The screen behind Senate President Karen Fann spelled defeat before she even started talking on February 8.
Fifteen names in red. Fourteen in green. And her own in yellow, waiting for her to cast a vote that wouldn’t make a difference unless she could convince the Republican senator sitting in front of her to change his vote.
Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, had surprised Fann and the rest of the Republican caucus about an hour prior, when he announced his “no” vote on a resolution that would empower Fann to send the Senate’s sergeant at arms to arrest Maricopa County’s five supervisors for refusing to comply with a subpoena the supervisors said was unlawful.
For the past hour, Senate Republicans had tried to cajole, coerce, threaten and persuade Boyer, through pointed on-mic speeches directed his way and fervent whispers from a rotating cast of lawmakers kneeled by his desk. Nothing had changed by the time Fann started speaking.
“Needless to say, I would not have put this on the board had I not been under the impression and was told that we had 16 solid votes,” Fann began in clipped tones, looking pointedly at Boyer. “Had I been told that there wasn’t, perhaps we would have talked about this before it went up on the board.”
For the next several minutes, Fann ran through her litany of reasons for taking the unprecedented step of holding Maricopa County’s elected supervisors in contempt, a vote that could lead to the Senate incarcerating the five men for the duration of this year’s legislative session.
Boyer stared at his cell phone, which was buzzing uncontrollably with texts and phone calls from unknown numbers. Within hours, he would be packing to move with his wife and toddler to an undisclosed safe location after some of the texters escalated to overt threats.
Arguments exhausted, Fann looked at Boyer.
“So I am hoping someone might change their vote and let this pass so that we can move forward,” she said.
Silence lingered as everyone in the room watched Boyer, then scanning through text messages to save the most overt threats for police.
Boyer looked up and shook his head. The vote was over. His hellish week was just beginning.
The path that eventually led to half the Arizona Senate barreling ahead with a Wild West plan to lock up other officials started in November, when 1,672,143 Arizonans voted for Joe Biden and 1,661,686 voted for Donald Trump.
It was the first time a Democrat won the state’s electoral votes since Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election. Prior to that, the last Democrat to win Arizona was Harry Truman in 1948.
State Republicans, and their representatives in Congress and the Legislature, couldn’t believe it really happened. As ballots were still being counted, they began weaving complicated theories involving Sharpies, manipulated voting machines, undead voters, the deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez and a vast conspiracy that somehow implicated Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, Democratic Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes and his Republican successor Stephen Richer, the four Republicans and one Democrat on the county Board of Supervisors, and hundreds of election officials of all political backgrounds.
Republican lawmakers, in particular, developed a new interest in constitutional law and a belief that they had plenary, or absolute, power to appoint electors – something previous Legislatures had delegated to voters with multiple laws requiring that presidential electors vote to reflect the state’s popular vote.
Three days after the November 3 election, Fann asked legislative attorneys for a memo on the Legislature’s ability to change how electors are appointed. Even after attorneys told her it was impossible to retroactively change the state’s electors, the Arizona Republican Party convened its would-be electors and Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, first sent a letter to Congress asking that the Republican electors be appointed and then filed legislation to do the same.
Townsend used Boyer’s signature on her December letter to Congress, assuming he would support it because he had agreed to support a previous version of the message that simply asked to delay certifying electors until multiple lawsuits over election results were settled.
Distancing himself from Townsend’s letter resulted in Boyer being the first — and still one of a few — legislative Republicans to publicly acknowledge Biden’s victory. Doing so resulted in angry emailers from other states threatening his political career, he said, but his own Republican constituents didn’t seem to care.
In the House, Speaker Rusty Bowers shut down attempts to engage the Legislature in overturning election results.
“Given the outcome of the presidential race in Arizona, an enormous amount of pressure is being directed at my office and my colleagues,” Bowers wrote in a November letter to House members. “I wish to respond by simply saying – I took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution and laws of the State of Arizona.”
Bowers refused requests from Townsend, then in the House, to hold special hearings on election integrity. In the Senate, Fann set up a voter fraud hotline that was quickly flooded with jokes, crude photos and complaints about Republicans trying to undermine faith in the election system. She approved a hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and signed subpoenas demanding Maricopa County turn over access to ballots and election equipment for a still-unidentified Senate-hired auditor to analyze.
Maricopa County supervisors, who already planned to run another forensic audit, balked at the Senate’s demands. As far as they were concerned, handing over ballots would violate state law that requires ballots to be kept secret, so they went to court to block the legislative subpoenas.
As court arguments continued, and under mounting pressure from constituents and members of her caucus, Fann last week introduced a resolution to hold the county supervisors in contempt. All 16 Senate Republicans co-sponsored it and voted to waive their own rules, and it looked like a done deal. Then, lawmakers went home for the weekend and Boyer had time to think.
Boyer told the Arizona Capitol Times he was comfortable with the initial information he received, but the longer he thought about it and the more he learned, the worse the measure seemed. He couldn’t imagine the thought of any of the county supervisors going to jail for striving to follow the law, he said.
He called supervisors Bill Gates and Jack Sellers on February 7 and asked for a meeting with the two of them and Fann before the next day’s scheduled vote, with no attorneys or staff. During a February 10 board meeting, Gates said he promised Boyer he would try to bring the dispute to an end as quickly as possible.
“He took the time to meet with us and he took the time to find it in his heart to trust us,” Gates said. “It’s something that is a rare commodity these days, but he trusted what we said to him.”
Boyer said he told Fann during that meeting that she needed to take contempt off the table, but she made it clear she would bring the resolution to the floor regardless.
“I heard from the board directly, and it was meaningful because it was without filter or interpretation from anyone else,” Boyer said. “It became extremely clear to me that the severity of the resolution was actually halting progress toward obtaining what the Senate ultimately desires — an additional independent audit of election results.”
Even if Republicans succeeded in passing their contempt resolution, Fann’s caucus was torn on what to do about it. She has largely avoided questions about whether she would actually send the sergeant at arms to arrest supervisors.
“Statute tells us we must pass the resolution to move forward,” she said. “We have a number of options once we do that.”
Some, like Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, voted for the contempt resolution out of a conviction that legislative subpoenas must be respected, even though he doesn’t agree with the underlying reasons for these particular subpoenas.
“I think we all know we’re not going to arrest anybody,” he said. “That’s over the top.”
But others are eager to see the county supervisors in cuffs.
“The Maricopa Board of Supervisors need to be arrested for violating our subpoena. It is outrageous how they are behaving,” Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, tweeted.
The threats that forced Boyer and his family from their home are new, but he’s familiar with political retribution.
Two years ago, Boyer and then-Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, stood together to block the passage of the state’s budget until the Legislature passed a law giving sexual abuse survivors more time to sue their abusers. In retribution, House Republicans blocked hearings on many of Boyer’s and Carter’s bills the following session, and Carter lost her seat to a primary challenge from the more conservative Nancy Barto.
Boyer avoided a primary last year, though he has had them in most prior election cycles and said he welcomes the challenge. After his vote on the contempt resolution, a former GOP spokesman predicted he would lose in 2022 to former Rep. Anthony Kern, who participated in the January 6 U.S. Capitol protest and breached at least one set of barriers.
And as Boyer and his wife packed their bags on the evening of February 8, precinct committeemen in his district voted on a resolution to censure him, claiming he “hides behind sanctimoniousness and the Democrat Party Media instead of representing ‘We the people’ who elected him in good faith.” Trump won the Glendale-based district by just 300 votes.
Some of the messages Boyer received, and comments one lawmaker made on the floor, blurred lines between politics and violence. Townsend later sought to clarify that she was speaking only about ongoing legal challenges and recall efforts, but several of her colleagues understood her speech on the Senate floor as an incitement of violence.
“Right now the last place this needs to be is in a place where the public is so lathered up over all of this,” Townsend said. “We need to do this in a way that’s professional, legal and proper — not that the public’s not — but they shouldn’t have to do this on our behalf. So public, do what you gotta do.”
Former Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, a moderate Republican who spent most of her 10 years in office as a favorite target of both conservatives and Democrats, said she would urge Boyer and the county supervisors who are dealing with threats of their own to seek prosecution for the threats wherever possible. And lawmakers from both parties need to unequivocally reject the violent threats, she said.
“We shouldn’t put it all on public safety to keep our elected officials safe,” she said. “We need to unite Democrats and Republicans and say this has all got to stop.”
It may not be possible to avoid political consequences for unpopular stances, she said, but lawmakers can choose to set appropriate boundaries and hold onto their convictions.
“Changing your mind or backing off doesn’t change the objectionable behavior of people who cannot appropriately express anger,” Brophy McGee said. “What I’m seeing across the political spectrum is people afraid to stand up for what you believe in. You need to set boundaries, you need to be consistent and you need to not feed into it.”
Boyer publicly addressed his vote on Twitter February 10, writing that he believed the Senate should have access to ballots and perform its own audit, and that he looks forward to the Senate making that argument in court.
He received 41 replies, from Democrats and Republicans, moderates and party loyalists. Every one was negative.
-Yellow Sheet editor Hank Stephenson contributed reporting