Send in the Clowns

Don't bother, they're here. After a decade of voter-mandated reform, the Arizona Legislature is as out of touch as ever

• Vote by mail, also intended to increase voter turnout, makes casting ballots easy.

• Term limits is designed to create a Legislature run by non-politicians unbeholden to special interests.

• The so-called Voter Protection Act requires a three-fourths majority of the Legislature to amend an initiative, checking lawmakers' power to overrule the people.

State Senator Karen Johnson says abortion causes breast cancer.
Emily Piraino
State Senator Karen Johnson says abortion causes breast cancer.
Governor Napolitano has driven through a Legislature 
that can't get its act together.
Peter Scanlon
Governor Napolitano has driven through a Legislature that can't get its act together.

• Voters must approve pay raises for state elected officials.

• Independents can vote in partisan primaries, which, at least in theory, should force candidates to move toward the middle of the political spectrum.

• Instead of legislators, a commission of citizens draws legislative district maps so politicians can't gerrymander.

• Publicly financed campaigns are intended to bring new blood into the Capitol and prevent politicians from being bought with campaign contributions.

But the reforms have blown up in the faces of progressives who sold them to voters. Conservatives who opposed the measures have strengthened their hold on the Legislature. Lobbyists and special interests still call the shots and pay for campaigns. Retreads skirt term limits by switching between the House and Senate. Fringe candidates are as good as elected after winning primaries, when few people vote, because they have no opposition in general elections.

Is this really what reformers wanted?

"Well, the answer to that question is no," says Bahr. "We were generally supportive of the reforms. I don't think we have the kind of representative Legislature that people envisioned with these various reforms."

Many reformers who pushed these experiments insist they're working fine. But at least one insider admits she was wrong.

"I, like many others, was hoping that this would lead to a more moderate Legislature," says Kathy Petsas, a moderate Republican who managed the independent redistricting campaign. "I certainly didn't anticipate that we would have the Republican extreme far-right stronghold that we have right now."

In short, the political experiments that once had the nation pointing to Arizona as a laboratory of progressive reform have mutated into Frankenstein monsters.

Arizona voters like being in the driver's seat, and they don't cotton to smoke-filled rooms or big money in politics. That explains the plethora of reforms.

"They're all different, but they all have one common piece: They're all populistic in nature," notes Stuart Goodman, a political consultant who leans Republican and a lobbyist with nearly 20 clients ranging from the Arizona Indian Gaming Association to the Arizona Medical Board.

Arizona's populism dates to the dawn of statehood. The original state constitution gave voters considerable checks on their government, including initiative and referendum powers. It was too much for President William Howard Taft, who vetoed a statehood bill because he didn't like a clause that allowed judges to be recalled.

Voters removed the offending passage, Taft allowed Arizona into the Union, and the electorate promptly restored the recall provision less than a year after Arizona became a state in 1912. During the same election, voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative giving women the right to vote, a full eight years before women's suffrage was granted by the U.S. Constitution.

"Arizona has been schizophrenic in the sense that its people have always been progressive, and the Legislature and the governor's office have been less so," notes Dennis Burke, former executive director of the now-defunct Arizona chapter of Common Cause, which helped push initiatives creating publicly financed campaigns and the state's independent redistricting commission.

Eventually, the people get fed up. The wave of reforms began shortly after the 1988 impeachment of Governor Evan Mecham, who canceled Martin Luther King Day and was tried, but acquitted, on charges of concealing a large campaign contribution. Reform efforts gained steam after a series of political pratfalls and scandals during the 1990s. Term limits came on the heels of AzScam, a bribery sting that resulted in 18 indictments and a half-dozen elected officials resigning from office. Initiatives that established public campaign financing and opened primary elections to independent voters were approved after Governor Fife Symington was convicted of fraud and sent to prison. Independent redistricting passed after legislators cost taxpayers a half-million dollars in the alternative-fuels fiasco that demonstrated the power of special interests and the incompetence of legislators who listen to them. The electorate also doesn't appreciate legislative arrogance: After lawmakers gutted a 1996 medical marijuana initiative, voters passed a measure barring lawmakers from amending any law enacted by the electorate without a three-quarters majority, an impossibly high threshold.

Progressives across the country applauded. If such radical changes could become law in a state as politically backward as Arizona, it could happen anywhere. Texas political columnist Molly Ivins came to town to promote publicly financed campaigns in 1998, calling the Clean Elections initiative "probably the single most important item on any ballot this year."

"Well, Arizona does have this funny hitch in its get-along, and I bet it's just maverick enough to become the first important state . . . to slam the brakes on the entire corrupt, money-obsessed system that now passes for American politics," Ivins wrote.

The 1998 election looked like a watershed. Besides approving public campaign financing, voters allowed independents to vote in primaries and barred the Legislature from changing voter-approved initiatives.

"We thought we were on a roll in terms of progressive politics in Arizona," Burke says. "We thought, 'What would be the next big reform?' We thought gerrymandering reform would be good." So was born the initiative that created an independent redistricting commission composed of two Democrats, two Republicans, and a chairman chosen by the four partisan commissioners.

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