A former Democratic lawmaker whose short tenure was marred by controversy over a violent remark about a female colleague and campaign finance problems is attempting a comeback – but he’ll have to take care of tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid fines before his name will be allowed on the ballot.
Jesus Rubalcava announced on social media last week that he is running for his old seat in the Arizona House of Representatives. The Gila Bend teacher was elected in 2016 to represent Legislative District 4, a southern Arizona-based district that stretches into southwestern Maricopa County. The district also includes much of Yuma and parts of Tucson.
Rubalcava didn’t last long in the legislature. He resigned his seat in July 2017, just six months into his term.
That brief tenure in office was tumultuous. In response to then-state Sen. Debbie Lesko’s sponsorship of legislation to massively expand Arizona’s school voucher program, Rubalcava commented to a friend on Facebook, “I wanted to punch her in the throat!”
Rubalcava later apologized to Lesko and apologized publicly on the House floor, calling his remarks “unprofessional” and “unacceptable.”
Rubalcava’s problems got worse when the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, which oversees the publicly funded campaign finance system he used to run for office in 2016, found that he had committed a number of campaign finance violations.
The commission determined that he mingled personal and campaign funds and used the campaign cash he received from Clean Elections to pay for personal expenses, like flights and hotels.
The case could have resulted in Rubalcava becoming the third Arizona legislator to be removed from office for violations of Clean Elections laws. But he resigned first, saying in a letter to his colleagues that he was stepping down due to personal issues.
Clean Elections ordered Rubalcava to repay more than $17,000 in misspent money, and the commission later accepted an administrative law judge’s recommendation that he be fined more than $52,000. Tom Collins, the commission’s executive director, said the case was referred to the Attorney General’s Office for nonpayment.
Rubalcava told the Arizona Mirror that he decided to run again at the urging of community leaders and others in his legislative district, such as school board members, city council members and members of the agricultural community.
Asked whether his comments about Lesko, who is now a congresswoman, Rubalcava said he wouldn’t try to justify the mistakes he made in office, and called his time in the legislature a learning experience. He also said his comments were “twisted” by others to suggest he intended to do physical harm to Lesko.
“It wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to get up and punch somebody.’ That was not the case. In the terminology of, you know – it was not physically, but somebody needs to like, you know, get her to knock it off,” Rubalcava said.
As for his problems with Clean Elections, Rubalcava said he’s working with the Attorney General’s Office to rectify the matter. He said he owes less than the roughly $70,000 in fines and fees he was at one point ordered to pay, but wouldn’t say what his outstanding balance was or what kind of solution he and the state might reach.
Rubalcava said he didn’t resign because of his problems with Clean Elections, emphasizing that he said at the time it was due to personal issues, and that “those personal issues have been cleared up.”
If Rubalcava doesn’t repay the money or reach some other agreement with the Attorney General’s Office, his campaign won’t get very far. State law bars election officials from accepting nominating petitions from any candidate who has $1,000 or more in outstanding fines, fees or judgments resulting from campaign finance enforcement matters.
The deadline to submit nominating petitions for next year’s election is April 6, 2020.
Presuming Rubalcava clears up his Clean Elections issues and qualifies for the ballot, he’ll have a tough road ahead, given that he’ll be running against two incumbent lawmakers, including the House of Representatives’ top Democrat. House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, and Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Goodyear, are both running for re-election.
Despite the fact that he’s seeking to challenge two incumbents from his own party, Rubalcava insisted that he’s not running against anyone, but is simply running for a seat. He said both lawmakers are “wonderful” and that he has nothing personal against them.
But he said the district needs a different style of leadership than what Fernandez and Peten have.
“I would definitely have a different approach as to being more of an independent thinker, rather than going along party lines for all the voting. I think you really need to take into consideration the needs of our district when making those decisions and voting on specific issues, rather than going down party lines,” he said.
“My leadership style is being visible in the community, talking to the constituents, finding out what the needs are in the district and moving forward from there. More visibility, definitely.”
Peten, who was appointed to replace Rubalcava, questioned his qualifications and recalled how she came to take her seat in the legislature. She questioned his assertion that he resigned due to personal issues, not to his misspending of Clean Elections money.
“You have to say something, don’t you? I suppose those are the words he chose to make public,” she told Arizona Mirror.
She also questioned whether Rubalcava is seeking to exonerate himself or pretend his scandals never happened.
“It seems to be the nature of people in Arizona, like Arpaio and Shooter and now him, people who do misdeeds seem to come back,” she said, referring to former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former lawmaker Don Shooter, both of whom sought their old seats after leaving office amid scandal.
Fernandez said she’s not sure why Rubalcava is running.
“I don’t know how our district will feel about it,” she said.