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State Sen. Frank Antenori was not pleased when he heard that Kelly was returning to Southern Arizona from his Texas home to run in the special election.
"What's really astonishing is that he had no intentions of running in the normal election, and he had already started cutting staff away, and all of a sudden, Mr. Opportunity is back in town," Antenori told the Weekly.
Antenori, 45, who backed Kelly's campaign in 2010, complains that Kelly left in the wake of the Giffords' shooting, while Antenori remained here and fought accusations by pundits that the shooter was motivated by Tea Party political talk.
Kelly—whose family construction business has received tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts linked to stimulus and earmarked contracts—said he had to move to Texas because that's where his job was.
It's easy to see why Antenori was annoyed by Kelly's reappearance in Southern Arizona: Antenori has been thinking about serving in Congress for a long time.
While still serving as a Green Beret in the U.S. Army, he traveled to Capitol Hill to testify before a subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee. He remembers being stunned at the type of questions his team faced: "They asked, 'Was there lots of snow?' Another guy asked if it was tough leaving your family for so long."
Antenori's conclusion: The members of Congress were out of touch.
"I thought, if that's all there is to being a congressman, I could do that," Antenori said. "They didn't ask the right questions."
Antenori retired after 20 years in the Army and moved to Tucson in 2004 to take a job with Raytheon, where he still works today. He made his first run for Congress in 2006, when Kolbe's retirement opened up the seat that Giffords eventually won. Antenori came in second-to-last in a five-way primary—with just 4 percent of the vote—but he learned a lot about campaigning, built a political network and established name ID.
Antenori remained involved in politics and won a state House of Representatives seat in 2008. He was elevated to his Senate seat by the Pima County Board of Supervisors after Paton stepped down to run for Congress in 2010. As as the supervisors were deciding which of the candidates to name to Paton's seat, Antenori said he was the ideal choice, because he would win the seat eventually anyway, and the board was better off with "a happy Frank Antenori rather than an angry Frank Antenori." (He was quick to add: "I'm not trying to threaten anybody—don't say I'm trying to threaten anybody.")
In his years in the Legislature, Antenori has become one of the better-known local state lawmakers—not an easy trick, given how little attention lawmakers get from the average Southern Arizonan.
Antenori has gotten the attention by speaking his mind. He told a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times that he didn't feel comfortable allowing gays to serve openly in the military, because "I can't even tell you how many times I was spooning with some other guy on the side of a mountain under a poncho in fricking Pakistan in the middle of fricking winter freezing my ass off. I would not want to say, 'Is that your pistol that's sticking me in my back?'" He vowed to bury his 2010 Democratic opponent in the state Senate race "in the backyard like a freakin' fish." He showed how little he thought of the citizens of Tucson—including many of his would-be constituents in Congressional District 8—when he told Inside Tucson Business he was in a fight with Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik because "he doesn't represent the people I represent. The majority of the people I represent pay taxes; probably the majority of people he represents don't—or receive some government subsidy."
He's also clashed with local officials and media. Antenori has pushed legislation to weaken the city of Tucson's ability to deliver services, with the exception of police and fire protection, and helped Marana seize a sewer plant from Pima County. He's led a revolution by Republican lawmakers against the Arizona Daily Star editorial page, boycotting the paper's endorsement interviews.
Antenori's approach has won him supporters—this year, he was named whip of the GOP caucus by his colleagues, tasked with bringing other lawmakers in line with leadership—as well as detractors. He took on his critics at the Precinct 388 forum right off the bat.
"I don't go to Phoenix to make friends," he said. "I go to Phoenix to do a job. ... I do have, sort of, a gruff attitude. ... I'm very effective. ... You have to decide whether you want a lap dog to represent you, or a guard dog."
After the debate, Antenori sat down for an interview at the Triple T Truck Stop. Although he started off the legislative session with an impassioned defense of his right to enjoy a 24-ounce piece of "charred mammal flesh" without the interference of "food police," Antenori ordered a simple salad as a post-debate meal.
As he poked at the lettuce and tomato, Antenori argued that he's the only candidate in the race with the experience to go to Congress. He's learned the legislative ropes. He's made connections. He's helped close the budget deficit by actually cutting spending.
Antenori was happy to engage in policy talk, expounding at length on his plans for health insurance (eliminate government mandates—including those for birth-control meds—and allow people to buy simple plans that cover whatever they think they might need coverage for), Iran (Obama missed a golden opportunity by not supporting an uprising in 2009, but Antenori is in no rush to send in ground troops, although he would back quiet efforts to overthrow the current regime) and the border (bring in troops, but don't build a fence in rugged areas where it doesn't make sense).
Antenori's basic pitch to voters: He's earned the chance to go to Congress and has demonstrated that he can get the job done.
"I think Arizonans are looking for a leader," Antenori said. "Leaders don't turn tail and run. They take on challenges."
Antenori pointed to the wake of the Safeway rampage, when he took to talk radio and other venues to defend against accusations that the shooter was influenced by Tea Party rhetoric; meanwhile, his opponents in the CD 8 race "did nothing."
"Why did they do nothing? Well, one of them was in the Alps and probably didn't realize what was going on," Antenori said. "One of us was in Texas or was told by their campaign team not to say anything and to lay low and to leave the state. And the other guy was literally sitting on the sidelines, keeping quiet. For political reasons, that's sometimes the safest route: Just keep your mouth shut."
Antenori's biggest challenge has been raising funds. While campaign-finance reports for the special election aren't due until early April, sources close to the campaigns say that the local business community is not putting its weight behind Antenori.
That's partially because Antenori, in his push to be outspoken, has alienated some members of the business community, who would prefer someone who is a little more judicious with his words.
That's where Dave Sitton comes in.
Sitton, 57, has made a living with his words. He's at the center of UA sports circles as the guy who calls Wildcats basketball and football games. He's had a long association with the university, dating back to when he first came to Arizona from California more than three decades ago to play college baseball. And he has been a rugby coach for most of those years.
But Sitton's other jobs—not counting a gig washing dishes in the family restaurant business when he was 8 years old—have been in marketing. Beginning with Golden Eagle Distributors after he graduated from college, Sitton has worked to tailor messages for a variety of clients. One of his more high-profile political gigs was representing Clear Channel Outdoor Advertising while the billboard industry was battling city and state regulations.
Sitton's job title now is global marketing director for the Arizona Cancer Center—a job he picked up after beating lymphoma in 2005.
Sitton has emerged as the pick of members of the business community with big checkbooks.
Duff Hearon, who supported Jonathan Paton in the 2010 GOP primary and Jesse Kelly in the 2010 general election, called Sitton's appeal "Reaganesque."
"He truly understands the economy and what it takes for businesses to create jobs," said Hearon, who is CEO of the Ashland Group, an investment company. "He can attract not only the conservative, but the moderate Republican and the crossover Democrat."
Sitton said running for Congress has long been in the back of his mind, "but I never was in a place where I thought I should or could do it," he said.
But with his kids now grown, he has decided the time has come.
"I really do feel that we need to get some adults in the room," Sitton said. "That's my motivation. It really is about community service. I'm not going to be there for 60 years, or if I am, I'll be sold to the circus."
Sitton has been involved in the community, with efforts like the DM50's support of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. But his activity in party politics has been in the background.
At the Precinct 388 candidate forum, Sitton worked to establish his conservative bona fides by citing the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. He called for lower spending and an audit of the entire federal government to expose fraud, waste and abuse. He recalled how heartbroken his father was when Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964, ushering in the package of legislation that became known as the Great Society.
Asked the following day about the Great Society, Sitton said he didn't object to the biggest expense of the federal expansion: Medicare. But he believes that welfare programs were a step in the wrong direction and was happy to see them reformed during the Clinton administration.
"There are some scholars of the African-American experience in this country who will tell you that when we started making welfare more available to certain segments in the society, we just exacerbated behavior we wanted to avoid—and that would be families without full parentage, etc., things like that," he said.
He was more nuanced when it comes to the question of whether funding for the arts or public television should be eliminated.
"I can assure you of this: In times of record-setting deficits, that's a fair question," said Sitton, who claims that he loves the arts and, in particular, live music, but believes that groups should be looking for private patrons rather than federal aid.
Sitton's cautious rhetoric helps him navigate between the Tea Party and those members of the GOP who are growing uncomfortable with the party's turn toward an increasingly fundamentalist view on the national level.
He's generally supportive of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to cut federal spending. He likes Ryan's proposal to reform Medicare by putting future generations—beginning with people in their mid-40s—on a plan where they would receive vouchers to purchase private health insurance rather than have their costs covered by a government program. Sitton says Social Security needs to be reformed. But he remains open to a number of solutions, including raising the retirement age, increasing the cap on earnings subject to Social Security taxes, means testing, and allowing younger workers to invest in a private plan and get out of Social Security.
"There's give and take throughout the plan," Sitton says. "So if you're going to move a number here, it may affect a number there."
The central argument from Team Sitton is that its candidate is more electable in a general election than Antenori or Kelly. But Sitton faces the same challenge that Antenori does: He started out way behind Kelly, and with early ballots hitting mailboxes this week, he's nearly out of time to even introduce himself to Republican voters, much less persuade them that he's the one who can win against a Democrat.