A Matter of Black or Blue: Why Did So Many Arizona Democrats Support SB 1366?

SB 1366, a.k.a. the "Blue Lives Matter" bill, was signed by Governor Doug Ducey earlier this week. It’s already inspired a ThinkProgress story titled “Arizona conservatives finalize redundant, disingenuous ‘Blue Lives Matter’ law.”

Only, this time, Democrats deserve some of the blame.

Before we get to that, let’s talk about what the law does. Introduced by Steve Smith, a Republican from Maricopa, it states that assaulting off-duty police officers and corrections officers carries a tougher penalty if there’s evidence that the crime was committed “out of malice toward a victim because of the victim’s employment as a peace officer or because of the defendant’s perception of the victim’s employment as a peace officer.”

Critics say that this creates a double standard, essentially stating that police officers’ lives are more valuable than anyone else’s.

But that’s already the case, under Arizona law: Assaulting a civilian is a misdemeanor; assaulting a police officer is a felony. Smith’s bill simply extends those protections to off-duty officers.

Whether off-duty officers need increased protection is another story. It’s easy to point to high-profile examples of attacks on uniformed officers — for instance, the January shooting of a trooper in Tonopah — but there simply isn’t data available that suggests off-duty officers are being targeted as a result of their jobs.

"This is a bill that is searching for a problem when there is not one," Representative Reginald Bolding, a Democrat from Laveen, argued.

Which, if we’re being honest, is true for a lot of legislation. The bigger problem is the bill’s title, and the political message that it sends.

“We should all acknowledge that we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t knowledge that this is pointed response to the Black Lives Matter movement,” Democratic Senator Martin Quezada pointed out during a floor session.

Quezada and Bolding were among the few Democrats to speak out against the bill.

“It furthers a couple of false narratives — first of all, the idea that working in law enforcement is a social identity that is equivalent to race," Quezada continued. "At the end of the day, officers can take off their blue uniform. A person of color cannot do that.”

Or, as local civil rights activist Reverend Jarrett Maupin, put it: “SB 1366 further divides our communities by tapping into, promoting, and exploiting dangerous narratives and bigoted propaganda intentionally crafted to attempt to legitimize bunk theories that good police officers have any reason whatsoever to fear righteously indignant or defiant black protesters.”

“Law enforcement lives do matter — there is no debate about that. The only debate that rages on is about Black lives mattering.”

It’s not totally shocking that the Republican-led legislature would pass a bill intended to protect off-duty officers from crimes that we have no proof are actually occurring, while ignoring the very real issue of police brutality aimed at minority communities.

What is surprising that so many Democrats got behind it.

Take a look at the Legiscan results for the bill. In the House of Representatives, it was a pretty straightforward party line vote, which is how this stuff usually goes.

But in the Senate, SB 1366 got an unusual amount of support from Democrats.

It first passed the Senate Judiciary Committee thanks to support from two Democrats — Lupe Contreras and Andrea Dalessandro. Neither explained their vote at the time, or responded to inquiries from New Times.

Then, once it got to the Senate floor for a third reading in February, a majority of Democrats voted to pass it.

Here’s the full list, if you want to see if your representative is on there:
  • Olivia Cajero Bedford (Tucson)
  • Sean Bowie (Ahwatukee)
  • David Bradley (Tucson)
  • Lupe Contreras (Avondale)
  • Steve Farley (Tucson)
  • Robert Meza (West Phoenix)
  • Lisa Otondo (Yuma)
  • Jamescita Peshlakai (Cameron)
When the bill went back to Senate for a final vote in April, Contreras, Meza, Otondo, and Peshlakai switched to “no” votes.

Why? We have no clue.

None of the representatives listed above explained their votes at the time. And they didn’t respond to requests for comment from New Times, with the exception of Senator Jamescita Peshlakai, who wrote in an e-mail, “I consider what is best for our districts and our constituents, which is why I voted no.” She didn't reply when asked to elaborate further.

No doubt, the bill would have passed anyway, without help from Democrats. But Reverend Maupin is particularly disappointed that Tuscon Senator Steve Farley — who’s reportedly considering a 2018 run for governor — consistently supported the bill, which he views as a betrayal of black Democrats.

“Farley's vote for and endorsement of this legislation has cost him any chance of surviving the Democratic gubernatorial primary — or any other primary beyond that of extremely local office,” he says.

Maupin predicts that the passage of the "Blue Lives Matter" law will do little to improve the state's already troubled legacy on civil rights.

"Being the subject of the brutal but accurate jokes of late-night television hosts and continuing to be internationally labeled a Mecca for political, social, and economic racism seems, sadly, to be Arizona's inescapable fate," he says.
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.