Our legislators aren't crying on the inside, but maybe we should be.
Joe Forkan

Send in the Clowns

On the left sits Harry The Politician. On the right is Tony The Lobbyist. They're talking on the telephone, swapping campaign contributions for corporate tax breaks. This is how government works in Arizona, intones the narrator in this 1998 television commercial, paid for by backers of an initiative that created public campaign financing.

Then, a giant pair of scissors cuts Harry's telephone line. "If Proposition 200 passes, we'll limit campaign spending and break the connection between politicians and lobbyists," the narrator says. "Now, who could be against that?"

Voters said yes. But seven years later, the connection hasn't been broken.

Most of the 90 members of the current Arizona Legislature didn't bother with public funding, but got elected anyway. Campaigns are more expensive than ever. And progressives, moderates and Democrats who spent nearly $1 million convincing voters that the public should pay for campaigns have seen the Legislature turn more conservative than ever.

The 1990s were heady times for progressives in Arizona, but their good-government experiments have proven to be object lessons in be-careful-what-you-wish-for.

The so-called Clean Elections initiative wasn't the only reform. Voters passed a slew of electoral changes aimed at creating a better government. Loud and clear, the people told lawmakers that they wanted a government that isn't business as usual.

Term limits to create a body of true citizen legislators. Requiring a three-fourths vote of the Legislature to change voter-approved initiatives so lawmakers couldn't trump the people. Taking redistricting away from politicians whose main goal was to draw maps that would keep themselves in office. The list of reforms goes on and on.

What did we end up with? Business as usual.

The Legislature has done precious little to dispel the myth that Arizonans are a bunch of knee-jerk right-wingers. Sure, Arizona is a conservative state, but it's conservative in the mold of John McCain, whose politics are more pragmatic than dogmatic. Think a pro-life, NRA-loving candidate who wouldn't burn an American flag to save his own life in a blizzard is a shoo-in with Arizona voters? Ask Matt Salmon, who lost the last governor's race to Janet Napolitano, who time and again has splattered GOP leaders in the Legislature like so many bugs against a windshield.

That's not so tough. Watching the Republican-controlled Legislature is like witnessing a Chinese fire drill. These clowns can't control their own caucus, let alone make laws. Instead of visionaries, we've got folks like Senator Ron Gould, who proudly flies the Confederate flag outside his Lake Havasu City home, and Senator Karen Johnson, who says abortion causes breast cancer (her bill requiring that patients be so warned came within three votes of passing the House last year) and once sponsored a bill to eliminate no-fault divorces -- even though she's been married five times.

With lawmakers like this, it's no surprise that legislative sessions have become exercises in posturing and bickering. You can't argue sense into an ideologue, and there are just enough ideologues in the Legislature to gum up the works, but not enough to turn their Alice-in-Wonderland agendas into laws. If it were up to lawmakers, you could tote a six-shooter to a beer parlor -- over protests from police and the liquor industry, legislators in the House last year voted 35-18 to allow guns in bars. The Senate killed that idea, but just barely -- the vote was 15-13.

With conservatives ousting moderates in both chambers last fall, the Legislature promises to be as silly as ever, passing stupid laws and trying to embarrass the governor by getting into fights that end with bullet holes in lawmakers' feet. There are rumblings of a bill that would require parental consent before minors could purchase condoms. Tired ideas such as requiring property owners to be compensated when land-use regulations restrict development are in the hopper, a notion voters rejected in a 1994 referendum.

"I swear, I read the bill list and I said, 'They've dredged up every bad idea from the last 10 years and re-filed it,'" says Sandy Bahr, a lobbyist for the local chapter of the Sierra Club.

Even staunch Republicans are disgusted by lawmakers' inability to accomplish anything meaningful. "In the past few years, this Legislature has become a very small board kind of thing," says Thomas Patterson, chairman of the Goldwater Institute and former president of the state Senate. One example he cites is lawmakers' fixation with homeowners associations -- last year, the Legislature passed at least 10 bills regulating everything from on-street parking to association board meetings.

"Right now, the Legislature is almost entirely reactive -- they do a lot of headline chasing," Patterson says. "In a better world, in better times, the Legislature is out there listening to people, ginning up their own ideas and coming up with not only what their constituents are bringing to them, but showing some leadership and trying to bring things that aren't just responding to gripes."

Voters have shown little patience with lawmakers, time and again passing reforms aimed at creating a true citizen Legislature where big money doesn't matter and any civic-minded person can get elected. Consider:

• Motor voter, passed by the people a decade before Congress enacted an identical federal law, is supposed to encourage people to vote by allowing them to register when getting a driver's license.

• 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.

• 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.

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.'"

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.

A study by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University found that legislators don't have enough experience to be effective and that term limits have created a politically charged Legislature where members eyeing their next elective office focus on quick splashes instead of the long-term future. "For many, the limit to four two-year terms (eight years total) provides too little time to learn how to do the job and do it well," the authors wrote.

The lack of experience is obvious in committee chairmanships. At least four chairs of House committees have never sat on the committees they're presiding over this session. Environment Committee chairman Ray Barnes, for example, is brand-new to the committee and has never sponsored a piece of environmental legislation. "As far as I know, he has no expertise in the area whatsoever," says Bahr, the Sierra Club lobbyist. Speaker Jim Weiers, who appointed the committee chairs, concedes that legislators with so little experience wouldn't rise so quickly absent term limits. "One of the things that really works against the system and the quality is that people are rushing to try to get places faster than they ever did before," he says.

The Voter Protection Act. Barring legislators from amending voter-approved initiatives without a three-fourths majority vote hasn't stopped the Legislature from ignoring the will of the people. Lawmakers never implemented a 1998 medical marijuana initiative passed in the same election as the Voter Protection Act. Another example is the Clean Elections law, which legislators are trying to gut. Some lawmakers want to do away with matching funds for publicly financed candidates when their opponents gain a financial advantage through private contributions. Another proposal would allow publicly financed candidates to also accept money from private donors. Both ideas defeat the whole point of publicly financed campaigns: eliminating the influence of big money and special interests.

Pay raises for elected officials. For at least 30 years, voters have had the final say on pay raises for state officeholders. It's proven to be a classic case of getting what you pay for. Legislators earn $24,000 a year and haven't gotten a raise in seven years. The governor earns less than many of her department heads. Paying legislators $60,000 a year would cost the state $3.6 million annually, a relative pittance, and would attract better candidates, says Jason Rose, a GOP strategist. "It's one of the cheapest reforms Arizona can possibly have," he says.

Bill Wagner, a moderate Republican who gave up his House seat last fall and lost a bid for the Senate, says legislators need to work harder, and they can't be expected to do that with such low pay. "The amount of money you're paid doesn't even cover getting a place to live and eat and travel," he says. "I just don't think the people of Arizona understand that if you want to have good legislators, you're going to have to pay them."

Clean Elections. Publicly financed campaigns have taken root every place but the Legislature. All but one of the 11 officials elected statewide ran with public money, eliminating any chance for special interests to buy influence with campaign contributions. But in the Legislature, just seven of the state's 30 senators ran with public money. The rest did it the old-fashioned way, by hitting up political-action committees and other usual suspects. Nearly half of the House opted out of public financing. If they're not giving money directly, lobbyists are rounding up enough donations to trigger public financing, which legislative candidates receive after collecting $5 contributions from 200 people. Publicly financed legislators are allowed to collect $5,660 apiece from special interests to pay for mailers, Web sites and other expenses aimed at convincing their constituents they're doing a good job.

The law can't stop third parties from spending as much as they want to get candidates elected. The surest sign that publicly financed campaigns have backfired on proponents is a lawsuit filed last fall by Mainstream Arizona, a moderate group headed by former attorney general Grant Woods, who was a cheerleader for clean elections. Mainstream Arizona sued the state Citizens Clean Elections Commission after the commission gave conservative candidates nearly $70,000 in matching funds because mailers sent to voters by Mainstream Arizona furthered the campaigns of moderate incumbents. The judge sided with the commission, ruling that Mainstream Arizona or any other third party seeking to sway an election will only put money in the pockets of candidates they want to defeat.

Incredibly, some of the same conservative lawmakers who got into office with public funding now complain the law is too complicated and are backing efforts to gut or repeal it.

Independent Redistricting. The biggest disappointment has been the state's independent redistricting commission that was supposed to create legislative districts where either party has a shot and candidates can't get elected with no opposition. If it worked as billed, candidates at the fringe of the political spectrum would lose.

Both sides of the aisle agree: The Legislature will never change until the districts do. "I think the biggest issue about the makeup of the Legislature is always going to be the districts themselves and whether or not those districts are competitive," says Goodman, the GOP consultant. "In theory, if you had truly competitive districts combined with clean elections so that any legitimate individual who wanted to run had the means to do so, the campaigns would be more about an exchange of ideas."

Five years after voters took redistricting away from legislators, the commission is bogged down in litigation brought by Democrats outraged by a map that overwhelmingly favors Republicans. Legislative races are as single-sided as ever, with nearly half the Senate and almost a third of the House getting elected in November with no opposition.

Commissioners argue that their map is more competitive than most folks realize, and they point out the commission put several incumbents in the same districts, something legislators never would have done. But creating competitive districts was last on their agenda.

Part of the problem is the language of the voter-approved constitutional amendment, which calls for keeping intact city and town boundaries while also preserving "communities of interest," an amorphous term whose definition depends on the eye of the beholder. Districts are also supposed to be "geographically compact" and comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, designed to ensure minorities have a meaningful voice in political institutions. And competitiveness? "To the extent practicable, competitive districts should be favored where to do so would create no significant detriment to the other goals." In short, the fine print says competitive districts come last, not first.

"The way it's worded is very unclear," notes Andi Minkoff, a Democrat and the lone dissenting vote on the map that landed the commission in court. "The other four interpreted it differently than I did."

Minkoff says she voted for the redistricting initiative, but other key players didn't. Steve W. Lynn, the commission's chairman (who is an independent), says he voted against it. Lisa Hauser, co-counsel for the commission and a Republican party attorney, also says she didn't think the commission was a good idea.

Former state representative John Loredo, a Democrat who chose not to run for reelection after last year's session, points out that all but one of the commissioners were chosen by legislators. "They're an arm of biased elected officials," he says. "You've got all the local politics that used to be played out in the Legislature with 90 people. Now, it's shrunk down to five, but it's still the same politics. They could put it together if they wanted to, it's just about the interests behind it that are opposed."

Hauser is considered one of the best election-law experts in the state, and some commission critics accuse her of hijacking the process to benefit the GOP. Instead of focusing on what voters wanted when they took redistricting out of politicians' hands, skeptics say, she's used ambiguities in the law to weave arguments that competitiveness really isn't that important. "The problem is, they have Lisa Hauser, who happens to be the 800-pound gorilla in the room who controls the process," complains Senator Ken Cheuvront, a Democrat. "It's a joke. Unfortunately, we would have been better off under the old system."

Hauser insists her ties to the GOP haven't colored her advice to the commission. "I'm not an evil genius," she says. "I don't consider the parties to be my client in any way, shape or form." The commission also has a Democratic attorney, Jose Jesus Rivera. He didn't return phone calls from New Times.

Hauser concedes there isn't a single right answer to the redistricting riddle. "There's no one way to draw a map -- there's an infinite number of choices," she says. "It's very subjective. If you took five different commissioners, they'd draw five different maps, and they'd all be right. It's possible for any group of people or any person to draw more competitive districts if that's their primary goal and they don't pay a lot of attention to the other criteria."

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields ordered the commission back to the drawing board a year ago. Only three of the state's 30 districts were competitive, he ruled, and commissioners rejected maps that would have more than doubled that number. The judge's order was stayed by a state appeals court, which now has the case, and voters ended up losers last fall as the commission stuck by a map that right-wingers played to full advantage.

When the courts will reach a final decision is anyone's guess, but at least one thing is clear: The commission has spent more than $7 million in taxpayer money creating a map that looks an awful lot like what legislators would have come up with for free. And what was supposed to be an open process has become cloistered as the commission meets in executive sessions to plot legal strategy.

Anthony Sissons, a redistricting consultant who drew a map that created nine competitive districts on behalf of Flagstaff (which didn't like being in the same district as the Navajo Nation), has stood in the hallway during many of those closed-door meetings.

Sissons isn't a beginner -- he's drawn redistricting maps for several counties and school districts in Arizona and California. He also helped with Arizona legislative redistricting in 1990. But the commission isn't interested in his map, which Judge Fields said satisfied the voter-approved constitutional amendment.

"I get ignored a lot," Sissons says. "When redistricting starts, all of the attorney types know everything there is to know about redistricting because it's all about the law. And all the election official types know everything there is to know about redistricting because it's all about politics.

"Nobody pays any attention to data."

Sometimes, reformers act too quickly. Arizona voters learned that firsthand in the 1980s after putting Evan Mecham into the governor's office with less than a plurality. "People just got so upset," Hauser recalls. "They amended the Constitution to require that no one be elected to an executive office with less than 50 percent of the vote."

Seemed like a good idea at the time, but voters found out otherwise a few years later, when neither Fife Symington nor Terry Goddard got a majority of votes for governor. Symington won the runoff election, but finished with fewer votes than he'd gotten in November.

"They were having a gubernatorial runoff election when the legislative session was getting under way," Hauser recalls. "It was chaos. The voters said, 'This is really stupid. Why did we do that?' So, the very next election, they repealed it. That's typical.

"We get a little carried away with reforms."

But if history is any guide, progressives will keep putting reforms before a willing electorate. Suggestions for what's next range from the bizarre to the basic.

Mark Osterloh, a Tucson ophthalmologist who ran a quixotic campaign for governor in 2002 -- with 31,400 votes, he finished third in the four-way Democratic primary -- says he has a plan that would dramatically increase voter turnout. If the state held a lottery and awarded $1 million to one lucky voter in each election year, folks would flock to the ballot box, he says.

Maybe so. But the idea of luring voters to the polls like so many gamblers has about as much chance of becoming law as Osterloh has of reaching the governor's office.

More realistic is a plan by Rick Murphy, a Bullhead City radio-station magnate whose unsuccessful campaign last fall against U.S. Representative Trent Franks convinced him the election system needs an overhaul.

Murphy outspent Franks by about two-to-one but still got killed in the September primary. "I had so many people say to me two weeks before the November election, 'Rick, I'm there for you. I'm going to be voting for you,'" Murphy recalls. "And I said, 'You're a little late.' People don't get it. They don't, for some reason, feel that the primary is that important."

Murphy is bankrolling an initiative that would do away with polling places in favor of mail-only elections, with ballots automatically mailed to every registered voter. Besides increasing turnout and establishing a paper trail for each vote cast, Murphy says the state would save millions of dollars in election costs. He sounds every bit the progressive.

"The more people who vote, the more it dilutes special interests and allows the populace to have their way," he says.

Opponents are sure to argue that voting by mail is a recipe for election fraud. Grossfeld, the Democratic strategist, predicts there will be an effort to curb the practice. "I'll tell you right now, the next wave of reforms is going to be aimed, I suspect, at what people will find wrong, whether there is anything or not, about vote by mail," he says.

Murphy expects to hear opposition. But he's prepared. That's why he's calling his initiative committee Your Right to Vote.

"Somebody's going to have to stand up and say, 'I oppose Your Right to Vote,'" he says with a laugh.

E-mail bruce.rushton@newtimes.com, or call 602-407-1715.


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