January 6, 2020 10:18 am

U.S. Sen Kyrsten Sinema speaks at the 2019 Update from Capitol Hill hosted by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Welcome to 2020 – potentially the craziest political year of our lifetimes. I’m excited to join AZ Mirror as a weekly political columnist, and I hope to draw on my experience of more than four decades in and around state government to help pull back the veil on what is happening behind the scenes and why it’s important. There’s never a shortage of material in Arizona, so let’s get started!

Sinema impeachment watch continues

With the historic Trump impeachment trial looming in the U.S. Senate, eyes are focused on Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the first Democrat to hold one of Arizona’s two Senate seats since Dennis DeConcini retired in the mid-1990s. 

We know that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Republican senators, including Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, will vote to acquit Trump. We know Trump will remain in office and stand for re-election in November. No suspense there.

But what about Sinema? She relishes her “independent” brand. She previously voted to confirm Trump’s Attorney General Bill Barr, who has made clear his allegiance is to Trump and not the Constitution, and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for extractive industries who seems intent on allowing corporate interests to profit off of our public land, as well as many very conservative federal court nominees.

However, Sinema’s impeachment trial votes are a far different matter. Will she join the GOP and vote to acquit the president, thus further distancing herself from the Democratic Party?

Just 10 days ago, The Hill discussed the possibility of Sinema joining two fellow centrist Democrats from red states, Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, in voting to acquit Trump. The article noted that, according to FiveThirtyEight, Sinema has voted with Trump 52.9 percent of the time, second among sitting Democratic senators.

Sinema needs to forget about her “brand.” She needs to forget about her next election five years from now and the impact her historic votes will have on fundraising.

Instead, she should just follow the facts. As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff stated, “President Trump abused the power of his office, undermined our national security and jeopardized the next election. He has shown no remorse and is still trying, even now, to get foreign help in his reelection. No one is above the law.”

Bernie ain’t a Democrat

In addition to wearing green and celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, Arizona Democrats will be heading to the polls for our exciting presidential preference election. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders will collect lots of Arizona Democratic votes in that election. However, it’s a good thing Bernie is not a registered voter in Arizona. If he was, the state Democratic Party would not allow him to vote for himself, nor any other Democratic presidential hopeful on the ballot.

Why? Because Bernie is a longtime registered Independent. Arizona’s Democratic Party foolishly prohibits independent voters from taking part in its preferential election.

Talk about poor outreach to voters who have abandoned the major political parties – the same voters the Dems will desperately need this fall. Independent voters will be able to participate in the regular August Democratic primary for all other political contests. It simply makes no sense to exclude this huge segment of voters from the March presidential primary election.

And then there is the state Trump Republican Party. Trump ordered them to cancel their presidential preference election as the GOP prepares to anoint him as their nominee at its summer national convention. At least the Dems will be given a choice on St. Patrick’s Day.

Katie Hobbs for governor – already?

The next Arizona gubernatorial election is in 2022. But Secretary of State Katie Hobbs is already maneuvering for the Democratic nomination. 

Hobbs has been “touching base” with people who gave money to her 2018 campaign, telling them she plans to run for governor. I received such a call from Hobbs four months ago. When asked, she said a formal declaration would occur “probably in early ’21.” As for her potential primary competition, Hobbs first mentioned Congressman Greg Stanton, followed by state House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez. 

I agree with Hobbs’s analysis of her likely primary opposition. The Democratic bench is deep.  

It’s still very early, but if I was forced to pick a likely 2022 Democratic gubernatorial primary winner at this stage, I’d go with Greg Stanton. The former Phoenix mayor is impressing folks in D.C. with his command of the issues. He’d be tough to beat.

Sarah Palin’s Arizona future

Arizona Republicans hoping that former Alaska governor and John McCain VP pick Sarah Palin would resurrect her political career in our state will be disappointed to learn that she continues to sell off her Valley residences.

After unloading her 7,900 square-foot Pinnacle Peak home in 2016 for $2.3 million, Palin in December sold another north Scottsdale home (7,700 square feet) for $6.2 million. 

No Arizona Governor Sarah Palin? No Arizona U.S. Senator Sarah Palin? I guess not. 

Palin’s “forever ties” to McCain’s past have extinguished her political future in the Trump Republican Party. Any past connection with McCain is a red flag for both the state and national GOP. So has the Tea Party darling faded away? You betcha!

All eyes on next week’s State of the State

While interacting with the State Capitol over the last four decades as both an elected official and a staffer, I’ve watched eight governors, from Bruce Babbitt to Doug Ducey, deliver their annual State of the State addresses. I even had a hand in writing a couple of them. If I could write Ducey’s Jan. 13 speech, here are some key points I’d include:

Budget Priorities: Bipartisanship and Poverty
For the first time, the fiscal year 2021 state budget must be negotiated in a bipartisan manner. The legislature’s budget analysts say the state is sitting on an estimated $700 million surplus – a figure that could creep closer to $1 billion by the time lawmakers tackle the budget. Both parties deserve a seat at the table so all constituents are represented. It’s also time to make the budget process more transparent.

Legislators must finally attack a monstrous, long-neglected Arizona problem: poverty.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, single individuals earning less than $13,000 annually and a family of four earning less than $26,000 are classified as living in poverty. While the national poverty rate is 12 percent, Arizona’s is 16 percent. And the poverty rate among Hispanics, the fastest growing demographic in our state, is an alarming 23 percent. We cannot allow this reality to continue.

A major portion of the current budget surplus must be used to fund DES safety net services that were cut during the recession, such as subsidies for childcare for working parents and family cash assistance within the federal welfare program. The lifetime cash assistance limit must be reinstated to the maximum five years instead of the current 12 months, the strictest in the nation.

K-12 Education
At long last, legislators must fully fund the public K-12 education system at pre-recession levels plus inflation. For-profit charter schools must be eliminated, and true charter school reform legislation enacted that demands the same transparency requirements expected of public district schools. 

And remember, voters spoke loud and clear in 2018 – by a margin of 65 to 35 percent – to NOT expand vouchers in Arizona. Case closed!

Climate change is real and a horrific threat to our planet. Renewable energy utilization is our future. Arizona utilities must change their business models and stop using ratepayer revenue to participate in political campaigns. 

Past budget cuts to the departments of Environmental Quality and Water Resources must be restored so these agencies can more aggressively protect our air and water and properly monitor industry’s usage of our precious natural resources. Our children and grandchildren deserve nothing less.

The last decade began with the shameful enactment of SB1070, which permanently stained Arizona’s image. This border state must stand up to the Trump administration’s destructive immigration policies. The separation of families, wasteful border wall construction costs, and racist white nationalistic language directed towards immigrants and asylum seekers cannot be tolerated.

Election Reform
All of the suppressive election laws enacted during the past decade should be repealed. It must become easier to register and vote in Arizona by passing “automatic“ and “same-day” voter registration. Increasing voter participation is the right thing to do. And dark money must be outlawed, so voters finally know who’s funding candidates and ballot propositions.  

“Thank you and God Bless Arizona!”
If Republican Ducey could stand before the GOP-controlled legislature and espouse these policy goals, God truly will have blessed Arizona!

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Chris Herstam
Chris Herstam

Chris Herstam has four decades of experience at the Arizona state Capitol. He has been an elected lawmaker, a gubernatorial chief of staff, a lobbyist, director of the Department of Insurance and president of the Arizona Board of Regents. Find him on Twitter at @chrisherstam.