In his old life, Mark Kelly piloted Navy fighter jets and orbited Earth hundreds of times as a NASA astronaut. Then, about a decade ago, he gave it all up, not long after his wife, U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was shot and nearly killed by an assassin in Tucson. Following Giffords' recovery, the pair built a gun-safety nonprofit that, among other things, backed political candidates that supported safer firearms laws. Now, Kelly himself is one of those candidates. A Democrat, he's challenging Republican Martha McSally in November for the U.S. Senate seat McSally was appointed to following the 2018 death of John McCain. Unlike McSally — who, in loudly and frequently proclaiming her support for President Trump, exudes an aura of combative partisanship — Kelly projects a brand of common-sense centrism that's more in line with previous Arizona senators like McCain and Jeff Flake. The political sands out here in the desert are always shifting, and it's too early to tell whether moderate politics in Arizona are fully a thing of the past. But so far, so good: As of this writing, Kelly's up comfortably in the polls.

No one ever would have known that Arizona Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat whose district covers part of southern Arizona, fell off a Metro platform in Washington, D.C., in a drunken stumble. Or that she had a problem with wine, which had turned into a much bigger problem in recent years. Yet in a stunning and ultra-transparent January announcement from her Congressional office, Kirkpatrick said that she was taking six weeks off to recover from the fall — in which she had injured her spine and head — and her alcoholism. Friends and colleagues said they were surprised, having never seen her drunk before. The 70-year-old Congresswoman later emerged from rehab and is expected to beat the Republican challenging her for her seat in November. Good for her.

Walt Blackman of Snowflake is the Arizona GOP's idea of diversity. He's the first Black Republican member of the State Legislature, serving District 6. He sometimes wears a cowboy hat in his Facebook videos. He can say things that would be a problem for white lawmakers. Take his statements in early June, soon after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer sparked national protests: "I DO NOT support George Floyd and I refuse to see him as a martyr. But I hope his family receives justice." He also went on local radio to announce that Black Lives Matter was a "terrorist organization." On the other hand, he's a criminal justice reform advocate who this year submitted a groundbreaking bill (by Arizona standards) that, if it had passed, would have reduced prison sentences for some nonviolent offenders and basically been the biggest set of reforms in more than 25 years. But "moderate" does not describe Blackman, generally. He's a hero to pro-lifers and wants women to face "consequences" if they get an abortion. Blackman's the kind of Arizona lawmaker conservatives wish they could make more of.

It's not easy for a state legislator to get the public's attention, and it usually takes money. But State Senator Martín Quezada of Phoenix's District 29 got everyone in the Valley to stop what they were doing for a minute with a single tweet on May 20: "I just witnessed an armed terrorist with an AR-15 shoot up Westgate. There are multiple victims." The shooter, 20-year-old Armando Hernandez Jr., surrendered to cops after wounding three people. Many local residents first heard of the shooting from Quezada, an eight-year veteran of the Legislature in District 29, and he became a sought-after interview by the news media. Turning a crisis into an opportunity, he told a reporter he's in a position to help create policy to slow gun violence, saying, "I feel that it's my job to make this political." But really, he already had, by co-sponsoring six firearms-related bills earlier in the year when the Legislature was in session. He's no one-issue progressive, either. Quezada, an attorney who has the energy to also serve as a governing board member in a west Phoenix school district, sponsored bills to give voting rights to felons, repeal the last vestiges of SB 1070, limit immigration enforcement, and more. He was proud to receive a near-perfect 95 percent score by Progress Arizona. Following his scary incident in May, watch out for an even more pissed-off lawmaker coming to the State Capitol in 2021.

You may not realize it, but much of the news you hear starts with a PIO. These are the bureaucrats and assistants of elected officials who are paid to try to answer the annoying questions of reporters without pissing off their government bosses, the public, or both. It's a delicate balance that Jennifer Liewer of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office has handled well for many years. Her résumé is a tour of state government, with experience in Phoenix, Glendale, the Arizona Supreme Court, the Department of Education, Tempe Union High School District, and now the MCAO. Liewer seems to genuinely care about keeping the public informed, takes pains to return a message, and can make a reporter feel like she's trying her best when the info spigot shuts off. The latter point is important in her current job in the highly political prosecutor's office, where sooner or later, the bad stuff hits the fan. If Allister Adel survives her challenge in the general election and retains Liewer, the public can be confident they're getting the most information they can from the office.

If you see a state official promoting the Holy Ghost, who you gonna call? The Secular Coalition for Arizona, that's who. This freethinking organization celebrated its 10th anniversary in the state this year, and many Arizonans are glad to have it. The group protects the rights not just of nonbelievers, but of all Arizonans who don't think public money, resources, and messages should be spent pushing religious dogma. Chaired and directed by Zenaido Quintana, and with high-powered hitters like lobbyist and spokesperson Tory Roberg and progressive attorney Dianna Post on the payroll, this is a group that regularly gets attention. Whether it's slamming Governor Doug Ducey for posts about Jesus during Easter, denouncing Bible studies in public schools, or fighting for atheist lawmakers' rights to give the invocation at the State Legislature, the Secular Coalition for Arizona has been the state's voice of rational disbelief.

It sucks, but for most of 2020, the first thing we've done in the morning, (okay, not the very first thing), is doomscroll Twitter for information related to a certain horrible virus. The good news is, Garrett Archer of TV station ABC-15 makes this complicated topic pretty accessible, providing raw percentage figures and charts and pointing out trends that other media outlets tend to pick up on later in the day. While most of the Valley's news corps struggle to make sense of the seven-day rolling averages and case positivity rate numbers put out by the Arizona Department of Health Services, the "Data Guru," as Archer calls himself, has already tweeted. He's useful around election time, too. (A former senior elections analyst for the Arizona Secretary of State, Archer took an "odd path to journalism," as his Twitter bio notes.) But he's not stodgy. He'll take the time to congratulate Maricopa County's Geographic Information System Department for the "awesomeness" of their new web interface, and let his lack of coffee take the blame for a typo. Not that he lets his caffeine level ever run too low. He must have a chart for that.

Most states do not have their own private National Geographic. Arizona does. For nearly 100 years, the Arizona Department of Transportation has published Arizona Highways, a monthly magazine of travelogues, historical writing, and world-class photography that is the envy of state tourism marketers all over the country. The Arizona depicted in its pages — glorious desert sunsets, majestic mountain ranges, an almost impossibly romantic Western lifestyle — is so alluring that in 1965, the Soviet Union reportedly banned Arizona Highways on the grounds that it was propaganda; the Russians were worried that citizens who encountered these images would pitch their parkas and light out for the Grand Canyon. (Quite understandably, we would argue.) Now that relations between our two countries are again heading in a frostier direction, the Kremlin might consider cutting off access to the Arizona Highways Instagram account, which posts an extraordinarily well-curated mix of old magazine covers, archival photos (1940s dude ranches, sheep camps, reservation life), and hi-res modern landscape photography. They're pretty pictures, sure — but also a motivational reminder to get out and explore the wilds of our state.

Sam Walker left her long career with the BBC after falling in love with the desert Southwest. Along with her husband and two kids, she made the move from England to Arizona, where she launched the Desert Diaries podcast, which follows the family's adventures in a new culture and a new landscape. Through weekly episodes blending childlike wonder with dry humor, Walker helps listeners see the mundane and quirkier elements of life in the Sonoran through fresh eyes, even as she encourages them to find and follow their own dreams. Walker's work blends tough realism with flights of fancy, helping listeners navigate everything from parenting to pandemic life.

In a world where we're constantly bombarded by neverending digital visual stimuli, it's sometimes nice to just sit and listen. When we need such an audio balm, we turn the dial to KJZZ, the National Public Radio member station based at Rio Salado College. The listener-supported radio station presents a mix of international, national, and local news, along with classic jazz and blues. You can start your day with The Show, featuring in-depth interviews focused on local issues, or wind down at night with relaxing music. KJZZ presents an eclectic range of podcasts, including Untold Arizona and Defining Moment, and its Frontera desk keeps listeners abreast of stories happening along the U.S.-Mexico border. It's an essential resource for listeners who want to stay informed, connected, and inspired to participate in the civic life of metro Phoenix.

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