One of Tony Navarrete’s former seatmates is interested in filling the state Senate seat Navarrete left after he was charged with multiple sex crimes against children, and the other is considering it.
Navarrete, a Democrat, resigned August 10, days after he was arrested and charged with seven felony counts connected to alleged sexual contact with two teenage boys over the course of several years. While his criminal case continues, his resignation started a weeks-long process to appoint a new senator to finish his term.
Because Legislative District 30 has fewer than 30 elected Democratic precinct committeemen, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors must create a citizen panel to vet applicants for the seat. That panel will nominate three candidates who must be Democrats, and the board will pick Navarrete’s replacement from that group.
Supervisor Steve Gallardo, whose county district contains LD30, is leading the board’s efforts to pick a replacement. He said the county will form its citizen panel and appoint five to seven people to serve on it at the board’s August 16 meeting.
Candidates interested in the open Senate seat will have until 5 p.m. on August 23 to submit their applications, and the panel will have two more weeks to vet candidates before submitting their three suggestions to the county board.
Rep. Robert Meza, a Phoenix Democrat who has served in both the House and the Senate at various points since 2003, said he’s interested in the Senate seat if the panel picks him.
“If my name does come out of there as one of the top three people to be appointed, then absolutely I’m open to be appointed to the Senate,” he said.
Rep. Raquel Terán said via a text message that she’s talking with her family, friends and community to decide whether applying for the Senate seat is the right step. Terán, who is also the chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, was first elected to the state House in 2018 after years as a political organizer.
“This situation has shaken us all,” she said. “I know the process will happen in a blink of an eye, so we will make a decision soon.”
Meza and Terán don’t automatically have an upper hand because of their experience in the Legislature, Gallardo said, but he would encourage them to apply if they’re interested.
Gallardo, who served in the House for six years and the Senate for four, said he wants a candidate who really understands the district and will run for a full term next year. A lawmaker needs more than a single session to fully grasp the legislative process and make a difference for the district, he said.
“To be able to start looking at ideas, start identifying some solutions and start working them in the legislative process, generally you can’t do that in one session,” he said. “I’m looking for someone who’s interested in staying there for a while. I’m not looking for a placeholder.”
More than legislative experience, he said he’s looking for someone who has a real grasp of LD30. The West Phoenix district is one of the poorest, if not the poorest, in the state, and those economic challenges have only become worse with Covid. It needs representatives who can be a voice for that community and work with other lawmakers to pass policy that can help, he said.
“How are you going to address those economic and social challenges these families are facing right now?” Gallardo asked. “Many of them are on the cliff of being evicted. Many of them are in the cliff of losing their homes. How are you as a senator going to address that? Those are the questions I would have for any candidate that is interested in being appointed as a senator.”
Gallardo said he also hopes to set a standard for how to appoint replacements, as the Maricopa County board anticipates several more lawmakers resigning before the end of the year to focus on campaigns for higher office. In districts with more than 30 precinct committeemen, the county doesn’t need to appoint a panel to vet candidates, but standardizing the board’s approach once it gets candidates will be useful, he said.
During a brief press conference this week, Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios said she believes the panel of LD30 residents will pick good candidates to fight for their district.
“Ultimately this is going to be someone that they believe can take up the charge and represent them,” Rios said. “I have faith in this process, that those folks closest in the community will be making the choices and ultimately the Board of Supervisors will select one.”
Navarrete, 35, was released on a $50,000 bond over last weekend and resigned August 10 under intense political pressure. In an email to his former constituents after his resignation, he denied the charges against him and said he was resigning because he couldn’t give his constituents the full attention they deserved if he was focused on his legal defense.
“I adamantly deny all allegations that have been made and will pursue all avenues in an effort to prove my innocence,” he wrote. “In doing so, I will be focusing the vast majority of my time and energy on my defense.”
According to Phoenix police, a teenage victim contacted police August 4 to report sexual abuse by Navarrete. After taking the boy’s report, police recorded a call the boy had with Navarrete in which Navarrete admitted to and apologized for the abuse. Police arrested him August 5, and he was officially charged the next day.
His employer, Neighborhood Ministries, shared that it had placed him on leave immediately upon learning of the arrest and he will be fired as soon as that leave ends.