Risky politics: Why Republicans in the Arizona Legislature are betting big on a far-right agenda

Ray Stern
Arizona Republic

From criminalizing drag shows to legalizing guns on college campuses, Republican lawmakers at the Arizona Capitol are proceeding like it's a normal year for them, pushing forward with proposals that appeal to the furthest-right voters in the state.

They're advancing election bills based on conspiracy theories and pushing back at critics, even silencing speakers for using the phrase "conspiracy theory." Some proposed laws that were rejected in past years due to Republican opposition have made it further this year, even as they have less chance of becoming law.

Republicans expect Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs to veto what they believe are good bills, hoping their commitment to far-right conservative values will help them in next year’s election.

It’s a risky strategy if they want to avoid seeing the Legislature flip to Democrats next year, according to some observers on both sides of the aisle.

"The party right now is tone-deaf," said former Sen. Paul Boyer, a Republican from Glendale who served in the Legislature for five terms but didn't run for reelection last year after some constituents and GOP peers pilloried him for failing to embrace election denialism. "They haven't figured out that if they keep this up, we're going to get massacred."

Critics say GOP lawmakers are focusing too much time on election and culture-war bills when voters in the state — judging by the last two elections — are drifting further to the middle. Voters in November gave no strong mandate to Republicans in the Legislature, who barely held on to one-vote majorities in both the Senate and House.

Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said it should surprise no one that conservative lawmakers are pushing conservative bills. Some know their bills won’t make it across the finish line, and some may have "false hope," he said.

But other lawmakers "feel obligated to keep their campaign promises even if the governor disagrees," Petersen said. "They did their job by getting it out of the Legislature."

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs signs an executive order on March 17, 2023, banning discrimination in state employment and contracts based on hair texture and hairstyle, offering protections to Black Arizonans who can be treated differently because of their natural hair.

Hobbs already has vetoed several bills, including Senate Bill 1305, which addressed so-called "critical race theory" in schools, and an early GOP budget proposal.

She's also signaled an imminent veto on two polarizing bills that passed out of the Senate last week on party lines, Senate Bills 1028 and 1030, which target "sexually explicit" drag shows and other performances. Critics said, among other problems, the bill's definition of "sexually explicit" is far too vague and could apply broadly to all sorts of performances.

"We're talking about men wearing bikinis, dancing weird, sexually, strangely, in front of children," Petersen said on the Senate Floor before one of the bills passed.

Jeff DeWit, a former lawmaker who is now the chair of the Arizona Republican Party, believes Republican lawmakers are on the right track. He is expected to lead Republicans to victories after replacing former chair Kelli Ward, whose dedication to the Trump wing of the party was seen as a hindrance to winning.

"I am very proud of our Republican Legislature and their efforts to improve Arizonans' lives despite the challenging situation," DeWit told The Arizona Republic. "Republican legislators are doing everything they can to pass quality bills that improve the lives of everyday Arizonans. Voters know this, and are not happy that Hobbs is on track to set records for how many good bills she is vetoing — even bills with Democrat support."

DeWit said her actions could force voters who want "good policy" to "grant Republicans a supermajority in the state Legislature in the next cycle."

Hobbs, meanwhile, is betting on the opposite, putting $500,000 into a “Flip the Legislature” fund and raising money off the same right-wing legislative agenda that helped lead to Republican defeats in 2022.

Hair protection:Black Arizonans protected from hair discrimination in state employment by Gov. Hobbs order

What could happen if Democrats take Legislature

Democratic Rep. Jennifer Pawlik from District 17 at the Arizona House floor in 2019.

The high stakes for Arizona Republicans are clear: Losing the Legislature could undo much of their work over the past years.

In Michigan, Democrats took control of the Legislature last year and are moving to repeal the state's right-to-work law and to protect LGBTQ citizens from discrimination. In Colorado, Republicans failed to retake the Legislature and are powerless to stop a raft of new anti-firearm legislation, including one bill that would make it easier for crime victims to sue gun manufacturers.

A Democratic Legislature could swiftly make Arizona unrecognizable as the bastion of conservatism it has maintained for decades.

Republicans only narrowly pulled off key victories in November, yet increased the number of ultra-right lawmakers in their ranks. If a far-right posture is bad for the state Republican Party, as some claim, then the election results — and what has come after at the Legislature— have only helped Democrats.

The 47 Republicans in the Legislature now also have a 12-member "Freedom Caucus" whose ultra-right members are supported by many other GOP lawmakers. Only a few moderates are in the mix.

Still, even Republicans considered more moderate have added their name to a slew of party-line votes on controversial bills. Those include several bills related to abortion, such as Senate Bill 1600, which boost penalties for not trying to save the life of an embryo or fetus delivered alive during a flawed abortion. Only a few of the most radical proposals, like House Bill 2706, which would have subjected women who get abortions to a first-degree murder charge, failed without a committee hearing.

Petersen, known as an ideologue himself, was not the first choice of some lawmakers for Senate President. After taking control, he and House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Glendale, introduced new rules that among other changes demanded that no bill could receive a vote in the full House without the backing of at least 16 Republicans.

House Democrats, furious over the "16 Republicans" rule, voted "no" on every bill for a few days, even Democratic proposals. Though they soon returned to a normal voting pattern, some Republicans are now trying to use some of those "no" votes to show that Democrats voted down bipartisan bills.

Guns, elections and drag shows on the table

Republican state Sen. Anthony Kern leads a protest across the street from the Washington Elementary School District office on March 9, 2023, in Glendale.

Freedom Caucus members and other arch-conservatives have led the charge for sending Hobbs bills she won't sign.

Voters returned Anthony Kern of Glendale to the Legislature despite of Kern’s presence outside the U.S. Capitol during the riot on Jan. 6, 2021. He had served three terms as a state representative from 2015 to 2019 before a loss in 2020.

Petersen — who counts among the ultra-conservatives — made now-Sen. Kern chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he proceeded to advance four bills that targeted drag shows. Besides the two bills by Kern, Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, (both are Freedom Caucus members) proposed Senate Bill 1698, which was altered before it passed the full Senate to remove the term "drag show" and focus on the criminalization of sexually explicit performances viewable by kids. The fourth, Senate Bill 1026 by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, would ban public money from being used for a "drag show targeting minors."

Conservatives in 18 other states have introduced bills targeting drag shows.

Related:Group that fought 'dark money' ballot measure files lawsuit to block Arizona voter-approved law

The proposals are part of a general anti-LGBTQ agenda in Arizona that includes Kavanagh's Senate Bill 1001, which would bar school employees from using a transgender student's preferred name or pronouns without approval by a parent or guardian. Even when approved, the employees could still legally ignore a student's preferences.

The pronoun bill passed the Senate on party lines and is awaiting consideration in the House.

Wadsack, who was at the press conference, has also drawn negative attention for eyebrow-raising statements. For instance, in support of her Senate Bill 1435, which would strip the Arizona State Bar of power, she testified in the House Judiciary Committee on March 8 that State Bar officials had told unnamed lawyers they would be disbarred for taking cases that supported conservative causes.

When Rep. Analise Ortiz, D-Phoenix, asked for evidence of that, Wadsack told Ortiz, "I don't owe you anything in the way of proof." Following Tucker Carlson's release of Jan. 6 footage on Fox News, she tweeted "J6 is a lie."

Analise Ortiz, campaign strategist with Smart Justice, speaks against Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery during a protest in Phoenix, Ariz., on July 25, 2019.

Kern is from a legislative district where his reelection likely is safe, but Wadsack could be vulnerable in the new Legislative District 17, which includes Marana and part of Tucson. Following her second attempt to run for the Legislature, she beat first-time candidate Mike Nickerson by 2.4 percentage points. Her running mates, now first-term lawmakers Reps. Rachel Jones and Cory McGarr, won against their Democratic competitors by only 1.3 and 0.8 percentage points.

A change just in that district would be enough to hand power to Democrats in the House and create a tie in the Senate.

Jones, a Tucson resident and Freedom Caucus member who described herself in campaign literature as a Border Patrol officer’s wife, said she is not worried about her reelection chances, however.

She's doing what her constituents want and what she thinks is best, she said in a recent interview.

She's sponsored conservative bills that would take away early and mail voting for most Arizonans, allow women's shelters to legally discriminate against transgender women job applicants and allow concealed weapon permit holders to carry their weapons onto university and college campuses, among other conservative causes.

Her college campus bill, House Bill 2667, passed the House; Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, has a similar proposal, Senate Bill 1300, which has passed the Senate.

More:Senator vetting Hobbs' nominees takes a new tactic with Arizona environmental department director

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 1331, by Sen. Janae Shamp, R-Surprise, would allow parents who are permit holders to take guns into K-12 schools. That proposal has passed the Senate and is waiting for a vote by the full House. Similar bills floated in recent years didn't get as far through the process; Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill in 2011 that would have allowed guns on college campuses.

"All I've put in are constituent bills from LD-17 constituents," Jones said. "As a legislator, that's your job to put forth the bills. It's the governor's job to sign them or not. So I'm not going to pick and choose what to put forth from my constituents who have relied on me to be their voice up here … . It's not necessarily strategy or anything like that."

Public silenced for speaking out

Much of the criticism against the current slate of GOP lawmakers is their continuing focus on baseless claims of election fraud in 2020 and 2022.

In January, Petersen also appointed Rogers, a nationally known conspiracy theorist who has praised the Holocaust-denying activist Nick Fuentes, as chair of the new Senate Elections Committee.

The committee and its state House equivalent have advanced even more GOP election-reform bills than last year, when Boyer, former Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita and former House Speaker Rusty Bowers killed off the most radical of the more than 100 proposals introduced.

Bills moving toward Hobbs' desk as of mid-March include some demanded by people who believe in the widely ridiculed and debunked election movie “2000 Mules." These include bills that would require all parts of all electronic voting equipment used in Arizona to be made in the United States, (Senate Bill 1074), give election officials the option to fully count all ballots by hand (House Bill 2722), and have election workers monitor drop boxes 24 hours a day (Senate Bill 1170).

The committee under Rogers has received heavy criticism for presenting the unverified claims of multiple conspiracy promoters. In one hearing, Rogers upbraided fellow Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, for using the phrase "conspiracy theory" even though Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, claimed immediately afterward that he could prove a conspiracy theory when it came to alleged election fraud.

The silencing of critics sometimes extends to members of the public who speak at the Capitol. In the House Municipal Oversight and Election Committee, Chairwoman Rep. Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa, told speaker Ben Scheel he could not use the phrase "conspiracy theory" when criticizing an election bill. When he kept using it, committee Vice Chairperson Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, yelled at him to quit several times, and Scheel — who wouldn't obey — was stopped from speaking.

Scheel, who has angered conservatives with his words in previous hearings, stood with other liberal activists for a press conference March 15 on the Senate lawn to denounce the "bullying" in hearings by Republicans. The activists didn’t provide any other specific examples of that behavior.

"They make the rules, but should they be making rules that specifically disenfranchise advocates like me that don’t share their viewpoint?" Scheel told The Republic. "They say total mistruths, but nobody gets censored for that kind of stuff. They have a double standard here."

Kolodin and another member of the Freedom Caucus told a reporter with the Arizona Mirror that Scheel had impugned the reputations of lawmakers and could "go (expletive) himself."

Reach the reporter atrstern@arizonarepublic.com or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter@raystern.