If there’s one thing Ann Kirkpatrick doesn’t want to talk about, it’s John McCain.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the congresswoman is seated at a long wooden table in a boardroom in Tucson. She’s just finished a round-table discussion with 20 men and women who work with veterans, and managed to go the entire hour without anyone mentioning the five-time Senate incumbent she’s trying to unseat this November.
And now, as she rests her forearms on the table and answers a question about her life before politics, she looks almost excited, as if she’s gotten away with something.
She tucks her shoulder-length brown hair behind her ears, revealing a pair of silver and turquoise earrings, and smiles, waiting for the next question.
“What’s it like to run against John McCain?” she’s asked.
“Well, I think more about it like I’m running for Arizona,” she replies, not missing a beat. “I’ve seen Arizona go through too many boom-and-bust cycles over my lifetime, and so my work and my vision for Arizona is really about building a strong, diverse, stable economy.”
She makes eye contact with the journalist across the table. Smiles again. This isn’t her first rodeo.
Asked whether she’s running a pro-Ann Kirkpatrick campaign or an anti-John McCain campaign — given that her TV ads, daily e-mails, and tweets always target the incumbent — she demurs, changing the subject.
“I’m running on the vision that I have for Arizona. That’s what drives me; that’s what my work is about,” she answers, glancing quickly at the smiling campaign staffer also sitting at the table. “And look, I’m out all over the state, and unemployment is still really high in the tribal and rural areas. This is still about jobs; it’s really about jobs.”
When pressed about the campaign message, Kirkpatrick doesn’t squirm in her seat or fidget, but the corners of her smile do droop just slightly, as if she’s either annoyed by the question — or bored.
Given the opportunity, Kirkpatrick prefers to talk about the challenges facing working-class families and veterans or bolstering Arizona’s infrastructure. She’ll talk your ear off about water policy or the problems with mining uranium in the Grand Canyon. And having grown up in rural Arizona on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, she has plenty to say about local and national policies that affect farmers, loggers, and tribes.
But a few minutes later, while talking about the things she’s been hearing from people on the campaign trail — their fears about the cost of education or their struggles to access their VA benefits — she slips up.
“[People] are very concerned about the vicious, hateful, racist, insulting things that Donald Trump has said, and they want somebody who will stand up to Trump. And I hear from a lot of people who don’t think that’s John McCain,” she says. “I mean, Trump insulted John McCain, and he hasn’t stood up to him.”
With that, she pivots and begins talking about a recent round-table event she had with Latino business leaders and the importance of supporting entrepreneurship.
Ann Kirkpatrick might not want to talk about John McCain, but even she can’t help it.
The 2016 U.S. Senate race is still John McCain’s to lose, but in one of the craziest election seasons in memory, his opponent is starting to get a lot of attention.
Few saw Kirkpatrick, who at 66 is currently serving out her third term in the U.S. House of Representatives, as a serious threat to McCain when she announced her candidacy in May 2015 — no one necessarily doubted her qualifications, but her bid was still widely viewed as a suicide mission.
Fast forward a year, and now that she and McCain are polling neck-and-neck, all eyes are on this race, and many political experts think that even though her chances of winning are slim, she currently represents the best chance the Democrats have ever had to beat McCain — not to mention elect Arizona’s first female senator.
What’s more, she got loads of national media attention last week after McCain blamed the president for the recent terrorist attack in Orlando, and her campaign raised more than $100,000 overnight.
And so given the potentially historic nature of this election, what’s perhaps most striking about Kirkpatrick is that she doesn’t really come across like a politician, let alone one able to defeat McCain. (McCain’s office declined a request for an interview.)
Kirkpatrick’s demeanor is unassuming, and her presence is that of a folksy and friendly neighbor, not a suave or chic Washington politician.
Go to any of her campaign events, and it won’t be long before someone mentions her cowboy boots. In fact, if there’s one thing Kirkpatrick is known for among colleagues and constituents, it’s the brown leather cowboy boots she bought during college with money she made as a waitress.
She’s worn them on the floor of the U.S. House, and used them in campaign commercials to show she’s a salt-of-the-earth candidate. She even once swung her leg up on a table during a televised campaign debate to make a point about how, unlike her rival, she was from rural Arizona and understood the issues facing average people there.
The boots, which by the way have had countless repairs and are held together on the inside with duct tape, have taken on an almost-mythological quality among her supporters. People wear their own boots to her town-hall events, and they cheer whenever she shows off hers or says something hokey like, “It’s boots time.”
But it’s not just the boots. Kirkpatrick plays the fiddle, piano, and violin, and likes to jam with her friends or other members of Congress. She speaks Mandarin fluently, and is conversational in Spanish, French, Navajo, and Modern Greek. She has a “signature” prickly-pear margarita recipe that she’s pretty famous for among her friends and family. And she gets that huge, glowing grandmotherly smile when anyone asks her about her baby grandson.
“As a congressional candidate, she was very effective at relating to Arizonans as Arizonans,” says Richard Herrera, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies. “Whether it works statewide, we’ll see.”
Kirkpatrick, for her part, believes it will, since her congressional district is huge — like really, really huge. It’s bigger than the state of Pennsylvania.
“Because of the size of my congressional district ... we’ve [already] been traveling the state constantly,” she says, adding with a little laugh, “I have supporters all over the state, and now they can all vote for me.”
She’s also been a notoriously centrist Democrat known for playing nice with her Republican colleagues, and many believe that will help her as well. She might be prone to angering liberals from time to time – particularly when it comes to environmental issues – but her voting record and reputation make her palatable to a lot of Independents and some Republicans, whose votes she’ll desperately need in November.
Historically, no Democratic challenger to McCain has ever really stood a chance, but many think this year might be different. He’s loathed by his party’s conservative base, faces a sizable Latino electorate that’s projected to vote Democrat (although such promises haven’t panned out in past elections), and is caught in the uncomfortable position of somehow needing to both support Trump and have nothing to do with him.
Even so, Kirkpatrick has her work cut out for her. Not only had McCain raised $10 million to her $2.9 million by March 31 — the most recent date for which numbers are available — but history has shown that 86 percent of Senate incumbents, many of whom are far less prominent than McCain, get re-elected.
“For better or worse, people know John McCain, and there’s not much you can tell people about him that they don’t already know,” says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report.
Kirkpatrick is “a perfectly reasonably candidate,” Duffy adds, but “this is sort of all about her potentially being in the right place at the right time. People talk about her having a chance in the context of this election not really being about her. It’s really about Trump: how much he damages the Republican brand, and whether or not Democrats can really boost the Hispanic turnout.”
While not all of the political analysts, academic experts, and local party leaders interviewed by New Times believe Kirkpatrick can win, all did agree that she poses a legitimate challenge to McCain, and that whichever way the election goes, it’s going to be close.
Ann Kirkpatrick was born on March 24, 1950, and grew up in the small town of Whiteriver on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation in eastern Arizona.
Though none of her relatives are Native American, both of her parents ended up in Whiteriver as adults and decided to stay after getting married. Her father, Elliot Kirkpatrick, moved there to help his brother run the general store he’d opened, Lee’s Mercantile, and her mother, Nancy Cox, whose family owned and operated the Silver Creek Ranch near the town of Snowflake, moved to Whiteriver after getting a teaching job in the local public school.
Kirkpatrick often talks about learning to rough it as a kid: She and her younger brother and sister grew up in a house where the water from the tap wasn’t potable and all the electricity came from a small generator.
Yet even though money was always tight, you can hear a genuine nostalgia in her voice as she describes her childhood on the reservation — horseback riding, hiking, swimming in rivers, and romping through the woods with friends. She spent a lot of time outdoors, and learned to speak fluent Apache.
But that all changed when Kirkpatrick was in second grade, and the family moved off the reservation and into a house in Pinetop-Lakeside.
“I really struggled to acclimate to Anglo culture,” she says, describing the shock of living in what felt like a foreign country.
“In Apache culture, property’s not of big value, and you’re supposed to share with your family. My friends and I used to play a game to see if we could walk in the forest and not leave a footprint. Then, you go into Anglo culture, and it’s all about property and ownership.”
She recalls being “mortified” when her second-grade teacher taped one of her assignments on the board because she received an A+ — it was just so contrary to what she had been taught in her previous schooling, she says.
When Kirkpatrick was a kid, she didn’t dream of becoming a U.S. Senator or a doctor or a teacher. “I wanted to be a mom, have 12 kids, and live on the Reservation,” she says with a little laugh. But then in junior high, she took a book out of the library about Clarence Darrow, the American attorney who defended a high-school teacher for talking about evolution in the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.
She was struck by the case and by Darrow’s actions, and says that upon finishing the book, she decided she wanted to be a lawyer. To emphasize how atypical this was, she points out that a lot of girls in her class dropped out of school after eighth grade and got married. And of her female classmates who did make it through high school, almost none pursued higher education.
“When I was growing up, girls were not encouraged to go to college,” she says.
But Kirkpatrick, who was the valedictorian of her high-school class, enrolled at the University of Arizona in Tucson where she majored in Asian studies, and learned to speak fluent Mandarin. (To this day, she continues to study languages for fun.)
Going to law school was still in the back of her mind, but she decided to give teaching a shot. “I wanted to take the easy route,” she says sheepishly, “but I found out I’m not a very good teacher.”
Still not entirely sold on the idea of law school — it was a toss up between that and becoming an outdoor wilderness instructor — she took the LSATs “on a whim.” She scored well and got into the U of A law school.
After graduating in 1979, Kirkpatrick left Tucson for a job in Flagstaff as the first female deputy county attorney in Coconino County, later becoming a deputy county attorney in Pima County.
She prosecuted all sorts of gritty cases — homicides, drug deals, DUIs, aggravated assault — but quickly made a name for herself by going after perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual assault. She pushed for better police investigations in these cases and for the county to provide more services to victims.
She worked as a prosecutor for a few years, but in 1985 switched over to civil law, and briefly served as the city attorney for Sedona. Being a prosecutor “was a great experience when you’re young and single, but I changed to more transactional law when I had a family,” she says.
In 1983, she married a businessman and they had two daughters, though the marriage didn’t last. Kirkpatrick and her daughters have an agreement that their names will not be printed in the press, but one works in marketing and the other is a resident neurosurgeon. (Kirkpatrick was also very briefly married to another man when she was 21, and has been with her current husband, Roger Curley, for seven years.)
In 1991, Kirkpatrick left her position as the Sedona City Attorney and started her own law firm with a former colleague, Robert Van Wyck. (The firm was originally called Kirkpatrick & Van Wyck, but was later changed to Kirkpatrick & Harris.)
She says she had zero political ambitions at this point in her life, and had never even considered a career in politics until April 2004, when a few community leaders in Flagstaff approached her about running for the state Legislature because they thought she would do well with the district’s large Native American constituency.
“They took me to lunch and I was like, ‘No way, I’m not doing this,’” she says. “But they kept after me. ‘Take baby steps,’ they said — ‘pick up a candidate packet, see what this process is all about.’”
It took about a month of prodding, but by May of that year, Kirkpatrick was all in. And then a few months later, to the surprise of many, she won the election.
After four years in the state House of Representatives, Kirkpatrick gave up her seat to run for U.S. Congress in Arizona’s biggest congressional district, CD1. The district, which covers about half of the state, is a challenging place for any candidate to campaign because so many constituents live in remote rural areas.
But Kirkpatrick says her campaign strategy was to just do what she knew how to do: fundraise hard and drive around the district introducing herself to people. It worked.
On November 4, 2008, as McCain lost the White House to Barack Obama, Kirkpatrick carried her district at the ballot box, beating out her Republican competitor, Sydney Hay, with 55.9 percent of the vote.
Almost immediately upon getting to Washington, Kirkpatrick set about securing federal funding for infrastructure and civil engineering projects in her district.
In 2010, she played a critical role in getting the House to pass a measure repealing the Bennett Freeze, a 40-year-old policy that had effectively stopped all development on 1.6 million acres of land around Tuba City, and then appropriate millions of dollars to jump-start a rebuilding effort. She tells a story about carrying around a three-ring binder full of photographs depicting what was essentially a third-world country within her district to convince her colleagues that the money was absolutely necessary.
And the Bennett Freeze was just the beginning. Between 2008 and 2010, Kirkpatrick secured tens of millions of dollars in federal money for dozens of projects throughout her district. She was quoted at the time in the Prescott eNews as saying, “While the appropriations process is often criticized, I do believe funding can be responsible and awarded fairly as long as the process is open and transparent.”
She’s obtained earmarks for all sorts of things over the years. In 2013, she worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to get the money necessary to repair and reopen a sawmill on the White Mountain Apache Tribe reservation; in 2014, she secured $750,000 for a feasibility study of the Little Colorado River Levee in Winslow and got more than $3 million for three flood-control projects in her district — she got another $1.7 million for the projects earlier this year. And in 2015, she obtained a $15 million grant to build an overpass over a dangerous railroad crossing in Maricopa.
The list goes on.
Meanwhile, Citizens Against Government Waste — a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating what it calls “waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement in government” — considers her “hostile” to its cause and has consistently given her a failing grade in its annual congressional report card. Kirkpatrick’s 2015 rating was 13. By comparison, John McCain’s was 94. Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego got a 1.
In addition to securing appropriations, her office regularly issues press releases celebrating federal and state grant money awarded to cities, universities, tribes, and law enforcement in her district — like $3.8 million from the Department of Transportation for the Show Low Regional Airport for runway improvement and obstruction removal.
From building roads to bolstering native law enforcement, Kirkpatrick’s legislative record is full of exactly the types of small projects and so-called pork-barrel legislation McCain has famously spent decades railing against. Asked if all this makes her vulnerable to criticism from McCain and others, she shrugs.
“I’m focused on [the things] that in the long run make it sustainable to live in the Arizona,” she says.
Having spent a great deal of time focusing on her rural and native constituents, she should have been in a good position to get re-elected in 2010. And in any other year, she might have won easily. But the grassroots Tea Party movement stoking anger across the country was also brewing in Arizona, and when Paul Gosar, a dentist-turned-politician with an endorsement from Sarah Palin, announced he was challenging Kirkpatrick’s re-election bid, things got really ugly really fast.
Over the course of a few months, millions of dollars of outside spending poured into the race as Kirkpatrick and Gosar attempted to prove the other was unfit for office. In the end, Kirkpatrick lost by six percentage points.
The following year, Arizona’s congressional districts were redrawn, and Gosar announced he would run for a smaller and much more reliably conservative district in 2012.
Kirkpatrick decided to run for her old congressional seat again. This time, she won.