As Arizona is reeling from the fallout of COVID-19 and people are sitting somewhere between preparation and panic, an unlikely duo has formed to put partisan politics aside during the pandemic.
Each day brings a new executive order from Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, but by his side throughout most of it is Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.
The two gave their first joint press conference the morning of March 19 after passing out meals to students in the Cartwright School District. When Ducey announced schools would close, initially for two weeks, he deferred to her in a joint announcement in the Executive Tower.
Even when Ducey ordered a “stay at home” order on March 30, Hoffman was there.
And though both sides will say they have worked well together from the beginning, it’s clear that their relationship wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies.
Hoffman campaigned on the coattails of educators not seeing eye to eye with Ducey. She was against school voucher expansion, something he is in favor of, and she hit the ground running, accomplishing her first goal only months after swearing in.
One of the superintendent’s big ideas in year one was repealing the “no promo homo” law. Ducey’s office was not vocal throughout the process, but seeing an opportunity and reading the room, so to speak, Ducey was quick to sign it after the bipartisan repeal made it out of the Legislature.
Hoffman was coming into her own, and Ducey was realizing how things in the state had changed politically from his first to second terms and a positive working relationship began to take shape.
The two leaders have since provided updates in unison while trying to get everyone to remain calm through the coronavirus global pandemic, though both of them would argue they have always worked well together. Especially when it comes to school safety grants.
Their offices agreed on a solution that would provide enough money to fund every school with their top choice of counselors, school resource officers or social workers, but COVID-19 got in the way of it getting into the state budget as the Legislature took a recess on March 23.
Their partnership on school safety foreshadowed a chain of events that would become the current working relationship between the two.
While things in the Legislature have been tense, albeit somewhat bipartisan, Hoffman and Ducey have shown how politicians should put party politics aside when dealing with a crisis of this magnitude. Not only working to close schools, but to establish student enrichment centers for children of first responders.
Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey’s chief of staff, says it takes a leader to put aside politics in the time of a crisis.
“In a crisis, I think you really learn who can lead. I think [Hoffman] knows what she’s doing and she’s surrounded herself with a really competent staff,” he said.
It’s a relationship both sides would agree has grown over the past month, and will continue to grow beyond this crisis.
“We have been in close communication personally and through our respective teams as the COVID-19 situation has developed very rapidly over the last couple of weeks,” Hoffman said.
It’s never really planned either. Usually at a moment’s notice the two elected leaders — and their staff — will join forces for the good of Arizona, as they phrase it.
“I have greatly appreciated [Gov. Ducey’s] willingness to partner and collaborate so that we can make the best decisions for Arizona’s school communities,” Hoffman said.
Scarpinato said Hoffman is a professional.
“You can tell she really cares and wants to do the right thing and that she’s reasonable and comes at things from a perspective of wanting to find consensus, and reach a resolution,” he said.
And the governor has complimented Hoffman at every turn of this crisis from their first press conference on March 19.
“Unprecedented situations like the one we’re in call for leadership and partnership and [Superintendent Hoffman] has continually risen to the challenge to put kids first, and to be a leader for our schools, our children and our parents,” Ducey said at the time.
Of course, working together and opting to close schools for the initial two-week period was not an easy one, both of them say, especially when the original decision was the opposite.
The message was they were not recommending any widespread school closures, but schools began to close by themselves. And teachers were ready to not show up, so action was necessary.
And it didn’t come without blowback, too. Both were heavily criticized for allowing schools to remain open at first, and even the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, wrote a letter saying it would be “reckless” to send teachers and students to school.
The decision was still not an easy one to make. Hoffman said she was listening to the concerns of school leaders, teachers and students about staying healthy and safe in classrooms during the early days of COVID-19, and her team began to prepare guidelines on how they would address the concerns. The Department of Education does not have the authority to close schools, even though the superintendent is the schools’ chief. So in stepped Ducey.
Hoffman said she saw schools taking it upon themselves to close and she and Ducey were both concerned those closures would only result in more confusion for the state.
“To ensure the safety and well-being of all students and school employees, it was a priority to provide a cohesive, uniform response,” Hoffman said, adding that there were signs districts would be facing significant staffing shortages had they not acted.
Hoffman’s spokesman, Richie Taylor, said Katilin Harrier, Ducey’s education policy adviser, was a big part (and continues to be) in education decisions between the two offices.
Harrier told Arizona Capitol Times her respect for Hoffman and her staff has amplified over the past month.
“Just knowing that I can call any member of their team with whatever issue pops up and know that they’ll be willing to work with us and we’re going to get through it together, as the governor often says, it really helps,” Harrier said.
Of course Ducey doesn’t have this great a rapport with all top officials of the Democratic Party, especially during the tense time of COVID-19. He has received heavy criticism from several Democratic mayors demanding he do more than what he’s done so far regarding having people stay at home to prevent the spread. Nobody has been more vocal than U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.
Already, mayors in Tucson (Regina Romero) and Flagstaff (Coral Evans) have gone around Ducey’s orders to expand on his definition of what is considered an essential business. And other mayors like Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Tolleson Mayor Anna Tovar keep pushing the governor to establish a better definition of essential services that doesn’t include golf courses and nail salons.
The bipartisanship doesn’t end with Hoffman. Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said her relationship with the Ducey administration has been “fantastic” lately.
“We’ve had a good working relationship since well before I was in the office I’m in now,” Hobbs said.
She previously served two terms as Senate minority leader — during Ducey’s first term as governor — and she said even though they definitely don’t always agree on policy issues there were a lot of things of which they did
Hobbs said the governor was obviously aware that the electorate in 2018 was far different than the one that elected him to office in 2014, meaning being bipartisan was crucial for him to be successful. When she was a legislative leader, Hobbs said, Ducey did more talking about being bipartisan than he had work to show for it, but things are different
“He would say, ‘Here’s this thing that I want to make bipartisan, you should sign on to it,’ And not let us [Democrats] have any seat at the table to actually really do that,” Hobbs said. “But I think in the entire term his office has been really helpful and worked closely with us on a lot of issues. I think particularly now, in this crisis, he’s focused on leading, and it’s extremely challenging right now.”
The feeling is mutual, Scarpinato said about Hobbs.
“I would say she’s been a straight shooter, and her staff is a good quality staff that’s worked really well with our staff,” he said, adding that that cooperation enabled the election on March 17 to go smoothly.
“We made the Department of Health Services completely available to them and I think it turned out to be a real success on Election Day,” Scarpinato said.
The three state elected officials – a Republican and two Democrats – still have a lot of ground to cover in the coming weeks and beyond, but it seems Arizonans can expect the process to be bipartisan.
“I look forward to our teams continuing this close communication in the future, and hopefully we will soon be able to tackle projects other than the response to COVID-19,” Hoffman said.