The Skinny


State Rep. Ethan Orr survived a near-political-death experience last week.

Attorney Jeff Rogers filed a legal action on Tuesday, June 10, alleging that Orr had fallen short of the required 361 signatures for a variety of technical reasons.

But after the Pima County Recorder's Office reviewed the challenged signatures and determined that the freshman Republican lawmaker turned in 393 valid signatures, Rogers said over the weekend that while he disagreed with the County Recorder's assessment of the valid signatures, he would abandon the legal effort and instead concentrate on defeating Orr in November.

The Legislative District 9 House of Representatives race is shaping up to be one of the most interesting local contests. Democrats have a slight voter registration advantage in the district, which includes parts of midtown Tucson, the Catalina Foothills and the Casas Adobes area. But Orr has worked to establish himself as a Republican who could deliver for Southern Arizona.

Orr is up against a Democratic slate made up of his seatmate, incumbent state Rep. Victoria Steele, and political newcomer Randy Friese, a UA trauma doc who already has the endorsement of local political heavyweights such as Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly.

Orr himself was remarkably upbeat last week despite the calamity that had come his way in recent days.

On top of the legal challenge to his candidacy, he lost his job at Linkages, a non-profit that helped developmentally challenged individuals find work.

"People have been calling me and asking if I'm OK, like I might be on suicide watch or something," Orr said. "I don't mean to diminish anything, but this is nothing. Try waking up without food or shelter or anywhere to go."

Orr said he was eager to face voters, whatever their verdict.

"I want the voters to have a choice," he said. "I want to have a genuine policy discussion about where the city and the state are going."

Orr is often caught up in a narrative about whether he's a moderate or a conservative Republican, particularly since he voted last year in favor of a controversial expansion of Medicaid to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. The expansion, which allows that state to tap into federal dollars related to the Affordable Care Act, was supported by Gov. Jan Brewer and the business community, but only a few Republican lawmakers voted alongside Democrats to expand the program.

Rogers—a former chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party—points to legislation that Orr has supported to restrict abortion rights, expand vouchers that reduce support for public education and reduce the regulation of firearms.

"Those are three key areas that are important issues and he's as conservative as they come," Rogers said. "He voted for Medicaid expansion and a couple of mental-health things, but by and large, he's been in step with the Republican leadership."

But conservative Republicans are just as eager to rip Orr.

"I see him as unprincipled," said Christine Bauserman, a frequent political ally of former state lawmaker Frank Antenori who has made it her life's mission to punish Republicans who voted in favor of the Medicaid expansion. She puts Orr in among the Republicans she calls "legis-traitors."

"The Republican Party has planks and he is not following our party planks for fiscal responsibility and resistance to the nationalization of our health care and our education system," Bauserman said.

Orr knows the vote to expand Medicaid will haunt him with conservative Republicans—"It's a scarlet letter I'lll wear forever"—but he said he doesn't care much about the debate over whether he's a moderate or a conservative. He called himself a "pragmatic policy guy."

"I love policy," Orr said. "I love good policy. I will argue policy with anyone, anytime, anywhere."

Indeed, he can dig into the policy issues, ranging from regulation of medical marijuana to the settlement of a lawsuit over community-college support between Pima and Santa Cruz counties.

On the employment front, Orr called his resignation from Linkages earlier this week "very amicable."

"It's very difficult to run an agency and be in Phoenix for half the year," he said. "I put together an incredibly good staff and Linkages is in better shape than it ever has been. We're helping more people than we have ever helped and our budget is better than it has ever been. ... We're leaving on very good terms."

He's excited but nervous about his new venture, Simply Clean and Green, a fledgling non-profit that aims to help people with mental illness find janitorial and landscaping work.

His new work with the homeless reminds him of his own days as an 18-year-old living for a month in the Rillito river after about a half a year of couch surfing.

"It was a huge blessing to me," Orr said. "That's when I became a Christian and turned my life over to Jesus. And I got enough of a taste of homelessness that I started working my way through school."

He says compared to people who have nowhere to go, he has it easy.

"Pettiness like this, it's easy to put behind me," Orr says. "Until you look into the eyes of a hungry person, you don't know how insignificant all of this stuff is."