Blame falls on Fernandez for Dems not taking House

Voters deliver their ballot to a polling station, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Voters deliver their ballot to a polling station, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Editor’s note: This is a developing story that will be updated as more results become available. This story was first published Nov. 3 at 8:45 p.m. This most recent update occurred Nov. 5 at 7:51 p.m.       

House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez looked far and wide for opportunities to knock off Republican incumbents and take control of the state House. But, at least if results as of November 5 hold, Fernandez missed something right under her nose – the vulnerability of her seatmate. 

With an additional 138,000 votes that came in from Maricopa County late November 4, Republicans have solidified their lead over Democratic challengers in most key races in the state House, and in one instance, knocked off a Democratic incumbent: Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Buckeye – Fernandez’s seatmate. If those leads hold, the House will remain in Republican hands with the same slim margin as last session. 

As late at November 5, Democrats were still holding on hope that they’ll take control of the chamber for the first time since the 1960s, especially after suffering under a tantalizingly tenuous 31-29 GOP majority last session. Central to this goal is a handful of Republican-held districts with changing electorates that seem primed to elect new leadership, especially with a highly motivating presidential race at the top of the ballot.

In each, single-shot Democratic candidates with tremendous resources are vying for open seats or challenging potentially weak incumbents. The party is hoping to take this strategy to the bank even in ruby-red districts in Scottsdale and southern Arizona, where not long ago fielding any kind of candidate would have come as a surprise. 

But only in LD20 has the tactic so far borne fruit. In Legislative District 6, Legislative District 11, Legislative District 21, and Legislative District 23 – the rest of the districts that, to varying degrees, made up the party’s map this year – Democrats have fallen behind their Republican opponents.

These results could change, as Maricopa County alone still has to count hundreds of thousands of ballots. In a reversal from previous cycles, many Republicans held onto their ballots until Election Day, creating a phenomenon in which healthy Democratic leads evaporated in the middle of the night as more results poured in. 

But even if Democrats are able to surge from behind in LD6 and LD21, the most they can get in the House is 30 seats, barring a major comeback from Peten. 

Fernandez’s detractors within the caucus – a growing group that has coalesced behind Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson – were quick to put the blame at her feet, lamenting that she should have done more to fundraise for Peten, given her influence with the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. 

“I think we gave it 110 percent,” Fernandez said. “Any time I could raise money for Dr. Peten, I did.” 

Ben Scheel, a consultant for Fernandez, pushed back against the criticism, noting that state statute bans direct contributions from one candidate committee to another. 

“Everything that Peten could spend, we matched with slate mail pieces etc.,” he said in a text.

“Fernandez gave $26,000 to ADLCC from her account. She also raised huge amounts for ADLCC working with (Rep. Raquel) Teran.”  


Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, edged ahead in LD6 with 28% of the vote. Trailing him is former lawmaker Brenda Barton, who is running to solidify Republican control of the northern Arizona district. Latest returns show she has 26% of the vote. Just 267 votes separate her from Democratic Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans, who led in early votes and seemed to be comfortably in second place heading into November 4. In fourth place is Art Babbott, a Coconino County supervisor running as an independent, with 20%.

LD6 is a district of political poles with a large contingent of independents. Flagstaff, a college town, is reliably Democratic, as is Sedona and the parts of the district that intersect with tribal nations. Towns like Payson, where Barton’s from, are fiercely conservative, along with the rural sections and the dozens of little unincorporated settlements, retirement communities and census designated places that fill out LD6’s emptier stretches. 

Blackman’s seatmate, Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, left the Legislature after last session to run for a seat on the Coconino County Board of Supervisors. 

This created an obvious opportunity for the Democratic Party, with Evans as an obvious champion. She led the House in fundraising this cycle, taking in a massive $717,018.25 – a sum eclipsed only by the more than $1 million that Republican LD6 Senate hopeful Wendy Rogers raised, which seems to suggest something about the district’s competitiveness. Evans also benefited from independent expenditure groups, which put enormous amounts into supporting Evans and attacking her opponents.  

Democrats led in early ballot returns for much of last week, but saw that lead close as Election Day neared – an inversion of the trend in previous elections, which saw Democrats take the edge late in the game. Republicans went into November 5 leading by roughly 1,500 ballots in LD6, with 60% turnout.  


Democrat Judy Schwiebert is leading in LD20 House, a widely-watched race that will serve as a test case of the Democratic Party’s suburban strategy. She has 36% of the vote in the West Valley district, three percentage points ahead of the incumbent, Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix. 

Rep. Anthony Kern, the district’s other incumbent, a Republican from Glendale, follows in third place, with 31%. He trails his seatmate by around 1700 votes. Like in LD6, Democrats began early voting with a sizable lead in returns, an advantage that diminished heading into Election Day. 

LD20 is one of two districts that President Donald Trump carried in 2016, but that supported Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema two years later, a sign to Democrats that they might be able to flip a seat in the Legislature. It’s the kind of suburban district that has peeled away from the GOP in recent years, with demographic shifts that narrowed the Republican voter registration advantage to only around 6,000. 

Schwiebert, like Evans, has proven a prodigious fundraiser and a magnet for outside spenders. She’s raised $551,464 as of November 3, surpassing both Bolick and Kern by hundreds of thousands of dollars.  


In LD21, Republican Beverly Pingerelli sits in first, with 35% of the vote. She’s two percentage points ahead of the incumbent Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, who in turn leads Democratic challenger Kathy Knecht by 1,264 votes. 

LD21 is a district of similar characteristics to the neighboring LD20: It spans the suburban West Valley and has new residents that Democrats hope can give them an edge. 

But the electorate hasn’t shifted to the same degree as LD20, and the Democratic registration disadvantage has remained relatively stable between last election and this one: around 14,000 voters. LD21 is also the home of deep-red retirement communities like Sun City. 

However, unlike LD20, LD21 has an open seat, as Rep. Tony Rivero, R-Peoria, chose not to run for re-election. This could make it possible for Knecht to edge out Pingerelli, even if Payne’s seat remains secure.  Knecht also has a track record in over-performing expectations. In 2018, she was only around 3,500 votes from winning the LD21 Senate race as an independent. 

Knecht, as with most of the other single-shot Democrats running this year, has vastly outraised her opponents – around $300,000 to Payne’s $72,000 and Pingerelli’s $47,594. If either of the Republicans is worried about their chances, that fear isn’t reflected in their fundraising. 


Republican Reps. Bret Roberts and Mark Finchem pulled ahead with a solid lead in LD11. Roberts has 34% of the vote, with Finchem not far behind. Democrat Felipe Perez, a medical doctor, has 32% of the vote. He’s separated from Finchem by around 3,400 votes. 

The map for Democrats has grown as the election cycle has gone on – or so they believe, at least. LD11, an expansive southern Arizona district that has elected some of the House’s most conservative members, is at the heart of that expansion. 

Democrats poured money into the district, especially in the late stages, seeing a potential for gains in the LD11’s increasingly blue Pima County section. Perez raised more money in the third quarter than he did in all of the election cycle previously. 

Independent expenditure groups played an outsized role, as the local party infrastructure is largely focused on more achievable districts. They spent almost $300,000 in Perez’s favor, and have invested around $250,000 to attack Finchem – not huge sums compared to LD6, but for a district where Democratic registration lags by almost 20,000 voters, it’s money that has turned heads southward. 

However, this money doesn’t necessarily translate into results, and the astronomically high turnout rates of southern Arizona retirement communities like SaddleBrooke could secure the Republican position.  


Republican Rep. John Kavanagh and Joseph Chaplik are leading over two-time Democratic challenger Eric Kurland in LD23. Kavanagh has 37% of the vote, leading Chaplik by three points. Kurland is in third with 29%. 

Kurland conceded on Twitter November 5, saying that “all of the fine people from Scottsdale, Fountain Hills, Rio Verde and Fort McDowell deserve nothing but your very best.”

Chaplik threw doors to the district wide open when he defeated Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, in the primary. 

Kurland has aimed his challenge almost solely at Chaplik, needling him for avoiding debates, suing political opponents and making claims of campaign sign vandalism. 

Only Kurland and Chaplik bothered to seriously fundraise, bringing in $266,157.40 and $187,662.76, respectively. (As a note: $80,000 of Chaplik’s haul came in the form of money he loaned his own committee). 

Kurland first ran on his “Time for a Teacher” platform in 2018, when he came within 3 percentage points of unseating Lawrence. 

Two Public Policy Polling surveys showed Kurland as the first pick of a plurality of LD23 voters, though more voters picked Kavanagh as either their first or second preference. 


House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, has a comfortable lead in LD4, but her seatmate is on track to lose. 

Fernandez has 40% of the early votes, while Republican farm business owner Joel John has surged into second, with 31%

He leads incumbent Peten, a Buckeye Democrat, by around two percentage points, or nearly 2,000 votes. 

John represents one of the few serious chances Republicans have of flipping a Democratic district this year. LD4 has conservative hotspots around Buckeye and the neighboring exurbs, as well as among the district’s farming communities.  

In Peten, the GOP saw a Democratic incumbent who generally has not performed as well as Fernandez, her seatmate, and who has yet to face a serious opponent since her appointment in 2017 and first election the following year. 

Republicans have come close in the district before. In 2014, Fernandez defeated Richard Hopkins by fewer than 200 votes. That said, the Democratic registration advantage – which now sits at around 16,000 voters – has grown considerably in the subsequent six years. 

GOP lawmakers demand Ward allow audit of her election

Dr. Kelli Ward, chairperson of the Republican Party of Arizona, speaks to a gathering inside the Yuma GOP Headquarters, Monday Aug. 17, 2020, before introducing U.S. Congressman Paul A. Gosar.  (Randy Hoeft/Yuma Sun via AP)
Dr. Kelli Ward, chairperson of the Republican Party of Arizona, speaks to a gathering inside the Yuma GOP Headquarters, Monday Aug. 17, 2020, before introducing U.S. Congressman Paul A. Gosar. (Randy Hoeft/Yuma Sun via AP)

About a third of state Republican lawmakers are calling on newly re-elected state GOP Chair Kelli Ward to either agree to a recount of that vote or back off of her challenges to the presidential race.

In an email Wednesday to Ward, the 14 representatives and four senators said they have been involved in a two-month effort to bring “transparency and accountability in our election process.”

“This included ballot security and integrity, comprehensive audits, and paper trails that allow the average voter to know that their vote counted and that the election results as presented were accurate,” they wrote. That followed the certified election results that showed Joe Biden outpolling Donald Trump in Arizona by 10,457 votes.

At the same time, they noted, Ward won a new term as party chair by defeating Sergio Arellano, a southern Arizona businessman and unsuccessful 2018 congressional candidate, by 42 votes. She has refused his request for a recount, saying there was no procedure, process or rule that allows for that.

“And you certainly don’t allow a challenger who lost an election to demand something that they don’t have the right to, and we don’t have the responsibility for providing,” she said last month on KFYI.

The GOP lawmakers said that’s subverting what they’re trying to do.

“Now, our collective message is being undermined by your insistence that none of these standards should apply to your election as AZ GOP Chairman,” they wrote. “This inconsistency is simply not acceptable.

The lawmakers acknowledged that election of a party chief “pales in comparison” with a presidential election.

“But the principles that surround every election, no matter how big or small, must remain the same,” they wrote.

So they want Ward to either allow an immediate audit of her Jan. 23 election or remove herself from efforts to audit the Nov. 3 election “as you would be an unwelcome distraction and foil for the media to use to discredit our efforts to protect our state’s voters.”

Ward did not return a message seeking comment.

But the signers said the call is merited.

“I support transparency, free and fair elections in every corner of representation,” Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley told Capitol Media Services. Finchem has been at the forefront of arguments that the Arizona results were tainted and incorrect.

Sen. T.J. Shope of Coolidge said it’s a matter of “trying to be consistent.” And he said that’s not what’s happening here.

“I come at it as a guy that doesn’t believe the ‘stop the steal’ stuff,” he said, people who are convinced that Trump won Arizona.

“And here we have somebody who is essentially leading the charge and was former President Trump’s lead surrogate essentially in Arizona saying these things,” Shope said. “And when her election comes up under question, auditing or anything like that is not even on the table.”

Rep. Shawnna Bolick of Phoenix said after the January GOP meeting was over it was brought to her attention that there were missed ballots from one county between the first and second round of voting.

“An audit of the chairman’s election would bring transparency to the process,” she said. Bolick said it would be wise for the party to lead to ensure that the state committeemen who voted “have the confidence in the integrity of the chair’s election,” essentially echoing the reason many Republican lawmakers have argued the need for the state to conduct its own audit of the November vote.

“By conducting an audit we can identify the sources of any potential discrepancies and put this issue to rest,” Bolick said. “Our party needs to rebuild and this is causing further division when we need to focus on growing our party.”

Peoria Rep. Ben Toma agreed.

“We want transparency and an audit of the November election to ensure voter confidence and the same standard should apply to the GOP meeting,” he said.

Rep. Kevin Payne, also of Peoria, was more circumspect in response to a question about his decision to sign.

“The letter speaks  for itself,” he said.


Lawmakers who signed the email to Ward:



Paul Boyer, Glendale

Rick Gray, Sun City

Vince Leach, Tucson

T.J. Shope, Coolidge



Shawnna Bolick, Phoenix

Frank Carroll, Sun City West

Regina Cobb, Kingman

Timothy Dunn, Yuma

John Fillmore, Apache Junction

Mark Finchem, Oro Valley

Quang Nguyen, Prescott Valley

Becky Nutt, Clifton

Joanne Osborne, Goodyear

Kevin Payne, Peoria

Beverly Pingerelli, Peoria

Bret Roberts, Maricopa

Ben Toma, Peoria

Justin Wilmeth, Scottsdale

House panels Oks bill to let college athletes profit from skills

State lawmakers are just a step away from allowing athletes at Arizona colleges and universities to profit from their skills, at least indirectly.

With only one dissenting vote, the House Education Committee approved a measure requiring all schools to allow student athletes to earn compensation from the use of their own name, likeness or image. That would pretty much place them on par with professional athletes who now can get cash for endorsements and other products and services bearing their names.

Potentially more significant, SB1296 would ensure that any student who takes advantage of this does not lose a scholarship or forfeit the right to compete. And Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said that, by extension, it means that their schools don’t end up getting dinged by the National College Athletic Association which sets the rules that schools must obey.

Only Rep. Beverly Pingerelli, R-Peoria, voted against the measure.

With the Senate already having approved the measure on a 29-1 margin, the bill now goes to the full House. And Gov. Doug Ducey has previously indicated he is open to the idea.

All this is occurring as the NCAA itself is trying to figure out ways to update its own rules. That, in turn, was forced by several states already approving laws like the one being considered here.

Shope told lawmakers that the underlying issue goes back even further to when an UCLA athlete found that an image of someone who looked particularly like him, right down to skin tone and jersey number, was being used without his permission in a video game. Joined by other athletes, that resulted in a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He said the athletes, most of whom were at least 18, should have had the right to consent to — and profit from — those images.

Shope stressed that nothing in the legislation would result in students actually being paid to play. But he said there is no reason they should be precluded from profiting from their abilities.

The shortcomings of the current law were pointed up by Mike Haener, lobbyist for Arizona State University. He cited the case of Anthony Robles, an ASU wrestler, who won the NCAA individual wrestling championship in his weight class in the 2010-2011 season despite being born with only one leg.

“He actually did write a book,” Haener told lawmakers. But that could not happen until after Robles graduated because he would not have been allowed before then to make money from it.

“He had to wait until he was out of college before he could profit from his own story,” Haener said.

Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said the change in law makes sense. She said universities have been able to profit from the images of their athletes in ways that have been denied to their students solely because they participate in interscholastic sports.

“If they were not an athlete but were any other student on the campus, be it a regular student, be it an activist, a performative student, other avenues, they could write books, they could set up training camps, they could make money through YouTube channels,” she said.

The measure does have some restrictions.

Most notably, it bars a student athlete from entering into a contract if it would interfere with any contracts that the team and the university already have with a company that may have a conflict.

Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, expressed some concern about ending the nature of amateur sports. But he agreed to support the measure based on the “free market capitalism aspects” of the bill.



Passing bills means wise choices, gaining support


Gov. Doug Ducey signed and vetoed more bills than ever before, and almost one-third of the Legislature went home batting .000 for passing bills. 

Only two lawmakers – freshman Reps. Quang Nguyen, R-Prescott Valley, and Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, ended the session batting 1.000, and they accomplished that rare feat by taking few risks. Nguyen introduced only one bill; Chaplik had four. 

Among other lawmakers, Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, led the pack. Five of his seven bills are now law, and four of those succeeded with broad bipartisan support.  

Grantham said he’s judicious about what he chooses to introduce, and he tries to make sure his legislation addresses issues that affect Arizonans. This year, that included bills to protect people charged with crimes from losing property unconnected to the alleged criminal offense to civil asset forfeiture, and requiring district and charter schools to provide annual notices to every employee listing all pay and benefits.  

“I’m not picking subjects laced with politics,” Grantham said. “I’m picking subjects that are important to people and that affect people, regardless of what their voter ID card says, and that’s why I’m always able to get that type of bipartisan support.” 

Because of the narrow Republican majority, Grantham said he opted not to introduce one bill he tried to run in previous years and still feels strongly about: banning photo radar. The majority of Republicans support that measure, but Democrats do not.  

“That’s always a Democrat versus Republican issue,” Grantham said. “I’m not going to fight that fight necessarily going into it knowing I am going to lose, so I just try to pick my battles wisely based on the lay of the land.” 

His Senate seatmate, Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, had the highest batting average in the chamber with a respectable .650. Petersen said his trick to getting 14 of his 20 bills signed into law wasn’t anything glamorous – he just tried to make sure they would have support before he introduced them. 

“You don’t want to spend time on something that has zero chance passing, unless you’re trying to just make a statement,” Petersen said. “Sometimes you do that if there’s something you have to say.”  

Before the session started and he introduced all of his bills, Petersen took time to analyze the two chambers and committee chairmen, and talked to chairmen to get a feel for their opinions on issues he wanted to address with legislation. 

From there, he said, it’s important to get outside supporters who can testify in committees, lobby and make the case for why a bill is necessary.  

“It’s not a perfect science, but I think everybody’s kind of doing that to some extent, to try to make sure they can be as efficient as they can and get as many of their bills passed as they can,” he said. 

Both Grantham and Petersen said they limited their bill introductions so they had enough bandwidth to focus on the measures. Most lawmakers follow a version of this strategy – the median number of bills introduced this year was 17. 

Others, including Nguyen, placed a singular focus on just one or two bills. That strategy helped Nguyen pass his bill requiring clergy be allowed hospital visitation, and it gave fellow freshman Rep. Beverly Pingerelli, R-Peoria, a .500 batting average by passing a single bill to exempt collectible cars from pre-sale emissions inspections.  

The two most prolific bill authors, Democratic Sens. Martín Quezada and Juan Mendez, failed to get any of their measures signed into law, though Quezada did succeed in getting a hearing on one of his bills. 

Most of the 28 lawmakers who failed to pass a single bill are Democrats, who historically have a hard time getting legislation passed in the Republican-controlled House and Senate. But House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and Rep. Brenda Barton, R-Payson, also failed to pass any bills. 

For Bowers, it was a matter of bad luck. Ducey vetoed one of the few bills he introduced as part of a late May veto spree meant to spur the Legislature to send him a budget. While a new version of the bill ultimately passed, it wasn’t in Bowers’ name.  

 None of Barton’s nine bills – four placeholders for future strike-everything amendments, three related to elections, one to pay student workers a lower minimum wage and one to let rural counties impose new transient lodging taxes – received hearings.   

Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, led in the total number of bills signed into law, with 39 of her 62 bills receiving a signature. 

Of the Republicans who succeeded in passing legislation, Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, and Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, had the hardest time. Some of the social issues they sought to address, including banning trans girls from girls’ sports, prohibiting any state documents from recognizing nonbinary people, naming a highway after Donald Trump and banning abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected, proved too controversial for committee chairs to even grant a hearing. 

Senate approves 4-year continuation for school for deaf, blind

legislation, age, Gress, Jones, school boards, legislators, House
(Photo by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images)

In what has become a mysterious political struggle, state senators on Thursday debated on how long to allow the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind to operate before it must return to the Legislature for approval to continue as a state agency.

A last-minute change in the Senate that may be reversed in the House put the school on course to continue for four years instead of the standard eight given to most state agencies in good standing.

Most of the Senate wants the school to continue for the standard eight years but opposition from a few Republicans nearly brought the continuation down to two years. Four was the compromise that Democrats supported under protest.

Hoffman, equity, Mendez, woke, inclusion, diversity, bill,
Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek

After three hours of debate, the Senate finally passed Rep. Beverly Pingerelli’s bill, House Bill 2456, with the four-year amendment from Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, who said before the 27-1 vote he prefers the eight-year continuation. Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, voted against the bill.

Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, said on the floor that he also has an issue with just four years.

“I think this should have been eight years,” he said. With Bennett, Gowan and the Democrats united in agreement that eight years is preferrable to anything less, the Senate had more than enough votes to make that change, but it didn’t happen.

State agencies are subject to a sunset review and the Legislature may continue their existence for up to 10 years. Bills to continue agencies usually smoothly pass through the Legislature and are signed by the governor.

There are exceptions, though, like when an agency has a history of trouble and controversy. Last year, some lawmakers tried to hold the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry to a three-year sunset review.

The department had a long history of failing to provide adequate health care to prisoners, a botched execution and a host of troubles surrounding executions.

The sunset review bill that former Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law gave the department eight years until it’s renewal but requires the state Auditor General to conduct annual reviews of the department on an assortment of areas.

But the school hasn’t been plagued with troubles.

Six weeks ago, the school became concerned when their continuation bill stalled in the Senate Government Committee without a hearing.

The bill had previously passed in the House without opposition, and the committee of reference recommended an eight-year continuation.

Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, used a procedural tactic to revive the continuation bill in the Education Committee and Bennett agreed to hold a hearing for it, but then the Government Committee, led by Sen. Jake Hoffman, Queen Creek, decided to hold a hearing on the original bill.

The bill was amended in the Government Committee to two years and in the Education Committee down to five years in one long confusing day where deaf and blind students, parents and teachers rushed around the Legislature, cried, and pleaded with lawmakers to allow their school to continue longer.

It appeared on the Senate floor Thursday with yet another amendment to continue the school for four years.

Democrats asked repeatedly why the school is getting a different treatment from dozens of other agencies when it seemingly had not done anything wrong. Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, noted that the most damaging finding in the latest Auditor General’s report on the school was self-reported and they worked to resolve it.

Sen. Eva Burch, D-Mesa, said teachers are refusing to sign contracts because of the political controversy surrounding the school.

“Teachers are being lost as we speak because of what we’re doing in here right now,” Burch said.

Hoffman said that shorter continuations are the best way for lawmakers to serve the agency because stricter guidance leads to higher standards.

“In furtherance of that mission, we want to provide the deaf and blind children with the best possible education,” he said.

Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, was the only other lawmaker to say that short continuations mean better oversight. He said everyone expects the school, which has been in operation since before Arizona was a state, to continue for a very long time.

Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said it is appalling to suggest the school needs more oversight.

“It is simply appallingly curious. It really begs the question of what other motives are going on?” Epstein asked.

Hoffman refused to answer Epstein’s question about whether he has met with the school.

School Superintendent Annette Reichman said that Hoffman never spoke to her.

The floor debate got heated.

Sens. Catherine Miranda and Raquel Teran, both Phoenix Democrats, were reprimanded for referring to a rumor that’s been circulating around the Legislature for the past several weeks, that all this difficulty around the school continuation is because Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, has a “vendetta” against the school for opposing one of her bills, which failed.

Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson

Wadsack filed a bill that would have required the school to accept students who aren’t deaf or blind but have other disabilities.

Miranda made the accusation and was silenced by Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who was running the floor debate. Wadsack left the room during Miranda’s comments.

“We don’t have direct evidence of that, but yes that is our perception, that that’s accurate, that it’s true,” Reichman said of the rumor.

Wadsack declined to comment. She also wouldn’t answer a question from Epstein on the floor.

Marsh and Miranda criticized the body for not providing adequate accommodations for deaf and blind people in committee or on the floor. There is a livestream available of the proceedings with closed captioning, but no interpreters. Miranda asked whether the Senate is violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Tensions also ran high when Democrats accused Republicans of ableism. Sundareshan, and Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, both referred to the process that way and were chastised for impugning the motives of other members, but Reichman said that’s exactly how she sees it too.

Mendez tried to amend the bill to go to 10 years, but the amendment failed on party lines. He voted ‘no’ in protest, making the final vote 27-1.

Mendez noted that the Senate recently voted 21-7 to continue the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control without any similar pushback. The bill’s opposition came from the same group opposing the eight-year school continuation

A bill from Rep. Lupe Diaz, R-Benson, to continue the Arizona State Parks Board for eight years also passed the Senate on Thursday, but there was no debate. That bill passed 21-6 with Hoffman, Wadsack and four other Republicans opposed.

The last hope for eight-year continuation proponents is that the bill is altered one final time in a conference committee and restored to an eight-year bill. Bill sponsor Pingerelli said she still supports an eight-year continuation, and she’s looking at the best options.

Senate Republicans introduce budget bills

Deposit Photos

The Senate completed the first step towards passing a budget on Monday while the House hit a snag.  

Republican leaders in the Senate introduced budget bills on Monday that would continue funding to state agencies for the next fiscal year, but not add new monies. 

This is a far cry from the $17.1 billion dollar budget proposal Gov. Katie Hobbs put out Jan. 13. Republican legislators called elements of Hobbs’ proposal non-starters.  

Now, it seems that Republican leadership is making its own move for a budget that has non-starters for Hobbs and her staff. 

“The governor has been very clear that her door is open for anybody who wants to work to find solutions for the people of Arizona, and a continuation budget is not working for the people of Arizona,” Bones said on Jan. 13. 

The Republican budget is a continuation of fiscal-year 2023 funding with a handful of small changes. 

Hobbs may not veto the entire continuation budget as soon as it hits her desk. Her spokeswoman Josselyn Berry said on Monday that Hobbs will use “all tools at her disposal, including line item vetoes if necessary.” 

Republican leadership argues that in a long session with split government, the Legislature and the governor could take many months to work on their bills and won’t get to a finished budget for some time. They say that passing a continuation budget now ensures that the government won’t shut down later on and will alleviate state agencies of the anxiety of waiting to see whether they’ll have funding.  

Democrats say that if Republicans get their continuation budget now, they’ll have no reason to work with Democrats on anything else for the rest of the session. 

The bills were read on the Senate floor on Monday afternoon during a committee hearing recess. Only a handful of members attended the first reading, and none of the Democrats were present.  

The House tried to read the mirror budget bills on Monday afternoon but were held up by technical difficulties and the absence of one of the members. 

House Majority Leader Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, made a motion to suspend a House rule that limits representatives from being the prime sponsor of more than seven bills introduced after the fourth day of the session to allow Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, to sponsor measures related to the budget.  

None of the House members’ microphones were working on the floor, which forced members to either shout or approach the speaker’s desk to speak into the only working microphones on Monday.  

Democrats requested a roll call vote, and Biasiucci then withdrew his motion. House Speaker Pro Tempore Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, explained to members the House didn’t have the technical capacity to go through the vote and have members explain their vote.  

“We can either attempt to do that or we can let him withdraw and we won’t deal with it today,” Grantham said.  

Rep. Beverly Pingerelli, R-Peoria, was also absent Monday. Her absence cut the slim one-member Republican majority in the House, leaving them without enough votes to suspend the rule against a unified Democratic caucus. No other House members filed budget bills by Monday evening. 

The Senate scheduled a meeting of the appropriations committee for Tuesday morning where the budget bills will be heard.  

Senate Democrat spokeswoman Calli Jones said that the argument between Republicans and Democrats over the bills will likely happen at tomorrow’s appropriations meeting. 


Shy of historic victory in 2018, Knecht returns in LD21

In this Aug. 4, 2017, photo, Kathy Knecht speaks at an event in Scottsdale. Knecht has joined the Democratic Party to run for the House in Legislative District 21 after coming up short in a bid for the Senate in 2018 as an independent. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR
In this Aug. 4, 2017, photo, Kathy Knecht speaks at an event in Scottsdale. Knecht has joined the Democratic Party to run for the House in Legislative District 21 after coming up short in a bid for the Senate in 2018 as an independent. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR

Just under 3,500 votes separated Kathy Knecht from history in 2018. 

Knecht, a long-time school board member from Peoria, launched her Senate campaign in Legislative District 21 that year with then-Sen. Debbie Lesko as a target. The pair had a history, as Knecht had defeated Lesko in a Peoria Unified School District Governing Board vote back in 2006 – the only electoral defeat of Lesko’s career. If Knecht were able to deal Lesko her second loss, she would become the first elected independent in the state Legislature’s existence. 

This didn’t quite happen. Lesko fled for Congress, achieving a somewhat shaky victory over Democrat Hiral Tipirneni. Rick Gray, who was appointed as Lesko’s replacement, defeated Knecht by 3,489 votes, under a 5-point margin. Even with a loss, given the institutional barriers that non-major party candidates face and the red hue of the district, Knecht had over-performed expectations. 

Now, Knecht is back, flying a new banner, yet still possibly on the precipice of a historical moment. 

In the years since her defeat, Democrats tapped Knecht to run for House in LD21 as part of their push for the majority in that chamber. If they succeed, not only will Democrats break the Republican trifecta that has dominated state politics since the Janet Napolitano days, it’ll be the party’s first majority in the House since the 1960s. 

Democrat Donkey“I haven’t changed as an individual,” Knecht said. “When the Democrats said, ‘Kathy we think you can win here,’ I said it’s not gonna change who I am.” 

Who she is, is a spreader of the gospel of pragmatic bipartisanship, an eschewer of labels and a somewhat reluctant Democrat. 

“Key to our campaign is people who are tired of political extremes,” she said. 

But for now, she’s made her deal with the Democrats. And in that capacity, she has added a new identity – if she wins, she will become a data point in favor of the power of shifting demographics to elect Democrats into office. 

For Democrats to flip the House this year, they need to hold all four seats they won in 2018 while picking up at least two more. Central to that strategy is the West Valley, especially the neighboring northwest Phoenix district of Legislative District 20. 

That district was one of two in the state to support President Donald Trump in 2016 and Senator Kyrsten Sinema – a Democrat, albeit a moderate one – in 2018. The logic is that an influx of younger transplants from other states to the fast-growing West Valley, plus increased engagement among people of color, could put the region in play for Democrats. 

Charlie Fisher
Charlie Fisher

The same logic applies in LD21, said Charlie Fisher, the executive director of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which lists both LD20 and L21 as top-tier pickup opportunities. 

“It has been a targeted district for us since early, early on,” Fisher said. “It’s the same trend as in a lot of suburban districts. There’s a convergence of new transplants moving in from other states and bringing their politics with them, as well as shifting demographics. Independents are continuing to lean towards or keep an open mind toward Democratic candidates.” 

But LD21 includes older, wealthier and more conservative retirement communities like Youngtown and Sun City in the far-flung northwest suburbs, making it a heavier lift, said Paul Bentz, a pollster with HighGround Public Affairs Consultants. 

“Demographic shifts haven’t hit 21 yet,” Bentz said. “LD20 has for a long time been a candidate to be a swing district. It’s been on the radar much longer than LD21.” 

He said that historically, Republicans in LD20 only have a +7 participation advantage, compared to +13 in LD21. And while LD20 went to Sinema in the midterms, LD21 did not, though she did show a significantly improved performance for statewide Democratic campaigns in the district. While the Republican registration advantage in LD20 wilted by 2,500 voters from 2018 to 2020, it’s hardly budged in neighboring LD21. 

Fisher isn’t too concerned. While he acknowledged that the fundamentals are tougher in LD21, he noted that the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is giving both districts equal attention. 

“Having a candidate as strong as Kathy Knecht helps,” he said. 

Part of that means fitting the district. Though now nominally a Democrat, Knecht said her education-focused platform this year is essentially a “carbon copy” of her platform when she ran as an independent in 2018.

While she advocates for increased school funding and supports the Invest in Education ballot initiative, she proudly touts her experience on local chambers of commerce, and says on her campaign site that she’s a proponent of “securing our border and stopping drug and human trafficking” and listening “to the law enforcement community … to provide them with the tools they need to do their jobs effectively.”

“When I decided to run as a Democrat, I first went to my Republican friends and supporters,” Knecht said. “They weren’t all thrilled at first, but the immediate comeback was, ‘We know you, we know what you stand for. Where should we send the check?’”

Her Republican opponents, the incumbent Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, and fellow school board member Beverly Pingerelli, are skeptical. 

Beverly Pingerelli
Beverly Pingerelli

“I don’t see with my working with Ms. Knecht that she would be a bipartisan,” Pingerelli said of Knecht during a debate earlier in the month.  

And Payne said, “We work across the aisle as often as we can, and there are a few [Democrats] who do, but for the most part I never see that happen. It’s a very partisan place. I think she’d be in for an extreme challenge – I don’t think she realizes that, how her party will hold her feet to the fire.”

One Republican pollster, George Khalaf of the firm Data Orbital, even suggested that Knecht might be better off running as an independent once more, given the district’s partisan environment. 

Knecht insists that joining the Democratic Party was a pragmatic decision. Independents face significant hurdles, from higher signature thresholds to a dearth of fundraising support. 

“You don’t have the established political infrastructure in place to help you get the word out,” she said. “The biggest thing is, people don’t know what independent means. When they get to the ballot, there’s confusion there.” 

Since accepting the Arizona Democratic Party into her life, Knecht has raised more than either of her Republican opponents, and is already benefiting from massive expenditures from outside groups – more than $32,000 since August.  

In short, while the wind may not blow as strongly at her back as it does for LD20 Democratic hopeful Judy Schwiebert, it blows nonetheless. 

“It’ll be a lot more competitive than it has been in the past,” said Bentz. “But it’s a steep climb.”