The pandemic-driven shutdowns and education funding largely dominated what could be the only debate this election season has for the men and women who want to represent Ahwatukee in the State Legislature the next two years.
The Arizona Clean Elections Commission debate – held virtually last week – drew all six candidates for the Senate and two House seats in Legislative District 18 but only about 90 audience members. However, a few hundred more have since watched it and voters can still catch the nearly two-hour debate at youtube.com/watch?v=M4M0_HohXm4&t=884s.
The Senate race is an all-Ahwatukee battle in LD18, which also includes parts of Chandler, Tempe and Mesa, with Republican Realtor Suzanne Sharer challenging Sen. Sean Bowie. The race for the two House seats is more geographically diverse with Republicans Bob Robson of Ahwatukee and Dan Hawker of Tempe trying to unseat Democratic Reps. Mitzi Epstein, also Tempe, and Jennifer Jermaine of Chandler.
In their introductions, the candidates for the most part staked out their positions as the incumbents also took some bows for their work in the last two years.
“My first Clean Elections debate was four years ago and in that debate, I said if I was elected, I would primarily focus on two things: one being help restore education funding for our K-12 schools and two, to help bring some bipartisanship back to the State Capital. Four years later, that’s exactly what I’ve done and I have the record to prove it,” Bowie said.
His opponent noted she has lived in the district 28 years and decided to run for office because “I love Arizona and love this country.”
“I want to be a voice to help shape Arizona’s future. I want to bring common sense and less partisan policies to the office,” Sharer said, adding she wants to “eliminate excessive government interference in our lives” and more legislative restraint. She later accused Bowie of contributing to socialism.
Epstein touted her corporate and small-business background and her advocacy for education funding and the environment, stating, “Now, especially during this pandemic, we need clean air. COVID attacks the lungs and today is the 11th day in a row that we’ve had pollution alerts for Maricopa County.”
Hawker, a retired federal government computer programmer who won a spot on the ballot with a write-in campaign, said he wants to appeal to “those who understand the real danger of today’s Democratic Party, which Democrat-controlled cities have manifested in their violent chaos.”
“Combine these failures with their family-decimating social engineering – which these two House candidates have demonstrated with bills they sponsored of infanticide and forcing gender fantasy legally enforced in birth certificates, death certificates and driver’s licenses,” Hawker said.
He later took a swing at his party’s governor, attacking “the inconsistent and tyrannical extremism” of his executive orders.
Jermaine touted her work in fighting violence against Native American women and her bipartisanship, stating, “I have a track record of reaching across the aisle to solve problems and get results for our community.”
Robson, a former legislator, said he is running “because I believe we’re not being truly represented the right way.”
“I want to be part of the solutions to really complex problems that face our state,” he said. “Talking about things are nice. “Getting up and bellowing about stuff is nice, but substantive work is important.”
The first of several pandemic-related questions dealt with one of the most controversial – reopening K-12 campuses – while the second dealt with business shutdowns and whether the Legislature should reign in the powers of the governor to act unilaterally.
Jermaine, Bowie and Robson favored leaving the decision in the hands of local school boards and while Epstein agreed, she also said the state should have given school boards better benchmarks for weighing reopening.
While saying she believes “in things being handled locally,” Sharer stated, “We were told there would be options, an option to reopen and have in-person classrooms and we haven’t been afforded that option. I’ve heard from a lot of parents and a lot of teachers and they’re really disappointed that that has not been put out there….There should be guidelines and timelines set forth to make that happen.”
Saying he had “mixed feelings on the question,” Hawker bemoaned the fact that “no one can get the Legislature called back to discuss the issue. They don’t seem to want to go back to deal with this unique problem. I think there are a lot of ways in which the limits of the various authorities throughout the state need to be much better defined.”
Saying, “I don’t think there’s a need to have the schools closed at this time” and that a majority of parents want their children in classrooms, Hawker added that school boards should have the option to decide whether to close if there is a local outbreak of the virus.
Jermaine said that as a mother, she empathized with parents during the long closure of campuses and said she has worked with companies and the City of Chandler to provide internet access for families that have been economically challenged by remote learning.
The debate sharpened over the question of whether the governor has been arbitrary in deciding what businesses could reopen – a question that led to an equally robust debate on the Legislature’s absence in pandemic policy making.
In one of several tussles he had with her during the debate, Robson challenged Epstein’s assertion that the Legislature’s budget cuts over the year had cut out pandemic planning and that such a plan would have created guidelines businesses could follow to stay open or reopen.
“I’ve looked up everybody’s voting record,” Robson told Epstein. “I haven’t seen the bill you sponsored that had to do with pandemic planning – or anybody’s for that matter in the Legislature.
“Nobody anticipated this event would occur and it’s really disingenuous to turn around and say if we had better pandemic planning,” he continued. “You didn’t sponsor anything and neither did any of your teammates and neither did anyone in the Legislature sponsor a pandemic planning bill.”
Epstein countered, “Maybe nobody in Mr. Robson’s circle was able to see this coming but lots of people in the scientific community saw this coming. If we leave just enough money in our budgets to have long-term planners, then maybe we can have these long-term planners in our agencies.”
“I did not sponsor a plan for that because I’m depending on our agencies to do that,” she added, prompting Robson to counter, “You can’t blame everybody on the Republican side for everything that’s wrong.”
“I’m not trying to say you were wrong for not sponsoring a bill,” he added. “I’m saying nobody sponsored a bill. Nobody anticipated this occurring. And the Legislature closed down pretty quickly. Everybody put their mask on and got out the door and went campaigning and there was a lot of stuff that was left there that should have been taken care of.”
That led to a debate over the absence of a special legislative session to address pandemic-relate issues.
All three Democrats said they repeatedly asked Gov. Doug Ducey to call a special session for the limited purpose of dealing with such issues and also assailed what Bowie called a “haphazard” approach by Ducey in his guidance for businesses.
Hawker said the pandemic was “very unique and nothing anybody did was going to please everybody.” He assailed Democrats who “always want to centralize the government, grow the bureaucracy and try to solve every problem with a government edict” and said people varied in their fear of COVID-19 and therefore should be allowed to decide for themselves what is safe for them to do, whether it involved going to a gym or church.
Sharer laid the blame on the Legislature, noting the economic devastation caused by shutdowns. “It was arbitrary and the House and the Senate should have done something more.”
Epstein countered that she and the other LD18 legislators had been helping people with getting federal pandemic relief loans and dealing with other practical problems arising from the shutdown while preparing bills in case the Legislature was called back.
“You said you were working from home. What did that accomplish?” Sharer asked. “It should have been done at the legislative level. You handed full control to the governor and then people criticized him for it.”
When it came to education funding, the hot topic involved the upcoming initiative that would impose a special tax surcharge on people making $250,000 annually or couples whose joint income is over $500,000. The tax applies only to the amount of money earned above those amounts.
Sharer said the tax would kill small businesses since many owners file as individuals rather than businesses when they pay taxes and that “what we do not need is another attack on people making money and providing jobs.” Epstein said it would apply to net income after operating expenses such as employee salaries were deducted.
Bowie noted that Arizona had one of the lowest income tax rates in the nation and with the Legislature’s history of budget cuts for education, K-12 schools were suffering. He also noted the tax would impact “a very small percentage” of Arizonans and he, like his Democratic colleagues, said he would vote for the initiative.
Robson on several measures, including legalization of marijuana, refused to say how he would vote because “I have never in my entire career in politics told people how to vote.”
Hawker assailed school boards, stating, “They never seem to get enough money and yet the education quality seems to keep going down where you got half the people that come out of these schools can’t pass the state test…Every year it’s harder and harder to find kids that are ready to go out into the workforce or into college because they just haven’t learned what they were supposed to learn.”