6 ways Congress can fight for recovery from pandemic now


By Valley of the Sun United Way

It’s clear the coronavirus has had a devastating impact on workers, families and businesses in Maricopa County and across Arizona. Our community is hurting and without immediate action from Congress, even more families will lose the federal supports that are keeping the country from economic collapse.

Locally, requests for food, rental and utility assistance, and laptops and hotspots for students, are skyrocketing. Our nonprofit community, which is feeling its own financial impact due to COVID-19, is stretched to meet the demand. Valley of the Sun United Way launched the United for the Valley COVID-19 Fund with the support of businesses, foundations and community leaders, and in collaboration with the Arizona Community Foundation. With that support, we’ve distributed more than $2.5 million to local nonprofit and education partners, providing services to more than 543,000 individuals.

In March, thanks to the bipartisan efforts from Sen. Martha McSally, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, and congressional members Andy Biggs, Ruben Gallego, Paul Gosar, Raul Grijalva, Ann Kirkpatrick, Debbie Lesko, Tom O’Halleran, David Schweikert, and Greg Stanton, Congress passed legislation to help families stay in their homes, keep food on the table and make ends meet. But now, Congress must act quickly, and in a bipartisan manner, to pass another bill to address the long-lasting impact of this pandemic.

Valley of the Sun United Way joins United Ways across the nation to urge Congress to include these six provisions in the COVID-19 relief bill currently being discussed.

  1. Expand universal charitable giving incentives: Demand for nonprofit services in Maricopa County and across Arizona increased considerably due to COVID-19. Yet, charitable donations across the U.S. dropped by 6% in the first quarter of 2020, due to job loss and economic uncertainty. The temporary $300 charitable deduction included in the CARES Act is a step in the right direction. By co-sponsoring the bipartisan Universal Giving Pandemic Response Act, the charitable tax deduction will be expanded and provide a much-needed incentive for giving.
  1. Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit for working individuals and families: Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit are among the best tools we have to fight poverty. When the economy weakens, many workers lose their earned income and thus would no longer qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps them stabilize their income. To address this problem, filers should be able to use their income from 2019 or 2020 when calculating their 2020 Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, as policymakers have done for families affected by hurricanes and natural disasters in the past.
  1. Increase funding for Medicaid: Access to health care is more important than ever when facing a pandemic of this magnitude. Medicaid is a lifeline for millions, and helps keep communities safe. In order to protect families and provide access to much-needed care, states need increased Federal Medical Assistance Percentages funding that will last until we’re through COVID-19 and the economy has recovered.

Every dollar spent on increasing Federal Medical Assistance Percentages adds $2 to our gross domestic product. Those funds will reach our state quickly, freeing up dollars that can be reallocated to areas of greatest need. Increasing the federal Medicaid match rate by at least 12%, for the duration of the pandemic, is one of the most effective economic boosts Congress can offer during this unprecedented crisis.

  1. Provide supplemental emergency funding for programs that create financial stability for families and communities: In record numbers, callers are dialing 211 to speak with a trained community resource specialist and access available resources to help meet their needs. An emergency investment in this vital resource will boost 211’s capacity to answer tens of millions of new calls including inquiries about COVID-19, mental health services and essential needs to help families and individuals get through the pandemic.

The Emergency Food and Shelter Program has been supporting those most at risk of homelessness and hunger, due to this health and economic crisis. Congress should continue to strengthen this program.

The child care system in this country needs emergency funding to keep the sector afloat. Providers are facing uncertain enrollment and increased operating expenses to meet new and important health and safety standards. Without access to care, millions of Americans will not be able to return to their jobs. If we want a successful economic recovery, working parents need to be able to access quality, reliable child care.

  1. Increase monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits: Due to COVID-19, there has been a spike in families experiencing food insecurity and 14 million children in our country are still not getting enough to eat. When American families were facing elevated hunger and food insecurity in wake of the 2008 recession, Congress increased monthly SNAP benefits by 15%. In the face of a pandemic and even deeper economic crisis, surely Congress can make this same commitment.


  1. Invest more in enhanced unemployment insurance and Economic Impact Payments: While the previous economic relief packages have provided much-needed relief for workers, children and families, many are facing uncertainty in how they will continue to make ends meet. We must further extend unemployment insurance benefits to respond to the continuing job losses and furloughs happening across the country and here in our community. We also must provide additional cash support for individuals and families, including seniors and very-low income Americans, so they have access to this critical support.

Arizonans can’t wait! This community is counting on our congressional delegation to vote for America’s and Arizona’s recovery now.

Jenny Holsman Tetreault, chair, board of directors, Valley of the Sun United Way, is assistant general counsel, field operations, West and Northwest, US Foods.

John Graham, vice chair, board of directors, Valley of the Sun United Way, is chairman & CEO, Sunbelt Holdings.

Carla Vargas Jasa is president & CEO, Valley of the Sun United Way.

After impeachment inquiry vote, Lesko, Stanton face longshot recall efforts

Republican U.S. Congressional candidate Debbie Lesko, right, celebrates her win with former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer at her home, Tuesday, April 24, 2018, in Peoria, Ariz. Lesko ran against Democratic candidate Hiral Tipirneni for Arizona's 8th Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Arizona. (AP Photo/Matt York)
U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko (AP Photo/Matt York)

The moves toward impeachment of President Trump are having political ripples here in Arizona.

Two recall drives have been launched against members of the state’s congressional delegation.

Phoenix resident Peter McMillan seeks a special election to oust Democrat Greg Stanton. McMillan specifically cites Stanton’s support for impeachment.

The other, by activist Leonard Clark, targets Republican Debbie Lesko. In his formal filing, Clark cites Lesko’s decision to vote against a rebuke of the president for his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria “and her betrayal of the Kurdish people.’’

But Clark told Capitol Media Services he also thinks she should be recalled because of her role in crashing the closed-door bipartisan impeachment hearings.

Both efforts face long odds – of there are, in fact, any odds at all – given the number of signatures necessary to force an election and the fact that both sponsors concede they currently have no major sources of funding.

It will take 65,311 valid signatures submitted by Feb. 29 to set an election to recall Stanton, with the number based on a percentage of the turnout in the 2018 election. Clark needs 76,104 names on his petition by Feb. 21 to seek recall Lesko.

But here’s the thing: Any election would not take place until next summer, likely long after the conclusion of any House vote to impeach the president and send the matter to the Senate for a trial. But both McMillan and Clark said that does not deter them.

“I’m doing it in the interest of due process,’’ McMillan said.

“Somebody has to stand up here in Arizona,’’ said Clark.

And that presumes there would even be an election even if they reached their signature goals.

There is no provision in federal law for recalling members of Congress. And federal courts generally have barred states from imposing such requirements.

That means incumbents need not agree to honor the results of a recall.

There is a provision in Arizona law allowing congressional candidates to sign statements they will voluntarily abide by the results of any recall. But neither Stanton nor Lesko signed such a statement when they were elected.

In fact, Sophia Solis, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, said there is no evidence that any of the candidates elected in 2018 had submitted such a statement.

Solis said her office will accept a properly filed recall petition that has the required number of signatures. That, she said, could lead to a court challenge.

But, absent a ruling by a judge, Solis said her agency is in uncharted waters.

“The law is unclear as to whether, in the absence of a challenge, a recall election should be held with the results merely being symbolic,’’ she said. “We are not aware of any authority on this point.’’

Lesko, in a prepared statement, showed no concern about the recall effort.

“Voters recently elected me four times,’’ she said, referring to her victories in a special primary and general elections in spring of 2018 to replace Trent Franks who had quit, and then again later in the year to win her own two-year term. “I have been working very hard to help my constituents.’’

Her district covers the area from Litchfield Park through Sun City and Peoria up to New River.

There was no immediate response from Stanton whose district runs from central Phoenix through south Scottsdale and Tempe into parts of Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert.

The recall against Stanton was filed slightly more than a month after the congressman, who earlier had supported an inquiry, announced he now is in favor of proceeding with a full-blown impeachment of the president.

“The mountain of credible evidence that the president has engaged in impeachable conduct continues to grow, including his own alarming admissions over the past several days,’’ Stanton said Sept. 24, adding that members of Congress have sworn to defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

“The House now has a duty to move forward with impeachment of the president,’’ he said. “Failure to act would create a dangerous precedent that is too high a cost for our nation to bear.’’

McMillan said his views about what is going on in Washington have been affected by the writings of Alan Dershowitz, a former Harvard Law School professor, who has opined that the House needs evidence of “high crimes or misdemeanors’’ to proceed with impeachment. More to the point, Dershowitz has questioned whether anything Trump is accused of fits that definition.

“It’s placing the nation in a situation where we could be facing a constitutional crisis,’’ McMillan said. He said the recall petition will help educate the public about those issues.

“We as registered voters need to have an open and honest debate as to what we want our elected representatives to do in our name, or not to do in our name,’’ he said.

McMillan, who said he is a political independent, voted for neither Stanton nor Republican Steve Ferrara last year, saying he just moved into Arizona in 2017 and did not go to the polls in 2018.

Clark finds himself in the same position on the 2018 contest between Lesko and Democrat Hiral Tipirneni. While he is a long-time Arizona resident, Clark said he was living in Prescott at the time. He said he has since moved into Lesko’s district.

Clark, a registered Democrat, is no stranger to Arizona politics. He is a regular fixture at the Capitol and often testifies on pending legislation.

Three of the four other Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation have said they support proceeding with impeachment: Raul Grijalva, Ruben Gallego and Ann Kirkpatrick. Only Tom O’Halleran has not gone that far, saying only he supports the impeachment inquiry.

Arizona lawmakers split as House OKs $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill

House members worked into the early morning Saturday to pass the Biden administration’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and move forward on a separate $1.85 trillion social spending package that Democratic leaders hope to deliver before Thanksgiving. (Photo courtesy Architect of the Capitol)

Arizona lawmakers split on party lines late Friday night as the House voted 228-206 to pass a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, giving final passage to a centerpiece of the Biden administration’s agenda. 

All four Arizona Republicans voted against and all five Arizona Democrats voted for the bill, which has already passed the Senate and now goes to the president for his signature. 

“For far too long, Congress has agreed that infrastructure is an American priority but has let political gridlock get in the way of concrete action,” said Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, in a statement after the vote. “I was proud to vote to pass this much-needed package today.” 

But it was political gridlock that prevented House Democrats from pushing through another key part of the White House’s plan, the $1.85 trillion Build Back Better bill that would fund everything from child care to housing to climate change efforts. 

Instead, the House cast a 221-213 procedural vote, strictly along party lines, that keeps the bill alive for a final vote when lawmakers return from their Veterans’ Day recess. 

The votes followed a full day of wrangling between moderate and progressive House Democrats, with the moderates demanding to see a Congressional Budget Office “score” on the actual costs of the bill before committing to vote. 

“We had hoped to bring both bills to the floor today,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday, before announcing the plan to keep Build Back Better alive while negotiations continue. “Some members want more clarification or validation of numbers that have been put forth, its top line that it is fully paid for, and we honor that request.” 

The two bills had been linked, with progressive Democrats refusing to vote for the infrastructure bill until they were assured of getting what they wanted in the Build Back Better plan, which was cut from the original $3.5 trillion after Senate moderates – including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona – objected to its size. 

Despite the delays, House leaders said they hope to be able to pass the bill and send it to the Senate for final approval before Thanksgiving. 

Pelosi said Friday that while negotiations on the larger bill continued, it was important to pass the infrastructure bill so that the jobs it is expected to create “can come online as soon as possible.” 

“We have waited a while, we had hoped to pass it sooner, but we can’t wait too much later for the legislation,” she said. 

The vote on the infrastructure bill came shortly before midnight on a day that began at 8 a.m. for the House. The procedural vote on the Build Back Better plan came at 12:37 a.m. Saturday. But supporters said it was important to move forward, particularly on the infrastructure bill. 

“President Biden and this Democratic majority were elected to bring real, tangible change that could be felt in all corners of the country,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, in a statement. “The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act does that by providing critical funds to rebuild Arizona’s roads, bridges, and public transit and expanding access to reliable broadband and clean water for all communities.” 

Republican critics said the bill is too costly and loaded with projects that have little to do with actual infrastructure but merely push a liberal agenda. 

“While our nation is in need of infrastructure improvements to our roads, bridges, highways, railways, power, and water systems, this bill simply missed the mark,” said a statement from Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria. “The spending in this bill is not paid for and will add to our national debt, plus only a low percentage of the bill is actually spent on real infrastructure needs.” 

Ultimately, six Democratic progressives crossed the aisle to vote against the infrastructure bill and 13 Republicans voted for it. 

The White House said the infrastructure bill, also known as the American Jobs Plan, would go toward repairing bridges and roads, modernizing public transit, extending broadband, ensuring clean and safe drinking water and more. 

In Arizona, it said, the bill would help repair 132 bridges and 3,100 miles of highway that are in poor condition, address an estimated $9.1 billion in needed water infrastructure projects and improve broadband access for the 14% of Arizonans who have none and the 45% who live in an area with just one provider, among other goals. 

But the bill also includes items that are not traditionally thought of as infrastructure. It calls for funding for home care for the elderly and disabled, for more home weatherization for low-income homeowners and for an increase in child care facilities in the state, where 48% of residents live in a “childcare desert.” 

The more-ambitious 10-year, $1.85 trillion Build Back Better plan would cover everything from child care to Medicare, and reduce taxes for workers and families, according to an administration fact sheet. 

The White House said that in Arizona the plan would provide access to child care for 457,864 young children per year and expand access to free preschool to more than 139,000 additional 3- and 4-year-olds per year. It would also expand Medicaid coverage to 158,000 uninsured people and save hundreds of dollars in health care annually for more than 107,000 Arizonans. 

The spending plan also aims to expand rental assistance for Arizona renters and increase housing supply by 1 million affordable housing units nationwide. 

Democratic leaders, including President Joe Biden, insist that the plan will pay for itself, through higher taxes on corporations and the highest-wage earners. 

Debate on the cost of the bill has taken place over the past several months, and that continued Friday, with Gallego tweeting that the package “creates jobs, grows the economy invests in children, families and climate action and is paid for.” 

But Lesko said the “huge tax-and-spend bill” will drive up inflation and “every single American will pay for it.” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, went further, calling it a “far left … Socialist spending plan.” 

The current $1.85 trillion Build Back Better plan is a scaled-back version of the originally proposed 10-year, $3.5 trillion budget. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said Democratic progressives had been called on “to compromise and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” and had done so. He called on party moderates “to practice what they preach and vote to Build Back Better.” 

If the plan can pass the House when it comes back after recess, it must still go to the Senate. Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, said Friday’s vote on the infrastructure bill was “a big step forward – an important one – but our work is only half done.” 

“We must continue our work to pass a meaningful reconciliation bill that will strengthen America’s middle class and lower everyday costs that burden families without adding to our national debt,” Stanton said in a statement after Friday’s votes. 


CD8 results give Democrats confidence for midterm elections

Hiral Tipirneni, Democratic candidate in the special election in Arizona's 8th Congressional District, greets supporters after polls closed in her run against Republican Debbie Lesko, Tuesday, April 24, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. Lesko won the election. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Hiral Tipirneni, Democratic candidate in the special election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, greets supporters after polls closed in her run against Republican Debbie Lesko, Tuesday, April 24, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. Lesko won the election. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The outlook of Democrats in the state got rosier on April 24 when the special election results in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District put the Republican candidate in the bright red district ahead by only 5 percentage points.

Or, at least, Democrats believed their outlook improved, and some political consultants and pollsters say that could be all it takes for the party to be energized enough to turn the tide.

Former state Sen. Debbie Lesko is heading to Congress now, but after a strong showing in the heavily conservative district, Democrat Hiral Tipirneni has already said she will run again in the general election in November. Lesko has also filed to defend her newly acquired seat.

Pollster George Khalaf said the election results indicate that about 15 percent of Republicans in the district voted for Tipirneni, a highly abnormal result in any district in Arizona, let alone CD8, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by 77,653 registered voters. And 10 to 15 percent of independents went with the Democrat, another unusual result considering Arizona independents more typically lean toward the majority party in their geographic areas.

Khalaf said he had been bullish in his predictions for CD8, anticipating Lesko’s margin of victory would reach high single digits if not low doubles.

Appearing on Fox News April 24 as polls were just opening, Lesko said all eyes were on the CD8 election because it serves as a “bellwether” for the midterm elections.  

Republican U.S. Congressional candidate Debbie Lesko, right, celebrates her win with former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer at her home, Tuesday, April 24, 2018, in Peoria, Ariz. Lesko ran against Democratic candidate Hiral Tipirneni for Arizona's 8th Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Arizona. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Republican U.S. Congressional candidate Debbie Lesko, right, celebrates her win with former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer at her home, Tuesday, April 24, 2018, in Peoria, Ariz. Lesko ran against Democratic candidate Hiral Tipirneni for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Arizona. (AP Photo/Matt York)

But she didn’t win big – at least not by the same margins that President Trump or her predecessor Trent Franks enjoyed. Trump won CD8 by 21 points.

So, if CD8 really was a bellwether for the rest of the state, or the country, strategists say that doesn’t spell good news for the GOP.

Democratic consultant Chad Campbell said Tipirneni could pull off a win in November if she can keep attracting independents and crossover Republicans while amplifying the energy in her own party.

And if CD8 goes blue, he said that would come with “an unprecedented wave of Democratic pickups across the country.”

“Anybody from the GOP side trying to spin that this isn’t a big deal is doing just that – they’re spinning it,” Campbell said. “That district should never have had that much of a turnaround given the demographics there, especially considering how much money Republicans spent compared to the Democrats.”

But GOP consultant Lisa James was more focused on the ultimate result: that this was a “solid” Republican win.

“A win is a win is a win,” she said.

That’s not to say there are no lessons for Republicans in these results.

She said 2018 is not the time for her party to take anything for granted, including their own voters in traditionally red districts.

James has complete confidence in Lesko’s ability to hold onto the CD8 seat in November, but she said the party shouldn’t simply count on it.

And that’s because Democrats will see the special election results as a sign and use that to energize left-leaning voters.

“Democratic confidence has its own magic,” said Stan Barnes, a lobbyist and former Republican lawmaker.

Democrats believe there is a “blue wave” coming, he said, and because they do, stronger candidates with more money are going to see an opportunity in Arizona and across the country in 2018.

That’s something the Republicans are lacking, he said.

“Republicans feel like there’s everything to lose, and Democrats feel like there’s everything to win,” he said. “And they’ve tasted the confidence of believing that’s possible.”

Now that Tipirneni has put up a greater fight than expected in the heavily Republican district, the question is whether she’ll attract financial backing from national Democratic groups.

Campbell said Tipirneni has proven herself to be a strong candidate, and that now, more than ever, it’s clear many other districts could be more winnable.

“I just don’t know if this district is still just going to be a victim of being a bad geographic and demographic composition for a Democratic candidate to attract outside money,” Campbell said.

And even if national groups don’t spend directly in CD8, he said, their spending in support of other statewide candidates like U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who is running for the U.S. Senate, could ultimately benefit Tipirneni and other Democratic candidates elsewhere in the state.

But Khalaf said it’s one thing if national Democrats spend in CD8 – it’s another thing entirely if it would help Tipirneni in November.

He cautioned that before national Democratic groups get heavily invested in CD8, they might want to ask whether the Republicans who may be willing to cross over to a Democrat want to be bombarded with messages from the likes of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“These Republicans may be giving their local person a chance, but it’s a whole other thing to be wrapped up with a national Democrat brand,” Khalaf said. “You’d be hard pressed to get 15 percent of Republicans in any district to align with that.”

CD8 – where GOP winner can hold the seat a long, long time

With a nearly 2-1 Republican advantage over Democrats in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, the recently vacated seat offers job security to the victor of the special primary election.

Although Democrats Dr. Hiral Tipirneni and Brianna Westbrook are also seeking the seat, Republican consultant Chris Baker says neither will win.

“Not only is it a heavily Republican district, the independents are generally conservative and the Republicans in the district are not of a type who would even remotely consider voting for a Democrat,” he said.

And that means the winner of the Republican special primary election on February 27 can expect to hold onto the seat for as long as he or she wants it. The district includes many of the suburbs west and north of Phoenix.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., takes his seat before the start of a House Judiciary hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, on Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Franks says in a statement that he never physically intimidated, coerced or attempted to have any sexual contact with any member of his congressional staff. Instead, he says, the dispute resulted from a discussion of surrogacy. Franks and his wife have 3-year-old twins who were conceived through surrogacy. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Former Rep. Trent Franks (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Baker speaks from experience. He worked for former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks when he was first elected to serve the district in 2002.

Franks held that seat until December when he resigned after allegedly asking female staffers to carry his child via surrogacy.

Baker said this primary will not require the same level of name recognition as in other congressional races. The candidates also don’t have the time or resources to cultivate that image.

Instead, it will be about who can reach the magic number of voters and hold on tight with a socially conservative message.

Baker said Franks won the primary in 2002 with 28 percent of the vote.

He said the winner now will have to worry less about standing out in the crowded Republican field and more about fostering a coalition of voters that can get him or her to around 30 percent.

Twelve candidates are seeking the GOP primary nomination, including  Chad Allen, Brenden Dilley, Stephen Dolgos, David Lien, Richard Mack, Christopher Sylvester, Clair Van Steenwyk and Mark Yates.

However, Debbie Lesko, Phil Lovas, Steve Montenegro and Bob Stump, all former state legislators, are widely considered to be the top competitors.

Republican consultant Ryan O’Daniel narrowed the presumptive field even more. He said Lovas, Montenegro and especially Lesko will have an advantage because of their experience in CD8.

“It’s going to be an insider election,” he said. “The people who pay attention to politics and already have some loyalty to one of the candidates are the ones who are going to vote.”

He predicted there won’t be many undecided voters on Election Day, and fewer minds will be changed.

The short time frame on the special election will not allow for wiggle room.

By Katie Campbell
By Katie Campbell

Congressional incumbents lead their primary races


All nine members of Arizona’s congressional delegation are leading their respective primary races.

Democratic Congressman Tom O’Halleran, who represents Arizona’s First Congressional District, is leading former Flagstaff City Councilmember Eva Putzova by 14 percentage points in early ballots. If he keeps his lead, he’ll face the likely Republican nominee in Tiffany Shedd in November. Shedd leads Nolan Reidhead 56% to 44%. 

In Arizona’s Second Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Tucson, will defend the seat she won in 2018. Her Republican challenger will come from a three-man race between Brandon Martin, Joseph Morgan, and Noran Eric Ruden. Martin is currently leading with 44% of the vote.

Congressman Raul Grijalva, who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19, did not face a Democratic primary challenge and will face Daniel Wood, a Republican, who was also unopposed, in the Third Congressional District.

In Western Arizona’s Fourth Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar  leads his primary opponent Anne Marie Ward by 25 percentage points and will likely face Delina DiSanto, a Democrat, in the general election. DiSanto is currently leading Stuart Starky with 74% of the vote. 

Andy Biggs, a two-term Republican congressman and leader of the Freedom Caucus, is on his way to his third term in Arizona’s Fifth Congressional District, but must beat Democrat Joan Greene on Nov. 3 to make it official. Greene is ahead of her two opponents with 51% of the vote.

U.S. Rep. David Schwiekert, fresh off admitting to 11 separate ethics violations, will defend his seat in the Sixth Congressional District from his Democratic challenger Hiral Tipirneni, in a race national Democrats have been targeting for a while. Schweikert did not face a Republican opponent though there were rumors in 2019 that he might. Tipirneni is currently leading her primary with 54% of the vote to Anita Malik’s 36%. 

Ruben Gallego, Arizona’s Democratic congressman in the Seventh Congressional District, did not have a primary opponent contrary to 2018, and will now face Republican Joshua Barnett, a candidate who has not filed his campaign finance report since September 2019, which the Federal Election Commission says is likely because he did not raise or spend more than $5,000 in each quarter. 

Debbie Lesko, a first-term Congresswoman in Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District, will defend her seat in the west parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area against Democrat Michael Muscato. Moscato is currently leading with 54% of the vote over Bob Musselwhite and Robert Olsen.

And Greg Stanton, who  won Arizona’s Ninth Congressional District in 2018, went unopposed this year and will defend his seat against likely Republican candidate Dave Giles. He is currently leading with 54% of the vote over Sam Huang and Nicholas Tutora.


Conservationists split on protections for Grand Canyon

The Canyon Mine, 15 miles south of Grand Canyon National Park, opened in 1986, but has produced no ore because of low uranium prices. (Photo by Jake Eldridge/Cronkite News)
The Canyon Mine, 15 miles south of Grand Canyon National Park, opened in 1986, but has produced no ore because of low uranium prices. (Photo by Jake Eldridge/Cronkite News)

While Democrats work on two fronts to protect the Grand Canyon, conservationists disagree on one of the measures.  

The Biden administration has set out to conserve 30% of American lands and waters by 2030, an ambitious goal that would require the collaboration of local and state governments, conservationists and indigenous peoples, and his gameplan heavily stresses the need for local governments to lead the charge on conservation efforts. 

Relying on local governments to halt proposed mining operations in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon worries conservation experts like Joe Trudeau of the Center for Biological Diversity.   

Trudeau, who specializes in helping protect wilderness areas in the Southwest from logging, mining and what his group considers other potentially harmful practices, fears that local governments will side with the mining companies rather than working to protect the land from exploitation. 

“There’s the cultural resistance to [protecting land] in a lot of Western states,” he said. “There are people who just don’t trust entities that protect land from development, whether that’s the government or land trusts or conservancies. A lot of trust needs to be built there.” 

The canyon is a source of livelihood for many Arizona residents. While its scenic views and unique rock formations attract an estimated 5.9 million tourists every year, the canyon’s plentiful supply of uranium has also drawn in mining operations that threaten to pollute the Colorado River and the surrounding forests. 

The canyon has been under a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims enacted in 2012, but the moratorium did not affect existing permits, which includes 1 million acres outside the park but within the canyon’s watershed. 

Although Trudeau is skeptical of the Biden Administration’s approach, other conservationists such as Aaron Weiss from the Center for Western Priorities see it as the only viable way to fight against the exploitation of American lands. Weiss, an Arizona native, said the participation of local governments is a crucial part of conserving threatened ecosystems. 

“That has to be the way we do it,” he said. “Once everyone is talking to each other, you find it’s possible to reach consensus, when you get everyone working together to say, ‘Here is the land that is important to protect, here is the land that is important for wildlife.’” 

Weiss says that locally led protection efforts could be the key to ensuring long-term protections in the Grand Canyon region, pointing to widespread support among Native American nations in the area and Arizona voters who have been very proactive in trying to conserve their ancestral homelands. 

“There is bipartisan consensus in Arizona that we need to protect the Grand Canyon,” Weiss said. “The role that Indigenous tribes are playing is the leadership role. It is important for all of us in the conservation community, first and foremost, to step back and listen to Indigenous voices, listen to the people who have cared for this land.” 

The difficulty that comes with relying on local governments to protect land is something that Trudeau has experienced firsthand. For the past several years, he has worked to secure increased protection for a geological formation in Yavapai County that also holds large uranium deposits. His efforts have encountered heavy resistance from municipal governments in the area at every turn. 

“For five years now we’ve been working to protect a certain piece of land in an area called the Granite Dells,” he said. “We were faced with fierce resistance from the city of Prescott. Municipal bodies, city councils and county boards of supervisors are in many ways beholden to the growth industry. It’s very difficult to protect land if you don’t have political bodies who are willing to say no to a form of development.” 

Though the Biden administration trusts that local governments will do their part to protect the precious ecosystems that fall under their respective jurisdictions, Trudeau insists that more federal oversight is required to ensure that public lands such as the Grand Canyon are adequately protected.  

“[The plan] does not recommend that we designate new wilderness areas or new wild and scenic river corridors,” he said. “These are proven measures to help protect the environment, provide places for people to enjoy and see wildlife and have innumerable, immeasurable benefits.” 

In February, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Grand Canyon Protection Act, which seeks to permanently ban new mining operations in a 1-million acre stretch of public land around the canyon. 

The 227-220 vote was nearly along party lines with eight Republicans joining the majority to vote for it. The Arizona delegation members, including the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, voted with their respective parties.  

In general, critics said banning uranium mining around the canyon brings economic costs and risks national security.  

“Decreasing our reliance on foreign nations for critical minerals is an important part of ensuring our national security,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, in a written statement. “The Grand Canyon region is home to uranium which is essential to many industries. We should not limit our domestic production of this important resource.”  

The bill has seen no action in the Senate, where mining bans have died before, but Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly have introduced their own version that would prohibit mining after a study on the national uranium stockpile.  

Haleigh Kochanski of Cronkite News contributed to this report.  

Court losses piling up for anti-abortion legislation, cost state millions

The state of Arizona has been ordered to pay roughly $2.2 million in legal fees in the past eight years to organizations that challenge restrictive abortion laws adopted by the Republican-controlled state Legislature.

Some of those court orders are more than a decade in the making, like a challenge to a 1999 law with sweeping regulations of abortion providers that was finally settled in 2010, to a more recent case dealing with questionable medical advice the state required physicians to give to patients seeking medication abortions, for which a U.S. District Court judge ruled in August the state must cough up more than $600,000 in attorneys’ fees.

Just this week, the state and Planned Parenthood of Arizona settled the case for a sum of $550,000 in attorney fees.

Those court ordered payments, the result of five cases the state has either lost, settled or been nullified by legislative repeal, don’t include the costs to the Attorney General’s Office, which spent more than 3,300 hours and an estimated $173,500 defending the state in four such cases, according to an analysis of expense records and time sheets provided by the attorney general.

All told, that’s roughly $2.32 million spent defending laws that legislators were warned may not pass muster in court.

[Story continues after graphic.]

  • Tucson Women’s Clinic v. Eden
  • Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence v. Arizona Department of Revenue
  • Isaacson v. Horne
Lawmakers approved HB2706 in 1999, and the lawsuit stemming from it would span for more than a decade. Known as a TRAP bill, or “targeted regulation of abortion providers,” the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a complaint on behalf of several Arizona physicians. The law was ultimately enjoined by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004. The state then negotiated with plaintiffs to reach a settlement that was ultimately finalized in April 2010. The Center for Arizona Policy notes on its bill tracker that the law was overturned in court. ATTORNEY FEES: $389,000
In 2011, lawmakers approved a bill sponsored by then-Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, that sought to prevent Arizona donors from receiving tax credits if they make financial contributions to abortion providers. Challengers never objected to that part of the law. However, the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence took issue with part of the law that banned even organizations that “promote” abortion or refer clients to abortion providers from being eligible for the state’s list of tax credit-eligible groups. The coalition, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, blocked the law in court. Lesko sponsored a different bill in 2012 that omitted the problematic referral language. ATTORNEY FEES: $56,711.15
The Center for Reproductive Rights took the lead in this case challenging a 2012 law, sponsored by then-Rep. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, which sought to place a 20-week ban on abortions on behalf of several Arizona physicians. The 20-week ban, one of several policies in Yee’s bill, was ultimately overturned in court. ATTORNEY FEES: $388,400.00 CIVIL DIVISION EXPENSES: $6,117.09 SOLICITOR GENERAL’S OFFICE EXPENSES: $6,125.82 HOURS / SALARY ESTIMATE: 65.8 / $2,282.20

That’s on Republican legislators, who either don’t accept that they can’t regulate abortion to the degree they seek, or worse, said Jodi Liggett, vice president of public affairs with Planned Parenthood of Arizona.

“The less charitable view is that they understand perfectly that these are unconstitutional bills, they’re being advised that, and candidly, it’s a form of harassment,” Liggett said. “To make us go down there, spend money on lobbyists trying to stop things and then spend money on attorneys trying to stop them in court. So I think there’s a bit of burnishing their cred with the Center for Arizona Policy, or just as ‘pro-life’ legislators.”

The Center for Arizona Policy is often blamed by anti-abortion foes as the impetus for legislation targeting abortion access in the state. The center has made a name for itself as a conservative, evangelical policy group in Arizona by supporting anti-abortion candidates in elections and pushing Republican lawmakers to sponsor and vote for measures to restrict access to abortions in the state.

Cathi Herrod
Cathi Herrod

Center for Arizona Policy’s website boasts of its many legislative achievements, while also hinting at the repercussions of their efforts – an asterisk next to bills the organization helped pass that were later struck down in court. When Arizona loses those legal battles, taxpayers foot the bill for causes championed by the Center for Arizona Policy and its influential president, Cathi Herrod.

Out of six lawsuits brought against the state over Center for Arizona Policy-backed bills since 2009, the state has successfully defended two laws: A 2009 law requiring minors to get notarized parental consent for an abortion, and a 2011 law banning abortions sought for race-based purposes.

Herrod said 2009 is the place to start. That’s when Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano was replaced by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, a conservative friendlier to Herrod’s cause and thus when Herrod began tracking policies her organization has helped shepherd through the Legislature.

Herrod said the number of policies still in effect today far outweigh the losses in court. Thirty-seven “pro-life” policies are still on the books, ranging from a 2011 policy requiring women to receive an ultrasound before an abortion; a 2012 law requiring schools to push childbirth and adoption as preferred alternatives to abortion; and a 2016 policy prohibiting the research, experimentation or trafficking of fetuses.

“You have to first look at what is in effect. And then you need to look at what the court cases were,” Herrod said. “And the question is, why does the abortion industry oppose women being given information about abortion pill reversal? Why does the abortion industry file lawsuits on some of these bills?”

Abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, and Democratic legislators who’ve argued and voted against Center for Arizona Policy-supported bills, say lawsuits are filed because the policies are unconstitutional and harmful. Planned Parenthood and other organizations challenging the Legislature have indeed won more cases than they’ve lost since 2009, leaving Liggett of Planned Parenthood to question Herrod’s motives, and the motives of lawmakers who vote in Herrod’s favor.

Jodi Liggett
Jodi Liggett

“Are we really trying to create good public policy? Is this really about – in particular, is this really about women’s health and safety?” Liggett said. “Or is this just about making it as hard as possible (to have an abortion), which is actually harmful to women’s health and safety?”

For example, a 2012 bill designed to block clinics that provide abortions from receiving federal funds through Medicaid was flagged by House staff as problematic. House Rules Attorney Tim Fleming told the House Rules Committee that the measure, sponsored by then-GOP Rep. Justin Olson, may conflict with aspects of federal law.

Fleming told legislators he found similar measures, approved by other states that were then being litigated.

“Each of the statutes in each of those states were at least preliminarily enjoined,” he said, meaning a judge thought there was a good chance challenges to those laws would succeed. Fleming added that those cases had not yet been decided at the time.

[Story continues after graphic.]

  • Planned Parenthood v. Betlach
  • Planned Parenthood v. Humble
  • Planned Parenthood v. Brnovich
In 2012, Rep. Justin Olsen sought to block Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers from receiving federal funds through Medicaid. HB2800 specifically banned organizations that provide abortions from being considered “qualified providers” for purposes of providing Medicaid funds for family planning services. The law was overturned in court, as the court ruled federal law dictates Medicaid enrollees can seek services from any qualified provider and that Planned Parenthood certainly qualifies as such. ATTORNEY FEES: $295,500.00 CIVIL DIVISION EXPENSES: $455.00 SOLICITOR GENERAL’S OFFICE EXPENSES: $480.44 HOURS / SALARY ESTIMATE: 46.10 / $1,648.10
A flurry of legislative activity in 2016 settled this case, which was spurred by Yee’s HB2036 – the same bill with the overturned 20-week abortion ban. In this case, Planned Parenthood challenged a policy requiring doctors to administer medication abortions using only the steps approved on U.S. Food and Drug Administration labels. A federal lawsuit blocked the policy in the 9th Circuit, while a separate lawsuit was filed against the policy in state court. While the law was hung up in court, Yee sought a legislative fix in 2016 that was spoiled when the FDA updated the label for medication abortion pills. Legislators repealed the law entirely later that year, rendering the cases moot, but leaving the state on the hook for legal fees. ATTORNEY FEES: $467,099* CIVIL DIVISION EXPENSES: $4,937.50 HOURS / SALARY ESTIMATE: 2,493.20 / $88,150.40* *Combined total from cases in state and federal courts.
Despite pleas and warning from obstetricians and gynecologists, Republican lawmakers still passed SB1318 in 2015. The bill required doctors to tell their patients that there was a chance medication abortions could be reversed in between doses. Women’s health providers said there was no scientific evidence to support that claim. Still, the bill became law, though lawmakers ultimately repealed it in 2016 when faced with a likely court loss. That still left state taxpayers on the hook for attorney’s fees. ATTORNEY FEES: $550,000* CIVIL DIVISION EXPENSES: $36,278.70 SALARIES BY THE HOUR: $25,958.60 *The state settled for less than the $612,218.78 it was ordered to pay.

Nonetheless, HB2800 was approved and a lawsuit was filed by Planned Parenthood. The law was overturned. And a judge ordered $388,400 be paid in attorneys’ fees, with the cost split evenly between the state and Maricopa County.

Liggett said it’s incumbent on legislators, particularly Republicans who promote themselves as fiscally conservative, to consider those costs when there are warnings the bills legislators sponsor and debate will have trouble in court. If not, they’re letting the Center for Arizona Policy use the state as a means to litigate their anti-abortion cause.

“A Republican legislator a long time ago used to talk about OPM – other people’s money. So if you can do this all day long, year in and year out, and spend taxpayer money – let’s remember, we’re talking about litigation costs. There’s also just cost of running legislation. There’s leg council, there’s staff. It’s not free. And when you have bills that you know early on that are not viable, that seems to me to be irresponsible,” Liggett said.

Among Arizona Democrats, Center for Arizona Policy takes a lot of the blame for pushing these bills and essentially having the state pay the cost of litigating abortion issues. But Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs said the buck stops with legislators, not Herrod.

Sen. Katie Hobbs (D-Phoenix)
Sen. Katie Hobbs (D-Phoenix)

“Herrod has a lot of clout, and she has a way to get lawmakers to do what she wants. But nobody has to do what she tells them to do,” said Hobbs, D-Phoenix.

Herrod said the Center for Arizona Policy, just like any other lobbying group, is well within the norm by pushing policy it favors at the Legislature. Contrary to the warning of other lobbyists, and at times the Legislature’s own attorneys, Herrod said her organization doesn’t push legislation if they don’t think it’s constitutional and believe it will be upheld in court.

Herrod pointed to HB2036, sponsored by then Rep. Kimberly Yee in 2012, which included a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. That policy was overturned in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But at the time Yee, a Phoenix Republican, sponsored the bill and the center helped guide it through the Legislature, Herrod said there were “maybe nine or 10 states” that had a 20-week ban on the books.

“So we approached this certainly with what we believe – what problems are being solved by a pro-life bill, what the needs are, what we believe will be upheld in court, and what we believe is constitutional,” she said.

In other instances, court battles are simply part of the legislative process, Herrod said. The parental consent law, passed in 2009, “took, I think, three different tries, if not four tries, to get the parental consent requirement in Arizona upheld and enforced in law,” she said.

As for the losses in court, Center for Arizona Policy’s wins make the cost of litigation worth it, Herrod said.

“We would say that our batting average is something like 37 to 4. And I’ll take that average any day,” she said.

Sen. Debbie Lesko (R-Peoria)
Sen. Debbie Lesko (R-Peoria)

Republican legislators who back Herrod’s bills often feel the same way. None of the sponsors of bills that led to legal losses for the state returned calls for comment. But Sen. Debbie Lesko, who as a representative sponsored the bill to block abortion providers from tax credit benefits in 2011, had her reason for pushing the bill cited in an order preliminarily blocking the law.

“I believe God has put me here for a reason,” Lesko, a Peoria Republican, had said during a committee hearing. “And I often ask Him, ‘What is that reason?’ and I ask for a purpose. (I ask Him to) ‘Please guide me and tell me what you want me to do.’ And I truly believe that one of the purposes that I have been put in this position is to protect the lives of innocent children.”

Democratic groups withhold money from CD8 race

Democrat Dr. Hiral Tipirneni is facing off against former state Sen. Debbie Lesko, a Republican, is Arizona's 8th Congressional District.
Democrat Dr. Hiral Tipirneni is facing off against former state Sen. Debbie Lesko, a Republican, is Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.

Even as national Republican groups spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, their Democratic counterparts have left Dr. Hiral Tipirneni to fend for herself.

The National Republican Committee has spent just over $280,000 on door-to-door field operations in support of former state Sen. Debbie Lesko, who ran away with the Republican nomination in the February special primary election. She won on February 27 about 12 percentage points ahead of her nearest competitor, former state Rep. Phil Lovas.

And on March 27, Politico reported the National Republican Congressional Committee coordinated with Lesko on a TV buy for $170,000, while GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund planned to spend about $100,000 to reach voters via phone and online.

All the while, there has been nothing but crickets from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – or at least from its pockets.

Republican consultant Ryan O’Daniel said Tipirneni, a former emergency room physician, is intelligent and well-spoken, but that won’t be enough to overcome the image of her as a liberal Democrat in a heavily conservative district.

He said she would be a viable candidate in Arizona’s 9th Congressional District, but not in CD8. And the national Democrats have to prioritize what they see as more competitive races.

“Democrats are going to have some very targeted races and limited resources, and if they thought this was a viable pickup, you bet they’d be spending,” he said.

O’Daniel said the Republicans’ spending could be a sign of nerves considering recent GOP losses in what should have been safe districts, such as in Alabama and Pennsylvania.

But he also said observers have to consider the candidates. He said those races pit talented, moderate Democrats, like Connor Lamb in Pennsylvania, against weak Republicans, like Roy Moore in Alabama.

And still, O’Daniel said it took a lot for Democrats to flip those districts.

In Lesko, the GOP has found a candidate well-known in the district and who continues to work hard, he said. To compare her to the likes of Moore would be comparing apples to oranges.

Tipirneni dominated the Democratic special primary with 19 percentage points more than challenger Brianna Westbrook.

But O’Daniel said she’ll now have to convince Republicans to do one of two things: stay home for the special general election on April 24 or show up to vote for a Democrat.

“The primary was a mess for sure, but the general is going to settle into what will be a more traditional turnout and traditional cycle for Republicans in CD8,” he said. “I don’t see this as being some watershed moment for the country or for the state. And quite frankly, if it is, things are going to be a lot worse than anyone anticipated.”

That’s exactly what Democratic consultant Andy Barr thinks national Republicans’ spending in the race signals, though – that they’re scared Tipirneni could pull off a victory.

“Why would they need to invest so heavily in a race that they should win with a warm body if they weren’t in trouble?” Barr said.

“We don’t have anything to lose in this race. We’re playing with house money. For Republicans, this would be a humiliation to lose this race,” he added.

“For Republicans, if they lose this race, their donors are going to lose their freaking minds.”

As for national Democrats not showing up for Tipirneni, she’s running strong on her own.

“There’s no amount of money Democrats can spend to flip 20 percent of the electorate,” he said. “If this happens, it’s because they find a way to lose it more so than if we find a way to win it.”

Democratic consultant Chad Campbell said the Republicans seem to be hedging their bet.

Still, he said the Democrats cannot play in every district where Trump won by 20-plus points without jeopardizing efforts in more winnable districts. Tipirneni just won’t be a priority in that context.

“But I think that she’s worked hard, she’s a great candidate,” Campbell said. “So if there’s anybody in this environment who can pull off an upset, it’s a candidate like her.”

Democrats in Congress are not serious about ending border crisis


Last month, 144,278 migrants were apprehended or deemed inadmissible trying to illegally cross our southern border. That’s enough people to fill State Farm Stadium almost two and a half times over. Perhaps a more staggering figure is the United States is on track to apprehend more than one million illegal immigrants by the end of this year. And that’s just the illegal immigrants we are able to find.

Virtually everyone recognizes that we have a crisis at our border — that is except for Democrats in Congress. Being from Arizona, we know this crisis all too well. We see it firsthand as our communities’ resources are strained more and more as the humanitarian crisis only gets worse. Federal resources are also wearing thin. It is no longer a matter of if, but when money and resources simply run out.

Debbie Lesko
Debbie Lesko

President Trump has requested $4.5 billion in immediate humanitarian aid at the border. This is not money for a border wall – this is money to feed and shelter migrant families and unaccompanied children and fund urgently needed medical care and transportation. We need this funding because facilities are overwhelmed, and other personnel have been pulled away from their critical missions to help respond to this humanitarian crisis. The situation is so dire, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security sent a joint letter to all congressional offices urging Congress to grant this aid. DHS says that without it, they will be forced to redirect more manpower and funding from Transportation Security Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection to address the crisis.

What has the new Democrat majority done to help the humanitarian crisis that worsens by the day? Absolutely nothing. Instead, they voted to provide amnesty to 2.5 million illegal immigrants without any border security provisions or reforms to our loose immigration laws that incentivize illegal immigration.

My Republican colleagues and I have asked 15 times for a vote on humanitarian aid. Democrats have rejected us each time. It is clear that Democrats are not serious about ending the border crisis. I wonder what it will take for Democratic leadership to finally take action and help address the humanitarian crisis.

Our border is at a breaking point. We are running out of resources, and Democrats are blocking every attempt to replenish them. At the same time, the loopholes in our immigration laws are driving more and more illegal immigrants to cross our border illegally. Border apprehensions are up 229 percent as compared to this time last year. The Border Patrol has already apprehended nearly 600,000 migrants so far this fiscal year, surpassing the totals for each of the last 10 years.

We are on an unsustainable path that we cannot continue. I will be introducing legislation in the coming weeks to address the border crisis and fix the loopholes in our immigration laws. I hope my Democrat colleagues will join me in ending this crisis once and for all.

— Congresswoman Debbie Lesko represents Arizona’s 8th Congressional District and is a member of the House Judiciary, Homeland Security, and Rules

District spent on desegregation without programs in place

The Roosevelt Elementary School District levied and spent $13.5 million earmarked for desegregation activities, but without operating any specific programs for that purpose, according to the an Arizona Auditor General’s Office report on the district’s spending in fiscal year 2016.

The auditor found that the district spent $13.3 million on salaries and benefits for teachers and other instructional staff, and the remaining $200,000 was spent on administration.

Under Arizona law, school districts are able to levy additional local property taxes to comply with federal court orders or agreements with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Districts are also able to budget for and receive desegregation funding even after they are found compliant and such orders have been terminated.

In the same year the Roosevelt district levied the $13.5 million, 17 other districts across the state budgeted for desegregation funding, about $211 million total.

The auditor’s findings highlight a well-known struggle at the Capitol.

Sean McCarthy
Sean McCarthy

The Arizona Tax Research Association has pushed for efforts to eliminate the funds for years.

ATRA research analyst Sean McCarthy said each of 18 districts statewide levying for extra cash is spending it on the same costs all schools face, mainly staff salaries and benefits.

He said the districts don’t dispute that, but officials argue they have a wide latitude to spend the money.

McCarthy said the Roosevelt district isn’t alone; desegregation funds rarely seem to be alleviating the alleged violations, which McCarthy said auditors have pointed out in the past.

“And we all move on, and that’s how it goes,” he said.

But bills sponsored by former Sen. Debbie Lesko in 2015, 2016 and 2017 failed to pass.

That’s because there isn’t an appetite to take money away from public schools.

“It’s real money that the schools are dependent on, that they have built into their budgets,” McCarthy said. “So pretty much everyone acknowledges that it’s a program that has outlived its usefulness, but taking away money from schools is not palatable to many lawmakers even if it creates this unfairness and higher taxes in those districts.”

The conversation always seems to turn to a broader reform effort sometime in the undetermined future.

That effort won’t be realized in this session though. McCarthy said he’s taking a break from the fight – for now anyway.

According to a state Senate Research Staff report from 2016, districts may budget for desegregation activities if the expenses incurred for those activities were initiated before the termination of the court order or an Office for Civil Rights agreement. Districts must also “ensure that desegregation expenses are educationally justifiable” and result in equal educational opportunities.

OCR cases stem from findings of noncompliance with federal rules or complaints alleging discrimination in districts that receive federal funding.

Districts found in violation may reach voluntary agreements that dictate how noncompliance should be corrected. And if a district refuses, the matter may be tried in federal court.

The Roosevelt Elementary School District was found out of compliance in 1983, specifically at three schools found to have racial disparities. The district entered into a voluntary agreement with the feds that included the creation of magnet programs, and the district was found compliant in 1993. Federal monitoring ceased, but the magnet programs were only operated until 2006, according to the auditor’s report.

The district entered another voluntary agreement in 2000 after a complaint was filed alleging discrimination against students with limited English proficiency, referred to as ELL.

The new plan was to be implemented by August 2001, and district officials claimed the district was found in compliance. But according to the auditor’s report, officials had not retained any documentation to demonstrate that the case was closed, nor had the district operated any ELL programs specific to the agreement for at least the past several years.

And according to the FY16 audit, the district was not even in compliance with state ELL requirements.
Specifically, the district was misusing parental waivers for dual-language programs and did not properly implement ELL performance standards in applicable classrooms and lesson plans.

In response to the auditor’s report, the Roosevelt district claimed it had spent the desegregation dollars on a variety of services aimed at students with limited English proficiency.

It employs a “holistic approach” by using administrative staff to assess students among other things, the response said.

Superintendent Dino Coronado did not return requests for further comment.

Don’t fall for scare tactics, falsehoods on Medicare for All


In U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko’s June 5th, 2019, article, she stated “Medicare for All strips away health care freedom.”   However, just the opposite is true.  People will have freedom to choose their doctor with no networks to worry about, fear of bills they cannot pay, or going into bankruptcy.  Everyone benefits, seniors on Medicare, those with employer-based insurance, those with pre-existing conditions, young, old, and those in-between.  Everyone!

Under a well-researched and fiscally-sound universal healthcare bill introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal and 112 co-sponsors, HR1384, “The Medicare for All Act of 2019”, our present Medicare system would be expanded and improved and cover ALL Americans.  It includes primary and emergency care, dental, prescription drugs, vision, hearing, mental health, addiction treatment, long-term care, both home-based and institutionally and more.  It eliminates premiums, co-pays, deductibles and the need for supplemental insurance. And it will be implemented within a two-year time span with no one losing any benefits during that period, only gaining.

Linda Napier
Linda Napier

Sound too good to be true? It isn’t and here is the ‘rest of the story’.

Rep. Lesko is concerned about illegal immigrants receiving health care at the expense of taxpayers. She said that she asked this question of the House Rules Committee hearing in April and they said ‘yes’ the immigrants would receive health care, but it was a partial ‘yes’ and what she didn’t tell you is that it would not be all immigrants and it would not be at the expense of the taxpayers. Quite the opposite. According to the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants actually contribute significantly to state and local taxes collectively paying an estimated $11.74 billion a year. $213,574,000 in Arizona alone. If they were granted full legal status, state and local taxes in Arizona would gain $39,384,000. In 2015, according to the IRS, undocumented Americans paid $23.6 billion in Federal income tax along with Medicare and social security that they can’t even use.

Rep. Lesko was also concerned about cost and that the health care plans that many have now would be eliminated. Yes, they will be eliminated. But, in their place, everyone will have an even more comprehensive plan that includes everything you have now and more. She also states that there’s no plan to pay for it, yet there are very detailed and exhaustive plans proposed on how to pay for it so that everyone is still enjoying the coverage they are used to under Medicare and employer-based plans, but with even more benefits, while actually saving money. Yes, taxes may go up, but not as much as your premiums, co-pays, deductibles, co-insurance and out-of-pocket expenses will go down. It will also be paid for by redirecting funds that are already allocated for health care and reducing unnecessary and wasteful spending in the current system, eliminating non-patient costs that do not improve health: Insurance company administrative overhead and marketing, exorbitant executive salaries, shareholder’s dividends, billions lobbying congress and campaign contributions.

Carol Mattoon
Carol Mattoon

She was also concerned about employee’s losing their plans. Many studies now show that employees are unhappy with their rising deductibles, out-of-pocket costs, and wage stagnation. Eliminating the expensive role insurance companies now play in the lives of employers and employees will result in employers being able to shift paying such high insurance premiums into product development, being able to compete internationally, higher pay for their employees, employees being able to take jobs better suited to them without fear of losing their insurance, thus positively affecting the lives of employees, their families and our economy!

Why does this plan face opposition? The health insurance and drug companies and for-profit hospitals are framing the discussion on TV, social media, and with legislators. With hundreds of billions of their profits at stake, they are spending millions of dollars to spread misinformation to protect their interests and defeat significant change and health care freedom for the American people. Do not fall for their scare tactics, and false arguments.

Ask yourself at least one of these questions, “Who is behind what is being said? Are they using fear-based language trying to scare you? What do they have to gain? Which studies are they using and who paid for them? We reference The World Health Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and many more to cross check the facts you see here.

Healthy people, healthy economy, healthy country!

Linda Napier is a business owner from Sun City West and Carol Mattoon is a health care Advocate from Sun City


Education panelists spar over school choice

While school choice has sparked a divisive debate in Arizona, panelists at the Arizona Capitol Times Morning Scoop on the topic Tuesday seemed to find common ground on one point: The state system for school funding could be due for a reboot.

Stacey Morley (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Stacey Morley (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Stacey Morley, government affairs director at Stand for Children, said the funding formula was not created with today’s problems in mind, leaving the state to add things to a system that was never designed to handle those needs. That has led to a system that is not equitable in Morley’s view.

She pointed to the “unintended consequences of choice,” namely that when district schools lose students to charter or private schools, they also lose funding with no certain way to make up the gap in their budgets.

School districts, she argued, do not have the benefit of knowing they’ll definitely welcome a certain number of students, making planning ahead more difficult than it may be at a charter school that accepts a set number of students.

While the Morning Scoop debate was more tame than may have been expected, the panelists – and sometimes members of the audience – did find occasion to exchange terse words.

Kristi Sandvik (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Kristi Sandvik (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Buckeye Elementary School District Superintendent Kristi Sandvik said the market in Arizona is “saturated with choice,” creating inefficiencies in an outdated system, and that taxpayers deserve to know whether they’re getting a return on investment.

A for Arizona Executive Director Lisa Graham Keegan interrupted.

“The saturated market of choice created the best academic performance this state has ever seen,” Keegan said. “To say it hasn’t had an academic affect, to say that Arizona has not gone from the bottom third of academic performers to about average … that’s just dishonest.”

Keegan won some of the crowd’s approval with that remark but drew ire with what came next.

Lisa Graham Keegan (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Lisa Graham Keegan (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

According to focus groups, she said, parents don’t even know whether their children are in district, charter or private schools.

“They know they’re in a school and one that works for their child,” she said to the disapproval of hecklers.

Despite some of the negative feedback she and her fellow pro-voucher panelist Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, received – largely from members of the audience dressed in Save Our Schools Arizona T-shirts or the group’s trademark red – Keegan said school choice is not about us versus them.

Rather, she said, it’s about everyone against the failure of students.

In that regard, Keegan said expanding school choice has achieved its goal of improving schools by introducing other options.

Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Lesko, sponsor of SB1431 to expand the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, said it’s just common sense.

“If there’s competition out there, and parents are allowed to move their child out of a district school and into a charter school or a private school and online school, [district schools are] going to up their game,” she said.

Lesko also cited 31 unnamed “empirical studies” on the effects of school choice, saying 29 showed district schools do improve when they face competition; the other two, she said, demonstrated no change either way.

Sandvik didn’t see the same success, even in her own district, describing her view of Arizona’s educational future as “catastrophic” if changes are not made.

Instead of helping families, Sandvik said the system has pit parents against each other.

Parents with gifted children are asking for the same money parents of students with disabilities plead for, and in the end, she said no one wins.

As for Sandvik’s wish for more fiscal transparency from charter schools, the panelists were in agreement that such a thing could only be a positive. But how it materializes is yet to be seen.

According to a Grand Canyon Institute report released Sunday, 77 percent of Arizona’s charter schools use taxpayer dollars on related-party transactions, such as contracting services from a member of the charter’s board and hiring teachers from an employment service owned by a charter holder’s relative.

Save Our Schools Arizona supporters sit in the audience of the Arizona Capitol Times Morning Scoop on school choice on Sept. 19. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Save Our Schools Arizona supporters sit in the audience of the Arizona Capitol Times Morning Scoop on school choice on Sept. 19. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Lesko declined to comment on specifics in the report and possible solutions, but said she believes in transparency and accountability across the board in education.

To meet that need, she said she added fiscal and academic accountability measures to SB 1431, including a required ESA open checkbook on expenditures and an ESA review counsel.

“Unfortunately, all of those new accountability and transparencies have been put on hold because of the referendum, and so we’ll see what happens,” Lesko said, jabbing back at the hecklers who were giving her what she called “the evil eye” throughout the morning.

Freshman year in Congress a whirlwind

It is hard to believe that this time last year I was contemplating if I should run for Congress. After prayerful consideration with my family, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and run. After winning a special primary and general election earlier this year, I was sworn into Congress on May 7, 2018. Since then, I’ve been fighting on behalf of my constituents every day to grow our economy, secure our borders, protect citizens, help veterans and senior citizens, and provide excellent constituent service for Arizonans.

Debbie Lesko
U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko

My first year in Congress has really only been eight months, but I hit the ground running on day one and never stopped. Since I was sworn in, I have one bill getting ready to be signed into law, sponsored two other bills, cosponsored 96 bills, signed over 40 letters to various federal agencies and government officials to help our nation and Arizona, and joined 18 different caucuses. My office has given 87 U.S. Capitol tours to families from our district and handled over 38,000 phone calls, letters, and emails from constituents. What I’m most proud of is that my office has been able to assist hundreds of constituents who needed help with veterans’ issues, Social Security, Medicare, passports, and more.

My national and border security bill, H.R. 6400, passed out of both the House and Senate and is headed to President Trump’s desk to be signed into law. This legislation will help secure our border and nation by protecting our air, land, and sea ports of entry from illegal activity.  I also introduced H.Res. 1026, a resolution recognizing Medicare and Social Security as essential programs that must be protected for current enrollees and strengthened for the future. To improve education in Arizona, I introduced H.R. 6259, the Make Education Local Act, which will get more money back into our classrooms for students and teachers.

Congress passed, and the President signed into law, some very important bills since I came to Congress. I supported the VA MISSION Act, landmark legislation to improve health care for veterans. I also voted to bring 93 additional F-35s to Luke Air Force Base and give our troops the largest pay raise in nine years.

During my trips around the district, I visited 13 schools and toured a number of businesses. I’ve been to every corner of CD8 to meet with constituent groups and community organizations. I even took a trip to Nogales to meet with Customs and Border Protection and see the challenges at Arizona’s southern border first-hand. Often, my days start before the sun rises and end well into the evening, but I enjoy every minute of being your Congresswoman.

I’ve certainly kept busy since day one, but I love the job. Serving the people of CD8 is an honor and a privilege, and I am blessed to have the opportunity. I’m looking forward to two more years of working hard for our district, state, and nation. Thank you for your support, and may God continue to bless you and your family.

Congresswoman Debbie Lesko represents Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District in Congress and is a member of the House Homeland Security and Science, Space and Technology Committees.

Improving HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act


There are more than 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, including 150,000 in Arizona. Over 16 million Americans provide unpaid care for loved ones with Alzheimer’s or other dementias, including 346,000 in Arizona.

As someone who has cared for someone with dementia, I understand the enormous burden dementia has on Arizona families and the economy. My family came together to care for my grandmother with dementia and are now having to do so again with my aunt.

The Improving HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act would help educate clinicians on Alzheimer’s and dementia care planning services available through Medicare. For individuals living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers, care planning is essential to learning about medical and non-medical treatments, clinical trials, and support services available in their community. Accessing these services results in a higher quality of life, fewer hospitalizations and emergency room visits, and better medication management. Thankfully, as of January 2017, Medicare covers critical care planning services. However, not enough patients and providers are aware of this resource.

That’s why I’m asking congressional members Debbie Lesko, Andy Biggs, and David Schweikert to cosponsor the Improving HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act (S. 880/H.R. 1873). I would also like to thank Senator Kyrsten Sinema and former Sen. Martha McSally and Rep. Ruben Gallego for supporting this much- needed piece of legislation.

Endorsed by the Alzheimer’s Association and its advocacy arm, the Alzheimer’s Impact Movement, the Improving HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act will give them the knowledge and tools to better help their patients and families living with dementia.   

Haleigh Collins is a volunteer for Alzheimer’s Association and resident of Scottsdale.

Independent vows not to take sides if elected

In this Aug. 4, 2017, photo, Kathy Knecht speaks on the future of public education at an event at the First Baptist Church of Scottsdale. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
In this Aug. 4, 2017, photo, Kathy Knecht speaks on the future of public education at an event at the First Baptist Church of Scottsdale. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

If voters elect Kathy Knecht to the state Senate, she’ll make history.

No independent candidate has ever been elected to the Arizona House of Representatives or state Senate. In fact, there’s only been one independent to serve in the Legislature since Arizona statehood in 1912, an elected Democrat who abandoned the party while in office.

That lawmaker may have been a registered independent, but in practice, Sylvia Laughter was a Republican. She voted with the GOP, and caucused with them, too.

Knecht has vowed not to pick sides. And some credit that stance as evidence she has a shot at upsetting incumbent Sen. Rick Gray, a Sun City Republican who was appointed in January to serve Legislative District 21.

That’s not the race she’d bargained for. Knecht was considered the perfect foil to Debbie Lesko, the former LD21 senator who resigned in January to run for Congress. Lesko served in the Legislature since 2009, and has never lost an election, except one–the race for the Peoria Unified School District governing board in 2006 against Knecht.

That the two were also neighbors–Lesko and Knecht live across the street from one another in Peoria–only made the prospect of their campaign more appealing.

Nonetheless, Knecht said Lesko’s withdrawal from the race, and the emergence of Gray as her new opponent, hasn’t changed her reasons for running. The last straw for her was the passage of SB 1431 in 2017, the expansion of Arizona’s school voucher program that earned the distinction of being referred to the ballot.

“I’ve been waiting for a champion, especially for a legislator from the northwest Valley, to truly champion public education, and it hasn’t come, and it hasn’t come,” she said. “I decided I wasn’t going to wait any longer.”


On Oct. 1, Republican pollster George Khalaf gave Knecht a fighting chance. Khalaf’s polling firm, Data Orbital, rated the LD21 Senate race a toss-up.

In any other election cycle, running as an independent candidate is a handicap, Khalaf said. But this year, people are weary of partisan politics and Knecht’s campaign of people over politics could resonate:“People like the feeling of wanting to be an independent,” he said.

“This year being an independent gives you this automatic feeling that you’re going to be bipartisan, or work across the aisle, or whatever it is,” Khalaf said.

There’s also lingering concerns about Republican’s vice grip on LD21 following the special election in April that sent Lesko to Congress.

Though she won, it was only by 5 percentage points. In LD21, a portion of which falls in Lesko’s Congressional District 5,  the lead was even smaller, only 2.5 percentage points against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni.

Knecht also has the advantage of winning multiple school board races, which means her name ID is better than the typical legislative candidate running as an independent in Arizona.

Still, there are reasons to temper expectations. Khalaf, who also works as a consultant for Gray, said that if he had to rate the race now, he’d say LD21 “leans Republican.”

That’s because while Knecht has labeled herself a Republican, her campaign can give a more progressive, liberal feel.

“While she hasn’t answered the question of who she’d caucus with, between her endorsements, between the positions she’s taking on the campaign trail both on her website and anecdotally as we’ve heard from people, she’s running as if she’s a Democrat,” Khalaf said. “And I think that just a straight Democrat in the district against Rick doesn’t do as well.

Alternative style

It’s true that Knecht doesn’t shy away from issues that are often championed by Democrats. On education, she vows to restore funding for K-12 public schools to pre-recession levels; to reject school privatization; she supports Medicaid expansion, and specifically opposed Republicans who filed a lawsuit to block it, according to her campaign website.

Even when she states her support for school choice, a typical Republican talking point, she couches that support with a word of caution–choice only works when the choice, and competition between schools, is “genuinely fair.”

The “pick a side” mentality is a hurdle Knecht acknowledges in her campaign. Opponents are going to try and label her as too liberal, or too conservative, she said, and that’s partly because they have never seen an independent get elected before.

“I think people are hungry for an alternative style of leadership that doesn’t answer to parties. It’s really focused on the issues that really impact everybody’s life,” Knecht said. “You know, public safety’s not a partisan issue.  Education shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Health insurance shouldn’t be a partisan issue. So maybe I can be that person, that trailblazer, to finally do it a different way.”

That different way means electing lawmakers who don’t pick a side.

“People don’t necessarily understand what independent means,” Knecht said. “For me, it’s just that, I don’t want to answer to a party. I want to answer to the people I represent.”

Which caucus?

That mentality would extend to how Knecht would serve if elected.

There’s no infrastructure at the Legislature to support an independent lawmaker, while there’s ample staff for Republicans and Democrats, so the natural question among politicians and voters is to wonder who Knecht would work with. As Khalaf said, who will she caucus with?

“The fact that nobody’s done it before makes it really impossible to answer that question,” Knecht said. “I guess we’re going to have to create our own way.”

That disadvantage is already apparent on the campaign trail, said Barry Dill, a Democratic consultant. Knecht doesn’t have a party infrastructure to help support her campaign in the way the Republican party supports Gray, he said.

That also affects voters. The Republican and Democratic parties can work to identify voters and encourage them to get out and support candidates at the polls. While roughly 35 percent of registered voters in LD21 are not affiliated with a party, there’s no infrastructure present to help motivate them to turn in ballots.

“Independents run on an island,” Dill said.

Josselyn Berry: A progressive messenger from a conservative Republican household

Cap Times Q&A

Josselyn Berry is the 28-year-old executive director of ProgressNow Arizona, an advocacy group that she said “acts like a communications hub for the state’s progressive infrastructure.” She said ProgressNow Arizona aims to hold all politicians, regardless of party affiliation, accountable, while simultaneously pushing back on “right-wing messaging” within the state.

Berry, who did a college internship with the Arizona Capitol Times, graduated from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2013, but had difficulty with the requirement to be “unbiased” as a journalist, and instead decided to pursue a more politically driven career path.

Josselyn Berry, executive director of ProgressNow Arizona (Photo by Kendra Penningroth, Arizona Capitol Times)
Josselyn Berry (Photo by Kendra Penningroth, Arizona Capitol Times)

If you could fix one issue in Arizona with a snap of your fingers, what would it be?

Oh god, there’s so many. I’m a woman, I’m a young woman, and I am just tired of seeing the constant attacks on Planned Parenthood and on reproductive rights, and the lack of science based sex-ed, the lack of programs for teenagers. I’m really tired of seeing the stranglehold that lobbyists like Cathi Herrod have on our Legislature, and on our governor. It’s really frustrating to see people in office that are supposed to represent their constituents instead listening to a special interest that doesn’t have everyone’s best interest at heart.

If you had to describe the Arizona legislature with one emoji, what emoji would that be, and why?

I don’t know. Maybe the money bag emoji? Because I feel like there’s a lot of corruption in our Legislature. We have some legislators that own charter schools, or sit on the board of charter schools, and they’re allowed to make legislation that helps charter schools. Or we see ALEC’s influence at the Legislature. We have Debbie Lesko, who is the chair at ALEC. She’s at an ALEC conference in Denver today. So, we see bills that are pushed at these ALEC conferences that then show up in Arizona. So, I feel like there’s a lot of corruption at the Legislature. It just feels like a lot of money changing hands.

Do you have a least-favorite politician in the legislature?

Probably Bob Thorpe. I just feel like he’s constantly attacking students in his district who want to vote by trying to pass bills that would prevent students from voting. He refuses to hold town halls for his constituents. Instead, he goes on conservative talk shows, and I feel like he’s really holed himself away from his constituents and is refusing to speak with them. Come on! Just come out of your office and meet with people. They elected you to the office. You should have the courage to talk to them and stand up for the bills and the values you believe in, and if you’re not, why are you there?

What is one thing you wish people understood about advocacy groups like yours?

It’s not that we’re trying to manipulate people. I’m not trying to trick people into thinking a certain way, or doing a certain thing. I just am very passionate about making Arizona a better place and the way that I think we do that is through progressive policies. And, obviously, not everyone is going to agree with that, but I think that I am here trying to make a better world for our community, and I’m not sitting here plotting about how I can destroy people’s lives. I genuinely want to make Arizona a better, more equitable place for everyone.

I know that you were originally born in California, so do you think Arizona or California is better?

That’s a dangerous question. I’ve lived in Arizona for 20 years now, so it definitely feels like home. I do love Arizona. I feel like the people here are a bunch of fighters. I feel like the people here are scrappy, really passionate, and they feel very strongly about Arizona and there’s a lot of Arizona pride, and I really love that.

What goals do you have for the next five or ten years, personally or professionally?

You know one of my passions is definitely, this always sounds weird, but I really love birds. So, I would really love to one day be a communications director for a conservation or wildlife advocacy organization, and also just owning a bunch of birds.

So, why birds?

My grandmother got me a lovebird when I was in middle school. She got it for me when it was really young and hand-fed, so it bonded to me. I think they’re just really sweet, and cuddly, and I love hanging out with my bird, Paloma. She flies around my house. She’s always on my shoulder, on my head, and we just hang out and it’s amazing.

Are you close with your family, and how do they feel about you advocacy work?

I’m a little bit close with them. My family is actually – they’re mostly conservative Republicans and they voted for Trump. My mother supports Trump, but she is also a union worker and very pro-Planned Parenthood, which is very interesting.  I grew up in a pretty Republican household, and the reason I think I went opposite of that is maybe some just typical teenage rebellion. But I think also just seeing sometimes the way they viewed the world didn’t really feel right in my heart. It didn’t feel generous. It felt like there was a lot of anger in their worldview, and I didn’t feel like I reflected that. So, when I started to work in politics, I think it upset my dad more than anyone else. My mother’s always saying, “I don’t always agree with you, but you’re doing what you believe in, and I love you and I respect you so much.” And my dad will sometimes either poke fun at me, or poke fun at the work I’m doing and I’ll try to talk to him about it, but I’ve just learned it’s better not to talk about it. So, now at family gatherings, we just don’t talk about my work.

Judge hears arguments challenging state law on filling Senate vacancy

Detail of exterior of courthouse

An attorney for members of various political parties told a federal judge Friday she should order a statewide election − and soon − to let voters fill the Senate seat now occupied by Martha McSally.

Michael Persoon said there was nothing wrong with Gov. Doug Ducey initially appointing Jon Kyl to the vacancy created last year by the death of Sen. John McCain. When Kyl quit in January, Ducey tapped McSally.

But Persoon told Judge Diane Humetewa that Ducey has no right under the U.S. Constitution to have McSally hold that seat until the 2020 general election. He said the governor is required to give voters a chance as soon as possible to decide who should be their senator.

And by that, Persoon said, he means within 100 days of the vacancy.

U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., speaks after delivering her signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State's office Tuesday, May 29, 2018, at the Capitol in Phoenix. McSally is officially running as a Republican for U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. Women running for office have crossed another threshold with a record number of candidates for the U.S. Senate. Actually winning those seats and changing the face of the chamber are a different matter. Many of the women jumping into Senate races face uphill campaigns. (AP Photo/Matt York)
U.S. Senator Martha McSally (AP Photo/Matt York)

That date is long past, with McCain dying on Aug. 25. But Persoon said there’s still plenty of time for Humetewa to allow voters to weigh in.

But Michael Liburdi, representing the governor, said Ducey acted in accordance with state laws.

They say if a vacancy in the U.S. Senate occurs within 150 days of the next scheduled election − as happened here − then the governor can name someone to hold the spot until the following general election. And that means November 2020.

Persoon did not dispute that’s what state laws say. But he contends they violate constitutional provisions which require that voters get their say as soon as possible.

That’s not the only legal issue Persoon has with the state law.

He also wants Humetewa to void another provision in the statute which says that whoever the governor picks, whether on a shorter or longer-term basis, has to be of the same political party as the senator being replaced.

That’s not just an academic argument.

Persoon told the judge that Barry Hess, one of his clients, would have liked the opportunity to offer his name for the vacancy. Hess is a Libertarian who has run for governor, unsuccessfully, for more than a decade.

Liburdi defended the requirement, saying it ensures some continuity in the political representation of the state in the Senate. But he also suggested to Humetewa that the whole question is sort of silly, saying if Ducey is forced to make a new pick, regardless of political party, he still would choose McSally.

The heart of the legal fight is the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution added in 1913. It took the power to appoint U.S. senators away from state legislatures, as it had been until then, and provided for direct election, the same as has always been true for members of the House of Representatives.

“There’s a radical shift in who that senator represents,” Persoon said.

That amendment also says when there are vacancies, the governor “shall issue writes of election to fill such vacancies.” But it also says that state lawmakers may allow the governor to “make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.”

Liburdi said that last line is what backs the Arizona law saying any vacancy within 150 days of a scheduled election can be put off until the next general election. Anyway, he told the judge that makes more sense than calling a special election what with the expense and the anticipated low turnout.

Persoon, however, said 27 months − the time between McCain’s death and the 2020 general election − is far too long to leave the Senate seat in the hands of a political appointee. He said there’s no reason that Ducey cannot call for a special election sometime this year, giving voters a chance to decide who they want in the interim and not Ducey’s choice of McSally, who actually had lost her own Senate bid last year to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.

He also brushed aside concerns about cost and turnout, pointing out that such special elections already are required for vacancies in the U.S. House.

That’s exactly what happened after Congressman Trent Franks resigned last year amid an investigation by the House Ethics Committee, setting up an election for his seat the following April. Republican Debbie Lesko defeated Democrat Hiral Tipirneni in that vote.

Lesko had to run again for re-election in November.

Liburdi said that quick turnaround occurred because, unlike the Senate, there is no legal provision for the governor to fill vacancies in the U.S. House, even on a temporary basis. And he rejected Persoon’s argument that having to wait until the 2020 election interferes with the right of Arizonans, including Persoon’s clients, to choose who represents them in the Senate.

“The plaintiffs have a right to vote,” Liburdi told the judge. “They will have a right to choose a successor to John McCain.”

It will just have to wait until next year.

Even at that, whoever wins in 2020 − assuming Humetewa spurns Persoon’s request − would get to occupy the seat for just two years, until 2022 which was the end of the six-year term to which McCain was reelected in 2016. Then there would be a race for a new six-year term.

Humetewa said she also wants to read legal briefs that will be submitted by Ronald Jacobs, a private attorney hired by McSally in her bid to convince the judge to let her serve through the 2020 election.

No date has been set for a decision.

Legislation introduced to stop annoying, dangerous robocalls


We all get them. Those annoying calls with a recorded message once you pick up, or a call from a phone number that looks oddly similar to your own telephone number. These are robocalls. Not only are robocalls inconvenient, they can also be dangerous with abusive scammers on the other end. These robocalls must stop. That is why in Congress, I cosponsored and recently voted for H.R. 3375, the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, a bipartisan bill to end these pesky calls.

Debbie Lesko
Debbie Lesko

Almost all of us can agree that robocalls are bothersome, annoying and a form of harassment. In 2018, there were an estimated 47.8 billion robocalls placed. With Americans receiving more illegal robocalls than ever before, I feel it is incredibly important to support legislation that will drastically reduce the number of robocalls that Americans get every day. The Stopping Bad Robocalls Act will require phone companies to ensure that caller ID information has been authenticated before anyone’s cellphone ever rings, eliminating many of these robocalls without a cost on consumers. I was proud to support this overwhelmingly bipartisan bill before the House of Representatives, which passed by a vote of 429-3 on July 24, 2019.

Still, it is concerning to hear from many citizens across the United States, especially folks here in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, that they are receiving hundreds, even thousands, of robocalls each month. Many criminals use robocalls to target and obtain sensitive information from unsuspecting people in order to defraud them of their savings or even of their identity. This is why I am supporting additional legislation to end the harmful practice of robocalls and protect Americans from scams and abuse.

I recently cosponsored H.R. 2015, the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED Act) to further protect Americans from robocalls. This bill allows for stronger penalties for those who intentionally violate telemarketing restrictions with a $10,000 fine and increases the statute of limitations for enforcement actions. By including stronger penalties for those who abuse the “Do Not Call” database, I strongly believe that the TRACED Act will help solve this epidemic of robocalls we are currently experiencing.

The House has done its part; now it is time for the Senate to pass the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act and get it the President’s desk for signature so it can become the law of the land. That way, we can put consumers back in charge of their phones, restore confidence back into the system, and stop those annoying robocalls.

 U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko serves Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.

Lesko misleads voters on Democrat’s priorities, her record


Three things are clear after reading U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko’s June 27 opinion piece accusing Democrats of not wanting to address the crisis at the border: her willingness to mislead voters on the facts, her willingness to blame others for Congress’ inability to address the problem, and proving she has no solution herself. The result is her complicity in making sure that efforts of both parties to reform our country’s immigration laws fail.

Michael Muscato
Michael Muscato

Lesko wasted no time misstating facts. In her first sentence she purposefully equates people legally seeking asylum with those whose entry is clearly criminal. She is on record complaining that we should only allow in those who follow our law but now criticizes those who attempt to do so. She fails to mention that changes to US government policy effectively push asylum seekers away from ports of entry, which, itself contributes significantly to the crisis.

Lesko complains Democrats aren’t serious about solving the humanitarian crisis or increasing border security while failing to admit her own lack of seriousness. Has she forgotten about her “no” vote on the Republican-sponsored, bi-partisan “Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018?” That bill, HR 6136 would have provided additional funds for border security and facilities. Why did she vote against something she says she’s for?

While complaining Democrats have done “absolutely nothing” about the border, she doesn’t mention in her June 27 op-ed that she voted against a Democratic-authored bill HR 3401 that would provide $4.5B in emergency funding for enforcement and humanitarian support at the southern border two days earlier When a weaker HR 3401 came back from the Senate for a vote, and knowing that version put families at higher risk and failed to hold government employees accountable, Lesko voted for it anyway.

Without naming the bill so voters can look it up, Lesko falsely implies the American Dream and Promise Act grants “amnesty” to 2.5M “illegal immigrants without any border security provisions or reforms to our loose immigration laws that incentivize illegal immigration.” The bill was never meant to be a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Its single purpose was to support current laws and provide a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients and other, otherwise worthy immigrants; something 87 percent of Americans support.

She’s complaining about wanting to solve a problem that policies she endorses have made worse. She’s complaining Democrats are unwilling to address a problem or work with Republicans and then votes against bi-partisan bills that do both. She’s misstating the purpose of a law nearly 9 out of 10 Americans support. Anyone see a pattern here?

No one should hold their breath waiting for her immigration bill. Why? Because given previous opportunities to do so, all she has done is complain, criticize and pass the buck. That’s who she is.

The main reason government in Washington is so dysfunctional is because hyper-partisan politicians like Debbie Lesko are careless with the truth and place party loyalty and ideology above the best interests of the country. We won’t change Washington until we change the people we send there.

Election Day isn’t the only 2020 thing she should worry about. Hindsight is also 2020.

Michael Muscato is a lifelong resident of the West Valley, a successful small business owner, and candidate for Congress in CD8.  

Lesko resigns from senate to focus on run for Congress

Debbie Lesko (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Debbie Lesko (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Sen. Debbie Lesko resigned from the Arizona state Senate on Monday afternoon, weeks after she announced a bid for Congress.

The Peoria Republican’s resignation became official at roughly 5 p.m. Monday evening, ending speculation about when Lesko would abandon her seat in Legislative District 21 to focus on a congressional run. Lesko’s seeking the seat left vacant by U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who abruptly resigned in December following reports that he had offered $5 million to one of his staffers to be a surrogate mother for his children.

Lesko is the second GOP state senator to resign to run for Congress in recent weeks. Steve Montenegro resigned on Dec. 15, and his once vacant Senate seat in Legislative District 13 has since been filled by Sine Kerr, a Buckeye dairy farmer who was sworn into the Senate Monday morning.

Now that Lesko has resigned in the midst of a legislative session, state law requires an expedited process for local Republicans in LD21 to nominate three candidates to replace her, and for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to appoint one of the nominees to the Senate.

LD21 precinct committeemen are scheduled to meet on Friday evening to select three the nominees for Lesko’s replacement.

Lesko wins CD8

Republican U.S. Congressional candidate Debbie Lesko, right, celebrates her win with former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer at her home, Tuesday, April 24, 2018, in Peoria, Ariz. Lesko ran against Democratic candidate Hiral Tipirneni for Arizona's 8th Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Arizona. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Republican U.S. Congressional candidate Debbie Lesko, right, celebrates her win with former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer at her home, Tuesday, April 24, 2018, in Peoria, Ariz. Lesko ran against Democratic candidate Hiral Tipirneni for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Arizona. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Early ballot results in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District show Democrat Hiral Tipirneni put up more of a fight against Republican Debbie Lesko than expected in a district that has been reliably conservative for years.

Lesko lead Tipirneni by 6 percentage points after a count of early ballots Tuesday evening.

Although the lead may be insurmountable, the race is closer than expected when contrasted against President Trump’s 21 percentage points victory in the 2016 presidential election. The Associated Press declared Lesko the winner immediately after the initial returns.

Pollster George Khalaf said the special election is “over” with Lesko’s lead.

Lesko accepted the AP’s call soon after, thanking her family and supporters.

“Wow,” she said repeatedly. “I’m going to be a congresswoman.”

She said it was surreal to think she left an abusive husband 25 years ago, and now, she’s won a seat in Congress.

“Life takes us on journeys, and this is an incredible journey,” she said.

Tipirneni said in a written statement the race is too close to call.

In this Tuesday, April 10, 2018, photo, Democratic candidate for the Arizona 8th Congressional District special election Dr. Hiral Tipirneni talks with supporters at a local restaurant in Sun City, Ariz. Tipirneni is running against former Arizona Republican state Sen. Debbie Lesko in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Republican Rep. Trent Franks. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Hiral Tipirneni (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Republicans cast about 48 percent of early ballots, but Tipirneni claimed about 47 percent of the total early vote, indicating some in the GOP party may have swung in the Democrat’s favor.

The results in Legislative District 20 were telling. Tipirneni led Lesko by 6 percentage points in the early ballot results from that district, which has not elected a Democrat in the three elections since districts were redrawn.

While Lesko focused largely on her hardline stance on immigration and history in the district, Tipirneni emphasized her history as an emergency room doctor and stance on programs like Medicare and social security. Health care was a major focus of her campaign, frequently referring back to her time working with patients, and releasing campaign ads showing her in a hospital setting though she no longer practices; she is now a cancer research advocate.

Tipirneni also billed herself as a political outsiders and more of a moderate Democrat, a strategy that paid off in other districts across the country where Republicans were defeated despite running in traditionally GOP strongholds.

National Republicans appeared nervous heading into the special general election.

Groups like the National Republican Congressional Committee pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race, spending on ads and the campaign’s ground game.

The support came after Republicans elsewhere in the country suffered losses in Pennsylvania and Alabama, and Democrats saw the spending in CD8 as a sign the GOP was concerned the party may lose yet again in Arizona.

Tipirneni also raised more money than Lesko. Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show she received about $670,000 and gave herself $70,000 compared to Lesko’s contributions of about $539,000 and loans from herself totaling $25,000.

But Democratic groups withheld the level of financial support Lesko enjoyed from her national backers.

As Democratic consultants suggested their right-wing opponents were anxious, Republican consultants said the Democrats simply thought the race was not one worth investing in when other districts across the country may be more at play in 2018.

Lesko will still have to defend her seat in the regularly scheduled elections this August and November where some of her dozen challengers could reemerge – and so will Tipirneni.

“Regardless of the outcome, we’re taking this to November,” she tweeted Tuesday night while only early ballots were accounted for.

The seat became open when Franks stepped down after acknowledging that he had discussed surrogacy with two female staffers. A former aide told The Associated Press that he pressed her to carry his child as a surrogate and offered her $5 million.

Tipirneni remained confident she could pull off a win, tweeting that there were thousands of votes yet to be counted.

Several Republican voters who spoke with AP said they backed Lesko primarily because she supported President Donald Trump’s border security plans.

David Hunt, a 64-year-old retired construction and warehouse worker from Glendale, said he cast his vote Tuesday for Lesko because he believed that immigrants in the country illegally are creating unfair competition for jobs for recent high school students in Arizona.

“She’s the best candidate to deal with the porous border,” Hunt said.

Democrats said they wanted to send a message to Trump and supported Democratic health care plans.

“I don’t like the president and felt it was time to take a stand,” said Nikole Allen, a 45-year-old medical assistant from New York now living in Glendale. “It’s time for us to vote the Republicans out.”

Lance Ostrander, a registered Democrat who works for Maricopa County and lives in Peoria, said he’d be happy if Tipirneni wins.

“We’d really like a change,” he said. “Trump had a lot of good ideas at first but a lot of people feel like they were hoodwinked.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Lesko wins CD8 GOP nomination

Republican candidate and former Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko celebrates with her husband, Joe, after voting results show her victory in a special primary election for the Congressional District 8 seat during a campaign party at Lesko's home on Feb. 27, 2018, in Glendale. Former Gov. Jan Brewer watches. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)
Republican candidate and former Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko celebrates with her husband, Joe, after voting results show her victory in a special primary election for the Congressional District 8 seat during a campaign party at Lesko’s home on Feb. 27, 2018, in Glendale. Former Gov. Jan Brewer watches. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

After a brief but ugly race, Debbie Lesko has won the Republican nomination in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.

The Associated Press called the race at 10 p.m., about an hour after former state Sen. Steve Montenegro conceded. Lesko came out ahead as the first results were released, putting her ahead of Montenegro by 12 percentage points.

Montenegro also fell behind former state Rep. Phil Lovas.

On the morning after her win, Lesko told the Arizona Capitol Times that she won by such a wide margin because she has spent years making herself known to the people of CD8. She said she’s made herself easily accessible, handing out a home phone number that hasn’t changed in two decades.

Lesko will now advance to the special general election against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni on April 24.

The predominantly conservative district is expected to easily hand the Republican nominee the Congressional seat over the Democratic challenger.

Hiral Tipirneni
Hiral Tipirneni

Democrat Hiral Tiperneni lead Brianna Westbrook by 19 percentage points, a wide enough margin for AP to call the race in her favor more than an hour before the Republican primary was called.

Despite her advantage heading into the general, Lesko said she isn’t taking anything for granted, and she’ll still be working hard to convince voters she’s the right choice.

“I have the same beliefs that I had yesterday,” she said. “My values align with the majority of my constituents’ values. … I’m not going to change.”

GOP pollster George Khalaf of Orbital Data predicted a win for Lesko based on the early numbers.

Unless the number of ballots dropped off today are massive and Lesko did absolutely horribly in them, looks like she will be the winner in #AZ08 tonight,” he tweeted shortly after the first batch of results came in. “Surprised at the lead between her and second place.”

Phil Lovas initially trailed Montenegro by just 1 percentage point, but Lovas eventually overtook him by fewer than 100 votes.

Lovas gave a conciliatory statement via Twitter.

“While the result was not what we had hoped, I am grateful for the support we received from the citizens of #AZ08,” he tweeted, adding a thank you to his volunteers. “I look forward to continuing to work to advance conservative principles & solutions in the West Valley.”

Former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump, meanwhile, came in a distant fourth, dropping from 6 percent to just 5 percent of the vote by the time the race was called in Lesko’s favor.

Twelve Republicans ran in the crowded primary field, but Lesko was among the few candidates believed to have a real chance.

Auto-dial polls put Montenegro within shouting distance of Lesko in the runup to the election, but Montenegro was derailed last week by the revelation that he had carried on intimate conversations via text with a Senate staffer while still in office last year. Among the suggestive messages he received were photos of the woman in “various states of undress,” according to a statement.  

Former Gov. Jan Brewer endorsed Lesko as did the influential House Freedom Caucus.

Early votes are in and looking great for my friend @DebbieLesko pic.twitter.com/cZSW0RdywB

The money followed as did the attacks on Montenegro’s campaign.

Lesko and Montenegro dominated the conversation, exchanging fire only with each other and essentially ignoring the other candidates.

Independent expenditures followed suit, weighing in on behalf of their favored candidates.

As of Feb. 15, Lesko herself had spent about $70,000 on cable ads, the first of which focused on border security.

She  characterized the southern border with Mexico as a “war zone” and presented the “Lesko plan” that mirrored calls from President Trump – more Border Patrol agents, improve technology and a border wall

But that wasn’t good enough for the pro-Montenegro super PAC National Horizon, which teed off on Lesko’s “double talk” on the issue.

The group ran an ad noting that she told The Arizona Republic in December that securing the border “doesn’t necessarily mean a wall.”

“Doesn’t necessarily mean a wall?” the ad’s voiceover said before promoting Montenegro’s stance on the matter.

A mailer continued that same line of attack against Lesko, claiming that “liberal Debbie Lesko” is wrong on border security because she “won’t commit to building a real border wall.”  

Lesko and Montenegro also exchanged blows over who had violated the Americans for Tax Reform Taxpayer Protection Pledge – an ATR statement eventually clarified they were both guilty on that front.

But the criticism that could prove most problematic may was not entirely resolved before the primary election was decided.

In this April 6, 2017 file photo, Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko speaks in the Senate chambers in Phoenix. Lesko is under fire for transferring $50,000 from her old state Senate campaign fund to an independent group backing her congressional election bid. (AP Photo/Bob Christie, File)
In this April 6, 2017 file photo, Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko speaks in the Senate chambers in Phoenix. Lesko is under fire for transferring $50,000 from her old state Senate campaign fund to an independent group backing her congressional election bid. (AP Photo/Bob Christie, File)

In a complaint to the Federal Election Commission and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, Phil Lovas alleged that Lesko broke state and federal campaign finance laws when $50,000 from her state Senate re-election committee was contributed to a super PAC that aided her federal campaign, Conservative Leadership for Arizona.

The super PAC spent about $20,000 on pro-Lesko mailers and about $7,000 on road side signs touting her candidacy. It spent another $21,000 on polling in the CD8 race.

Lesko told the Capitol Times that Lovas’s allegations were “totally and utterly false,” and she was fortunate that “voters didn’t fall for last-minute false accusations” by an opponent. 

If Lesko and Conservative Leadership for Arizona coordinated, those expenditures would be considered contributions to her campaign and subject to the federal campaign contribution limit of $2,700.

There is a three-pronged test to determine what constitutes illegal coordination with a campaign, two of which Lesko has met – the communication directly advocates for her election, and was not paid for by someone other than her. Evidence demonstrating she violated the third “conduct prong,” though, has not been provided.

“Everything we did was totally above board,” Lesko said, “and I am expecting a fast resolution to this, that it will be dismissed.”

Lesko has threatened to sue Lovas over the allegations.

Lesko wins CD8 GOP primary

Debbie Lesko (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Debbie Lesko (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

U.S. Representative Debbie Lesko has easily won the Republican nomination to keep her Congressional seat after pulling far ahead of her sole challenger, Sandra Dowling.

With her place in the race for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District secured, Lesko is now heading to a repeat of the special election held earlier this year. She’ll face off once again against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, who did not have a primary challenger in the Aug. 30 primary.

While Lesko won the special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks in April, she did so by a smaller margin than expected in a district that has been reliably conservative for years.

Lesko defeated Tipirneni by just 5 percentage points, and a rematch in the Nov. 6 general election may end in equally tight margins.

Arizona’s 8th Congressional District

79,955 votes cast


Debbie Lesko 77 percent

Sandra Dowling 23 percent


44,580 votes cast

Hiral Tipirneni 100 percent

Lesko, Montenegro take spending lead in CD8 GOP primary

Debbie Lesko and Steve Montenegro, both former state senators, are the frontrunners in the special election for Arizona's 8th Congressional District.
Debbie Lesko and Steve Montenegro, both former state senators, are the front runners in the special election for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.

While a dozen Republicans are on the ballot for the special election primary in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, campaign spending shows the field of viable candidates is far less crowded.

Former state Sens. Debbie Lesko and Steve Montenegro have essentially ignored the other candidates, exchanging fire only with each other and dominating the spending game.

And with the February 27 special election less than two weeks away, Republican consultant Matthew Benson said he hasn’t seen an indication that someone will upset what is now a two-person race.

According to records filed with the Federal Election Commission as of February 15, about $50,000 has been pumped into independent expenditures in Lesko’s favor.

More than four times that amount was spent in support of Montenegro. Ads supporting his candidacy have surpassed $230,000. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s Jobs, Freedom and Security PAC alone has contributed $150,000 of that total with ads touting Montenegro as “the son of immigrants who came here legally” and a conservative U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi doesn’t want in Congress.

Lesko campaign spokesman Barrett Marson said Cruz’s support is cause for concern, “but it’ll take a lot more messaging to overcome (Montenegro’s) deficiencies.”

More than $80,000 has also been spent in opposition to Montenegro, three times more than was spent on negative IEs aimed at Lesko.

The pro-Lesko Defend US PAC has funded that front, attacking Montenegro for his support of a national popular vote and for supporting a pardon for a pastor in the country illegally.

“If how well you’re doing is measured by how many bullets they’re shooting atcha… then I guess he’s doing all right,” said Montenegro’s spokesman Constantin Querard.

And he’s not convinced ads questioning Montenegro’s stance on border security and immigration will convince anyone.

“Voters are a lot smarter than some consultants think they are. At least, that’s my hope,” Querard said.

Both candidates have also pulled ahead of the pack in terms of their own spending.

According to records filed with the Federal Communications Commission as of February 15, Lesko has spent nearly $70,000 on cable ads, with Montenegro trailing at about $30,000.

Auto-dial polls have put them within shouting distance of each other, but consultant Lisa James said the polling doesn’t matter in this election. Having operated under a short time frame, the candidates should focus instead on just getting their voters to show up, she said.

James has her money on Lesko, who she said will be rewarded for being bold at the state Legislature. She also predicted this would be “the year of the woman.”

Lesko is the only woman running in the CD8 race, and though James said that alone won’t win it for her, it’s not “a detriment to her by any stretch of the imagination.”

Consultant Chris Baker, who’s working with pro-Montenegro group National Horizon, said that’s a simplistic view of voters.

“To come to that conclusion, you have to assume that those voters are single-issue voters that are not swayed by anything,” he said. “There’s no indication that’s really a thing with voters.”

He, of course, said Montenegro stands a good chance of winning, and the negative ads coming out of the Lesko campaign are his proof.

“Two weeks out, that’s probably a good indication that something has to change in the race,” he said. “If she was leading the race running positive, my guess is she would stay positive.”

The underdogs

Former Rep. Phil Lovas and former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump were counted among the early front runners but have since fallen behind.

According to FEC records as of February 15, no independent expenditures have been reported in support of or opposition to either of them.

Bob Stump
Bob Stump

Stump this week was under no illusions about his chances of pulling off a win, and acknowledged that the odds are better for Lesko and Montenegro.

“I’m a realist,” he said repeatedly. “They’re both better financially endowed, I suspect, than other candidates in the race. And if you follow the feeds on Twitter, most of the vitriol from other candidates and between candidates is focused upon the two of them.”

He said he knew he was at a disadvantage from the start, having been out of office for a year and absent from ballots since 2012.

“As the son of a therapist, I try not to be in denial,” he said. “The polls are what they are.”

Stump said he’ll keep up the campaign until the end, taking the opportunity to talk to voters about issues that are important to him, most notably his gospel on the country’s need to protect the electrical grid.

But Lovas’ campaign still wants more than the chance to just talk to voters.

Campaign consultant Brian Seitchik said he thinks Lovas still has a shot at representing them.

Despite what the numbers might say, Seitchik said it’s not accurate to call this a race between Lesko and Montenegro alone.

“The conventional wisdom said that Hillary Clinton was going to get elected president, and the experts were pretty clear about that,” he said. “Thankfully, we see how they were all wrong.”

He said that the roughly 34,000 ballots that have been cast so far suggest a much higher turnout “than so-called experts have predicted,” and he expects that will bode well for Lovas.

He predicted that voters who were previously “dormant” in the political process but inspired by President Trump would turn out in Lovas’ favor.

Rep. Phil Lovas (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)
Phil Lovas (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Lovas was the first state legislator to endorse Trump for the presidency and served as his statewide campaign chairman. He left his seat at the House in April to join the Trump administration in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy.

Now, Seitchik said he’s “making it clear that he’s going to be working hand-in-hand with the Trump administration” for CD8, “and he’s the only one with the credibility to do that.”

If Seitchik is right about higher than expected turnout in the primary, Benson, the GOP consultant, said that could introduce “a brand new ballgame” in Lovas’ favor. But he also wondered if Seitchik offered any evidence demonstrating that advantage.

“Ordinarily, in a campaign like this where there’s a conventional wisdom that it’s between two candidates, if you’re not one of those two but you’ve got polling suggesting that you’re more competitive than people think you are, you want to get that out,” Benson said. “I’d be shouting from the rooftops… and we haven’t seen that.”

Many hurdles make ‘citizen veto’ hard to come by

Activists are attempting to repeal a trio of laws approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor this year. But pulling off a referendum, known colloquially as a “citizens’ veto,” isn’t easy.

Even if activists are able to gather the necessary 75,321 valid signatures from registered Arizona voters in the allotted 90 days, and even if the referenda and signatures survive inevitable legal challenges, lawmakers always have a trump card: They can simply repeal and replace the laws.

Save Our Schools, a political committee that formed after a group of teachers and public education advocates met at the Capitol while protesting a bill to expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, essentially school vouchers, is attempting to repeal that measure.

Voters of Arizona, a political committee headed by former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, is targeting two initiative laws – one that bans paying initiative petition circulators on a per-signature basis, upending the economic model upon which signature gathering firms are based; and another that requires initiatives to adhere to “strict compliance” with the law, meaning initiatives could be voided for strictly technical issues.

Voters of Arizona is using paid petition circulators, while the Save Our Schools is all volunteer based. And that distinction, some observers say, may mean the difference between being able to pull off a referendum or falling flat.

No statewide referendum in modern times has made it to the ballot without paying for at least some of its signatures.

That’s at least in part because referendum campaigns begin after the legislative session ends, just as temperatures start to creep into the triple digits.

Drew Chavez
Drew Chavez

Drew Chavez, owner of Petition Partners, the state’s largest petition circulating firm and the firm contracted to work for Voters of Arizona, said lawmakers know that it’s harder to gather signatures in the middle of summer, and he accused the Legislature of dragging out the 2017 session another week or two just to ensure the temperatures were unbearable for those attempting to refer the laws to the ballot.

Lawmakers adjourned the 2017 legislative session on May 10, meaning referendum campaigns have until August 8 to gather signatures.

Still, referenda organizers say they’re on track to accomplish the herculean task of gathering more than 75,000 valid signatures during the hot summer months.

Dawn Penich-Thacker of Save Our Schools Arizona announces a campaign to repeal the recent expansion of the state's school voucher system on May 8, 2017, at the Arizona Capitol. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)
Dawn Penich-Thacker of Save Our Schools Arizona announces a campaign to repeal the recent expansion of the state’s school voucher system on May 8, 2017, at the Arizona Capitol. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for the Save Our Schools campaign, said despite the group’s thin financial backing, the petitions are flying off the shelves, and they’re on track to meet their goals.

“It seems like we can’t print the petitions as fast as people are wanting more,” she said.

And Chavez said Voters of Arizona, which is targeting two initiative laws, is already ahead of schedule.

“We set extremely aggressive goals, and we have surpassed them by 15 percent every day. And I think that’s a combination of we’re very good at what we do, and people are really looking for us. For the first time ever, people are seeking out our project,” he said.

But even if the campaigns clear the first hurdle of gathering enough signatures, they still have several other hurdles to clear before voters get a chance to vote on the laws.

The referenda will almost certainly be challenged in court. Opponents frequently challenge the validity of signatures on the petitions, and often get a judge to invalidate up to 30 percent of the signatures for various reasons. That means a referendum campaign actually needs to collect upwards of 100,000 signatures to provide a cushion.

Then a referendum itself is subject to “strict compliance” – a legal term that requires the campaigns follow the letter of the law, not just the spirit of the law. In practical terms, that means referendum can be thrown out for something as innocuous as using the wrong margin size or font size.

Finally, if the referenda are ultimately successful in qualifying for the ballot, lawmakers have one last move at their disposal to kill the effort.

Sen. Debbie Lesko
Sen. Debbie Lesko (R-Peoria)

Republican Sen. Debbie Lesko of Peoria, who sponsored the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts bill, noted that if the campaign against her legislation actually gets enough valid signatures it needs to make the ballot, the Legislature can just repeal and replace the law.

It wouldn’t be the first time lawmakers have employed the strategy. In 2014, after voters had gathered enough signatures to halt the elections omnibus bill lawmakers had approved the previous year, the Legislature simply repealed the law.

And in 2015, after the threat of a referendum had passed, lawmakers re-approved many of the controversial provisions in the law.

Katie Campbell contributed to this report

Montenegro lashes out at reports of topless selfie from staffer

Steve Montenegro
Steve Montenegro

Former state Sen. Steve Montenegro is refusing to deny news reports on texts that suggest he had an intimate relationship with a Senate staffer.

Montenegro is a frontrunner in the Republican special primary election for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.

And if he pulls off a win on Feb. 27, some political operatives anticipate the controversy will hound him into the regularly scheduled August primary election.

Texts reviewed and reported on first by 12 News and The Arizona Republic included a topless photo sent to Montenegro by the staffer after they discussed how she could have attended a conference with him in November.

“You should have come,” read the response to the photo sent hours later.

According to the Republic, the number receiving the staffer’s messages has been used by Montenegro in conversations with reporters in the past.

The Arizona Capitol Times has not independently reviewed the messages.

On Wednesday afternoon, the staffer’s attorney, Tom Ryan, said the staffer believes she is the victim of revenge porn. Ryan has advised his client to file a formal report with the state Senate.

On the day former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks resigned the CD8 seat in December, the staffer reportedly had a conversation with Montenegro in which she made him a promise: “Yeah, you would never, ever have to worry about me. So I hope that puts you at some ease,” the Republic reports.

In a statement his campaign released last night, Montenegro neither confirmed nor denied the reports.

In it, Montenegro said he had assumed the “distortions” against him would be limited to his votes and positions on the issues, and he deemed the reporting on the texts “tabloid trash.”

Beyond on that, he did not acknowledge the specific allegations against him.

“I am blessed with an amazing wife and marriage,” Montenegro wrote. “The media wants to drag us down with just a week to go, but we are not going to dignify this false tabloid trash with any further response.”

The CD8 special primary election will be decided on Tuesday.

In a response to texts from the Capitol Times, Montenegro’s campaign spokesman Constantin Querard said only, “We made our statement last night and that’s all I’ve got for you…”

Cathi Herrod, president of the influential Center for Arizona Policy, on Wednesday called for  Montenegro on Twitter to leave the CD8 race.

She said the reports alleged “inappropriate relations” and that Montenegro’s response included no clear denial.

“Absent a clear denial or evidence to the contrary, I call upon him to withdraw from the #az08 race,” Herrod tweeted. “I urge voters to consider other candidates. My personal opinion.”

She later noted she had not endorsed a candidate in the Republican primary race.

Sens. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, and Karen Fann, R-Prescott, joined Herrod’s call on Twitter as did former Gov. Jan Brewer. Each has endorsed former Sen. Debbie Lesko in the primary.

Though Herrod may not be throwing her support behind another candidate, Republican consultant Matthew Benson said her word against Montenegro would have a “sizeable impact.”

He said her call for Montenegro to step aside is evidence that “his base of support is truly splintering around this issue” and that he’s “bleeding support” in its wake.

The key question now is whether the controversy has “irreparably harmed his ability to represent that district,” Benson said.

If Montenegro chooses not to withdraw from the primary election and wins, Benson said he will face “a parade” of Republican challengers come the regularly scheduled primary that would determine whether he keeps the seat.

And by then, his opponents will have had the time to make the race competitive again.

“People are going to be out for him,” Benson said. “He’s going to be viewed as exceptionally vulnerable in that Republican primary, and that assumes he can hang on in this go around.”

Trent Franks resigned the CD8 seat in December after allegedly asking female staffers to carry his child through surrogacy.

Following his resignation, the Center for Arizona Policy released a statement asking that recipients “simply pray for all of those affected by the circumstances of his resignation,” including former staffers as well as Franks and his family.

“Congressman Franks’ resignation may represent the first time you have considered surrogacy and its implications,” the statement went on. “My heart breaks for those who struggle with infertility and the loss of children.”

The statement made no mention of the specific allegations against Franks.

Despite his own scandal, consultants have said his endorsement helped Montenegro more than it hurt him and speculated Franks could have survived a reelection bid had he not resigned.

But Benson said that’s because Franks had years to serve the district and build support.

Montenegro was comparatively new to many CD8 voters, and while he may have done enough to win a seat at the state level, Congress is a “different kettle of fish.”

“Even Trent Franks, as popular as he was and as long as he served in that district, he obviously decided that he had to step aside.” Benson said.


Montenegro sexting scandal impact minimal on CD8 election

In this March 4, 2015 file photo, Arizona House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, R-Avondale, speaks during a legislative session at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
In this March 4, 2015 file photo, Arizona House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, R-Avondale, speaks during a legislative session at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

In the final week running up to the special primary election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, the political world pondered how suggestive text messages exchanged between former state Sen. Steve Montenegro and a Senate staffer would impact the Republican nomination.

Montenegro claimed the revelation of those conversations was an effort to sabotage his political career by his former legislative colleague, Debbie Lesko. But if the goal of those involved in bringing the messages to light was to thwart Montenegro, they need not have tried so hard.

Lesko, a former state senator, won the Republican special primary election to replace ex-U.S. Rep. Trent Franks on February 27.

She emerged with a 12-percentage point lead after the first wave of results an hour after the polls closed, indicating voters were on her side even before the messages.

Lesko claimed 23,621 early votes, or 36 percent, while Montenegro lagged behind with 15,884 votes, or 24 percent. And Lesko’s lead never diminished. She won with an 11-point advantage, according to unofficial results.

Of the roughly 67,000 early ballots cast in the CD8 GOP primary, only about 5,000 were cast after the Montenegro news broke on February 20.

Early voting began on January 31, and February 21 was the last day to mail in early ballots.

The spectacle may have captivated the Capitol, but it appears to have had no material influence on the primary result.

At most, it may have served to push Montenegro from second to third place. Former state Rep. Phil Lovas led Montenegro by 44 votes by the last count on the night of the election, moving Lovas into second place.

Republican consultant Ryan O’Daniel said that was the only real effect the scandal had on the race – it changed the margins, not the final outcome.

“I think he would have finished second if the texting scandal hadn’t broke. I just never really got the impression that he had the same kind of appeal with those hard primary voters that Lesko did,” O’Daniel said.

And consultant George Khalaf said the scandal had no effect.

“It’s clear that voters had made up their minds long before this broke,” he said.

But even if the motivation behind exposing the messages was political – seeking to keep Montenegro out of Congress – GOP consultant Matthew Benson said that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a real issue worthy of attention.

“Nobody’s alleging that this was entirely fabricated,” he said. “People have different perspectives on what happened and who’s to blame and who should share more of the culpability, but there’s no question that some sort of inappropriate behavior transpired.”

In the wake of this scandal and allegations of sexual harassment that led to the ouster of former Rep. Don Shooter in January, a bipartisan, bicameral committee will be tasked with creating a code of conduct to govern the Legislature.

“This wasn’t just politics as usual,” Benson said of Montenegro. “This was a real issue and certainly one that was ripe to explode in this kind of climate that we live in in 2018.”

Montenegro is not the first public figure to face consequences in the age of Me Too and a heightened awareness of sexual misconduct nationally.

But in many cases across the country in which inappropriate or even illegal behavior was exposed, victims were willing come forward with their stories.

Tom Ryan, the attorney for the woman on the other side of the Montenegro texts, Stephanie Holford, rejected any comparison between the stories emerging out of the Me Too movement and his client’s experience. He said what has happened to Holford was quite the opposite.

“At the time this was all going on, it was consensual between the two people,” he said. “Here’s the bigger problem… it unevens the playing field for all other Senate staffers.”

And Holford may have been the victim of revenge porn – her ex-boyfriend, Kent Lyons, took the messages and a nude photo from Holford’s computer at her home and shared them with news outlets without her knowledge or consent, Ryan said.

At a press conference on February 22, Ryan said Lyons brought Holford to his office for their initial meetings, presenting her as a “whistleblower.” But Ryan quickly realized that wasn’t the case – Holford told him she was not there willingly, he said, and she wanted no part in making the affair public.

Lesko will face off against Democratic nominee Hiral Tiperneni in the April 24 special general election.

Yellow Sheet Editor Jeremy Duda contributed to this report.

Political pandemonium in the works in rush to fill vacated congressional seat

U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.
U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.

The resignation of U.S. Rep. Trent Franks has set off a flurry of political activity as Republicans clamor to gauge if they stand a chance of winning a seat in the staunchly conservative 8th Congressional District.

Those political maneuvers have impacts at the state Capitol, immediate and long term, as potential candidates shift their focuses from one race to another. For some, running likely means resigning, whether it’s a requirement due to Arizona’s resign-to-run law or if it’s simply in the best interest of their campaigns for Congress, considering the expedited special election cycle.

A primary election in CD8 will be held on February 27, and candidates must submit their nominating petitions for the race by January 10.

But that deadline to jump into the race will only trigger more action, as new legislators must be appointed to fill vacant House or Senate seats, and new candidates emerge in several statewide races.


Candidates such as former Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump and former state Rep. Phil Lovas didn’t have much to lose by announcing their candidacy for CD8. Stump hasn’t held office since 2016, while Lovas had already left the Arizona Capitol for a post in President Trump’s administration.

But for legislators like Sen. Steve Montenegro, winning a fiercely competitive GOP primary for Congress means leaving the Legislature, at least for now.

Sen. Steve Montenegro (R-Litchfield Park)
Sen. Steve Montenegro (R-Litchfield Park)

Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, announced his CD8 candidacy on December 11, and also announced he’ll resign from the state Senate to focus on his campaign. Opinions differ on whether Montenegro’s decision is voluntary or required by law. Legislative council found that Montenegro and other legislators are in the clear because the last year of their terms begins on January 8, the first day of the 2018 legislative session. Others believe the final year of the term won’t begin until January 14, one year prior to the start of the 2019 legislative session.

Either way, resigning is considered a must for a serious candidate in the potentially crowded Republican field in CD8.

That leaves Montenegro’s fellow Sens. Debbie Lesko and Kimberly Yee, and Reps. Darin Mitchell and Tony Rivero, with similarly difficult decisions: Do they abandon their incumbency at the state Capitol in favor of congressional aspirations?

Sen. Debbie Lesko (R-Peoria)
Sen. Debbie Lesko (R-Peoria)

Lesko, a Peoria Republican, almost immediately expressed interest in Franks’ old seat, and at least one poll gives her the best chance at winning. Yee, R-Phoenix, already has aspirations beyond the Legislature – she announced her candidacy for state treasurer in November. If Mitchell, R-Goodyear, and Rivero, R-Peoria, resign, they would both abandon seats in Legislative District 21 for a shot at a job in Washington, D.C.

Legislative appointments

If lawmakers resign, that leaves plenty of work for precinct committeemen and county supervisors in those legislative districts.

That’s because a new lawmaker must be appointed for every seat that is vacated, and depending on when the resignation takes place, local officials might have expedited deadlines to put new legislators in those vacant seats.

If a resignation occurs during the legislative session, which starts on January 8, there is an expedited process for precinct committeemen to nominate and supervisors to appoint a new legislator.

Whenever Montenegro resigns, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors will have to appoint a new senator. The supervisors also might have to appoint a new representative. Mitchell, who also serves in Legislative District 13, is still mulling a run for Congress, or he could push to be appointed as a senator to replace Montenegro.

If Yee resigns to run for Congress, it would likely trigger a fierce competition between the two Legislative District 20 representatives for the appointment to replace her in the Senate. Both Reps. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, and Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, have already announced they’ll run for the Senate in 2018. Yee’s prior announcement that she’ll run for state treasurer meant she’ll vacate the seat at the end of her term. In the event she leaves the Senate even earlier to run for Congress, getting appointed to replace her would mean either Boyer or Kern could run for the Senate in 2018 as an incumbent, a significant leg up on the competition.

A Lesko resignation could pave the way for either Rivero or Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, to seek the appointment to replace her in the Senate – unless, Rivero decides to run for Congress himself, which would leave at least one vacancy in the House.

Of course, the appointment of any sitting representative to the state Senate would trigger yet another appointment process to fill a then-vacant seat in the House.

Leadership and committee assignments

The resignations of certain legislators would leave important voids in Senate leadership and key committee assignments.

Sen. Kimberly Yee (R-Phoenix)
Sen. Kimberly Yee (R-Phoenix)

Yee’s resignation would leave other senators jockeying to replace her as Senate majority leader, the No. 2 post among Senate Republicans behind Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler. A Lesko resignation would also leave Yarbrough without a president pro tem.

While Yee was already planning on leaving the Senate at the end of her current term, Lesko would be giving up her aspiration to become Senate president if she ran for Congress. Lesko has been angling for the top spot in the Senate since 2016, when she negotiated with Yarbrough to drop out of the race for president in exchange for the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

With Lesko out of the picture, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, who is termed out of the House next year, could pull off the rare feat of leaving the top post in the House to lead the Senate. The Chandler Republican has been mentioned as a possible challenger to Lesko for the Senate presidency.

A Lesko resignation also means that Yarbrough would need to appoint another senator to chair that committee, the first hurdle for a state budget each year. Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, serves as vice chair, and would likely be first in line for the committee chairmanship.

If Mitchell leaves for Congress, it would leave a wide open race to become the next House speaker. Mitchell, who unsuccessfully ran for the post in 2016, is considered a top candidate for speaker in 2018.

New candidates

Several of the Republicans hoping to make it to Congress would be giving up aspirations for other elected offices in Arizona. Montenegro has already abandoned his campaign for secretary of state, leaving Secretary of State Michele Reagan without a Republican challenger in her bid for re-election.

But that could soon change, as new candidates emerge in races left vacant by CD8 hopefuls.

Already, at least one prominent Republican is mulling a campaign to challenge Reagan now that Montenegro won’t: former Senate President Steve Pierce.

The Prescott rancher told The Arizona Republic that somebody needed to challenge Reagan, whose three years as the top election official in the state have been plagued by election-related snafus. Pierce would be a formidable challenger with deep pockets, who served with Reagan in the Senate.

Another former state senator, Lori Klein Corbin, said she’s also mulling a run for secretary of state.

If no other Republicans enter the race, Reagan would only need worry about Democratic opposition in the general election.

If Yee runs for Congress, she’d be giving up her campaign for state treasurer, an office where she once worked. Yee’s former experience in the Executive Tower and the endorsement of state Treasurer Jeff DeWit made her a strong opponent for Corporation Commission Chairman Tom Forese, a Chandler Republican. Without Yee, Forese may have an easier time in the GOP primary for treasurer – the only other Republican in the race is accountant Jo Ann Sabbagh.

Of course, a loss in the special election, be it in the CD8 primary or general election, doesn’t preclude a candidate from resuming a campaign bids for statewide office, or even running for the Legislature again.

Primaries set, some legislative incumbents face off

While some state Senate candidates can relax – nine are unopposed both in the August primary and the general, and a few others are facing only token opposition in districts that are safe for their parties – other would-be legislators have tough races ahead of them.

The deadline for candidates to file to run in the August primary passed on April 4.

The Democrats’ path to flip two more seats in each legislative chamber for a majority – already expected to be tough in a year where President Joe Biden is polling poorly and Republicans are hoping to make big gains nationwide – could be complicated in the Arizona House.

That’s because only one Democratic candidate filed to run for the House in three of the state’s most competitive districts, which guarantees that even if Democrats were to do well in these suburban Phoenix districts, Republicans will win the other seat in those three districts. That means the Democrats’ only hope for 31 House seats is to score some upsets in even redder territory.

However, running only one Democrat in these districts greatly increases the chances that the one Democrat will win in November, said political consultant Chuck Coughlin. In Arizona’s system, where up to two candidates from each party all run against each other in the general election for two House seats and the top two vote-getters win, only having one Democrat means all the Democrats will likely vote for that one person, and they can then focus on courting enough independents to ensure they get more votes than at least one of the Republicans.

It’s “highly disciplined, instead of the barroom brawl that Republicans are having,” Coughlin said.

“It’s actually the best way to pick up a seat,” Coughlin said. “They get all the Democratic votes and they’re not diluting all the Democrats between two candidates and they’re making their choice simpler.”

Before that happens, though, candidates need to get their party’s nominations first. Some of the most competitive primaries will likely happen in safe districts such as the very red District 7, or very Democratic districts 5 and 11 in Phoenix, which have drawn crowded fields of candidates, including some incumbents who will be running against each other due to redistricting.

“I think the Capitol crowd is going to focus on those races where we have incumbent versus incumbent, not only in the primary of course but in the general,” said Republican consultant Stan Barnes. “Like District 4, with Sens. (Nancy) Barto and (Christine) Marsh running against one another. It’s hard to avoid those races being the top of the stack of interest – after all, there’s going to be a losing incumbent that does not return, and everyone will want to know how that’s going to play out.”

Legislative races take shape

Thirty-three of the House’s 60 members are running for re-election to their House seats. In the Senate, five members are retiring and seven are running for other offices. Only half of the Senate Democrats will attempt to stay in their chamber, and some are in difficult races.

Wendy Rogers

All eyes are on District 7, which stretches from Flagstaff to the outskirts of Tucson and where conservative incumbents Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff and Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa will compete to keep their seat.

Rogers was censured by the Senate on March 1 for making violent comments, and Townsend denounced her for refusing to apologize for them. Shortly thereafter, Townsend dropped out of her congressional race and announced that she would run in the Senate again against her former ally.

The House races there could get equally messy, with Reps. David Cook, R-Globe, Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, and Brenda Barton, R-Payson, competing against newcomer David Marshall for two spots on the November ballot.

And this isn’t the only district where incumbents will be competing for their political futures. In District 5 Reps. Jennifer Longdon, Amish Shah and Sarah Liguori are running for re-election against two other Democrats. Marsh will face Barto in light-red District 4, which includes Paradise Valley and parts of Scottsdale and North Phoenix.

Kelly Townsend

Marsh isn’t the only Democratic incumbent who will face a tougher race due to redistricting – Reps. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, and Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, will also face more Republican electorates in their suburban Phoenix districts than they did before.

The most crowded House primary will be in south Phoenix’s District 11, where Rep. Marcelino Quiñonez and six other Democrats are vying for two House seats. In District 4 six Republicans, including former Rep. Maria Syms and Ducey budget director Matt Gress, are seeking the two House seats, while only one Democrat, Laura Terech, has filed.

Barnes said he was struck by the number of people interested in running for the House this year, which he said seems unusually competitive.

“I think it reflects the political dynamics in both parties where the more pragmatic portions of the party are wrestling with the more ideological portions of the party both in the Republican and Democratic side,” he said.

However, even if Democrats win all the House seats in the 12 safely Democratic districts created by redistricting, plus both seats in the newly created District 9 – a Mesa district that leans Democratic by less than a point – even if Schwiebert, Terech and Pawlik all win, that would only give Democrats 29 seats in the House, the same as now.

From left are Reps. Jennifer Longdon, Amish Shah and Sara Liquori, Democratic incumbents running against each other for two House seats in Legislative District 5, where redistricting has resulted in the contest in which one of them will be eliminated. A similar situation is also occurring in the Legislative District 7 House GOP primary.

The next-most-competitive districts are the Casa Grande area’s District 16, where only one Democrat will be on the ballot alongside the two winners of the GOP primary, and District 17, a Republican-leaning district in northern Pima County where two Republicans and two Democrats will be facing off in November.

Then-President Trump and U.S. Sen. Martha McSally carried both districts, albeit by narrow margins and with a lot of ticket-splitting in 17 especially, according to an analysis by consultant Landon Wall.

Barnes agrees with the conventional wisdom that his party will expand its legislative majorities in November.

“Democrats have real headwind in redistricting and the extremely weak and unpopular president of their party in the White House,” Barnes said. “Those are two formidable challenges for successful Democratic takeover of one or both chambers.”

Whatever happens, Barnes said, there will be more new faces in the Legislature in 2023 than he has seen in any year since 1988. And, the Legislature will have its first parent/child pair since Pete and Rebecca Rios – Rep. Jacqueline Parker is running unopposed for re-election in District 15, while her mother Barbara Parker is running for a House seat in neighboring District 10. (There is a Democrat running but it’s a heavily Republican district.)

“There are going to be a lot of new people, a lot, because of the combination of retirements, term limits, people running for other offices, people running against one another where an incumbent will lose,” Barnes said. “There are just going to be a lot of new people, and there’s good and bad with that.”

The U.S. Capitol building is seen before sunrise on Capitol Hill in Washington on March. 21, 2022. Several congressional races in Arizona primaries have crowded fields PHOTO BY GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Crowded field of U.S. House hopefuls

U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran is no stranger to close elections. His congressional district, which is the 2nd District on the new map, has been one of the most competitive in the state – it was the only one in 2016 to elect a Democratic congressman despite giving a plurality of its vote to Donald Trump.

However, with the addition of some Republican parts of Gila, Yavapai and Pinal counties, O’Halleran’s rural northeastern Arizona district has moved from six points redder than the national average to 15 points redder, according to FiveThirtyEight’s redistricting tracker, making an already competitive district even tougher to hold in a year when Biden is polling badly.

“We know this race will be tough, but I’ve never been one to back away from a tough race before, and I don’t intend to now,” O’Halleran said after the final maps were approved. “This election will require a lot of doors knocked, many phone calls made, and all-encompassing voter turnout from Arizonans across our beautiful state.”

Seven Republicans are seeking the party’s nomination to challenge O’Halleran, who is unopposed in the Democratic primary. Of them, former U.S. Navy Seal Eli Crane has raised the most money, followed by state Rep. Walt Blackman, a U.S. Army veteran and Republican from Snowflake. Other candidates include Andy Yates, who used to work for the International Republican Institute promoting democracy abroad; Williams Mayor John Moore; and Ron Watkins, who said he believes the 2020 election presidential election was stolen and who some journalists and researchers believe to have been behind QAnon. Watkins has denied this.

Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick is retiring from her position this year leaving the new 6h District open for a newcomer. Although Kirkpatrick is a Democrat, the new district leans blue and includes five Republican candidates and three Democratic candidates. State Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, joined the race with former Sen. Kirsten Engel. On the Republican side, no one is running who has experience in office.

In the 1st Congressional District, incumbent David Schweikert will try to stay in office in a district that still leans Republican. In the primary race, Schweikert will go against two other Republicans. Two Democrats also made the cut for this election: Jevin Hodge and Ginger Torres. Torres has the endorsement of some current members of Congress, including Rep. Raul Grijalva.

U.S. Reps. Debbie Lesko and Paul Gosar – the latter of whom has been a frequent target of national media coverage and Democratic criticism over his support for overturning the 2020 election and his coziness with white nationalist leader Nick Fuentes – aren’t opposed by any Democrats. Lesko doesn’t even have a primary challenger, while Gosar will have to beat three other Republicans before the winner cruises to election unopposed.


Return to roots of equality would Make Arizona Great Again


A resolution in Congress to extend the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) H.J.Res 38 has five co-sponsors from the Arizona delegation: Rueben Gallego, Raul Grijalva, Ann Kirkpatrick, Greg Stanton, and Tom O’Halleran, all Democrats. The rest of the Arizona delegation have not co-sponsored the extension resolution: Debbie Lesko, Paul Gosar, David Schweikert, and Andy Biggs, all Republicans.

The Senate has a corresponding resolution S.J.Res 6 and though Sinema signed the resolution when she was in the House, neither she nor McSally have signed in the Senate.

The ERA was approved by Congress in 1972 and required ratification by three-fourths of the states or 38. A seven-year deadline, later extended to ten, was put in the preamble. Legal scholars battle over the legality and meaning of both the deadline and the extension. In 1982, the ERA fell three states short.

Dianne Post (Photo by Martha Lochert)
Dianne Post (Photo by Martha Lochert)

Renewed interest in the ERA came when Nevada ratified it in 2017 and Illinois in 2018. The Virginia Senate has voted five times to ratify it, but the House has killed it including in 2019 with a vote of 50-50. Virginia has legislative elections in 2019 and the 51-49 Republican majority in the House is expected to change.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved the constitutional amendment on October 12, 1971, by a 324-24 vote. The ERA was passed by the Senate on March 23, 1972, with only eight negative votes. Both of Arizona’s U.S. senators voted no: Republicans Paul Fannin and Barry Goldwater.

Sandra Day O’Connor was the first legislator to introduce the ERA in Arizona in 1974. That measure failed. From 1982-1996, the ERA was not introduced in the Arizona House. In 2005, from 2007-2009 and from 2014-2019 it was introduced in the House, but held in committee or never even assigned to a committee.

It was introduced in the Arizona Senate from 1974-1982 (except 1981). In 1977 and 1979 it failed in Committee of the Whole. It was not introduced again in the Senate until 1993 and then in 2007-2010 and 2016-2019, with every bill held in committee or never assigned. An OH Predictive poll in Arizona in 2019 found that only 27% of people knew the ERA was an issue in the Legislature.  When they were told what it was, 63% were in favor.

In 2018, members of both parties introduced ERA resolutions. In 2019, 17 supporters in the Senate and 30 in the House introduced bills, but again they were not assigned or buried in committee. In 2019, debates took place in both houses on procedural motions, including a discharge petition which is what Martha Griffiths used in 1971 to get the ERA voted on in the House. Both resolutions failed.

Women could vote in Arizona in 1912, and Rachel Berry, from Apache County, was the first woman legislator elected in Arizona in 1914 before women in the rest of the country could even vote. Isabel Greenway was Arizona’s first congresswoman and only representative from 1933-1935. Arizona holds the record for the most women governors (four, three in a row) and having women hold all state offices at the same time (1998). The first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court came from here.

It is way past time for Arizona to go back to its roots and support the equality of women. The delegation in Washington D.C. needs to sign on the Senate and House resolutions and the state Legislature needs to listen to the will of the people and ratify the ERA in 2020.

Dianne Post is an international human rights attorney with 37 years of experience, and serves on the board of State NOW and ERA Task Force Arizona.

Rubalcava resigns from House, cites family

Rep. Jesus Rubalcava
Rep. Jesus Rubalcava (D-Gila Bend)

Rep. Jesus Rubalcava, D-Gila Bend, has resigned in the shadow of an ongoing Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission investigation.

“I have struggled with this decision, and ultimately it is for the best that I depart to focus on my family and profession,” Rubalcava wrote in a letter to his Democratic colleagues Wednesday. “I leave knowing that this legislative body and government will be here regardless but my children will only get to be children once.”

In May, a Clean Elections audit found that Rubalcava’s campaign accounting was a mess. He had combined his personal funds with campaign funds, and he used the campaign dollars to cover personal expenses, like flights out of state and hotels in Washington D.C., Memphis, San Diego and San Jose.

Those two violations alone – and they were joined by others – would have been reason enough for his removal from office under the Clean Elections Act. The investigation has not yet been concluded.

Rubalcava did not deny the allegations against him but chalked them up to his being a first-time candidate not familiar with the rules.

He did not mention the audit in his resignation email.

Still, House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, assumed he would not have resigned absent the resulting investigation.

“We’re sorry that this has happened,” Rios said. “We do support and respect his decision. It’s never easy. Folks work very hard to get into office, and so, I know it had to have been a very difficult decision for him to make. But at the end of the day, I think he made the right decision in terms of choosing to focus on his family and put his energies elsewhere.”

As for the Clean Elections inquiry, that’s something that will follow him out of office.

House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios
House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios (D-Phoenix) (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

“That will be something that he will need to continue to address even once he’s exited the Legislature,” Rios said. “That remains a process in motion.”

She was confident his constituents of Legislative District 4 would be taken care of in the meantime.

Rios anticipated the usual process of replacing Rubalcava would take its course, but that may not be so certain.

Because the Maricopa County portion of the district does not have the 30 precinct committeemen required to nominate candidates to replace Rubalcava, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors will have to appoint a committee to choose three candidates, according to Arizona Democratic Party spokesman Enrique Gutierrez.

Rubalcava lives in Gila Bend. His district stretches from southern Yuma to the Tucson area, and juts into the West Valley in Maricopa County.

His stint at the House was punctuated by controversy even beyond the Clean Elections audit.

He drew ire in April after writing on social media that he wanted to punch Republican Sen. Debbie Lesko in the throat following her successful passage of legislation expanding Arizona’s school voucher program.

Rubalcava later defended the comment as merely rhetorical anger in response to the Peoria senator “prancing around” the House after the victory.

He initially declined to apologize, only going so far as to remove the post containing the comment from Facebook. A week later, though, he folded to the firestorm of criticism that erupted in its wake.

Jeremy Duda contributed to this report.

Senate staffer may be victim of ‘revenge porn’ shared in connection with Montenegro

Attorney Tom Ryan (Photo by Gary Grado, Arizona Capitol Times)
Attorney Tom Ryan is representing a woman who left her job at the Senate on Feb. 21, 2018, following news reports regarding suggestive text messages she exchanged with former state Sen. Steve Montenegro. (Photo by Gary Grado, Arizona Capitol Times)

A woman whose text messages with former state Sen. Steve Montenegro were shared with news outlets believes she is a victim of revenge porn, her attorney said Feb. 21.

Attorney Tom Ryan also told the Arizona Capitol Times may leave town in the wake of reports regarding suggestive text conversations she had with Montenegro, who is a leading candidate in the Feb. 27 Arizona 8th Congressional District GOP primary.

Ryan said the woman’s ex-boyfriend obtained the text messages, which included a topless photo she sent to Montenegro, without her knowledge or consent. He declined to confirm the identity of either his client or her ex.

The photo has not been published but was shared with multiple reporters.

Ryan said the ex stole material from his client’s computer at her home on multiple occasions.

“There’s nothing trustworthy about that person,” Ryan said.

Before news reports were released this week, Ryan said he emailed his client’s ex to make his position “abundantly clear” – that the man should destroy the materials he took and not show or discuss them with anyone.

“And then I find out that not only has he shown stuff to people, he’s shopped it all over the (expletive) town,” Ryan said.

According to Arizona law, it is a crime to share photos depicting an identifiable person nude or engaged in specific sexual activities without his or her consent if the intent is to harm, harass or intimidate that person.

Ryan said his client is “devastated” and “destroyed,” and he has advised her of her options regarding any allegation of violating the law. However, he was unsure if she would ever take a complaint to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

Ryan further advised her to file a formal complaint with the state Senate to seek censure, though he doubted that would ever materialize either because of the impact the press attention has had on his client.

“If the stories in the media are accurate, this is a state senator that took advantage of a vulnerable person,” Ryan said. “If those stories are true, then he is a loathsome, disgusting creature, and he should not be in public office at all.”

However, Montenegro granted a 20-minute interview to the conservative Washington Examiner Feb. 21 during which he accused his opponents of sabotaging his career.  

“I want you to know I did not have any inappropriate relationships with this woman,” Montenegro told the Examiner. “At no time have I been inappropriately involved with any staffer – nor have I ever. I have not solicited inappropriate material via text message or any other message.”

Texts as reported on by 12 News and The Arizona Republic indicate he did not tell her to stop.

He did confirm the messages to the woman were his, and claimed that he told his wife about the nude photo shortly after receiving it. After that, he said he broke off all communication with the woman.

“If there is anything I would say I’m guilty of, it’s becoming too comfy or familiar as seen in some of those texts,” he said, according to the Examiner.

Montenegro resigned his Senate seat in December to run in the special election for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District following the resignation of former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks.

But Ryan said he can still be censured for the record.

“It’s not necessarily about that person,” he said. “It’s about protecting your staff and protecting your members from someone in a position of authority from taking advantage of that, from taking advantage of people in a vulnerable position.”

Ryan said Montenegro encouraged the woman’s flirtations rather than telling her to stop when their conversations were “inappropriate” and reflected a non-professional relationship.

He said a sitting senator, as Montenegro was when he exchanged messages with the woman, should never have any such relationship with a staffer.

However, the Senate has no written policy barring senators from engaging in relationships with staff.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to reflect that Stephanie Holford did not quit her job at the state Senate.

Senate staffer says Montenegro took part in suggestive texts

Attorney Tom Ryan holds up print copies of text messages exchanged between former state Sen. Steve Montenegro and a Senate staffer, Stephanie Holford. Holford named herself in a statement Ryan read during a press conference at the Senate on Feb. 22. (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)
Attorney Tom Ryan holds up print copies of text messages exchanged between former state Sen. Steve Montenegro and a Senate staffer, Stephanie Holford. Holford named herself in a statement Ryan read during a press conference at the Senate on Feb. 22. (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

The woman who exchanged suggestive text messages with congressional candidate Steve Montenegro has contradicted the former state senator’s account of the part he played in their “intimate” conversations.

In a statement provided by her attorney, Tom Ryan, she also identified herself to the press February 22 during a press conference at the Senate. Stephanie Holford said she was the digital media coordinator at the state Senate beginning in January 2017, the position she held when she first came to know Montenegro, one of the GOP frontrunners in the Arizona 8th Congressional District primary election.

Ryan said she had sent Montenegro a topless photo among other messages that indicated a relationship between the two.

In her statement read by Ryan, Holford said she and Montenegro often communicated through text messages, which were professional at first but turned personal “in a very short period of time.”

Montenegro began sharing his likes and dislikes for music and food and she said she responded in kind. Many of their conversations took place outside of normal work hours.

“Well, if you are nice to me I’ll take you to my favorite place sometime,” Montenegro texted her in February 2017. “We can invite Mike if you like so it’s a ‘work’ field trip. :)”

In a later conversation, Holford asked whether she should refer to him as “senator” or “Steve,” and he instructed her to use his first name.

Eventually, they began to flirt, she said, and she became comfortable enough with their relationship that she began sending photos “in various states of undress.”

Ryan said Montenegro did not send nude texts of himself, and the relationship was not physical.

“Senator Montenegro asked me to send them on Snapchat instead,” she said. “We engaged in sexual conversation about these pictures. These were detailed and intimate.”

A photo shared with The Arizona Republic and others without her knowledge or consent was not provided to the press in general. Photos shared via Snapchat self-destruct.

Ryan said he has specifically declined to see any of the photos and does not want them to be further disseminated because they were intended to be private.

In addition to naming herself, Holford said her ex-boyfriend obtained the messages and photo to show to the press.

Kent Lyons, the ex-boyfriend, stole her private information off her home computer and social media accounts, and Holford is now considering legal action against him, according to her statement. She believes she has been the victim of revenge porn.

Lyons did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ryan said Lyons brought Holford to his office for their initial meeting, where Lyons presented her as a “whistleblower.” But Ryan quickly realized that wasn’t the case – Holford told him she was not there willingly.

“She wanted it shut down,” Ryan said.

“It was never my intent to make this affair public,” he read from Holford’s statement. “But now that my name and image have been brought out in public, I am taking accountability for my part in all of this. I apologize profusely for my involvement in this matter. I want to move on in my efforts to rebuild my life.”

Ryan told the press Montenegro had been “inappropriate from the get-go” and was “grooming” Holford.

Montenegro’s campaign spokesman Constantin Querard did not immediately return a request for comment.

Steve Montenegro
Steve Montenegro

In a 20-minute interview on February 21 with the conservative Washington Examiner, Montenegro accused his opponents of trying to sabotage him, namely Debbie Lesko, his main competitor in the Republican race for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.

“I want you to know I did not have any inappropriate relationships with this woman,” Montenegro told the Examiner. “At no time have I been inappropriately involved with any staffer – nor have I ever. I have not solicited inappropriate material via text message or any other message.”

Ryan denied any involvement by the Lesko campaign. He said this was only an act of revenge by Lyons.

Whatever Lyons’ intention, Ryan said Holford never wanted to make the matter public. And as her attorney, Ryan said he did his best to keep it confidential.

But press reports soon followed. Then he saw Montenegro’s comments to the Examiner and characterization of news reports on their relationship as “tabloid trash.”

Ryan said, “Let’s be clear. Mr. Montenegro is lying about the whole matter. …He saw her, an attractive young blonde lady, and he went after it.”

Ryan advised Holford to file a formal complaint with the state Senate to seek censure of Montenegro.

Montenegro resigned his Senate seat in December to run in the special election for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District following the resignation of former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, who left office after asking staffers to be surrogates.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to reflect that Stephanie Holford did not quit her job at the state Senate.

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.”



State Sen. Debbie Lesko seeking US House seat

A second state senator has formally announced a run for the U.S. House seat left vacant when Republican Rep. Trent Franks resigned.

Sen. Debbie Lesko (R-Peoria)
Sen. Debbie Lesko (R-Peoria)

Sen. Debbie Lesko had been mulling a run and announced late Wednesday that she would be a candidate. The Republican told the Arizona Republic she would also resign from the Senate.

Former state Sen. Steve Montenegro has already resigned to focus on running in the Feb. 28 special election Republican primary to replace Franks.Ai?? Other Republicans who have formally announced include former Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump and former state Rep. Phil Lovas, who ran President Donald Trump’s Arizona campaign committee last year.

Several other GOP politicians are considering jumping in. 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Supervisors appoint ex-legislator Rick Gray to replace Debbie Lesko

Supervisor Steve Gallardo. (Photo by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors appointed former
Rep. Rick Gray, third from left, to fill the Senate seat vacated by
Debbie Lesko in Legislative District 21. From left: Supervisor Bill
Gates, Board Chair Steve Chucri, Gray, Supervisor Clint Hickman, and
Supervisor Steve Gallardo. (Photo by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors today appointed ex-legislator Rick Gray to replace former state Sen. Debbie Lesko in Legislative District 21.

Lesko had resigned at the end of the opening day of the 2018 legislative session to run for Congressional District 8.

Gray, who will be sworn in on Jan. 19, edged out Rep. Tony Rivero and former Rep. Jean McGrath, whom LD21 precinct committeemen also nominated last week to replace Lesko.

Supervisor Clint Hickman, whose district includes LD21, said it was a tough decision to choose from among the three people who had already served the West Valley, but Gray, who was in the House from 2011 to 2016, is knowledgeable and will continue to work hard for his constituents.

After the appointment, Gray told the board that the title of “senator” is not particularly important to him.

“The idea of a title of senator is about as appealing to me as if somebody says, ‘I’m gonna take you out for dinner and we’re going to have a great bowl of kale.’ But the opportunity to serve, to me, is what’s important,” he said.

He added that the appointment is both humbling and exciting.

Gray, who had first filed to run for election in the House, said he expects Lesko to win her congressional race, which means he’ll run for the Senate. However, he added that it’s still too early to say if he would close his House campaign.

“The first thing on my mind is prepping myself for all the legislation that is going to be coming through,” he said. “When you’re in the Legislature, you’re inundated with stuff.”

The Breakdown, Episode 12: What do you want, and when do you want it?


Thousands of teachers, students and public education advocates rallied at the Arizona Capitol on March 28, 2018. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Thousands of teachers, students and public education advocates rallied at the Arizona Capitol on March 28, 2018. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Public school teachers and their supporters turned out in the thousands on March 28 with a list of demands for their elected representatives.

They want change now, but Gov. Doug Ducey’s response seemed to indicate they won’t get what they want – not right away anyway.

Teachers aren’t alone in waiting for funds that may not come. While former state Sen. Debbie Lesko is receiving the financial support of national Republican groups, her Democratic challenger in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, is on her own.

And a group of freshman Democrats just want to be heard.

Meanwhile, our reporters are getting antsy for the budget. Any idea when we’ll get a look, politicos?

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Breakdown on iTunes.

Music in this episode included “Little Idea,” “Creative Minds” and “Energy” by Bensound.

The Breakdown, Episode 16: Strike everything


(Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
A crowd of red-clad teachers, students and Red for Ed supporters could be seen from the top of a parking garage near Chase Field as they gathered there on April 26 before marching to the Arizona Capitol. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Tens of thousands of Red for Ed supporters marched on the Capitol last week, and they say they’ll stay out of schools until Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature come up with a plan for education that satisfies them.

Beyond today, though, it’s unclear how much longer they’ll hold out.

And while education continues to dominate the conversation, there was more to last week than the walk-out.

Former Republican state Sen. Debbie Lesko is heading to Congress after winning the special general election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, but the slim margin by which she won has energized Democrats for this year’s regular election cycle.

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Breakdown on iTunes.

Music in this episode included “Little Idea,” “Creative Minds” and “Energy” by Bensound.

The Breakdown, Episode 6: Details, details


(Photo by Ellen O'Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)
(Photo by Ellen O’Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)

After two weeks in one crisis or another, lawmakers really got to work last week, and our reporters dug in.

Whether we’re talking about the Arizona Attorney General’s Office spending about 100 hours on each SB1487 complaint – ouch – concern over Senate President Steve Yarbrough’s STO plan – oh boy – or the battle to be the 8th Congressional District’s most conservative GOP candidate – oy – the Devil’s always in the details.

And this session has only just begun.

The Breakdown, Episode 7: ‘Hamilton’ was bound to come up sometime


Debbie Lesko (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Debbie Lesko is one of two Republican candidates believed to be leading the special primary election race in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District. Steve Montenegro is her key challenger in this final week of campaigning ahead of election day on Feb. 27. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

The Arizona Capitol Times team didn’t know how to say no to a “Hamilton” tribute, and “licenses schmicenses” was a real topic of conversation.

What a time to be at the Capitol.

The legislature is following Gov. Doug Ducey’s lead on professional licenses for a wide range of professions. And while some bills may not have succeeded last week, their intentions left a mark.

Meanwhile, the special primary election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District is on Feb 27. The conventional wisdom says its a two-person race, but that doesn’t anyone is throwing in the towel just yet, including Democrats.

The Breakdown, Episode 8: Collateral damage


Steve Montenegro
Steve Montenegro

Collateral damage isn’t uncommon in the world of politics.

As scandal erupted in the Republican special primary election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, a Senate staffer was revealed to have exchanged suggestive text messages with former state Sen. Steve Montenegro – and the way in which the messages were first obtained may have been an act of revenge porn.

Meanwhile, progressives believe the power of the people may be the target of bills that simultaneously seem to be strengthening the will of lawmakers. And you can expect a bunch of cash to be pumped into the fight for the Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona ballot measure. The measure may have a California billionaire behind it, but Pinnacle West is already leading the charge against it.

At least we have Jelani Sample to bring the tension down a notch.

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Breakdown on iTunes.

Music in this episode included “Little Idea” and “House” by Bensound.

The Breakdown, Episode 9: Surprise, surprise


Republican candidate and former Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko celebrates with her husband, Joe, after voting results show her victory in a special primary election for the Congressional District 8 seat during a campaign party at Lesko's home on Feb. 27, 2018, in Glendale. Former Gov. Jan Brewer watches. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)
Republican candidate and former Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko celebrates with her husband, Joe, after voting results show her victory in a special primary election for the Congressional District 8 seat. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

The special primary election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District was decided last night, and the result was surprising to some politicos.

But a surprise in the general election – a Democratic winner – remains highly unlikely.

Democrats in the Legislature are hoping to prompt a surprise of their own. They’re trying to force a dialogue around gun reform following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that claimed 17 lives. But their Republican colleagues are resisting changes related to guns as well as medical marijuana.

And Gov. Doug Ducey has been asked to commute a former Phoenix police officer’s prison sentence. A decision by Ducey to follow the recommendation of the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency would not only be unusual from this governor, but he’d be stepping into a controversial case centered around the officer-involved shooting of an unarmed man.

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Breakdown on iTunes.

Music in this episode included “Little Idea” and “Enigmatic” by Bensound.

Tribal leaders: Arizona law makes it hard for Native Americans to vote

Concept of voting.

Changes to election laws and polling place closures since 2013 have had a disproportionately negative impact on members of federally recognized tribes in Arizona, tribal leaders and voting rights advocates told a Congressional subcommittee Tuesday morning.

Until 2013, Arizona, Alaska and seven former Confederate states that historically imposed laws limiting voting by racial minorities needed federal approval to pass any changes to voting laws. But since the Supreme Court threw out that provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Arizona Legislature and local election officials have had carte blanche to pass new laws and close polling locations.

The end result, tribal leaders and civil rights groups said during a Congressional hearing at Phoenix College, was a series of changes to state laws targeting different aspects of voting that make it more difficult for tribal members and other people of color to participate in Arizona elections.

“It’s no secret that elections in Arizona historically and still today are a mess,” Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, said.

Stanton and fellow Arizona Democratic Reps. Ruben Gallego, Ann Kirkpatrick, Raúl Grijalva and Tom O’Halleran are among the 91 House co-sponsors of the Native American Voting Rights Act, which would restore a mandate that states seek federal approval before passing some laws, including photo ID requirements, and analyze the effects state laws have on indigenous people voting.

The Navajo Nation wants Congress to pass the Native American Voting Rights Act, President Jonathan Nez said. In the meantime, he said, the Arizona Legislature would benefit from traveling to Indian Country and listening to tribal members.

“A lot of the laws that are being changed for the state of Arizona go through the Legislature and they don’t know that it hurts the nation,” Nez said.

Even seemingly small changes, like a law this year that moved state primaries to the first week in August, can have a deleterious effect on Navajo voter turnout, Nez said. The Navajo Nation has long scheduled its own elections to coincide with local, state and county elections to boost turnout, but now they’re a few weeks apart.

Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, said members of federally recognized tribes are also negatively impacted by a new law, 2019’s SB 1072, that requires voters to show a photo ID if they vote early in person. People who vote early by mail can use their signature as proof of identification.

State voter ID laws allow tribal identification cards, but only if they contain a valid address. Not all tribal ID cards include addresses, and many tribal members who live in rural areas don’t have standard U.S. Postal Service addresses.

Mail service can be difficult on reservation lands, Roe Lewis said, making voting by mail difficult. Arizona officials who closed more than 300 polling places across the state in the past few years cited an increase in mailed ballots as a reason for shrinking the number of polling places, but Roe Lewis said members of his community would prefer to vote in person.

“It’s a tradition,” he said. “It’s an engrained tradition among our community, especially with our elders.”

Both Roe Lewis and Nez said language barriers and different cultural definitions of “family” also contribute to obstacles native people face when it comes to navigating some laws. Tribal members who aren’t natively fluent in English might miss instructions to sign the outside of their ballot envelopes, leaving them open to having their ballots tossed out.

And a 2016 law that made it a felony for anyone but immediate family, caregivers and household members from collecting and turning in ballots for anyone else can be difficult to understand because indigenous groups, including the Navajo and Gila River tribes, have looser definitions of “family” than the “Anglo-centric” one used to define family in the state’s law, the two tribal leaders said.

That ban, coupled with unreliable mail service, leaves some elderly people facing long drives to turn in their own ballots, Nez said. Committee Chairwoman Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, said the difficulties native people face trying to vote are “un-American.”

“It is unconscionable to me that someone would have to drive an hour or two or three to cast their ballot,” she said. “It is un-American.”

Committee members also heard from Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the Scottsdale Republican who championed many recent changes to voting law, including photo ID requirements and the ban on ballot collection. Ugenti-Rita said Arizona has been on the forefront of expanding voting opportunities while ensuring the state is safe from election fraud. 

Ugenti-Rita said she has yet to hear from actual voters harmed by Arizona’s voting laws, and said opposition to those laws has come only from special interest groups.

 “It is easy and convenient to vote in the state of Arizona,” Ugenti-Rita said. “If you are not voting, it is because you chose not to.”

Trump advisor hints at lawsuit if vote doesn’t go their way

From left; Former U.S. Rep. John Shadegg, Citizens United President David Bossie, former Arizona Treasurer Jeff DeWitt, Arizona U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz.,speaking, Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward, and U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., participate in an Arizona Republican Party news conference, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
From left; Former U.S. Rep. John Shadegg, Citizens United President David Bossie, former Arizona Treasurer Jeff DeWitt, Arizona U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz.,speaking, Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward, and U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., participate in an Arizona Republican Party news conference, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Phoenix. (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. 5 at 4:37 p.m. This most recent update occurred Nov. 4 at 7:33 p.m.  

Arizona is closing in on counting all the leftover ballots with no real changes so far in who is leading and who is not.

But there are signs that the votes that continue to be tallied are trending toward Republicans.

As of Thursday afternoon the Secretary of State’s Office said counties were reporting approximately about 300,000 ballots left to be tallied. But some of those figures were already two days old and had not been updated.

The lion’s share are in Maricopa County.

What makes that significant is that Biden has been running marginally ahead of Trump in the state’s largest county, tallying 944,285 against 880,347. And in Pima County, where there were about 46,000 ballots to be counted, the Democrat had nearly 100,000 more votes than the president out of more than 492,000 that already have been counted.

Statewide, while Biden’s lead has declined in the past day, he still had about 46,300 more votes than Trump. So that means the president needs to pick up something north of 55% of the uncounted votes statewide to catch up.

Meanwhile Republicans were looking at the possibility of judicial intervention if the numbers do not appear to be going their way.

“All options are on the table,” said David Bossie, a senior campaign advisor to the Trump campaign said at a press conference Thursday afternoon at state GOP headquarters. “But we’re not there yet.”

But separately the Donald J. Trump for President committee and the Republican National Committee have intervened in a separate legal fight over the use of Sharpies to mark ballots. And the Arizona Democratic Party also decided to get involved in that fight. (See related story.)

The Thursday event at GOP headquarters was more of a pep rally for the president featuring two of the state’s Republican members of Congress and Kelli Ward who chairs the state party.

“We have the momentum, we have the activist community that is not going to allow this race to be stolen from President Trump or from Republicans all the way down the ballot,” Ward said. She also blasted Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes.

“I have some concerns about the (county) elections department and about Adrian Fontes himself,” Ward said. She accused his agency of relegating GOP poll watchers to a corner where they could not actually view the computer screens that are being used to verify signatures on ballot envelopes.

Fontes, however, said his office has been following the same protocols for poll watchers since the counting started. And he said the staff at the election department works out the details with both political parties.

Bossie also took a separate blast at the media, including what had been conservative favorite Fox News, for calling Arizona for Biden on election night.

“This has not been a mistake, folks,” he said. “They have been against the president, they’ve been against your president, from the very first minute, four years ago.”

The focus on Arizona is not surprising with its 11 electoral votes which could be enough to put him over the top of the 270 he needs to clinch victory. Counts were still going on during Thursday afternoon in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada.

Aside from the GOP press conference, Trump supporters have been showing up for the past two days outside the offices where Maricopa County officials are counting the ballots.

On Wednesday evening the building was protected only by a handful of sheriff’s deputies, with protesters right up against the building. By Thursday the county had installed temporary fencing to keep people away from entrances, designating areas outside the fence as the “free speech zone.”

In other races, the margins between apparent winners and losers were larger, meaning a greater hurdle to change the outcome.

Voucher expansion ballot measure prompts questions on voter protection

Stacks of voters' signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8 after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Stacks of voters’ signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8 after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

What is now Proposition 305 will not only put the fate of school voucher expansion into the hands of Arizonans, but is also likely to set precedent on how the Voter Protection Act applies to referenda.

The argument is sure to be made that whatever voters decide in the 2018 general election–approval or rejection–is protected, and any result may be less than ideal for those who want to see the expansion proceed.

Let the speculation begin.

Roopali Desai, an attorney representing expansion opponents Save Our Schools Arizona, said the question of voter protection is really a discussion about the power of the people in relation to the Legislature.

“This conversation is interesting because there is the legal component – what does the Constitution mean and require with respect to referenda – but there is also another question: From a common-sense perspective, how does this come about procedurally?” she said.

A court will ultimately have to settle this debate, but getting to that point is complicated, she said. That comes later.

The Voter Protection Act is currently interpreted in the context of initiatives, Desai said, because those measures are more common relative to referenda, but also because the state Constitution is far more clear with regard to initiatives.

While the Constitution indicates initiatives are voter-protected if approved, it is not so clear-cut on referenda, said attorney Jim Barton, a former Arizona assistant attorney general who now specializes in areas of political and government relations law.

“It says that if citizens decide a referendum, it’s voter-protected,” Barton said. “The trick is we don’t know if that means only referenda referred by the Legislature or if it means a citizen referendum as well.”

Additionally, what the Voter Protection Act means for a “no” vote is not entirely clear.

To simply say a referendum “decided” by the voters suggests to Barton that a vote in the negative would be afforded the same protections as a “yes.”

And that raised yet another question in Barton’s mind: How far would the “no” go?

If Arizonans say no to the expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts as proposed in Senate Bill1431 and a slightly different bill is brought up in a subsequent session of the Legislature, would that legislation also be nullified because of the referendum?

Barton said he didn’t know.

No one seems to know for sure.

Whichever side wins will almost certainly make the argument the Voter Protection Act applies, but the argument seems stronger for a “yes” vote from the perspective of Kory Langhofer, an attorney who represents Americans For Prosperity, a group funded by the pro-voucher Koch Brothers.

Contrary to Desai, Langhofer said an argument for a “no” vote would be weaker, but a success at the ballot for the pro-voucher crowd does not come without its caveats.

Barton said if the expansion becomes protected, so too would the cap of 30,000 students included in SB1431. Arizona has roughly 1 million public school students.

In order to amend a voter-protected measure, legislators must pass an amendment with a three-fourths supermajority and whatever change they make must further the intent of the voters.

If the cap becomes protected, an effort to either repeal or expand it would arguably have to meet those requirements or face a legal challenge.

“If your point is that the VPA would increase risk for proponents,” Langhofer said, “Yes, I think that’s correct.”

He’s not worried, though – that would be “an overstatement” – because he said he still believes the referendum will not ultimately make the ballot.

Langhofer and attorney Timothy La Sota have filed a lawsuit alleging numerous violations, including a variety of handwriting irregularities, the use of ditto marks in address fields, incomplete or inconsistent dates, failure to properly register paid circulators and reference to the nonexistent “fifty-third session of the Legislature.”

Technically, the legislation in question, SB1431, was approved during the first regular session of the 53rd Legislature. Mistakenly referring to the session constitutes a violation under strict compliance, according to the suit, and so the error should render all petitions invalid.

Langhofer said the question of how the Voter Protection Act applies could stretch the legal fight on school vouchers into 2019, well after next year’s election, further muddling the debate.

And that, too, could be problematic for the pro-voucher side.

“This issue could be used to sow confusion,” he said. “When things get complicated like this, people tend to vote ‘no.’”

And that’s exactly what Desai expects.

But then we’re back to the procedural logistics of ensuring voter protection.

If the voters vote “no” as SOS Arizona is asking them to do and the law is overturned, a challenge based on the Voter Protection Act would be likely if the Legislature later tried to enact it in substantially the same way, Desai said. For example, she would expect a challenge if the legislation was raised again with a different cap.

She said the argument would be made that “you can’t undo the vote of the people by going back after an election and simply reenacting the same law.”

But the pro-voucher legislators could preempt a bad day at the ballot by repealing the law before the voters ever have their say.

Langhofer said he is not aware of any discussions regarding that option.

Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who sponsored SB1431 said she has not decided on whether repeal – or any road ahead – would be an option.

“It’s way too early,” she said. “I’m waiting to see what happens on the legal front.”

But the repeal option is being discussed around the Capitol, and Barton, a former assistant attorney general, said it’s been done before, though under very different circumstances.

Barton pointed out how HB2305 in 2013, “an omnibus bill” composed of several controversial elections measures approved in the final hours of the 2013 legislative session, was repealed after it was put to the ballot. But Barton added that was a “giant” bill that was revisited in pieces and never put back in place in its entirety, again leaving the question of what an attempt at a small change to an ESA expansion bill might yield legally.

And Barton said it could do political damage to those who try.

“That would seem to essentially eliminate the right of the citizens to refer things,” he said.  “It just seems wrong that you would take away all of that effort by a vote of the Legislature when this is supposed to be a check on the Legislature’s power.

“And it would be nice if the Legislature was somewhat responsive to the will of the citizens. Pollyanna, I know.”

Voucher expansion on hold as effort to kill campaign begins

A Save Our Schools Arizona volunteer hands off a box of signatures to another helper. The anti-school voucher expansion group delivered 111,540 signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
A Save Our Schools Arizona volunteer hands off a box of signatures to another helper. The anti-school voucher expansion group delivered 111,540 signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

School voucher expansion legislation is on hold after Save Our Schools Arizona delivered, by the group’s count, 111,540 signatures today to refer the law to the 2018 general election ballot.

A yellow school bus decked out in SOS Arizona banners carried the signatures to a loading deck below the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office. Volunteers in red SOS Arizona shirts loaded wagons full of petition boxes, and children dressed as professionals carted them to the building.

Children of Save Our Schools Arizona volunteers cart boxes of signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Children of Save Our Schools Arizona volunteers cart boxes of signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Beyond the spectacle, spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker was clear that the effort to quash the expansion of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program was far from over.

“The supporters of voucher expansion will tell you this is about choice, but so far, the only choice that SB 1431 respects is that of out-of-state, dark money groups who created it,” she said to crowd gathered after the signatures were delivered. “What about the choice of 111,540 Arizona voters who want to have their say?”

Penich-Thacker said she received word that opponents were already asking that signatures be invalidated – signatures that were still in the boxes.

By the time SOS Arizona delivered its signatures, opponents had already made their first effort to hinder the campaign.

Republican elections attorney Timothy La Sota, who represents the Arizona Republican Party, sent a letter to the secretary of state requesting that it invalidate all signatures collected by three of the campaign’s paid petition gatherers on the grounds that they registered incorrectly with the state.

Elections Director Eric Spencer said La Sota alleged that one of the three had impermissibly listed a post office box as his home address, while the other had information missing from the street addresses they used in their registration. Spencer said he didn’t know how many signatures might be affected.

Save Our Schools Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker addresses a crowd of volunteers and reporters after submitting more than 110,000 signatures to refer school voucher legislation to the 2018 ballot. The signatures were enough to put the legislation temporarily on hold on Aug. 8. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Save Our Schools Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker addresses a crowd of volunteers and reporters after submitting more than 110,000 signatures to refer school voucher legislation to the 2018 ballot. The signatures were enough to put the legislation temporarily on hold on Aug. 8. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

In response, Dawn Penich-Thacker accused ESA supporters of trying to stifle democracy.

“Instead of listening to their constituents, they are plotting ways to squash us,” she said. “Let me be clear: Every lawsuit to throw out a voter signature is an attempt to silence us. Every challenge to a retiree who spent this summer getting signatures is an affront to our democracy in Arizona. Every trick they pull out of their deep pockets is putting their political ambitions ahead of the future of Arizona.”

She predicted supporters of the legislation would use “fear tactics” to sway voters and exploit the current rules around ESAs, which, she said, SOS Arizona does not oppose.

The anti-voucher expansion side will certainly be up against legal challenges and high-dollar investments against SOS Arizona’s cause.

Hours before the signature delivery, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation joined the fray by announcing in a press release it will be “spending six figures to tell Arizonans the facts about how charter schools, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, and other policies are enabling more Arizona children to obtain a quality education.”

“The facts are clear: Arizona schools have made great strides by increasing the opportunity for all Arizonans to get a quality education,” said Andrew Clark, the foundation’s state director. “Arizona has five of the seven best schools in the nation, led the nation in academic gains for six consecutive years, and has the top charter schools in the nation. Arizona is doing something right, and families and taxpayers deserve to hear the facts.”

Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who sponsored Senate Bill 1431 for the voucher expansion, put out her own statement on the halting of the voucher expansion legislation triggered by the submission of the referendum campaign’s signatures.

Lesko said she spoke with three “confused and upset moms” Monday night who had already selected new schools and purchased uniforms for their children. They are now left wondering what to do now that the legislation has been put on hold, Lesko said, and they are the ones hurting.

“I support public schools AND I support giving more choices to parents,” she said in her press statement. “I hope someday opponents of my legislation realize we can do both and will work with me to improve education for everyone so no other Arizona parents have to feel the way they do today.”

Stacks of voters' signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8 after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Stacks of voters’ signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8 after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Eric Spencer said the final verdict on valid signatures submitted Tuesday is not expected until the last week of September at the earliest.

However, his estimate is absent litigation, which Spencer said is “100 percent ensured.”

And without a looming ballot-printing deadline, a legal battle is likely to be long drawn out and expensive.

Jeremy Duda contributed to this report.