethics Committee’s recommendation, Bolding said.
The Democrats may not be thinking this through from Langhofer’s perspective, though.
Langhofer said they are making a political mistake by pursuing Stringer’s expulsion rather than a recall. The latter would at least give them a chance to get another Democrat into the House, he said.
“They’re just out for blood, and this is the quickest way of drawing blood,” he said.
The Democrats – and other prospective challengers – may get their shot anyway.
Rumors of one recall effort or another have been swirling for months. And the New Times report attracted at least one player who has seen this movie before: the Public Integrity Alliance, which ran the only successful recall campaign in state history and took out former Senate President Russell Pearce in 2011.
Tyler Montague, president of the Public Integrity Alliance, told the Arizona Capitol Times that he has been considering launching a recall against Stringer.
His organization hinted as much on Twitter: “Uh… resign now, Stringer. Don’t make us fire up a recall. The money to do it will come quickly and easily.”
A recall would require the valid signatures from just under 25,000 registered voters in the district.
Montague said that at $4 per signature, the money to recall the beleaguered lawmaker would be easy to find.
“I don’t think the Republican Party want to have this guy as their banner-carrier or to be co-branded with him. I think that would drive a lot of the donations. The business community… doesn’t want a guy like this,” he said.
Yellow Sheet Report editor Hank Stephenson contributed to this report.