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Crowd’s treatment of Ugenti-Rita heightens Senate discord

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, angrily speaks during the vote of her bill to trim the Permanent Early Voting List while Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, who voted against the measure, killing it, listens. SCREEN CAPTURE ARIZONA LEGISLATURE

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, angrily speaks April 22, 2021, during the vote of her bill to trim the Permanent Early Voting List while Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, who voted against the measure, killing it, listens. SCREEN CAPTURE ARIZONA LEGISLATURE

The unfriendly crowd Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita encountered at a Trump rally July 24 may prove problematic for her secretary of state run, but what happened after may complicate the 2022 legislative session.  

After leaving the stage, Ugenti-Rita ran into a teenage provocateur working for a right-wing website whose approach of journalism consists of yelling at elected officials and bureaucrats he dislikes. She answered his first question – she blocked some of Sen. Kelly Townsend’s election bills because they were “bad” — and tried to walk away as the man yelled more questions after her. 

Ugenti-Rita eventually told event security the man was harassing her, at which point they asked him to leave. Townsend encouraged him to return. 

“This shows (Townsend’s) erratic emotional behavior & sick personal vendetta against me and others masked as caring about election integrity,” Ugenti-Rita tweeted. “If she isn’t stopped someone is going to get hurt.”  

Her message continued as a direct appeal to Senate President Karen Fann: “This is the 2nd Senate member (Townsend) has encouraged violence against and you continue to ignore the situation. You must deal with her behavior immediately for the safety of the public, staff and members.”  

Simmering tensions between Townsend and Ugenti-Rita have already killed multiple bills supported by the remainder of their caucuses. Townsend insists it won’t happen next year – but she also wants Ugenti-Rita to resign.  

“I don’t care how well she’s done with election issues, or for how long she’s done it or how well she’s done it,” Townsend said. “If she is abusive in her position of power, then she needs to resign. We’ll find somebody that respects the community enough to not do that to them.” 

Conflict within the caucus isn’t limited to the pair of senators. Senate Republicans can’t afford to lose a single vote on any legislation that Democrats won’t support, and leaders have continued to alienate Sen. Paul Boyer, the Glendale Republican most likely to balk on some issues – particularly the Senate’s ongoing audit of 2020 election results. 

This week alone, Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, went on a conservative talk show to complain that Boyer went “over to the dark side” and someone moved Boyer’s desk on the Senate floor to the Democratic side of the aisle. The desk-mover could be Senate Majority Whip Sonny Borrelli, who’s in charge of seating charts, but he didn’t return inquiries from Boyer or the Arizona Capitol Times. Fann and Ugenti-Rita also did not return phone calls.  

Longtime lobbyist Chuck Coughlin speculated that problems in the Senate Republican caucus may result in Fann’s ouster, or even a power-sharing agreement with Senate Democrats.  

“It’s the cannibalization of their own caucus,” he said. “I’m not clear that with these types of divisions going on and a one-seat majority that the leadership arrangement will persist.” 

The Senate stands in sharp contrast to the House, where Speaker Rusty Bowers has held a 31-member Republican caucus with a one-vote majority in check for the past three years. Bowers has had disputes in his own caucus, including threats to replace him as speaker and a failed recall attempt supported by some House Republicans, but the House’s conflicts have never boiled over in the same way. 

Coughlin attributes much of that success to Bowers’ even-keeled temperament. Like Coughlin’s former boss, Gov. Jan Brewer, and former President Ronald Reagan, the speaker seems to follow a rule of not publicly criticizing members of their own party.   

“Speaker Bowers has been around much longer, and his discipline with regard to internal disputes won’t allow those things to come out,” Coughlin said. “He’s a very grace-filled man. He’s a human punching bag, but he never reacts to that. And, (House Majority Leader Ben) Toma is same way.”  

Fann has been publicly critical of some of the senators in her caucus since shortly after she became president. During an end-of-session interview with the Arizona Capitol Times in 2019, Fann complained about a lack of “team spirit” from a group of new Republican senators who refused to vote for the budget plan she presented to them unless and until it included their priorities.  

“It’s very hurtful to think that you work very closely with people only to find out that their personal wishes are more important than that of the entire group,” she said.  

Prior to that, Ugenti-Rita said she asked Fann to let her preside over debate on some bills in committee of the whole, only to have Fann tell her that was a privilege reserved for “team players.”  

“I asked [Fann] specifically, and I was told that I’m not a team player and that I’m a smart girl and can figure it out,” Ugenti-Rita said in June 2019.  

Most of Fann’s comments have centered around Boyer, who began disappointing her before his first term in the Senate even began. He was one of several Republicans who voted for former House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, for Senate president, and in 2019 his crusade to secure expanded legal rights for survivors of childhood sex abuse delayed the state’s budget and led to a standdown where Boyer ultimately prevailed. 

In 2020, he joined two moderate Republicans who have since left the Senate in pushing for the Legislature to shut down during the height of the Covid pandemic. This year, he blocked Fann from arresting Maricopa County’s supervisors for contempt when they sought a court order affirming the Senate’s audit subpoenas and has become one of the most vocal Republican critics of the audit. 

Boyer said he won’t let conflicts within the Senate or pressure from outside change how he votes on legislation. If it’s a good policy, no matter who the sponsor is, he’ll vote for it, he said.  

“I’m not going to make my decision based on how I’m being treated,” he said. “I always looked at the argument. It doesn’t mean we’re going to go out for drinks after, but I don’t really do that anyways, so it’s not like I’m missing anything.” 

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