State Senator Kate Brophy McGee is threatening to sue a political action committee for libel over negative ads criticizing her record on K-12 education spending.
Her attorney disputes the group's claim that Brophy McGee has voted to cut a total of $1.2 billion from Arizona schools in her career as a legislator. The committee, Great Schools Now, disseminated the message via direct mail and digital ads.
Brophy McGee is a former state representative who has represented Phoenix in Legislative District 28 in the state Senate since 2017.
In an effort to defy Brophy McGee, on Tuesday, Great Schools Now published an October 19 cease-and-desist letter sent by her attorney Michael Liburdi, who works for the law firm Greenberg Traurig, LLP. Until May, Liburdi was general counsel to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey.
In the letter, Liburdi described the claim that Brophy McGee voted to cut $1.2 billion as "patently false." He pointed to her votes in the state Legislature in favor of budget increases that gradually added over $1.75 billion to the state's education funding pool.
“Your false statements against Senator Brophy McGee are defamatory and cause substantial harm to her reputation,” Liburdi wrote in the letter. He demanded that Great Schools Now withdraw the digital advertising containing the statement.
“If you do not immediately cease and desist, Senator Brophy McGee intends to hold you fully liable for compensatory and punitive damages,” Liburdi wrote.
In an interview on Tuesday, Great Schools Now treasurer Doug Kilgore said that the group has no plans to remove the ads. Upon receiving the letter, Kilgore said that he felt "disappointed that Senator McGee was trying to intimidate us."
"We were confident in our numbers, and we would much rather work with Senator McGee to look forward to how we’re going to make up our funding deficit we have in this state – which is well-documented – rather than trying to hide the facts," Kilgore said.
Kilgore also serves as a lobbyist and organizational consultant to the Arizona Education Association.
He said that the calculations by Brophy McGee's team are too generous to the lawmaker. The $1.75 billion figure cited by Liburdi leaves out annual funding increases that merely account for the growth in Arizona's student population, he said.
A Republican, Brophy McGee faces a competitive re-election challenge from Democratic opponent Christine Marsh, who was named Arizona's Teacher of the Year in 2016.
Recent campaign finance disclosures show that Great Schools Now has spent more than $26,624 in independent expenditures to defeat Brophy McGee, as well as other expenditures to take down Republican lawmakers J.D. Mesnard and Sylvia Allen.
In the press release on Tuesday, Great Schools Now published a sum total of spending cuts attributable to Brophy McGee's K-12 voting record that was even larger than their previous claim. The release lists $3.23 billion in cuts that the committee chalks up to Brophy McGee's voting record in the State House and Senate since 2011.
Great Schools Now argues that during her tenure at the Legislature, Brophy McGee only restored $985 million in funding for schools, which adds up to a K-12 funding hole of $2.25 billion.
Brophy McGee's campaign called the group's calculations "laughable."
In an interview, campaign consultant O'Daniel said that Brophy McGee made the decision to file the cease-and-desist letter because her opponents are "misrepresenting her record of standing up for public education in this state, and we think it’s important that they recognize that.”
He also referred to Great Schools Now as a "shadow union" group, and noted Kilgore's dual role with the AEA.
O'Daniel said, “I absolutely think that this is an organized effort by the AEA to try to undermine Kate Brophy McGee’s record of success on education.”
The funding calculation from Great Schools Now, he argued, is misleading because it leaves out Brophy McGee's support of a 20-year extension to Proposition 301, a sales-tax increase that generates hundreds of millions of dollars per year in school funding, and Proposition 123, a voter-approved funding increase that settled a previous lawsuit over school funding. (Proposition 123, it should be noted, was overturned by a federal judge in March.)
When asked whether Brophy McGee truly intends to follow through with her threatened lawsuit if Great Schools Now does not pull the ads, O'Daniel wouldn't give a concrete answer.
Instead, he acknowledged that the fight will play out "more in the court of public opinion."
Read the public statement released by Great Schools Now on October 23 in response to the cease and desist letter from Brophy McGee's attorney.
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