A Family Affair

A Democrat hoping to replace her deceased husband in the state Senate faces an incumbent who knows that story all too well

At a recent Clean Elections forum at Pima Community College's west campus, Democrat Maria de la Luz Garcia choked up as she explained why she wants to represent the people of Tucson's west and southwest sides.

Her late husband, former Democratic state Sen. Jorge Luis Garcia, died while holding the position of minority leader in 2010. She wants to carry on his legacy and continue his work in the Senate.

"It's kind of emotional," she said later. "Because he was a hard worker, and to see somebody in the seat who is not doing what I think needs to be done, to me is very heartbreaking."

The somebody she refers to is Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford, a Democrat who has served in the Legislature since 2003. Though the two are political opponents now, they were friends and mutual supporters just two years ago.

When the minority leader died, the Pima County Board of Supervisors had to pick a replacement to fill out the remaining two months of his term in office. The widowed Garcia decided to seek the nomination, and Cajero Bedford successfully lobbied the board on her behalf and told the other hopefuls to back off, out of respect.

Although she was already running in the next election to replace the term-limited minority leader, Cajero Bedford was sensitive to the situation. She comes from a political dynasty that started with her father, Bernardo Cajero, who also died while in serving in the Legislature and who was replaced by her mother, Carmen Cajero, who went on to serve for another 23 years.

Now, Cajero Bedford is facing a hard charge from Garcia for the Legislative District 3 Senate seat. She is accusing Cajero Bedford of neglecting the needs of the district and being more of a status-seeker than a leader.

Cajero Bedford says she's earned the job through her years of hard work on behalf of her constituents. She's a native Tucsonan raised on local politics who says she has the experience necessary to make a difference at the Senate.

In the past decade, she has held important posts in both the House and Senate, including a place on both chambers' appropriations committees. She is quick to point out that she's active and well-known in the community, and has outperformed her competitors in every election since 2002.

She says Democrats don't have the numbers to make the sweeping changes they would like to see at the state Capitol, but that it doesn't mean she's not working hard.

"We nine Democrats (in the Senate) are like the firefighters who do the back-burn," she said. "We stopped a lot of bad things from happening. We made sure people knew about the bad things that were happening. We got people activated to call their legislators."

But Garcia, a manager at Raytheon, says putting out fires isn't enough.

"What has she done for the people, besides just being there?" she asks. "What laws (has she passed)? I don't think her record speaks."

Both women are campaigning with equal funding through the Clean Elections system. At the Clean Elections forum on Tuesday, July 24, the two agreed on most issues, including that the state is heading in the wrong direction, the Legislature should spend more on education, and that jobs and the economy are priority No. 1.

But they disagreed on a few key issues, such as the proposal to make the state's 1-cent sales tax increase permanent. At the debate, Cajero Bedford said she was tentatively against it, though she may change her mind. She said she's opposed to the initiative, because the state should be spending that money on schools anyway, and she's not convinced that the Legislature won't be able to sweep the money and use it for another purpose.

Cajero Bedford says that while she understands Garcia's desire to carry on her husband's legacy, the decision for voters will come down to who has the knowledge and experience to represent the district well.

"My background in politics goes back a long way," she said. "I've followed the issues over the years. I used to consult with my mother. She used to consult with me on different votes. I have a high regard for the process. And it's not fun; it's not easy. It's really very tough."

But Garcia says the decision for voters comes down to who will work harder and be able to accomplish more on behalf of the district, which is predominately Hispanic and Democratic. It includes parts of Tucson west of Campbell Avenue between roughly Prince Road and 22nd Street, and large swaths west of Interstate 10, including Tucson Foothills Estates and Drexel Heights.

"Experience isn't everything," Garcia said. "You need to get new blood in so that they can get new ideas to the table."

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