Arizona Seeing Surge of Democrats Running for State Legislature This Year

Jim Louvau
Not long after Michelle Harris retired from the Air Force and moved back home to Buckeye, she grew frustrated by the fact that her water bills seemed to keep getting higher and higher. At one point in 2013, she recalls, she was paying well over $200 a month.

Harris, who spent more than two decades as a Russian linguist in the Air Force, did a little research and quickly found out that a planned rate increase was about to make her bills even worse. She sprang into action, organizing a group of community members to lobby the Arizona Corporation Commission and demand that they reconsider.

The result was a temporary settlement that put the rate hikes on hold. In July 2017, the Corporation Commission approved a new set of rates that should significantly lower the bills of Buckeye residents.

The experience ultimately ended up motivating Harris to run for the state Legislature. "It just seems like our elected officials have lost touch with the communities they represent," she says. "No one’s actually listening, and it’s got to change."

During the last election cycle, no Democrats stepped up to run against Republican state senator Steve Montenegro in Legislative District 13, which stretches from Avondale to Yuma. This year, Harris is changing that. Among her top priorities, should she be elected, is coming up with what she calls "a no-kidding plan" to better fund public education.

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Michelle Harris
Courtesy of Michelle Harris
The district has a reputation for being deeply conservative. But Harris points out that it has almost as many independent voters as registered Republicans. She's hoping that by showing up and knocking on doors, she'll be able to sway some of them.

"I really think most people believe these areas are unwinnable, and don’t even attempt it because no one has tried," she says. "Or at least, there hasn’t been much effort put into these districts. It has just become kind of accepted that you can’t make a difference and you can’t win, and I don’t believe in that."

Harris is part of a wave of Democratic candidates who are running for local office and competing for seats that, in previous years, wouldn't have been contested.

In 2016, Democrats fielded candidates for either the Arizona Senate or the Arizona House of Representatives in each legislative district. This year, for the first time in at least a decade, there will be Democrats running for both those positions in every single legislative district.

That's the plan, anyway. Currently, the party is looking for just one person to run for the State Senate seat in Legislative District 5, which covers Kingman and Lake Havasu City.

"If Donald Trump did one thing, it was to really inspire people to get involved in politics," says Dana Walton, the executive director of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which recruits candidates to run for the state Legislature.

"Our candidates are incredibly diverse, and very reflective of the state of Arizona."

So far, 108 Democrats have declared their intent to run for the legislature in 2018. Of that number, 50 are women, and 54 are people of color. The majority have never run for office before.

When people first start thinking about running for office, they often aim big, shooting for a seat in Congress, Walton says. But, she argues, sometimes you can have a bigger impact by running for local office.

"When you think about reproductive rights or the roads you drive on, most of that funding and those decisions are actually made at the state capitol," she points out.

Recruiting Arizona public school teachers — who, thanks in part to the Legislature, are among the lowest-paid in the entire country — has been a top priority for the ADLCC. In fact, the Arizona Educational Foundation's 2016 Teacher of the Year, Christine Porter Marsh, is now running for the state Senate in Scottsdale to challenge the Republican incumbent, Kate Brophy McGee.

For aspiring candidates, running for the Legislature has a relatively low barrier to entry. No previous political experience is required, and you don't have to raise millions of dollars.

If successful, the effort to get more Democrats into the legislature will also help the party build up a bench of candidates who can eventually run for Congress or for statewide office. (Half the members of Arizona's current congressional delegation got their start at the state Legislature.)

The ADLCC hopes that having canvassers going door-to-door in rural communities that traditionally haven't had a huge Democratic presence will also help candidates whose names are higher up the ballot. In Virginia, where Democrats came extremely close to regaining control of the legislature last year, Governor Ralph Northam benefitted from that kind of "reverse-coattailing," Walton points out.

One unexpected result of the surge of people running for office is that Democrats are actually facing primaries — and not just in liberal strongholds like central Phoenix.

In 2016, the ADLCC searched for a long time to find a candidate to run in Legislative District 12, which covers Gilbert and Queen Creek. This year, three Democratic candidates are competing for the House seat: Joseph Bisaccia, Lynsey Robinson, and David Joseph Rothans.

The big question, of course, is whether this surge of new candidates will translate into flipped seats. The last time that Democrats controlled the Arizona Legislature was in 1966. Right now, they're just three seats short of a majority in the Senate, and six seats short of a majority in the House of Representatives.

Walton isn't making any big predictions about what might happen come November. But, she says, "in 2020, we could feasibly have a Democratic majority in both the state House and the state Senate."

And the threat posed to Republican incumbents is already having an impact, Charles Fisher, the ADLLC's political director, argues. He points out that, so far, this year's legislative session has featured significantly less craziness than in years past — a sign, he says, that "a lot of Republicans have their eyes on re-election."

Walton agrees. "Being quiet and being bipartisan is an attempt to hold onto power," she says.