Congressional Challenge

State lawmaker Matt Heinz faces an uphill battle in his effort to unseat newly elected U.S. Rep. Ron Barber

When Democrat Ron Barber first announced he was running to finish Gabrielle Giffords' congressional term, a pack of Democrats—including state lawmakers Matt Heinz and Paula Aboud—decided to drop out of the special election and instead support him.

At the time, they expected that Barber, 66, would only serve out the remainder of Giffords' term in Congressional District 8, leaving the door open for them to run for a full term this November.

But weeks later, Barber, Gabrielle Giffords' former district director, announced that he'd also be running for the newly redrawn Congressional District 2, which includes central Tucson and much of Southern Arizona, including Sierra Vista and Green Valley. Most of Barber's rivals, faced with the possibility of running against Giffords' hand-picked successor, packed up their congressional campaigns.

But Heinz, 35, says he'd gone too far to turn back, even though he supported Barber in the special election.

"I do believe that my (current) opponent was the best person to fill the seat in the short-term," says Heinz, an emergency-room doctor. "He was the person that Gabby wanted. I respect her, and out of that respect, of course, I supported him.

But Heinz says he's the better candidate for a full term in Congress.

"Southern Arizona needs the strongest advocate and the strongest voice in D.C.," Heinz says. "I have a proven track record of effective leadership during my four years as a state legislator."

However, challenging an incumbent congressman who just defeated a Tea Party darling during a campaign in which more than a million dollars were spent building up name identification is proving to be an uphill battle. A poll released last week by the Barber campaign showed that Barber has a lead of more than 60 percentage points over Heinz.

The Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research survey, which interviewed 200 Democrats and had a margin of error of 7 percentage points, showed that in mid-July, Barber had the support of 77 percent of voters, while Heinz had the support of just 13 percent.

The survey of Democratic voters was a subset of a survey of 503 likely voters in the general election (with a margin of error of 4.4 percent) that showed Barber 13 percentage points ahead of the likely GOP nominee, former Air Force fighter pilot Martha McSally. Barber had the support of 53 percent of the voters, while McSally was supported by 40 percent.

Heinz says he's not "putting any stake" in the survey.

"It's statistically meaningless," says Heinz, who notes that the survey was taken before he'd begun his campaign in earnest by running a TV ad on cable television and sending out a mailer comparing himself to Barber.

Although he was known to occasionally cross party lines during his career in the Legislature, Heinz is positioning himself to the left of Barber. He's particularly critical of Barber's votes on two bills.

The first was a Republican-sponsored bill that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to waive environmental laws within 100 miles of the border. Heinz complains the bill, which passed the House but is unlikely to go any further in its current form, would undermine former Arizona Congressman Mo Udall's signature Wilderness Act and many other environmental regulations.

"It's bad policy," says Heinz. "You can't claim bipartisanship if you're voting for a bad policy."

Barber said in a press release at the time of the vote that he supported the bill because "border security is the No. 1 priority for the people who live and work along our nation's southern border. There is no doubt that this bill will make our borders more secure. But this legislation is far from perfect, and I will work to make changes as it moves through the process."

The second vote that Heinz criticizes was in support of a bill that allowed House Republicans to sue Attorney General Eric Holder in federal court to force Holder to turn over certain documents related to the Fast and Furious scandal.

"I don't understand why my opponent chose to side with Republicans who are interested in a partisan witch hunt," Heinz says. "It's just theater to embarrass the attorney general on an issue that people feel strongly about."

Barber has told the Weekly that he voted against a bill that held Holder in criminal contempt of Congress, but did support the effort to put the question of what documents should be public record in front of a federal judge.

"To me, that's an essential thing that we have to get done," Barber says. "No matter what the issue is, I don't think it's appropriate for Congress or the administration—no matter which administration it is—to hold back important information that will allow us to reach a fact-based conclusion about a matter as serious as Fast and Furious. Fast and Furious was a terrible idea, as were its predecessors. ... Putting guns in the hands of cartel members and criminals is not what the ATF or any other federal agency ought to be doing, but having happened, it needs to be fully understood at what level it was authorized, and who actually signed off, and we owe it to the parents of (slain Border Patrol Agent) Brian Terry ... to give them answers that they've been waiting for, for 19 months."

Heinz has been frustrated by Barber's refusal to schedule more than one debate. That debate is scheduled to air on Arizona Illustrated on Monday, Aug. 20—barely more than a week before the Aug. 28 primary election.

In the meantime, Heinz is left to meet Barber's surrogates, as he will this Saturday, Aug. 11, when he appears at a forum with a colleague and rival, state Rep. Steve Farley. The forum, sponsored by the Tanque Verde Valley and Saguaro Eastside Democrats, is from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. at the Kirk-Bear Canyon Library, 8959 E. Tanque Verde Road.

Farley, who had also announced plans to run for Congress in CD 2, switched his target to the state Senate in the new Legislative District 9 when Barber announced his plans to run for the full term.

"Things don't always work out as you planned," says Farley. "While it was difficult to hear, Ron's a great person to have there."