Night and Day

There's no dispute: There are two extremely different Senate candidates to choose from in LD 26

Wth less than two weeks to go until Election Day, Democrat Charlene Pesquiera is the only person standing between Al Melvin and a state Senate seat.

Melvin, an unabashedly conservative Republican, surged to victory against moderate incumbent Toni Hellon in the Legislative District 26 GOP primary, securing nearly 57 percent of the 19,227 votes cast. He said he decided to run against Hellon because of her RINO (Republican in name only) tendencies.

"She ran as a Republican and voted as a Democrat consistently for six years," Melvin said.

A glance at his campaign Web site offers evidence that Melvin--if elected--is determined not to follow in Hellon's footsteps. It claims President William McKinley is the source of a quote on middle-of-the-road Republicans: "They are only useful to the enemy; they only retard the movement of our advancing columns; they are the stragglers moving with the baggage train--enrolled among us, but never ready for duty and always ready to surrender without resistance."

Pesquiera, who has lived in Tucson for 35 years, is the underdog in a district in which registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 40,635 to 31,785. She entered the race late and didn't qualify for Clean Elections funding. Despite that, her latest campaign-finance report in early October shows that she's raised about $22,000--although Melvin has taken nearly $70,000 in public financing for his campaign, despite his opposition to wasteful government spending.

Even though Melvin has an advantage on multiple fronts, people are whispering--at least in Democratic Party circles--that the race remains remarkably close.

The state party commissioned Portland, Ore.-based Grove Insight to poll 400 likely voters at the end of September, according to legislative campaign director Bill Scheel. The poll showed Pesquiera and Melvin both pulling 36 percent of voters, with 27 percent undecided. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

No independent polls are available to confirm these results, but Donna Branch-Gilby, chairwoman of the Pima County Democratic Party, is nonetheless upbeat.

"It's proceeding way better than we thought," Branch-Gilby said. "What we're seeing is that people who are not stuck to party labels, but they're looking at what is going to work for Tucson and Southern Arizona; they're looking past the labels."

Both candidates agree the differences between them are stark, offering voters a clear choice. And both list immigration and education as top priorities.

Melvin, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve, wants to stop migrant deaths in the desert, drug trafficking and the influx of potential terrorists by building a double fence from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Pesquiera said she's heard concerns from voters about how such a wall would be financed. She added that she favors "real employer sanctions and holding people accountable, people that are smuggling illegal immigrants--something we can actually do at the state level."

On the education front, Melvin said he'd push for school choice and competition through vouchers.

"I want the poorest of the poor families in Arizona to be able to send their children to the school of their choice, so it's not just a privilege of the rich," he said.

Pesquiera, on the other hand, doesn't think vouchers would be a good solution, because they would "dismantle public-school education" and have not been proven effective in improving scholastic performance.

"It would just be an experimentation," she said. "I think since we're ranked 50th in our national level as far as education, we can't afford to experiment at this time." Instead, she'd like to increase teacher wages to make them competitive with other states, as well as make classroom sizes more manageable by bringing in teacher aides to augment faculty.

Pesquiera, who said she wanted to run to create change for the state's children, also listed health care as one of her priorities.

"I am in support of ... having health care so that it's affordable and accessible for families, seniors and children--including small businesses," she said. "He (Melvin) feels that it's not the state's responsibility to have interference with health care, that it's just something that citizens should go and do on their own."

Although Melvin didn't cite health care as a pressing concern, he did recite a three-point plan for reducing costs when asked about it: tort reform to prevent frivolous lawsuits against doctors, health-savings accounts so people can pay for their own care and legislation permitting companies to band together to get affordable policies for their employees.

"I want private medicine through health insurance, not socialized medicine," he said. "I think the Democrats and Toni Hellon wanted socialized medicine, and I don't."

Other priorities for Melvin include traditional Republican crowd-pleasers such as lower income, corporate and property taxes; defining marriage as being between one man and one woman; and supporting "a culture of life--from conception to natural death."

"Toni Hellon and the Democrats want abortion upon demand, with no restrictions," he said, again demonstrating a peculiar preoccupation with his vanquished GOP opponent.

If Melvin's message is one of ideological purity and disdain for compromise, then Pesquiera is once more the polar opposite. She pledged to be a consensus-builder, and to not look at things solely through the lens of personal ideology.

"I really feel it's a clear choice," she told the Weekly. "My views, my commitment in the community, the issues I stand for--I believe I'm well-balanced. It's not only my own personal views, of course, but it's the best of what District 26 is wanting right now. I see that whole ingredient, and that's what's going to make it work."