Local leftists are pushing Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton to support single-payer health care before he resigns to run for Congress.
The Phoenix chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America submitted a citizen petition to the City Council on May 2, urging Stanton and the council to support a universal system of national health insurance like the so-called Medicare for All plans that have been introduced in Congress.
Because Stanton must resign by May 30 in order to run for Congress under state law, DSA members believe this could be their last opportunity to compel him to take a stand on single-payer.
Citizen petitions are a simple way to force an item onto the City Council’s agenda. Per the city charter, any individual can submit a written petition, and the council is required to act on it within 15 days. As a result, the council must take some action on DSA's petition at its formal meeting on Wednesday.
Council members could approve DSA's symbolic resolution supporting single-payer health care, or approve a version of the petition that does not go as far as the DSA health care goal (which is a single, tax-funded public health insurance program for all U.S. residents). Council members also might deny the petition outright.
Of course, the City Council doesn’t set national health care policy, which city staff noted in a brief response to the petition: “The City Council does not have the authority to change federal law.”
So, approving the petition would mean a statement of support and nothing more.
DSA members, however, see an election-year opportunity to push Stanton on an issue that has become a litmus test for Democrats.
“In this political climate, a lot of Democrats are trying to establish themselves as progressive candidates,” said DSA Phoenix member Taylor Hines, 31, the chair of DSA Phoenix’s health justice caucus. “I think this is just another opportunity to show that they are serious about progressive reforms.”
The petition cites Stanton’s own words on pharmaceutical companies (an industry he said is “directly responsible for stunning rises in opioid addiction that destroys lives, tears apart families and burdens taxpayers at every level”) and the Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“an all-out assault on the people of Arizona”).
DSA members acknowledge that wholesale approval from the City Council of the Medicare for All petition is a long shot. After all, the Council has several conservative members who will almost certainly vote against the petition. Council members might deny the petition or dodge its central request by making a generic statement in support of health care reform.
The mayor’s press secretary at City Hall deferred questions to Stanton’s congressional campaign, which did not respond to a request for comment.
DSA members are also closely watching Councilwoman Kate Gallego and Councilman Daniel Valenzuela to see what they say on the subject. Both are Democrats who plan to run for mayor once Stanton resigns.
Single-payer health care is a major dividing line between centrists and left-wing Democrats. It’s also less of a political poison bill as it was 10 years ago.
Leaders from the Democratic Party’s liberal wing, including senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have pledged to support a single-payer health care system. These same Democrats could end up fighting for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination, setting up a battle over ideological purity.
On the other end of the Democratic spectrum are politicians like Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, who represents Arizona’s 9th Congressional District. As the leading Democratic candidate for Arizona’s open seat in the U.S. Senate, she's criticized single-payer health care as an unrealistic promise that politicians can't deliver.
"Sinema’s sort of a Democrat in name only," said DSA Phoenix member and former chapter chair Devin Howard. "It will be interesting to see if [Stanton] tries to appeal to a larger, more progressive base in Arizona."
Stanton’s run for Congress presents him with a question familiar to Democratic candidates in Arizona: Does he endorse single-payer health care and risk alienating Arizona conservatives for whom “socialism” is a dirty word? Or does Stanton ignore single-payer, possibly losing a progressive base of supporters, especially if single-payer becomes a staple of Democratic campaigns in the future?
Mike Noble, the managing partner of Phoenix marketing and polling firm OH Predictive Insights, said that CD9 is considered a swing district that leans left.
Stanton isn’t facing a serious rival in the congressional primary, so Noble reasons that the mayor won’t necessarily need single-payer health care as a campaign plank to win over left-of-center voters.
“Why commit to something right now if you can, frankly, push it off or not be on the record on it?” Noble said. “When you’re in that spot, you don’t have to plant your flag.”
If Stanton wants to remain flexible for the November election, Noble said, he should duck the citizen petition on Wednesday. When the agenda item comes up at the end of the meeting, Stanton could keep his specific policy position on health care ambiguous.
“Once you get your positions, it’s hard to switch. If you do, you get some blowback,” Noble said.
DSA's gambit may worry some voters who are interested in seeing a Democrat hold onto the seat in CD9. Stanton will please the socialists in the audience if he endorses Medicare for All, but he could damage his own congressional ambitions in the process.
Once Stanton faces off with a Republican in the general election, his opponent could use a vote in favor of single-payer health care to bash him as an overly liberal, blue-city mayor unfit to represent all Arizonans. Republicans Steve Ferrara, Dave Giles, and Seth Leibsohn are vying to represent their party in CD9. In 2016, Sinema defeated Giles with 60 percent of the vote.
But DSA members point to polls that show a majority of Americans support single-payer health care. DSA member Benjamin Fong, who submitted the petition to the City Council, said that the tide is decisively turning.
“I think this is going to become a real demand for any Democratic candidate in 2018,” Fong said. “It’s a chance for Stanton to show early on to people who are potentially progressive backers that he’s going to take a strong stand on this — that he’s not going to waffle on health care.”
Fong, a 36-year-old faculty fellow at Arizona State University’s honors college, also criticized the “technocratic approaches to healthcare” favored by centrist Democrats like Hiral Tipirneni, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate in last month’s CD8 special election.
“They claim to be strong on health care, but they don’t support Medicare for All,” Fong said.
Tipirneni advocated for a patchwork approach to health care during her campaign. She supported opening up Medicare to people under 65 who want to purchase a health care plan, but also advocated for competition between public and private health care plans as a strategy to drive down costs.
"Health care is a moral obligation, but it is never 'free,'" Tipirneni said in her health care plan.
When making the case for Stanton to support single-payer, DSA members cite an August 2017 resolution from the Arizona Democratic Party in which the state party endorsed Medicare for All by ratifying the People’s Platform, a progressive laundry list of goals from a Sanders-affiliated organization, Our Revolution.
There are around 180 DSA members in Phoenix, according to Howard. Also backing the citizen petition is the local chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America. According to Ken Kenegos, a nurse and the health care coordinator for the Arizona PDA, as many as 100 people turn out for the organization's Phoenix meetings.
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"I like to call our system, 'It’s your money or your life,'" 69-year-old Kenegos said, arguing that the American health care doesn't have to function this way.
He predicted that Stanton will try to dodge the issue on Wednesday.
"I think he’s a pretty seasoned politician, and I’m not real crazy about that seasoning," Kenegos said.