Legislative Republican and Democratic caucuses met separately this and last week to select leadership following a topsy-turvy election that saw statewide Democrats succeed but the party’s legislative candidates flounder under the weight of expectation.
The GOP kept its top lawmakers in each chamber, with House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, retaining their positions. Bowers put down a challenge in the form of Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, the loudest in a cadre of Republicans who felt the current leadership to be aloof and too hesitant to push back against Gov. Doug Ducey, while Fann had no opponent.
Joining Bowers at the helm is Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who took the majority leader job over Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. Rep. Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu, emerged as majority whip, taking the position from Rep. Becky Nutt, R-Clifton. Rep. Travis Grantham, a Republican from Gilbert who often presided over contentious debates last session, will serve as speaker pro tempore.
“It is a humbling privilege to be asked by my colleagues to continue in their service as speaker of the House of Representatives,” Bowers said.
Nearly one-third of the caucus went for Finchem. But, as one Republican consultant pointed out on Twitter, Bowers’ pitch to lawmakers was likely helped by the election results, proving his ability to keep the fractious caucus together.
On the Democratic side, only Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, remains from last session’s team, replacing Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, as minority leader.
“I am honored to be chosen to lead this caucus and to work with this incredible team,” said Bolding. “What we’ve seen over this election cycle is that this state is more purple than red or blue, and we look forward to working together to put forth policies to benefit all Arizonans. We will continue to be champions for working families, for equality, for a strong economy and a strong Democracy.”
Fernandez announced November 7 that she would not seek re-election as House minority leader, a decision that came only a few days before the caucus meeting that she had once hoped would propel her to the speakership.
Even prior to her caucus’ failure to take over the House, and the defeat of her seatmate, Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Buckeye, some in the Democratic caucus had lost their confidence in Fernandez. Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, assembled an opposition leadership team and a slick website under the “Unity Caucus” name, but lost to Bolding, the whip under Fernandez, for the minority leader job by just one vote – the third time the margin has been that thin in as many years.
Rep. Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, who ran as an assistant minority leader under the opposition leadership slate of Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, will instead serve as Bolding’s assistant leader. Rep. Domingo Degrazia, D-Tucson, will serve as whip. The caucus voted not to elect two co-whips this year, as they did last session.
“We had a spirited debate and vote, but our caucus has come together unified from this moment to protect working families of this state,” Longdon said in a statement.
Fann will keep almost her entire leadership team next year, as Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, and Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu, will continue as majority leader and whip, respectively.
She also appointed Sen. Vince Leach, R-Saddlebrooke, as president pro tempore, replacing retiring Sen. Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert. As the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Leach has spent the past two years in a de facto leadership role and is included in most meetings with Fann’s inner circle.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, elected a potentially historic slate consisting entirely of people of color. Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, was unopposed in her bid for minority leader, after potential challengers in Phoenix Democrats Sean Bowie and Lela Alston bowed out of contention.
Rios was the House minority leader in 2017-18, and has served in other leadership roles over the three decades she has spent on and off in the Legislature.
Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, will reprise his role as assistant minority leader. Sens. Martín Quezada, D-Glendale, and Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, will serve as co-whips.
“I’m so excited to be working with Martín as co-whip,” Steele said. “We make a great team, we work really well together and we complement each other.”
Steele, who is of Seneca/Mingo descent, said she was amazed after the vote by the racial demographics of the new Democratic leadership team — especially considering that next year’s Republican leaders are seven white men and one white woman. Rios, Contreras and Quezada are all Latino. And assuming Democrat Christine Marsh’s lead over Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee holds, four of the 14 members of the Senate Democratic caucus will be white while the remaining 10 are Latino or Native American.
The Senate Democratic team balances two of the chamber’s most outspoken progressive members, Steele and Quezada, with a duo in Rios and Contreras, who have shown a willingness to work with Republicans. In a tweet sharing the leadership announcement, Rios wrote that she was “honored and ready to work with Arizona Senate Democrats and Republicans.
“People will either try to peg me as too progressive if they’re trying to oppose me from the right,” Rios said before the vote. “People will try to peg me as too conservative if they’re trying to oppose me from the left. At the end of the day, I have represented districts ranging from south Phoenix, which is very blue, to Pinal County, which was a very conservative district, and I have a voting record that is often dead center right in the middle.”