The August primary’s a snoozer.
But the November general election looks like a knock-down drag out.
That’s the picture that emerges from the final lineup of candidates for the two District 6 Arizona State House seats, in a district that includes all of Rim Country and the White Mountains.
Rep. Walt Blackman and former Rep. Brenda Barton have both turned in signatures to make it onto the ballot in the Republican primary. Voters can pick two candidates for the two district seats — so the Republican primary’s a done deal.
Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans was the lone Democrat to qualify for the August primary ballot. So she’ll head automatically into the general election.
Now here’s the big wrinkle. Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott gathered the signatures necessary to appear on the general election ballot as an independent.
District 6 stretches from Flagstaff all the way to the New Mexico border and includes a chunk of Sedona and the Verde Valley. It’s one of the most competitive districts in the state with a registration that’s 37% Republican, 29% Democrat and 33% independent. Republicans have held both seats for years, partly because the registered independents tend to skew Republican.
However, Babbott’s entry into the race scrambles the dynamics. If Democrats in the general election vote only for Evans and independents only for Babbott, the two Republicans would easily capture both seats. But if Democrats also support Babbott who draws strong support from independents, he would likely top one of the Republicans. If a lot of independents cross over to vote for Evans, she could also win.
Babbott recently appeared on a Payson radio station and was the only one of the four candidates to respond to a request for comment on campaigning in the face of the pandemic and comment on the state’s response to the epidemic.
In her press release after announcing she’d filed her signatures, Barton said, “it’s time to start spreading the message to voters. What’s the message? We will expand the rural economy, improve our infrastructure — like roads, keep taxes low and protect our constitutional freedoms. Campaigning will be challenging during COVID-19, but we’re going to be creative with reaching voters where they are.”
She previously held the seat for three terms, before hitting her term limit. After sitting out a session, she’s free to seek a fresh tenure.
Blackman’s campaign did not respond to an email request for comment. The only recent press release from his office centered on the decision of the Gila County Attorney’s Office to prosecute a Show Low couple whose three children drowned after they drove past a road-closed barrier into flooded Tonto Creek. Blackman vigorously protested the decision to prosecute.
Evans’ campaign also did not respond to a request for comment. Flagstaff has been coping with a major outbreak of COVID-19 cases and has also been treating many of the most seriously ill COVID-19 cases from the Navajo Reservation. Coconino County has 240 cases and 21 deaths per 100,000 population. That compares to a statewide rate of 70 cases and 3 deaths per 100,000 population, as of Sunday.
Babbott offered extensive comments on the state’s COVID-19 response. He had earlier submitted more than 2,000 signatures, since independents must gather roughly five times as many signatures to make it onto the ballot as either Republicans or Democrats.
Babbott is a small business owner and county supervisor who has played a leading role in trying to jump-start forest thinning through the Four Forest Restoration Initiative.
He said, “I am running as an independent not because it is easier, but because how we have our political conversations produces predictably underwhelming results. Too often we confuse political hostage taking for problem solving.”
He said preparing for emergencies — whether it’s a wildfire or an epidemic — remains a core responsibility of government.
He noted that Coconino County opened the state’s first drive-thru testing facility and the first facility to allow homeless people to quarantine and self-isolate. The county also coordinated the release of masks, gloves and gowns to health care workers.
“Local government did its job,” he said.
However, he faulted elements of the state’s response. Lawmakers adopted a stripped-down state budget and set aside an extra $50 million for the governor to use to respond to the pandemic before adjourning.
Babbott commented, “The Arizona Legislature, at the most critical time of the pandemic and when leadership was most required, went into recess for over a month. The Legislature could have met digitally or it could have easily figured out how to meet while socially distancing.”
He said the Legislature should have taken action to waive penalties for late payment of property taxes, allowing a full vote-by-mail election in August and November and use more of the “rainy day fund” to support small businesses and laid-off workers.
“In difficult times, citizens look to elected officials to provide leadership. The taxpayers and small business owners who pay legislators’ salaries rightfully expect that when the going gets tough, you show up for work and do your job.”
Walt Blackman photo courtesy of Arizona Capitol Times; Coral Evans photo courtesy of flagstaff.az.gov