Nicholas Fontana became the newest member of the Arizona House of Representatives on Monday, April 30, taking over for Daniel Patterson, who quit last month to avoid expulsion for "disorderly behavior." Fontana has his own law office and is judge pro tem for the Tohono O'odham tribal court. He has also worked as the chief public defender for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and as a public defender for the city of Tucson and Pima County. He represents Legislative District 29, which stretches from downtown and South Tucson to the southeast side. He lives in Barrio Viejo with his wife, Jane, and their daughter.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Why was this gig appealing to you?
Well, I'm a Tucson native, born and raised, and ... when the scandal hit with Rep. Patterson, and then he switched to independent, I looked at my wife and said, "Oh, man, what kind of applicants are we going to get now to be our representative?" I was just concerned, because very often in Arizona, we end up with politicians in office basically because they were the (only) people who said, "Oh, I'll do that." And it's kind of scary. So she looked at me and said, "Why don't you apply?" So I switched my (party) registration and applied. My concern was that somebody got in there who could hit the ground running, because there's so little time left. The budget is the only big piece left out there. I also wanted to make sure whoever got into office was somebody who could calm things down, hopefully deal with some of the needs that are there, pick up constituent services, and just be a good caretaker.
I thought it was important that whoever got the position, ideally, would not be looking to run in the new legislative district. I think it's important that the focus be on taking care of the needs at hand, and not worrying about getting re-elected. I have no intention of running in the new district. I view myself as kind of the guy at the end of the party who cleans up the mess, makes sure everybody gets home safe, and turns off the lights.
What do you hope to accomplish? What are your goals in the short timeframe you have?
My goal is to support the governor's effort to restore funding that has been cut.
You won't have time to introduce a bill, but if you could change one of the laws on the books, what would it be?
I would repeal SB 1070. Let's see ... what other bills? Boy, that would actually be a pretty long list.
A lot of repeals?
It would require some repeals, you betcha. ... I would introduce a law that said for every law passed, you would have to repeal two.
You're pretty much a lifelong Democrat who became an independent to fill this seat. Some people would say that's OK, because Patterson was elected as a Democrat. Some people would call it gaming the system. What do you say?
Here's my thought on that: I haven't denied the fact at all that I was a Democrat and switched to independent solely for the reason of applying for this position. For starters, Daniel Patterson switched his registration from lifelong Democrat to independent in the 12th hour. I don't know exactly what his motives were on that, but it wasn't as if he was a lifelong independent representing independent interests. My other response to that is the (Pima County) Board of Supervisors needed a slate of candidates who were qualified and ready to do the job. I felt that I had a certain experience and knowledge that would allow me to do that. So that was my No. 1 concern and reason for doing it.
Patterson quit after allegations that he beat up his girlfriend, smoked pot and harassed other lawmakers. How will your style differ?
We'll, I think if you ask people who know me and work with me, they'll say I'm a pretty easy guy to work with. I can disagree without being uncivil. I can advocate for a position without abusing people. I think I'm a pretty good listener. So I think my style will be pretty different.
What won't change? Do you see any similarities between the two of you?
Rep. Patterson did focus on the issues for LD 29, and he was a strong advocate for issues that directly affect LD 29. I know he was a strong advocate for the environment, and I don't see that changing.