For the average voter, there aren't a lot of reasons to get worked up about legislative elections in Southern Arizona. Most of the districts are stacked so solidly red or blue that the names of the representatives may change, but the party affiliations rarely do.
That's not the case in Legislative District 26.
This year's Senate rematch between Republican (and self-proclaimed Tea Partier) incumbent Al Melvin and his Democratic challenger, Cheryl Cage, is the marquee legislative race in Southern Arizona—and the amount of money being thrown into the competition proves it. The two candidates are miles away on the political spectrum, but they're neck-and-neck in the race for the Senate seat.
The House of Representatives race is only slightly calmer: It's a three-way, free-for-all for two seats.
Democratic Rep. Nancy Young Wright has raised more money than any other Southern Arizona House candidate in her attempt to hold on to the seat she was appointed to, and later elected to, in 2008. Her Republican seatmate, freshman Rep. Vic Williams, is fighting attacks from both the left and right for the chance to return to the state Capitol. Far-right Republican Terri Proud is making her political debut and says she wants to bring the district under the stewardship of "true conservative leadership."
Republicans hold a voter registration advantage in LD 26—there are 47,000 Republicans to 37,000 Democrats—but the district is also home to about 33,000 voters who don't identify with either party.
It covers the area east of Interstate 10 roughly north of River Road up to the Pima County line, and spreads as far east as the top of Mount Lemmon. Overall, it's an affluent, educated and moderately conservative district, which is home to Oro Valley's hotbed of biotech companies, the retirement community of SaddleBrooke and at least parts of five school districts.
It is one of the state's seven "split districts," or districts not dominated by a single party.
Republican state Sen. Al Melvin is pretty proud of his record as a freshman lawmaker.
As the vice-chairman of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee, he voted to cut government spending by more than a billion dollars, the largest such reduction in Arizona history.
He advocated for the privatization of state parks, roads and rest stops. He voted to eliminate mandatory concealed-weapons training, to make presidential candidates show their birth certificate to get on the ballot, and to outlaw human/animal hybrids.
But his top issue has always been immigration, he says, and his favorite boast is his vote for SB 1070.
"I always tell people, 'If you like SB 1070, there's more where that came from,'" Melvin says.
Cage says immigration is a big issue, but that it's not the No. 1 issue for the voters of the district.
"It's jobs and public education," she says. "Immigration is an issue, certainly, in Arizona. ... But every single conversation I've had in the past six or seven weeks has been focused on jobs or foreclosures or how we are going to attract business with our public education being cut so dramatically."
The two went face to face in 2008, and Melvin won that race by less than 2,000 votes. Now that Melvin has a record of voting to keep the payday-loan industry alive, of cutting the state KidsCare health-care program for children (the cut was later reversed due to federal maintenance-of-effort requirements), and of voting against the temporary state sales-tax increase, Cage thinks she has the upper hand in the 2010 race.
"I think that people are understanding a little bit more about Mr. Melvin's really extreme views," she says. "And they realize that he's not a good fit for this district."
Melvin doesn't think his voting record is going to hold him back. He says he's excited to return to Phoenix and continue his work of cutting spending and shrinking the size of government. He is quick to boast of balancing the state budget, though the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the Legislature's number-crunchers, says this year's budget is expected to be short by as much as $825 million. Next year's budget is expected to be as much as $1.4 billion in the hole, according to the latest JLBC numbers.
"The federal, the state, and the family budget—it's the same concept," he says. "You can't spend more than you bring in."
Since he has pretty much ruled out bringing in more revenue through taxation, spending cuts appear to be Melvin's sole approach to next year's budget shortfall—though he is keeping the specifics of his agenda secret for now.
Of his plans to solve the projected $1.4 billion shortfall for fiscal year 2012, Melvin would only tell the Weekly, "You'll just have to watch."
Cage says her first priority in solving the budget deficit would be to go through the tax code line by line to find loopholes and credits, and evaluate their usefulness.
In the long-term, the solution is to fund education, she says. People—especially the young-professional types who fuel Oro Valley's biotech industry—don't want to move to Arizona, because it is seen as a state that doesn't value public education, she says.
"The types of businesses that depend on an educated workforce, that depend on public schools, are not going to want to move here, because we cannot actually provide that right now," she says.
Cage has raised more than $100,000 in her quest to unseat Melvin, and still had more than $70,000 on hand as of the latest campaign-finance-reporting period, which ended Sept. 13. Melvin has raised almost $56,000 and still had $45,000 on hand.
Both have taken to the airwaves for radio and TV ads: She says he's turning back the clock on Arizona, while he says she is for higher taxes, higher spending and "lots more government."
District 26 is a moderate Republican district, says Republican former Rep. Pete Hershberger, who represented the district for eight years before losing the 2008 state Senate primary to Melvin. He cites a long list of moderates from the district, including Pima County Supervisor Ann Day, and both of his parents, who represented the district roughly two decades ago.
In 2008, though, moderate Republicans like himself were mostly purged from the district leadership, thanks to efforts by the far-right-Republican wing in SaddleBrooke and Pinal County. This year, Hershberger has thrown his support and money behind Cage, saying Melvin is too far toward the Tea Party end of the spectrum.
"District 26 has a legacy of Republicans," says Hershberger. "But they're moderate Republicans, and I'd like to describe them as thoughtful and practical, and not necessarily ideological."
Hershberger isn't the only member of the "old guard" backing Cage from across the aisle. She has picked up endorsements from several notable Republicans, including the late "first lady" of Marana, Ora Mae Harn; Bruce Dusenberry, the chair of Arizona Town Hall; and John Schaefer, the former president of the University of Arizona.
Cage says her Republican endorsers have crossed the aisle because they "understand that this is not a Republican or Democrat race; it has become about people who want to get back to the middle."
Melvin's record is nothing to be proud of, she says; it's reprehensible.
"He has to defend why he wants to bring nuclear waste to Arizona, why he has a 100 percent voting record against public education, and why he wants to put prison laborers in our public schools and put hardworking Arizonans out of their jobs. He's got a lot to defend, and he doesn't have a lot that's defensible."
Democratic Rep. Nancy Young Wright speaks plainly about her Republican challengers: Incumbent Rep. Vic Williams is a flip-flopping, poll-watching salesman looking out for his own good, and newcomer Terri Proud is an ideologue in the model of Sarah Palin.
The three candidates are fighting over two House of Representatives seats in what has become one of the more hotly contested House races in Southern Arizona. All three candidates say education is one of their top priorities—but they have vastly different views on how to fix the public-school system.
Wright, who got her political start as a member of the Amphi School Board, has accused Williams of changing or misrepresenting his positions on everything from school vouchers to abortion—and especially his support of public education.
"Vic is a very good salesman," she says. "He apparently grew up in L.A. selling things door to door, so he's pretty adept at knowing what audiences want, and what individuals want to hear."
She says Williams claims to support public education while in Southern Arizona, but he votes with his "Phoenix political bosses" against education at the Capitol.
Williams, who is a small-business owner, says his job at the Legislature is to balance the needs of different constituencies, and he has taken as many shots from Republicans as Democrats as he's attempted to balance the budget while making minimal cuts to education.
He cites his early support of Proposition 100 as proof that he thinks independently, is not beholden to any political bosses, and supports public education.
"I was one of the only Republicans to stand with Gov. Jan Brewer and openly advocate for the sales-tax referendum in Arizona," he says. "And I took a lot of slings and arrows from people in my own party to try to protect that value that I knew the voters of LD 26 were looking for. I did that every single day ... Every single day, I got bounced around like a pingpong ball."
He says he has worked with Democrats and Republicans to pass legislation to help his district, and that Wright has been a partisan who refuses to work with the majority—even to help her district. He cites an Arizona Capitol Times analysis showing that of Wright's nine bills last session, only one became law. (However, only eight House Democrats got any bills signed into law last session.)
Political newcomer Terri Proud doesn't have much of a voting record—in fact, Proud, a gun-rights advocate and Tea Party sympathizer, had never even voted in a primary election before going to the polls to vote for herself this August.
She voted against Proposition 100, because she thinks the public education system has plenty of money; it is accountability and transparency that are lacking.
"When we have over half of our budget being dedicated to education, and we still cannot educate our kids, the money isn't the problem," she says. "It's: Where is that money going?"
She says that districts should have more local control and that the state should allow parents to choose, on the government's dime, between private, religious and charter schools.
Parents who enroll their children in art classes should pay for the classes, which should be held after school, she says.
"Education is reading, writing, math, history, science, and that's it," she says. "Any other programs that they want to implement should be after-school programs and up to the parents as to whether or not they want their children involved in them. The taxpayer money should go to strictly academic programs."
Proud's views are too extreme for the moderate district, says Wright, who opposes the idea of making parents pay for after-school classes in art, music, physical education and sex education. She has also fought against the private-school tax credits that have flourished in recent years.
If the state doesn't fund education, she says, the big biotech companies that keep Oro Valley alive won't be able to hire Arizonans; they won't be able to get people to move to Arizona; and, eventually, they may leave Arizona.
Williams says that in lieu of a functioning public-school system, the school-tuition tax credits seem like a reasonable option.
"I don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican," he says. "Our public school systems have been failing us as a society. For the last 35 or 40 years, our academic achievement has been dropping consistently, even though we continue to throw more money into our public-school system. I think the response of why we have our private-(school) tax credits is to give some opportunity or choice."
Wright says the tax breaks are hurting the state and defunding the public-education system.
"That was set up for underprivileged children, but it soon ballooned into a $90 million drain on our public-school system. ... And every Republican, including Vic, has refused to put any parameters on that system."