Arizona lawmaker who has rarely gone to Capitol may face complaint over absences

Mary Jo Pitzl
Arizona Republic
Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe.

State Sen. T.J. Shope said Monday he will file an ethics complaint against Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, for abandonment of his office.

Shope, R-Coolidge, made his announcement as the Senate was consumed with a debate over whether to launch an ethics probe into Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, or expel her. Rogers was criticized by her colleagues for a social media post following the shooting rampage in Buffalo, New York, that seemed to suggest the mass killing was the work of federal agents.

Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff.

The Senate ultimately voted for an ethics investigation.

Shope said his decision wasn't in retaliation for Democrats' attempt to expel Rogers, but said the debate did open up the topic of Mendez's prolonged absence from the Senate. Mendez has had an excused absence since the January start of the legislative session and has only been at the Capitol a few times to vote on legislation.

“Today, I had an opportunity and a forum with ethics issues on the floor,” Shope said, adding that the GOP caucus has talked about Mendez's absence for some time.

Mendez has presented Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, with a doctor’s note, saying it is unsafe for him to work at the Senate due to COVID-19 concerns. Fann has excused his absence.

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Late Monday, Mendez wasn't buying Shope's explanation, saying the senator is looking for a distraction from the fact that people such as Rogers are the dominant voice of the Republican Party.

"Setting aside how patently ridiculous it is to compare taking paternity leave with employing the same type of rhetoric that incited the racist murder of 10 innocent people, he's clearly trying to deflect from the fact that he's afraid to do his responsibility and remove Sen. Rogers from public office," Mendez wrote in a statement. He was not at the Capitol on Monday.

Mendez also invited Shope to help him advocate for the Senate to again allow remote voting, a practice that would allay his concerns about working at the Capitol, where COVID-19 protocols are voluntary. 

"If he would like to join me in calling for remote voting, I'd be happy to commit to a perfect attendance record," Mendez wrote.

Shope said he understood Mendez had an excused absence, but added there are other senators who have attended in person even as they’ve dealt with cancer and other maladies.

"You're talking to a guy who has missed only one day in 10 years here (at the Legislature)," Shope said about himself. He said he is offended that Mendez is not carrying out all the duties of his office and said the constituents of Legislative District 26 are owed better representation. Besides, he noted, Mendez was able to gather enough citizen signatures on his nomination petitions, so he questions his colleague's wariness about COVID-19 exposure.

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Mendez's district covers a large portion of Tempe and parts of western Mesa.

He has criticized the Senate's optional COVID-19 precautions, a concern that was heightened after the birth early this year of his daughter. His wife, Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, also has missed the legislative session, first due to a 12-week maternity leave but also out of worries about exposure to the virus.

The couple have said they intend to return to the Capitol to vote on the state budget and on any water-related legislation. It is unclear when those issues will come up for a vote.

The two lawmakers also have said they are confident a vaccine for very young children will emerge before the start of next year's session. They are both seeking re-election and are running unopposed in the Aug. 2 primary.

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.

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