If you attended the Surprise Regional Chamber of Commerce's candidate forum on Saturday, you might have reasonably concluded that no Democrats were running for Trent Franks' old seat in Congressional District 8.
That's been the case in previous election cycles, but in 2018, there are two Democratic women competing in the upcoming February 27 primary: Brianna Westbrook and Hiral Tipirneni.
Neither was invited to the Surprise Chamber's forum, however.
In the forum's official announcement, president and CEO Raoul Sada explained that the Chamber selects candidates that are "the best qualified" and "have a high probability of being elected." That also eliminated six of the 12 Republican candidates: Only Debbie Lesko, Phil Lovas, Richard Mack, Steve Montenegro, Bob Stump, and Clair Van Steenwyk were invited.
In an email exchange that was forwarded to Phoenix New Times, one Sun City West resident (who asked to remain anonymous) inquired about the absence of Democrats from the forum.
"I do understand limiting the number of candidates to the top few," she wrote. "But leaving out the Democratic candidates entirely only serves to make the conversation one-sided."
In response, Sada wrote that the Chamber considers candidates' poll rankings, fundraising, news coverage, and advertising — not political affiliation — when deciding who to invite to forums.
However, he wrote, "The current dynamics show that CD 8 is a solidly Republican district and the majority of the candidates will be in the Republican primary. If we are going to provide a forum that give the people in our area the best opportunity to evaluate who they want to vote for on the Republican side we needed to reduce the number to a manageable size so that each candidate would have enough time with enough questions to allow the voters to determine who they would want to support. We pared this down to six for that purpose."
The Sun City West woman wrote back, "You believe CD 8 to be a 'solidly Republican' district. As I recall, Alabama was considered a solidly Republican state. And Wisconsin's 10th District was considered a solidly Republican district. Democrats won recent elections in both."
"If the Surprise Chamber of Commerce is going to hold a public forum featuring candidates only from the Republican Party, at least be upfront about the fact that you are pushing your own Republican agenda."
Phoenix New Times reached out to the Surprise Regional Chamber to see if other people had complained about the omission, and received an identical response to the one that had already been forwarded to us by the concerned constituent, emphasizing that the chamber is not a political action committee and does not endorse specific candidates.
"Having fewer candidates on our forum (6 vs 16) allows us to have time to question the candidates in depth, on the issues that are important to the voters in our region," Sada said in the email.
Nonetheless, some skepticism persists.
"It is obvious to us that the Surprise Chamber is a partisan organization," said Brianna Westbrook, one of the two Democratic candidates who was left out of the event. "The Surprise Chamber is not playing fair in CD8."
Hiral Tipirneni's campaign had a more muted response.
"It would've been great to invite all candidates, even as challenging as that is given the large number," her spokesperson, Jason Kimbrough, wrote in an email. "Fortunately on the Democratic side, we've had a number of forums over the past several weeks so voters could learn about our campaigns. We've had good turnouts and enjoyed discussing the issues in communities throughout the district.
"Hopefully the Surprise Chamber will reconsider and hold a Democratic forum in the near future," he concluded.