McSally gave the worst possible excuse for telling cities they’re all alone

May 8, 2020 11:42 am

U.S. Sen. Martha McSally speaks at a rally for President Donald Trump on Feb. 19, 2020, in Phoenix. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

If you want to see a mesmerizing combination of desperation and ineptitude on display, just take a look at U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, who seems to reach new heights (or depths, maybe) every week. 

This week, it was her office’s absurd response to a column I wrote Thursday, detailing how McSally told her constituents that she wouldn’t support sending much needed aid to cities across Arizona that are reeling from the economic disaster wrought by the coronavirus.

Congress, you see, had already sent $150 billion to states and cities in previous aid packages. And even though that money can’t be used to fill budget deficits, and even though it’s available only to the three Arizona cities – Phoenix, Tucson and Mesa – with more than 500,000 residents, McSally was clear that “this is not the time” for more money to be given to cities and states.

On top of that, she also failed to repudiate Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comments that cities and states facing steep deficits should explore filing for bankruptcy instead of seeking help from the federal government.

Faced with explaining those comments, McSally’s spokeswoman gave The Arizona Republic what is probably the worst possible answer: The senator’s words weren’t ever meant to be public.

Let’s unpack just how bad that statement is.

First of all, it’s wildly and demonstrably untrue. McSally made the comments not at a closed-door fundraising event, but at a virtual town hall hosted by the city of Surprise. That town hall was promoted by local media, was recorded by the city’s government TV channel and posted online after the fact.

Telling such an obvious lie is insulting to Arizonans, and makes it clear that McSally and her aides think we’re as dumb as they are duplicitous.

But beyond that, why would their defense be, “You weren’t supposed to hear that!”? 

The implication of that is profound: Voters aren’t supposed to know what their (unelected) representative actually thinks about policies that affect them.

When the defense of a policy position boils down to, “Oh, shit, was that out loud?,” you’ve badly lost the messaging battle.

And in this case, McSally has definitely lost that battle. Every Arizona city is in need of financial help. The coronavirus hit right as Arizona’s economy was entering peak season – tourism hits its apex in the spring, golfers from around the world show up at our multitude of courses and the Cactus League is in full swing. All of that evaporated in an instant, taking every city’s sales tax revenue with it.

And while McSally blamed “the Left” for wanting to rob Arizona taxpayers by “bailing out” liberal cities, the reality of her position is that real harm will be visited upon the cities she represents – cities that, in many cases, are led by Republicans – and the constituents that live in them.

There’s good reason for McSally not to want to own the position she took: It’s extreme, even among Republicans. In a national poll conducted this week by Navigator Research, 67% of Americans say the federal government needs to give cash to local governments to help them bridge deficits and weather the coronavirus crisis. Only 15% side with McSally and McConnell that bankruptcy is a viable solution.

Half of Republicans want Congress to step up and help states, and only 26% are in the pro-bankruptcy camp.

By staking out a position that no more money is needed, McSally puts herself in league with true ideological extremists like Congressman Andy Biggs, the Gilbert Republican who leads the House Freedom Caucus.

Biggs, a former state lawmaker who most often viewed compromise and bipartisanship as four-letter words, issued a statement Thursday calling for the wholesale rejection of all aid to local governments: “As we move into our eighth week of economic shutdown imposed by state and local governments, Democrats are calling for Congress to provide $1 trillion in new money to backfill those governments’ lost revenues. We must reject those demands.”

(The hypocrisy of this is extreme, as well, considering Biggs was a state legislator who gladly accepted and appropriated federal stimulus aid money during the Great Recession.)

Biggs’s position isn’t at all surprising: He’s voted against every single COVID-19 aid package, and has been one of the loudest congressional opponents of public health measures meant to blunt the pandemic’s effects.

But what separates Biggs from McSally is that he is committed to his position. When he takes a stand, you can be sure that he won’t back off it.

McSally, meanwhile, is a case study in political fluid dynamics: She’ll take the shape of whatever container she’s in, and proudly endorse whatever belief she thinks it will take to win. That’s why she morphed from McCain-like centrist while representing a swing district in Tucson to Trump’s best friend in 2018 – even after she almost certainly didn’t vote for him in 2016 – to an own-the-libs parody in 2020 who voted to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial.

And that’s why it’s so damaging for her comments to be picked up in the media: It’s a lot easier to adopt a new position when no one has ever heard you take a position in the first place.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.