The Arizona legislature has been in session for 184 days with no end in sight. Of the many things one could say about this unique session, which has been filled with a half-dozen extended breaks, one thing has been certain for many Capitol regulars: This session has been more tense, more partisan and contentious than previous sessions.
“It’s radically different from the historical culture that has dominated the legislature,” Chuck Coughlin, president of public affairs firm HighGround, told the Arizona Mirror. Historically, the divide at the legislature was between “social safety net Democrats” versus Republicans, who were divided into “big government” and “small government” camps, Coughlin said.
But those philosophical divides have given way to fiercely partisan divides.
“There is no such thing as a fiscal conservative anymore,” Coughlin said, adding that candidates in both parties are running on the platforms of “what the other guy is against and not what you are for.”
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From a practical standpoint, the shift has transformed how work gets done at the Capitol — or doesn’t get done. Some legislative veterans say they’ve seen this change coming for years.
“Each session (it) has gotten worse,” Sandy Bahr, the longtime head of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said.
The rightward lurch among Republicans and the Trump-fueled approach to politics that favors hostility and denigrating opponents is on full display at the legislature, particularly when bills are heard in committees, where the public can show up to tell lawmakers what they think, Bahr said.
“As far as what goes on in these committees to people who come to express their concerns, they’re just not interested in hearing from anyone who might disagree,” she said. “It is not just, ‘Oh, we can agree to disagree,’ it is, ‘You are an awful person and I do not like you and I will disrespect you.’”
While it’s been particularly acute this year, the shift has been a long time coming, said Gaelle Esposito, a lobbyist with the progressive firm Creosote Partners.
“The important thing to note here is that while this session has been different in some ways, in tone and division, it is important to note that these are things we have seen coming,” Esposito said. “Habits have been built and the foundation was built years ago.”
Esposito added that many had “complained in the background” and the session of today may seem “jarring” to those who have been ignoring the issues impacting communities that have been speaking up.
While lobbyists and activists are working to try to navigate the hyper-partisan nature of today’s political climate, some are also longing for solutions to that exact issue while lawmakers themselves are also navigating partisan divides.
“So, you’re going to tell me you’re going to put two groups of people in a room that vehemently hate each other and tell them to solve our biggest problems?” Coughlin said. “That is not going to happen.”
Competing for the extremes, not the middle
For Coughlin, the solution is competition.
“Politics is the only business that doesn’t encourage competition,” he said.
And for good reason: Competition means those in power might lose their power, so they have an understandable interest in limiting competition. That means favoring a system where the vast majority of competition takes place in primary elections where candidates of the same party compete against each other — and where voter turnout is particularly low.
For instance, in the 2022 primary election, roughly 34% of registered voters turned out — about half the voters who showed up at the polls in November. And that was one of the highest primary election turnouts in Arizona history, second only to the 2020 primary.
Effectively, that means that only the “die-hard” members of the parties, who are likely the most partisan, are choosing who gets elected. Only five of Arizona’s 30 legislative districts are considered competitive, meaning nearly every race is decided in the August primary and not the November general election.
Coughlin has long promoted reforms to Arizona’s elections. Once a backer of the top-two primary idea, in which candidates of all parties compete in one primary election and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, move on to the general election, Coughlin now favors ranked-choice voting.
He’s helping run a campaign to move Arizona to ranked-choice voting. In such a system, voters would rank their top five candidates from most to least preferred. Once all the votes are tallied, if no candidate wins the majority of the votes, a new round of counting occurs. The candidate who earned the fewest votes is dropped and the second-ranked choices from the voters who selected the eliminated candidate are tallied. The process continues until a winner is determined.
The goal is to design a system that helps more moderate candidates win, and it has been criticized heavily by far-right Republicans who have sought to ban the practice in the state.
“Winning a primary is tantamount to winning the whole thing,” Coughlin said, adding that most candidates do not have to worry about the general election constituency. “Vast majorities of the (legislature) are elected in elections where less than 20% of the electorate turns out, and those are highly partisan voters.”
‘Anything goes’ in response to opposition
Bahr said she remembers the first time she had her car keyed.
Her car was in a parking lot near the Capitol early in Barack Obama’s first term as president, and she had an Obama sticker on her car. It was after that when things began to “shift,” Bahr said, and instead of people having mutual respect and hearing what she might want to say, they just “got louder.”
“It is a whole new level now,” Bahr said.
The legislature has long been a contentious place, particularly for advocates of policies opposed by the Republicans who have controlled the state House of Representatives and Senate for all but four years since the mid-1960s.
Back in 2020, then Republican Sen. Eddie Farnsworth had DPS troopers remove speakers who said a proposal that outlawed sanctuary cities was “racist,” and former GOP Rep. Kelly Townsend similarly threw out those who spoke out against Republican bills in her committee.
“I’m glad that people are paying attention,” said Marilyn Rodriguez, a co-founder of Creosote Partners. “We are seeing folks more blatantly using their power against vulnerable communities. There is this zeal to it that feels both old and new.”
While the zeal is both “old and new,” the ways that Rodriguez and Esposito have had to address it at the Capitol has become new. They now speak with every client about de-escalation, make sure to move in groups and speak with Capitol Police about safety.
“Anything goes as far as (responses) in these committees to people who come to express their concerns,” Bahr said. The Sierra Club wrote a letter to GOP leadership in both the Senate and House this year about the lack of decorum from lawmakers, asking for it to be addressed.
Senate President Warren Petersen and Speaker Ben Toma did not respond to requests for comment.
“You can’t get to common ground if people are unwilling to meet, unwilling to listen and unwilling to have a conversation,” Bahr said, adding that lots of people who may otherwise speak are feeling intimidated by the way GOP lawmakers act and the crop of “celebrity” lawmakers.
“They only care about that celebrity. That is what will drive most of them,” Esposito said.
According to Coughlin, that “celebrity” behavior is rewarded by the current election system and exacerbated by the influx of “dark money.”
“We are not a mature enough electorate to understand that now and punish that behavior,” Coughlin said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein said that her caucus has been trying to work with the Republicans as much as they can. Sometimes, it’s been successful, but most of the time, it hasn’t been.
“The ability to find common ground has dissipated very much,” Epstein said, noting that Republicans are reluctant to be seen working in a bipartisan manner for fear their voters will be angry. “The other side of the aisle does not find common ground as an opportunity.”
She said she has tried to schedule monthly meetings with Petersen to find common ground, but he’s refused the offer.
To Epstein, one of the only ways forward is for Democrats to win a majority in both legislative chambers, a view shared by Rodriguez.
“We need more progressives in elected office who are not afraid of using their power,” Rodriguez said, adding that she was happy to see Gov. Katie Hobbs using her executive powers to support progressive policy priorities. “Hobbs using her power … (is) a very strong demonstration of what it is going to take to get us to a point where we are reeling (in) the structures of power to benefit the people, in the broader sense.”
But Coughlin said it’s not fair to lay all the blame only at the feet of Republicans, given that Democratic officials have moved significantly to the left, and some have similarly based their political identity more on what they oppose than what they support.
“This is not just a Republican problem, it is a Democrat problem,” Coughlin said. “When your goal is to vilify the other party, it is to not solve problems, not to solve challenges.”
Coughlin said that debates at the Capitol end up becoming drawn-out partisan battles over narrow issues. The continuing fight over the fate of Proposition 400, Maricopa County’s transportation tax, is a “perfect example,” he said, and until we have an election system that doesn’t reward “partisan politicians,” we will continue down this path.
For Epstein, the short-term path forward for Democrats is to continue to try to work with Republicans.
The Senate Minority Leader said she is hoping to get bipartisan work done on issues such as affordable housing, which they had been making headway on with former Republican Sen. Steve Kaiser, who resigned late last month.
“Both parties should be looking at how we are acting and how the words we say every day can lay a foundation for future bipartisan work where we find common ground, or the words we say can lead to scorched Earth where we cannot get along,” Epstein said. “The words we say every day matter.”
Epstein also said she’d like to see some “procedural changes” to how the legislature behaves and conducts itself and said that some possible citizen initiatives could possibly address that.
While the legislature is still in session, advocates for many of the minority groups such as the transgender community, drag community and homeless community that have been the targets of hostile legislation this year are telling their supporters to stay strong.
“Rest and get out there, advocate, don’t give up, this is going to take a long time,” Rodriguez said to those impacted communities. “Don’t be afraid to speak truth to power.”
***UPDATE: This story was updated to clarify that Republicans were not in majority control of both legislative chambers for all but four years since the 1960s. In 1991 and 1992, Democrats controlled the Senate, and in 2001 and 2002, the Senate was evenly split.
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