“Facts matter, science matters,” said Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott as he showcased his independent bid for Arizona House District 6 candidate before several hundred Rim Country Democrats earlier this month.
He could have expected a tough sale.
He’s running as an independent for an open House seat representing a district that includes all of Rim Country — but stretches from the Grand Canyon to New Mexico. Democrat Felicia French came within a couple hundred votes of winning the seat a year ago and Democrats statewide are eager to finally win control of the House — now with 29 Democrats and 31 Republicans.
Yet Babbott got a friendly reception with his appeal to fact-based policy making and an end to partisan bomb throwing.
“The Legislature has become hyper partisan. We’re confusing simple slogans with solutions to complex problems. People go stand on a corner and lob grenades into the room and confuse that with problem solving.”
He said one woman came up to him after a presentation and commented, “If you don’t have a D or an R after your name, how do I know if I hate you or not?”
That got a laugh from the crowd, overflowing one of the Rumsey Park ramadas for a political picnic.
Babbott has operated an art and farmers market in Flagstaff for nearly 20 years, while also having served on the Flagstaff council and the board of supervisors. He’s co-chair of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which works to reduce the danger of wildfires by thinning some 2 million acres of overgrown forests.
He hopes to fill the House seat being vacated by Rep. Bob Thorpe (R-Flagstaff). Incumbent Rep. Walt Blackman is also running for re-election. No Democrats have yet declared for the House seats. Voters can vote for two House representatives and one Senate representative.
Babbott says he hopes a Democrat will also run to ensure a vigorous, solutions-oriented debate.
Babbott stressed education, political reforms, providing mental health services and curbing wildfire danger in his wide-ranging talk.
Babbott advocates closing a billion dollars in corporate and sales tax breaks as a way to raise money to lift Arizona out of 48th place when it comes to per-student funding.
“Our No. 1 priority should be education. But where we’re first — we should be last. And where we’re last, we should be first. We have the highest number of students languishing at the bottom. In 2019, we’re below the 2008 per-student spending level. It’s naïve to think that you can get returns without investment.”
Mental health services
Babbott said the opiate epidemic and a plague of suicides demonstrates the lack of mental health services — along with a crisis in providing health care generally.
He pointed out that Gila County’s suicide rate is now three times the national average. The rate in Coconino County is more than two times the national average.
“I am a person in recovery for the past 19 years,” he said. “I was given a lot of help. It’s so important we realize what kids in K-12 education are going through. We have an epidemic of suicide.”
Babbott harshly criticized the Legislature’s effort to make it harder to gather signatures for initiatives and referendums. Recent changes have gotten some measures knocked off the ballot — including a measure that would have required the disclosure of “dark money” political spending by corporations and special interest groups.
On the other hand, he also cited the recent success of Proposition 305, which rolled back a law that would have shifted hundreds of millions in taxpayer funding to private schools through one of the nation’s most generous school voucher programs. “Proposition 305 shows just how far ahead of the Legislature the citizens of this state are,” said Babbott.
He said he would defend the initiative and referendum process, included in the Arizona Constitution as part of the then progressive movement nationally.
“We have an amazing Constitution created in response to certain entities having an outsized power over the Legislature. Now the Arizona Legislature is trying to do away with the right of citizens to move forward.”
Babbott, as part of the 4FRI stakeholders group, has worked to push forward the languishing effort to reinvent a small-tree logging industry to thin millions of acres of forest and reduce the threat of community-destroying wildfires.
He has pushed to convince the Arizona Corporation Commission to require utilities to buy enough biomass from forest thinning projects to make large-scale thinning efforts economical.
“If we want to get something difficult done, we have to be willing to do something different. Climate change is real. Science matters. It is our responsibility to engage in thoughtful discussion to develop new technologies.”