Christina Sandefur: Freedom not to fit into any political group

Christina Sandefur of the Goldwater Institute (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)
Christina Sandefur of the Goldwater Institute (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

Christina Sandefur really loves freedom and her pet parrot. She could talk for days about both.

Sandefur, the executive vice president of the libertarian think tank Goldwater Institute, has written a book about private property rights, sued the state over Medicaid expansion and drafted a law that’s now been approved in 38 states.

But the Michigan native doesn’t think the Goldwater Institute is as influential in state government as people give it credit for. And she’s not a member of any political party herself, and she’s never contributed to any campaigns.

“When I was in elementary school, my best friend and I considered ourselves to be environmentalists and would literally go out and hug trees at recess. So I guess that was my liberal period,” Sandefur said.

Cap Times Q&ADo you consider yourself conservative or libertarian or neither? Have you ever been a liberal?

One interesting thing is, I’ve never been registered with a political party, and I don’t consider myself to be political, which usually shocks people. If I had to define myself, I’d say small-L libertarian, so not a member of the Libertarian Party, but I believe in protecting people’s individual rights and limited government constitutionalism. But I’m not a Republican, not a Democrat, have worked very well with both.

You wrote a book, “Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st Century America.” 
What made you decide to write it?

Property rights have always been near and dear to my heart because I think it really is the foundation of all of our other rights. If you don’t have a right to private property, then you really can’t exercise any of your other rights. For example, the right to exercise the religion of your choice – you don’t have freedom of religion if you can’t own a church or you can’t be free to worship in that church. You can’t have freedom of the press if you can’t own a printing press.

That leads into something the Goldwater Institute has been criticized for, this priority on private property rights and freedom above all else, at the expense of regulations that could protect people or preserve neighborhoods in the Airbnb case. What do you make of this criticism?

Well, if in fact the biggest criticism of the Goldwater Institute is that we put freedom above all else, then I say that’s criticism that I will take. Because I do think freedom is the most important thing, it’s absolutely essential to human dignity. But I think that it’s a misconception that freedom can’t coexist with responsible regulations.

So are there regulations that are justified? What kind of regulations are justified?

Regulations that stop people from intruding on other people’s rights are justified. So in the home-sharing context, saying that somebody shouldn’t be able to rent their home on Airbnb, that is more of a preferential regulation or an aesthetic regulation. That’s not justified. That’s somebody’s property right and they should be able to make that decision. If their neighbor doesn’t like it, unfortunately, or actually fortunately, that’s what freedom is all about. Sometimes people make decisions we don’t like, but in a free society, that’s how things go. However, when a neighbor is renting out to somebody who turns their home into a party house or is throwing trash in the street or parking in places they shouldn’t park, that is now intruding on the neighbor’s right to be free from excessive noise or free from waste in the road or free from parking violations or things like that. That’s where it makes sense of the government to come in and regulate to protect a person’s property right.

Some also criticize the role that Goldwater has at the Legislature, with the Governor’s Office, basically in state government in general. Do you think that Goldwater has an outsized influence?

I wish. I’ve heard that criticism off and on, and I wish it were true because it would make my job a lot easier. It’s true that there are legislators that share our principles or that share some of our principles, and certainly I think this governor has been very friendly to many of the types of things that we do, so he’s been very friendly to the sharing economy and to property rights and to economic liberty and to school choice. So there’s a lot of overlap there. I think that’s because the people of Arizona generally are favorable to those types of things. We fight a lot of uphill battles. Although while it’s nice to have lawmakers here that are sometimes friendly to the work that we do, there are definitely lawmakers that are not friendly to the work that we do, and we find that on both sides of the political aisle.

How does the Goldwater Institute decide what sort of issues to go after or not pursue? And do donors play a role in deciding on these issues?

They don’t, really. People donate to us because of the issues that we take on. In fact, most people in this building don’t really have any idea who our donors are. It’s always been important to the Goldwater Institute to respect donor privacy because we see that as an exercise of free speech. We make our decisions on what to pursue based on our principles and based on where we think we can make the most impact for the greatest number of people.

You work with your husband, Tim. What’s the trick to working with your spouse?

Driving separately to work and not carpooling, that’s one of the tricks. I like to tell people that we’ve done things sort of the opposite of the way kids do things these days. Most people move in and then get married. What we did is, we met working in the freedom movement, then we got married, and then we moved into the same state and the same home. And now we work at the same organization.

You have a bird. Tell me about this bird.

I have a parrot named Jackson. Jackson, if he were here, would tell you about himself because he’s quite a talker. What I love about parrots is they’re so intelligent, so smart. They can talk, they can understand concepts. When he’s hungry, he tells me. If you give him food that he likes, he says “good,” he says “thank you.” If he doesn’t like it, he says “no.” When I leave to go to work he says goodbye without me saying it first. Plus, I think it’s kind of fun to have a parrot because it’s a unique thing. Everybody’s a dog person or a cat person, and I’ve never really fit into groups very well. I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat. So I think it makes perfect sense for me to be a bird person.

House passes bill to cut red tape on border wall construction on private land

In this April 5, 2019, file photo, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle sits near the wall as President Donald Trump visits a new section of the border wall  with Mexico in El Centro, Calif. A federal judge has denied a request by the U.S. House of Representatives to prevent President Donald Trump from tapping Defense Department money for a border wall with Mexico. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
In this April 5, 2019, file photo, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle sits near the wall as President Donald Trump visits a new section of the border wall with Mexico in El Centro, Calif. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Calling it a matter of property rights and security, the state House voted Thursday to let those living along the border to construct walls without first getting local permission or building permits.

The 31-29 party-line vote came a week after it fell one vote short when Rep. Tony Rivero, R-Peoria, refused to go along with the Republican majority. Rivero, who has led trade missions to Mexico and elsewhere, told Capitol Media Services at the time that he was “not sure this was the right way to go.”

Tony Rivero
Tony Rivero

On Thursday, Rivero did not explain his change of heart.

But Democrats, in opposing the measure, said HB 2084 sends precisely the wrong message as Arizona seeks to build ties with its southern neighbor.

Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, specifically mentioned a trip by state legislators to Guanajuato that Rivero recently organized.

“We were welcomed with open arms,” he said.

“We were treated with respect,” Rodriguez continued. “We were treated with friendship.”

This legislation, he said, does the exact opposite, sending the message “that we prefer a wall to friendship.”

But Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, had a different take.

“We respect our neighbors to the south,” she said.

“This is not about race,” Griffin said. And if there’s someone these walls are aimed at, she said, it is the drug cartels that operate along the border.

And she also said it has nothing to do with the wall being built by the federal government along stretches of the border, construction that already can take place without state or federal permission. What’s at issue, Griffin said, is what landowners living along the border build on their own property.

“This is an issue of private property and private money to move forward with safety of your property, of your and your family’s ability to keep people out,” she said.

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said she has “a firm conviction” to protecting private property rights.

“I also have a firm belief that building permits help us to keep buildings safe, help us to make sure that a plan for a building is a safe building,” she said.

“It is about building anything safely and not going around the permitting process,” Epstein said. “If there’s going to be construction it needs to be safe construction.”

Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said there’s a safety reason for exempting privately built border walls from local permitting. But she said it’s about the safety of local officials who, threatened by cartels that want open borders, would be loath to grant the necessary permits.

The proposal by Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, is in direct response to problems faced by We Build the Wall, a private group that accepts donations to build barriers on private land along the border in places where there is no federally constructed fence.

That group ran into problems last year while building a 1,500-foot fence on private property in Sunland Park, N.M., near El Paso, Tx., without first getting city permission. That brought construction to a halt until We Build the Wall agreed to comply with city ordinances.

HB 2084 is designed to eliminate that possibility from occurring here.

Facing questions about safety, Petersen did agree to language requiring that the property owner must provide the local government with a statement by a professional engineer that the wall “was built according to the plan and safety requirements.” That filing, however, does not need to come until two months after completion.

But Rep. Kristen Engel, D-Tucson, said this is less about security than politics.

“This is obviously an ideological bill,” she said. “It’s designed to reach out to the base, the base of the Republican Party on immigration issues.”


Private landowners can build unregulated border wall under proposed legislation

In this March 30, 2017 file photo, Workers use a crane to lift a segment of a new fence into place on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico, where Sunland Park, New Mexico, meets the Anapra neighborhood of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, As President Donald Trump's administration fights to fund a new, multibillion-dollar border wall, government lawyers are still settling claims with Texas landowners over the fence Congress approved more than a decade ago. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
(AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

A top Republican lawmaker wants to allow people who own property along the border to build a wall without first getting any building permits.

House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said he fears that overzealous local officials will block construction by erecting procedural barriers.

The exemption in HB 2084 would mean that walls could go up without any requirement to comply with local building codes or safety inspection. But Petersen said it’s a question of balance.

“On the other side of the risk is dangerous drug cartels,” he told Capitol Media Services.

Warren Petersen
Warren Petersen

“We have every crime that you could imagine coming across these borders,” Petersen continued. “And people that live along these properties that don’t feel safe should have every right to protect themselves, including erecting a wall if they need to.”

The legislation has caught the attention of some county supervisors who question the need − or the advisability −to exempt private wall construction from local regulation.

Bruce Bracker of Santa Cruz County said there are processes in place for situations where the federal government desires to build a wall along the international border. He questioned why there needs to be any sort of additional exemption from local ordinances for individuals who want to erect their own barriers.

Yuma County Supervisor Tony Reyes called the proposal “pretty dumb.” He said he was concerned about “that liability issue about building something without a permit without anybody checking, making sure that the public is protected.”

The question, Reyes said, is what happens if the structure falls.

“This is not a property rights issue,” he said. “It’s a health and safety issue.”

And Cochise County Supervisor Tom Borer said he sees no reason to grant a blanket exemption from existing regulations governing construction of barriers and fences just because it would be erected on private land near the border. More to the point, he questioned why the Legislature would intercede.

“As far as I’m concerned, I would not support anything that took the county’s rights away to govern their own county,” he said.

Petersen, however, said any concerns about safety are addressed by his belief that those who do the actual construction will recognize that they remain financially liable if someone is injured due to improper construction or installation.

The Gilbert lawmaker acknowledged that, to date, no Arizona county or city actually has sought to block a landowner from building a wall along the border.

But he cited an incident last year in Sunland Park, N.M., near El Paso, Texas., where a privately funded group erected 1,500 feet of bollard-style fencing over the Memorial Day weekend along a tract of private property without first going through that city’s review process.

City officials issued a cease-and-desist order against We Build the Wall Inc. halting further construction.

The Texas Tribune reports the city ultimately issued permits for lighting and construction, along with a warning to have the company come into compliance with all city ordinances.

Petersen said his measure would protect Arizona landowners from similar delays.

“It’s a great property rights bill,” he said of the legislation.

“It’s something we want to prevent from happening,” Petersen continued. “Sometimes you don’t think cities will do something like this.”

But he said there is evidence of hostility to border security issues in Arizona, specifically citing the efforts by some to have Tucson declared a “sanctuary city.”

That proposal was rejected at the ballot. And Petersen acknowledged that, even if it had succeeded, no part of Tucson is adjacent to the border.

Bracker sniffed at the idea of enacting a new state law here based on what has happened elsewhere.

“That’s New Mexico, that’s not Arizona,” he said.

“So we haven’t had any issue in Arizona yet, we’re trying to put legislation into place,” Bracker continued. “That just doesn’t make any sense.”

Anyway, Bracker said, the federal government is busy building walls on its own property along the border. Petersen, however, said that privately constructed segments will help fill the gaps where there is no federal funding.

But Bracker, beyond the issues raised about Petersen’s bill, questions the whole premise for more border barriers built by anyone, including the federal government.

“The focus should really be on trade and commerce and tourism,” he said. “They should be putting the billions of dollars into ports of entry.”

Tom Belshe, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns said his legal staff is still reviewing the proposal. But he said that, in general, cities oppose any efforts by lawmakers to preempt local control.

Clarification: The 13th paragraph of this story has been rewritten to eliminate an erroneous statement attributed to Rep. Warren Petersen that he was unconcerned about safety. 

The Breakdown: Call ’em as you see ’em


In this Jan. 5, 2015, file photo, Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey addresses the crowd after being sworn in during an inauguration ceremony at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
In this Jan. 5, 2015, file photo, Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey addresses the crowd after being sworn in during an inauguration ceremony at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Early voting has only just begun, but the race for the governor’s office may already be over.

Incumbent Doug Ducey is leading in every poll, including challenger David Garcia’s own internal poll, and it’s pretty likely he’ll win a second term.

The road to elected office is rarely quite so certain, though. And at least one candidate faces a battle not historically won by folks with her party affiliation – or lack thereof.

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

Music in this episode included “Creative Minds,” “Piano Moment” and “Energy” by Bensound.