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Political Puppet Theatre 

Gabrielle Giffords and Tim Bee play out national issues on the local stage in their race for Congress

When Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords steamrolled to victory over Republican Randy Graf in the Congressional District 8 race two years ago, the contest was one of the most closely watched in the nation.

But this year, as Giffords faces a challenge from state Sen. Tim Bee, all the political air seems to be taken up by a presidential race that has lately been caught up in controversies over lipstick and earmarks.

It's not that Bee isn't a credible opponent. As president of the state Senate, he's a serious threat to Giffords' political survival. But Bee's great political strengths--his ability to deal with fellow pols 1-on-1 and maneuver behind closed doors--don't always translate well on the campaign trail.

With early voting starting in just a few weeks, the GOP team is introducing us to a new Tim Bee who is remarkably similar to the presidential ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin--a reformer with results, a maverick who has been willing to stand up to his own party. It's not a bad narrative to roll out, especially since it's true to some degree.

Bee goes back a long way with Giffords.

The candidates were born within a year of each other here in Tucson. They went to school together from kindergarten through the ninth-grade. They performed together in the Emily Gray Junior High band--she played the French horn, and he played the trombone--and they shared the role of Mister Geppetto one year in a school production of Pinocchio.

In the year 2000, they both won seats in the Arizona Legislature.

They certainly have their policy differences. Giffords supports keeping middle-class tax cuts but wants to allow the Bush tax cuts for America's highest earners to expire, while Bee supports keeping all the Bush tax cuts permanent. Giffords supports a path to normalization (although not citizenship) for the millions of illegal immigrants who are now in the United States; Bee believes that if you make life hard enough for the people who are in the country illegally, they will self-deport. Giffords opposes a proposition on the November ballot that would create a constitutional amendment that limits marriage to being between one man and one woman, while Bee cast the deciding vote to put the question on the ballot.

Their policy differences aside, both candidates have distinguished themselves as lawmakers who attempt to find ways to use government to solve problems for their constituents rather than using office as a soapbox for ideological crusades.

But policy debates don't win elections, so Giffords and Bee both now have to find ways to present themselves to the public in 30-second commercials, while their surrogates find weaknesses to exploit. That's why, as the campaign moves forward, we're likely to hear more of the national talking points about offshore drilling and earmarks.

Ultimately, the race may not come down to what the candidates have done in their own political careers. It may instead turn on the mood of the country and of Southern Arizona voters as they go to the polls for a hotly contested presidential election.

And, unfortunately, it may depend on how much money is spent by D.C. spin doctors on attack ads that distort the records of both candidates.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is spending her Labor Day afternoon at a Tucson union hall, making a case for one of her favorite causes: solar energy.

Giffords is animated as she tells the audience how she recently saw a forest of trees in Colorado that are being wiped out by the bark beetle. It's an example, she says, of how climate change is knocking nature out of whack. The United States needs to adapt by adopting alternative energy sources, she says.

"It's about breaking our dependence on foreign oil," Giffords says, dropping a statistic that resonates in the room: In the 1970s, the United States imported about 15 percent of its energy; now, the figure is closer to 70 percent.

"This is crazy!" Giffords concludes as the crowd--a mix of young and old Democrats--explodes in applause. "It's just not smart."

Giffords talks about the complexities of Congressional District 8, where roughly 38 percent of the voters are Republicans, and 35 percent are Democrats. She cops to being a moderate Democrat.

"I know some of you think I'm not quite on the left enough," she says.

That's long been a knock on Giffords from the liberal end of the Democratic Party, including disappointed activists who complain that she hasn't done enough to end the war in Iraq or champion other progressive causes. But that reputation may help more than it hurts in Congressional District 8, given the slight GOP edge.

Giffords won the congressional seat, which was formerly held by moderate Republican Jim Kolbe, in the blue wave of '06, handily beating a hard-line conservative opponent by 12 percentage points.

Since taking office, Giffords has worked hard to become one of Southern Arizona's best-recognized political figures. She enjoys warm relations with the press, frequently holds "Congress on your corner" events at local supermarkets and has performed solid constituent service.

That constituent service has won her loyal support among some local Republicans. Ed Honea, the GOP mayor of Marana, says he's supporting Giffords because she came to the town's rescue when the Federal Emergency Management Agency wanted to redraw floodplain maps to include many Marana homes and businesses. Honea estimates that the plan would have cost homeowners and business owners in the town as much as $9 million annually in flood-insurance premiums.

Honea says Giffords used political leverage to get the agency to consider elements including the Central Arizona Project canal as barriers to flooding. A private consultant working with FEMA staff has now developed a study that shows about 95 percent of the property in the original proposal should not be considered part of the floodplain.

"Gabby Giffords was the catalyst in getting FEMA to back off and let us do these studies that showed that the vast portion of Marana is not in the floodplain," says Honea. "Gabby Giffords talks the talk and walks the walk, and when we went to her for help, she jumped right in."

Before she ran for office, Giffords herself was a registered Republican. She says she never had much in the way of political ambitions when she was growing up in Tucson.

After graduating from University High School, Giffords left Tucson to earn a bachelor's degree at Scripps College. She later got her master's degree in regional planning at Cornell.

After wrapping up her academic career, Giffords spent less than a year working for an accounting firm in New York City before returning to Tucson to take over her family's El Campo tire chain. After a few years, she negotiated a deal to sell the business to a national chain.

Giffords remembers that her interest in politics was sparked by newspaper stories that reported Arizona's bottom-of-the-barrel rankings in areas such as education and health care.

As Giffords began exploring politics, she says, she realized her values were closer to the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, so she switched.

She won her first race in a midtown Tucson legislative district that was closely split between Democrats and Republicans. After one term in the House, she advanced to the state Senate.

Midway through her second Senate term, Congressman Jim Kolbe announced he would be retiring, setting off a stampede of candidates eager to grab a seat in Congress.

Giffords dominated the six-way Democratic primary, capturing 54 percent of the vote. (Her closest rival, former TV news anchor Patty Weiss, won 31 percent.) From there, she overcame the Democrats' voter-registration disadvantage by dispatching conservative Republican Randy Graf by 12 percentage points in the general election.

Freshman lawmakers rarely change the world, but Giffords says she's most proud of pushing for a tax break for soldiers who receive combat pay, sponsoring legislation that prohibits the sale of used F-14 fighter jet parts to Iran, working out a compromise on a proposed Interstate 19 border checkpoint station and pushing for public investment in solar-power power technology.

"There was no coordination around solar in the state of Arizona--particularly Southern Arizona--before I got elected," Giffords says. "I've been tireless on a policy standpoint, a legislative standpoint and an engagement standpoint on solar energy."

Temps haven't yet climbed into triple digits on this Saturday morning in late August, but it feels mighty hot to Tim Bee's family as they prepare to walk a few streets in Rita Ranch.

"Ready for action?" asks Bee's wife, Grace, as she hands out water bottles and literature.

Bee himself is studying a list of high-propensity voters and strapping his 3-year-old son, Sterling, into a baby carriage.

"We ask Sterling sometimes if he wants to stay home, and he gets upset, so we bring him along," Tim Bee says.

Bee moves from door to door, briefly chatting with the residents. Most say they're supportive, but they don't show much interest in talking about politics. One woman says she wishes the city's bus system would come out to Rita Ranch, while another is so excited by Bee that she wants to have her picture taken with him.

Door-to-door canvassing is no easy task in Congressional District 8, where more than a quarter-million people cast ballots in the 2006 general election.

But Bee appears to genuinely enjoy the chance to canvass neighborhoods. He credits knocking on thousands of doors as being key to his first political victory in 2000.

Although he was making his first run for public office that year, Bee already enjoyed established name ID. His brother, Keith Bee, had served for the last decade in the Arizona Legislature.

In fact, Tim Bee was originally planning to run for the state House of Representatives alongside Keith, who had reached his four-term limit in the Arizona Senate, as the "Bee Brothers." He'd already collected his signatures for the House campaign when, about six weeks before the deadline, he had a meeting with then-Gov. Jane Dee Hull.

Hull was worried that conservative Republican Bill McGibbon, who was then in the House, would win the Senate seat. Eager to have a more moderate Republican representing the district, she talked Bee into scrapping his petitions and gathering new ones for a Senate run.

Bee was considered an underdog in the race, but he prevailed on Election Day. Since then, he's gone on to surprise those who continue to underestimate him.

Once in the Legislature, Bee landed a spot on the Senate Appropriations Committee and soon became a master of the avalanche of numbers known as the state budget, developing a keen understanding of where the dollars come from and where they end up.

But he wasn't all wonk. He also had the political skills to move into leadership in the Arizona Senate, first as majority leader and then as the first Senate president from Southern Arizona in 34 years.

One of Bee's first moves as Senate president was dismissing several longtime staffers. Bee says he decided to fire them because he didn't like the way they had exercised control over lawmakers by pitting them against each other and sneaking language into legislation.

"I wanted to change the tone," says Bee, who earned high marks in 2007 by bringing Democrats into the budget process and negotiating with Gov. Janet Napolitano. By contrast, House Speaker Jim Weiers pushed to little avail for more tax cuts and less state spending; the final budget was closer to the Senate's version.

It was a similar story this year as the state's economic slowdown created budget problems. When lawmakers finally agreed on a budget just days before the end of the fiscal year, Bee had to cross party lines to vote for a budget that only four Republicans in the Senate (along with four Republicans in the House) would support.

"I've had to stand up to my party when they weren't making the right decisions," Bee says. "I don't see that kind of courage or leadership from my opponent."

When Bee talks about his accomplishments in the Legislature, you'd almost think you were talking to a Democrat. He cites his support for education spending (including pay increases for teachers) and the expansion of all-day kindergarten.

"I've probably been one of the most effective leaders in support of public education," Bee says. "It's one of the things I've been very passionate about. I grew up as the son of a school teacher."

Bee's support for education has won him the backing of Democrat Sam Polito, a former TUSD administrator who now lobbies on behalf of the district at the Legislature. Polito says he likes Giffords, but will vote for Bee in November, because the Republican was a solid vote on education issues.

Bee has a list of other accomplishments--helping create Pima County's Regional Transportation Authority, protecting the UA's Poison Control Center from shutdown and saving funding for UA South--but he's especially proud of his work to help victims of domestic violence.

"Some of those changes we've done in the law help people find safety and re-establish themselves, and those are things that make me feel real good," Bee says.

But budgeting skills--as important as they may be to effective governing--are a lousy issue to build a campaign around.

So Bee is instead picking up on themes in the national political consciousness, criticizing Giffords for voting 93 percent of the time with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and for opposing offshore drilling.

Of course, for those criticisms to reach the public, Bee needs dollars for his campaign--and when it comes to fundraising, Giffords has far outstretched Bee. The most recent Federal Election Commission report, covering activity through Aug. 13, shows that Giffords had raised $2,718,266 for her campaign and still had $2,147,240 in the bank. Bee, by comparison, has raised $1,427,148 and had only $589,887 in the bank.

Giffords' cash advantage has allowed her to have a stronger presence on local television, where her ads have pushed the topics of alternative energy, border security and support for veterans.

Bee's ads, by contrast, started out introducing him to the district by talking about his accomplishments for the education and business communities, as well as his support for battered women.

But Bee's ads are taking a sharper turn. The most recent one suggests that Giffords supports raising taxes on middle-class workers--an increase that Giffords has repeatedly said she opposes.

Meanwhile, Bee is already under attack by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which sent out a mailer last week accusing Bee of neglecting women and children in his legislative career--a stretch to anyone who knows Bee's record of increasing funding for education and social services.

There may be more of that to come. The DCCC, which has far more money than its GOP counterpart, has reserved more than $700,000 worth of advertising time in CD8. Meanwhile, the first round of national ad buys by the Republican National Congressional Committee set aside nothing for CD8.

Whether the RNCC decides to invest in the race will depend on a variety of factors, including how much money it has to spread around the country and how the polling numbers look in Arizona.

No public independent polling has been done in the race, but the DCCC released a poll in July that showed 59 percent of voters were supporting Giffords, and just 35 percent were supporting Bee.

The Bee campaign released its own poll, done by local pollster Margaret Kenski (who in 2006 did polling for the Tucson Weekly and its parent company, Wick Communications), that showed a much more competitive race. Kenski's survey of 500 likely voters showed that 47 percent liked Giffords, while 40 percent favored Bee.

"It's competitive," Kenski said. "It's very competitive."

More by Jim Nintzel

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