Steller’s Friday Notebook: Court rulings show wealth decides which initiatives AZ voters may consider

Let’s hear a long, slow clap for big money interests.

They showed again this week who really runs Arizona.

That became clear Wednesday as the Arizona Supreme Court handed down rulings on what initiatives will and won’t appear on state ballots this November. The legal challenges to the proposed ballot issues all had their own individual sets of reasons. But the outcomes in every case were that big money won.

The Invest In Ed initiative would have raised the income tax rates on individuals making more than $250,000 per year or couples making more than $500,000 per year. The authors estimated $690 million in new money would go to the K-12 education system as a result.

But the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which often doubles as a political defense group for the wealthy, opposed the initiative. It noted how the initiative’s language referred to the increases in tax rates as “percent” increases, when they really should have been called “percentage point” increases, or the percentages should have been much bigger. It was a bad mistake by the initiative’s authors, and the upshot was that about 270,000 people who signed petitions lost. The Arizona Chamber, and those who might have paid higher taxes, won.

The Outlaw Dirty Money initiative was especially offensive to wealthy interests because it would have forced them to disclose the political spending they use to maintain control in Arizona politics. Three dark-money groups challenged the initiative. Of course they did — it challenged their reason for being. Their attorneys issued subpoenas to 15 petition circulators who gathered signatures for the initiative. When those circulators didn’t show up, a 2014 law required that the signatures they collected be invalidated.

The Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday affirmed the constitutionality of this law, which was designed to make it harder for citizens to get initiatives on the ballot. So, as a result, the signatures of 285,786 Arizona voters have been thrown aside, and the wealthy get to plow their money in our elections without the inconvenience of having to acknowledge it.

In the Clean Energy initiative case, big money would have won no matter which way the court turned, because big money both backed and opposed the initiative. This initiative would require Arizona utilities to get 50 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2030. Arizona Public Service used its monopoly power and money to oppose the measure, and California billionaire Tom Steyer used his piles of cash to support it.

The APS side would have won if Steyer’s millions weren’t pushing the initiative to the finish line. By flooding the state with yellow-shirted circulators, the campaign more than doubled the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot, with 480,000. And when the APS side subpoenaed circulators, the Clean Energy campaign was able to produce almost 900 of them, buy them lunch, and otherwise ensure that the circulators’ signatures were verified. That took money.

And remember, this is all just to decide whether we get a chance to vote on these ideas. Only when a wealthy backer like Steyer wants us to consider a controversial idea do we actually get a chance to vote on it.

Far-right fades

In Arizona political journalism, we hear a lot from and about the faction of Arizona Republicans who support Kelli Ward and other Tea Party-style conservatives. They’re the people who censured then-Sen. John McCain up in Maricopa County in 2014 and contribute most of the crazy to Arizona’s Legislature. They are so loud and proud that I, for one, sometimes get the feeling they are the core of the Arizona GOP.

Tuesday’s election results gave that perception a reality check. Most prominently, U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, a Tucson Republican who is not of that faction — and harder yet for her, not even from Maricopa County — won 53 percent of the vote in the race for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate. Ward, in her second run, got 28 percent, and Joe Arpaio got 19 percent.

Similarly, Ken Bennett tried to challenge Gov. Doug Ducey by appealing to that faction and labeling Ducey as insufficiently conservative. He took 29 percent of the vote. The people who call other people RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) are not even the majority of the Arizona Republican Party, it appears.

CD2 GOP surprises

That said, Lea Marquez Peterson’s win in Congressional District 2 offers a counter-example, at least for that southeastern Arizona district. Marquez Peterson was by far the best-funded candidate. At $773,909, her campaign took in 10 times as much in donations as the other four candidates did combined, a total of $70,796.

Yet an unknown Sierra Vista candidate named Brandon Martin came within 2,682 votes, or 4.5 percent of the total, of beating Marquez Peterson, who took 33.6 percent of the vote. Martin described himself as a “constitutional conservative” interested in individual liberties like the 2nd Amendment. That sold well not just in his home county, Cochise, but also in Pima County areas like Green Valley.

Marquez Peterson will have to shore up her support among those who supported Martin and a fellow “constitutional conservative,” Danny Morales Jr., if she’s to beat Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick in November.

Giffords’ pull remains

On the Democratic side in Congressional District 2, Kirkpatrick had to fight hard to beat out six other contenders, especially Matt Heinz. Part of her magic was money — outside groups spent at least $800,000 supporting her, in addition to the nearly $2 million her own campaign took in.

But she probably couldn’t have done it without a key endorsement — that of Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords, of course, held the same congressional seat until she was forced to resign in 2012 after being shot in the head. Kirkpatrick is a recent arrival in Tucson, having spent most of her career in Flagstaff and even representing that area in Congress. Kirkpatrick also had the problem of previously embracing the National Rifle Association before changing her mind and supporting stricter gun laws.

Giffords has dedicated herself to promoting tougher gun laws in recent years. So her endorsement helped Kirkpatrick overcome both obstacles — her status as a newcomer to the district and her previous stands on gun laws.

Grijalva’s pull wanes

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva took a respectable 100 percent of the votes in his Democratic primary, where he went unchallenged. And he remains a formidable candidate to continue in the seat he has held for 15 years when he faces Republican Nick Pierson in the general election.

Outside of his own race, though, Grijalva’s pull wasn’t as strong. In the race for the Democratic nomination for state Senate in Legislative District 3, candidate Sally Ann Gonzales openly criticized Grijalva, who endorsed her opponent, Betty Villegas. Gonzales nevertheless won by 55 percent to 45 percent.

In the LD3 House race, Grijalva ally Andres Cano was the top vote-getter, but longtime legislator and ally Olivia Cajero Bedford took third place, losing out to first-time candidate Alma Hernandez. That ended a decades-long dynasty, as Cajero Bedford’s parents preceded her in the Legislature, serving decades there.

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