Swing Shift

Two House Members Go Head-To-Head In The District 13 Senate Race.

THE DISTRICT 13 state Senate seat has been called the biggest prize of the legislative season. With incumbent state Sen. George Cunningham going off to face U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, both House members, Democrat Andy Nichols and Republican Kathleen Dunbar, are battling to win the open seat.

The race remains a toss-up. District 13, which stretches from north-central Tucson into the northeastern Catalina Foothills, is an anomaly in state politics: a district where registration numbers are nearly even, with 27,781 Republicans, 27,600 Democrats and 13,335 swing voters.

With the state Senate currently split 16-14 in favor of the GOP, both parties are eager to win in District 13. The GOP wants to strengthen its hold on the Legislature, while Democrats need every seat they can get--and since the Dems aren't making much headway in the districts they targeted this election season, losing District 13 would be yet another humiliating setback for the party.

Democrat Andy Nichols was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1992. The 63-year-old director of the UA's Rural Health Office, Nichols has a record of working to increase funding for health programs in the state. He spearheaded the campaign for Healthy Arizona, the 1996 ballot initiative extending heath coverage to poor Arizonans which was never implemented by the legislature. He's now working on Healthy Arizona 2, on the ballot as Prop 204, which would fund Healthy Arizona with the state's tobacco settlement.

Nichols has a strong environmental voting record. He has opposed legislation that would have allowed companies to escape liability if they secretly reported violations to the state, and he's opposed the state's Growing Smarter program. He's supporting Prop 202, the Citizens Growth Management Initiative.

Nichols has hit his term limit after serving in the House for the last eight years, so he's looking for a promotion to the Senate.

In a way, Dunbar also launched her political career in 1992. The 50-year-old Dunbar says she got involved in politics after Bill Clinton won the presidency. The next day, she called in sick to work and couldn't stop crying. "I just thought he was phonier than a $2 bill and a womanizer and I just couldn't believe that's who we had elected to the presidency. I was so depressed. I decided never would an election go by where I didn't do something to help the people I wanted to win."

So Dunbar got involved with the party, serving first as a precinct committeewoman, then on the GOP executive committee, and finally as chair of District 13. She also helped raise funds for the GOP. In 1998, she made her first House run and knocked out a Democratic incumbent, Brian Fagin. She drew nearly as many votes as the veteran Nichols.

Two years later, Dunbar is now challenging Nichols directly. She was reluctant to get into the race, but after being pressured by party officials, she agreed to take him on.

Dunbar, a former staffer with the Humane Society (she still has a half-dozen dogs rescued from doggie death row), is known for her animal rights legislation. She also pushed increased funding for domestic violence programs.

But Nichols' long tenure has given him a higher profile in District 13. A poll conducted earlier in the campaign season showed that 24 percent of the voters recognized his name, compared to the 4 percent that recognized Dunbar's. A more recent poll of voters showed Nichols leading by six percentage points.

Both Nichols and Dunbar are raising a lot of money for the campaign. According to a report filed October 23, Nichols had raised $64,212, including $7,750 he lent the campaign. He'd spent nearly all of it: $63,216.

Dunbar is trailing in that category. According to a report filed October 16, Dunbar had raked in $48,692 and spent $34,069. But she's getting considerable support from the Republican Party, which is leaving little to chance. In the primary, the GOP campaigns in District 13 mailed fliers to Republicans and Independents, setting them up to receive early ballots. The result on primary election day: Republicans got a turnout of 31 percent, even though they had no contested primary. Democrats, who had a hard-fought House primary, had a turnout of 33 percent. Even more astonishing was the number of early ballots: Roughly 47 percent of the votes cast in the GOP primary came from early votes, compared to less than 25 percent in the Democratic primary.

The state party continued the early-voting blitz after the primary, nudging Republicans and Independents shortly after the primary with a mailer offering to order an early ballot. The Democrats relied on a mailing of all Pima County voters by Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez.

As of last Friday, GOP sources were estimating that District 13 had nearly 20,000 early-ballot requests, which amounted to about 20 percent of all the early ballots requested in Pima County. The majority of voters were Republicans, who were leading Democrats by more than 2,500 requests. While all those voters aren't guaranteed to vote Republican, it's a significant advantage to overcome on Election Day.

The GOP has hired a professional phone bank to call early voters to encourage them to return their ballots, while the Democrats are relying on volunteers.

Nichols admits the early voting numbers are "discouraging, because that's way out of proportion in terms of the district's registration. We've been doing a lot. There's no use in going into all the things we've been doing, but we've had a very vigorous campaign. Hopefully that will show on September 7."

Dunbar is equally confident. "I'm going to win," Dunbar says. "I've never applied for a job I didn't get."