Former Republican Paula Pennypacker Turns Democrat, Declaring War on GOP Heavyweight John Kavanagh

Paula Pennypacker says her Republican foe John Kavanagh is "an embarrassment" who is "20 years behind the times."
Paula Pennypacker

The only thing missing from Paula Pennypacker's stump speech before the Democratic state committee meeting in January was the Rocky theme.

Charismatic and scrappy, the lifelong GOPer recently painted a "D" on her shield and called out Republican black knight John Kavanagh, current chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Friend of lobbyists, enemy of the poor, and taker of free trips from Chinese communists and the government of Azerbaijan, Kavanagh wants to soft-shoe over to the state Senate this year in Legislative District 23, which tilts hard to the right.

But Pennypacker is lookin' to put a steel heel through Kavanagh's loafers.

"Together," she told the party faithful, "we're going to take on the guy who's more into private-prison building than school building."

Pennypacker attacked Kavanagh on several fronts: for his looking to cut cost-of-living increases on pensions, for his wanting to repeal the state's voter-approved medical-marijuana law, and for his longtime support of recalled former state Senate President Russell Pearce's war on the undocumented.

In her speech, Pennypacker went so far as to link Kavanagh to dead neo-Nazi kid-killer J.T. Ready, dissing Kavanagh's "clapping as [Ready] spewed his hate-filled rhetoric."

Kavanagh was at a 2007 nativist rally where Ready spoke of closing U.S. borders with Marine divisions and jerking judges around by their collars.

In a video of the event, Kavanagh is seen applauding for Ready after the neo-Nazi called for "putting the Arizona National Guard on the Arizona national border."

Asked about this, Kavanagh insists nothing in Ready's speech was "fascist" and that he applauded only during the part about the Arizona national guard.

"I oppose all forms of totalitarian ideology," he says. If Pennypacker was implying he is a "a fascist or sympathizer," then "she is running a dirty campaign."

Ready aside, Kavanagh's link to Pearce is as solid as the rock in the ex-senator's skull.

Not only was Kavanagh a co-sponsor of Pearce's hateful anti-immigrant legislation, Senate Bill 1070, he also joined Pearce in seeking an end to the birthright-citizenship provision of the 14th Amendment.

But what plays in a hall full of Democrats will not necessarily play in LD 23, to say the least.

According to the most recent registration figures published by the Arizona Secretary of State's Office, Republicans enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage over Dems in that district.

Kavanagh will be finishing his fourth term in the state House. So far, no Republican has stepped forward to give him a primary. And Kavanagh has more than $18,000 on hand.

Nevertheless, Pennypacker, who learned how to throw elbows back east, where she ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Toledo, Ohio, as a Republican in a sea of Democrats, seems jazzed by the challenge.

"It's not about winning," she tells me. "It's about taking on this guy. He's out of touch, an embarrassment."

As an example, she offered Kavanagh's recent disparaging comments on the value of a college degree and how the state shouldn't plow so much cash into higher education.

Pennypacker was aghast, saying she couldn't have gotten her first job, as a saleswoman for glass manufacturer Owens-Illinois, without a post-secondary degree from the University of Toledo.

"Owens-Illinois was interviewing on college campuses, not on high school campuses," she says.

Toledo is a union stronghold that's suffered the ravages of America's declining industrial sector for decades.

In the 1980s, Pennypacker saw the city's Democratic machine — and the local Republican Party's complicity in the Democrats' rule — as reasons for Toledo's slide.

Following her stint in sales, she took up her passion for politics. Despite the best efforts of GOP heavyweights, she ran first for city council, then for mayor twice, once coming within 31 votes of a Democratic rival.

Party bosses refused to support her, but she became a hometown hero nonetheless.

The Toledo Blade called her "one courageous Republican" and dubbed her the leader of a "Republican renaissance" when she led an insurgent GOP coalition's effort to recruit reform-minded precinct committeemen and retire the old fogies then in charge of the Lucas County GOP.

So why didn't Pennypacker stay in Toledo and fight?

"I promised my husband that if I lost when I ran for mayor the second time, we'd move to Arizona," she says. "I believe everything happened for the best."

Here in Sand Land, Pennypacker and her husband got her company, Just for Redheads, running full-steam. The online business markets makeup and haircare products designed by Pennypacker for ginger-topped ladies like herself.

The couple also had a son, now 14, and she remained active in Republican politics, though she quickly learned that being "liberal on social issues and fiscally conservative," as she describes herself, was not going to play with the über-right-wing activists who dominate the local GOP.

With every year, she moved closer to the ideals of the Democratic Party. Though she initially supported SB 1070, she eventually ended up denouncing it, backing comprehensive immigration reform.

In 2010, she ran for the state House in what was then LD 8. She was bested by Kavanagh and Representative Michelle Ugenti, a Tea Party Republican. The race further soured her on the GOP.

She went on to champion President Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012. And with her husband having survived a bout with brain cancer, she's a big supporter of Obamacare.

Legalizing drugs? She's always been for it. In a 2004 editorial for the Arizona Republic, she wrote, "Adults should be able to ingest anything they want, as long as they do not harm others."

Already labeled a RiNO (Republican in Name Only) by conservative critics, she finally switched her party affiliation last year.

"The GOP hates women," she says. "I'm telling you, that's a big problem. I was in denial for 30 years."

Her campaign might seem entirely quixotic if not for a secret weapon: Kavanagh.

See, the K-man has a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease, which is only made worse by the safe district that so far has coddled his conservative extremism.

Plus, he's done his best to tick off a minority community with deep pockets: gays and transgenders, whom he royally annoyed last year with ill-fated legislation to make it a criminal offense for transgenders to use the "wrong" bathroom.

Kavanagh also is co-sponsoring legislation this year that would allow businesspeople to discriminate against gays (among others) for religious reasons.

Pennypacker and her new campaign manager, Rebecca Wininger, president of the pro-LGBT group Equality Arizona, think Kavanagh's painted a target on his back, one that may allow them to raise money from the affected community.

"The gay demographic does have a lot of money," Wininger says. "And they are very politically involved."

Politicians who know Pennypacker from her hometown aren't counting her out.

Current Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins, an independent, points to his own recent win as an underdog, heavily outspent by an incumbent.

"It sounds like it's going to take sweat equity," says Collins of Pennypacker's run, a term Collins defines as hitting the bricks and going door-to-door.

Former Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, a Democrat, goes further, noting that Pennypacker ran in the same open field with him in 1993, then endorsed him in the following runoff, after she had come in fifth.

"She is a worthy opponent," Finkbeiner says. "I don't care how long her opponent has been in office, or how successful that opponent has been, she will give him a run for his money."

Pennypacker says it would have been easier politically to play Republican Stepford wife, to pander and sell out. But that's not her.

"Besides," she says. "I want to turn Arizona purple."

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