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

The pitch to voters was simple. Legislators who drew redistricting maps behind closed doors kept incumbents in safe districts and the majority party in power. One campaign flier compared legislators drawing maps to baseball players acting as their own umpires: "The results are often politically non-competitive districts that do not provide sensible representation of actual communities." Initiative backers pointed out that half the Senate and a third of the House races in 1998 were uncontested -- if citizens drew the maps, there would be no more back-room cartography that allowed politicians to run unopposed. The Arizona Republic editorial board predicted great things, telling readers that "no other single campaign reform would have a more far-reaching impact."

Democrats saw independent redistricting as a chance to take the Legislature away from Republicans, or at least dilute their power. James Pederson, a mall developer who later became chairman of the state Democratic party, contributed $650,000 to the cause. Pederson, who was happy to chat up the press when the initiative was on the ballot, didn't return repeated phone calls to talk about the aftermath. But Petsas, the Republican who managed the campaign, remembers the GOP was running scared.

"When I was getting involved with it, people were just aghast," she recalls. "At the time, Republicans felt very threatened by this process: 'You think you're going to get these fair districts and then we're going to lose control.'"

Arizona is conservative like John McCain -- except for 
the Legislature.
Arizona is conservative like John McCain -- except for the Legislature.
Failed congressional candidate Rick Murphy wants one more reform -- mail-only elections.
Failed congressional candidate Rick Murphy wants one more reform -- mail-only elections.

Noting that there are more Republicans in Arizona than Democrats, Petsas says she didn't think an independent commission would turn the state blue, but she was shooting for a lighter shade of red. "Coral, maybe," she says, laughing. "I was just hoping we'd get fewer extremists involved in the process."

But the fringe has done just fine.

The makeup of the current Legislature was decided in September, when voter turnout for primaries was an abysmal 20 percent. Ideologues love those numbers, which guarantee victories for right-wingers who appeal to the Christian right, gun nuts and other political Neanderthals who vote every time they're given the chance. Their candidates advance to the general election, where opposition is, at best, token, if there's any opposition at all.

Last fall's GOP primary pitting John Huppenthal against Slade Mead for a state Senate seat is a perfect example.

"Slade Mead had a fairly large amount of moderate Republicans, Democrats and independents who supported him," Goodman explains. "You had John Huppenthal, who had tremendous backing from, for lack of a better term, conservative Republicans. Huppenthal relied on voters who were used to voting, whereas Mead relied on individuals where voting wasn't first nature to them. All Huppenthal had to do -- and he did it very effectively -- was say, 'Look, I'm the more conservative member, these are the issues that are important to you, they're important to me.'"

With one in five registered voters casting ballots in the primary, Huppenthal stomped Mead. Huppenthal's only opposition in the general was a write-in Libertarian, guaranteeing a right-wing victory even though most voters in the East Valley district likely would have preferred a more moderate candidate.

Bob Grossfeld, a Democratic strategist, draws comparisons with Chicago.

"One of my favorite reference points is something Mayor Daley used to say," Grossfeld says. "He said, 'I don't care who does the electing, as long as I do the nominating.' That's what's in play here."

Changing the status quo isn't cheap. Reformers have spent at least $4 million persuading voters to pass initiatives aimed at creating a better government. The big money has come from progressives and Democrats, many of them from outside the state. For example, George Soros, a billionaire financier for Democrats, gave $100,000 to the initiative that created publicly financed campaigns.

But none of the reforms has led to the sea changes in the Legislature that the activists hoped for. For example:

Motor voter/Vote-by-mail. By increasing the size of the electorate, motor voter and vote-by-mail was supposed to create a Legislature that reflects the values and desires of the body politic. But that hasn't happened -- even GOP strategists say the Legislature is more conservative than the electorate. Too many moderate and independent voters opt out of crucial primary elections, not grasping that these contests are where the real decisions get made. "You could swing just about any primary election you want if you could get independents to play with you," Grossfeld says. "But they don't want to play."

Bruce Merrill, a pollster and political science professor at Arizona State University, offers a brutal explanation for the apathy.

"Contrary to what most people think, independent voters are the most politically uninformed and uneducated members of the electorate," Merrill says. "They're younger people, tend to be working-class people, young families who are very busy and not real thrilled with government."

Term limits. Restricting officeholders to four terms hasn't rid the Legislature of career politicians, who get around the law by moving from the House to the Senate and vice versa. Thirty-seven legislators switched chambers between 1994 and 2003, more than switched during the previous two decades, according to a study by ThinkAZ released in October. And the average tenure for legislative leaders today is nine years, the same as when voters approved term limits, and two years longer than in the mid-1970s.

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