Art Babbott figures George Washington was right.
In his farewell address, Washington warned against the “spirit of party” that agitates the public “with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms and kindles the animosity of one party against another.”
And that’s why Babbott, a Coconino County supervisor for the past eight years, says he wants to represent Arizona Legislative District 6 in the state Senate as an independent. The district stretches from Flagstaff through the White Mountains and is considered one of the most competitive districts in the state.
“About 60% of our citizens think that what we are doing is insane,” said the Flagstaff businessman during a recent campaign appearance in Payson. “The Republicans and the Democrats don’t agree on a lot — but one thing on which they’re firmly in agreement is to make our electoral system as uncompetitive as possible.”
So both parties have jiggered district lines to create safe seats and embraced closed primaries. This pushes Republicans to the right and Democrats to the left — hollowing out the pragmatic middle ground.
“We need a system that engenders competition. As long as the parties write the rules, don’t expect anything else. We confuse suffocating party ideology for problem solving. The plane has run into the mountainside as far as government efficiency and function is concerned,” said Babbott, who has run a Flagstaff farmers market for 20 years and played a leading role in advocating for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative in his eight years on the board of supervisors.
Outside money is flooding into District 6, where the two seats could end up determining which party controls the House. As a result, both House and Senate candidates have entered the general election campaign with hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend.
“The balance in the Legislature runs through legislative District 6,” said Babbott, who is no relation to the former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt.
If elected, he said he’ll caucus with both parties — or with whichever party has control of the House.
“I don’t want to reach across the aisle — I want to stand in the aisle. You pay me to work on problems, not answer to a party over our community. Think about Ronald Reagan and (House Speaker) Tip O’Neill. They understood that when you walk into the room, you don’t have the pin pulled on the grenade for the conversation. You have to be willing to give something to get something — and that used to be viewed as admirable. How did we get to this point? I really do believe it’s a combination of money and politics and special interest money that for lack of a better term buys politicians.”
That’s why he says he’s running as an independent in a district where independents account for roughly a third of the registered voters.
Incumbent Walt Blackman, a Show Low Republican, is running for a second term. Republican Brenda Barton, who sat out for two years when she hit her term limit, hopes to regain the seat vacated by Rep. Bob Thorpe, who hit his term limit.
Democrat Coral Evans, the mayor of Flagstaff, is the sole Democrat running for one of the two seats in the House.
Retired Army nurse and helicopter pilot Felicia French is running as a Democrat for the single Senate seat against retired Air Force Lt. Col. Wendy Rogers, who ousted longtime incumbent Republican Sylvia Allen after a bitter and expensive primary.
On a range of issues, Babbott faults the state’s current policies.
Increase education funding
For instance, he’s sharply critical of the Legislature’s votes to ensure Arizona remains one of the most poorly funded school systems in the country on a per-student basis.
“The citizens understand that just because we want a world-class education system doesn’t mean we’ll get it — you have to invest in it. You can’t spend $600 million less than you did 15 years ago and get results. So how do we get teacher pay up so we’re not 49th in the nation?”
He said he would support repealing some of the billions of dollars in sales tax exemptions for a variety of industries. However, he suspects only a voter-supported referendum will result in any significant increase in educational funding, given the Arizona Constitution’s requirement that the Legislature muster a two-thirds vote to raise any tax.
“The shortest distance between two points runs through a constitutional initiative or referendum process,” he said.
Support forest restoration
He’s also critical of the Arizona Corporation Commission’s refusal to require the state’s utilities to generate at least 90 megawatts of electricity. The Corporation Commission refused to issue a “biomass mandate” to provide the economic support for the millions of acres of thinning projects envisioned by 4FRI.
The effort to reduce the odds of a town-destroying megafire and protect watersheds has been stalled for a decade, mostly for lack of a market for the slash and small trees that represent half the material loggers must remove. The commissioners argued that burning biomass costs more than producing energy with solar or natural gas and ratepayers shouldn’t have to pay the extra several dollars a month it would take to build and maintain biomass-burning power plants.
“Catastrophic fire and post-fire flooding is the No. 1 public safety threat in this district. Biomass is the 900-pound gorilla in the room” when it comes to forest thinning. “Without that being part of the solution, it’s not going to succeed. We’re going to have to swallow a little bit of that bitter pill. At the end of the day, we’re going to pay. I don’t want it to be when we fly in the Type I team to put out the next 400,000-acre wildfire.”
Support for rural health care
Babbott suggested the state must increase support for a network of rural health care clinics and systems. That would include initiatives like the MHA Foundation’s partnership with the University of Arizona medical school to provide training in rural health care for doctors.
“The challenges of health care in Payson and Taylor and Snowflake and Holbrook and Flagstaff and the Verde Valley are very different than in our urban areas,” said Babbott. “It is amazing how often health care comes up in Payson. People are being forced to choose between where they want to live and where they can get health care. Rural Arizona must be served by community-based health care centers — that’s how we’re going to keep people who want to live here. We need to provide reasonable incentives for new doctors to move to rural parts of the state. Once they do, they will stay there.
“And that’s why state lawmakers must answer to their communities rather than their parties, which are more often interested in bashing one another than in finding solutions on which they can agree,” said Babbott.
“We have four of us running for two (House) seats,” said Babbott. My goal is to put forth a vision and a mission so I can get one of your two votes. If you like how our political conversations are being owned by the political parties, then keep doing what you’re doing. I’m probably not the guy you want. If you think we change the conversations without forgetting who pays our salaries — then give me a look. I have a ton of experience. I’m a small-business owner. That’s a forgotten skill at the Legislature, where we’ve confused partisan ideology for problem solving.”