Independent upends state House race – Payson Roundup

by Peter Aleshire consulting publications editor May 21, 2019

The race for the state House seat representing Rim Country should have lots of plot twists and intrigue in 2020.

Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott has announced a bid to fill the seat being vacated by term-limited Republican Bob Thorpe — a conservative members of the Arizona Legislature.

Here’s the twist.

Babbott is running as an independent, which means he can skip the primary and go straight to the general election if he can gather enough signatures to get on the ballot. Independents have to collect almost three times as many signatures as people running for party nominations — roughly 1,300.

Babbott spoke to Rim Country Democrats this weekend, but says that as the Legislature’s sole elected independent, he would focus on bipartisan problem solving. The House currently has 31 Republicans and 29 Democrats — which means he hopes to wield an influential swing vote.

Thorpe — a Flagstaff Tea Party organizer and constitutional conservative — can’t run again for the House due to term limits. Instead, he’s seeking the District 6 State Senate seat being vacated by Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake). Retired Air Force colonel and air-evac helicopter pilot Felicia French is seeking the Democratic nomination for that open seat.

French came within a whisker of winning the House seat a year ago, but lost to Thorpe by about 400 votes. She was contending for an open seat due to the retirement of Rep. Brenda Barton, who also hit her term limit. The other House incumbent in the seat stretching from the Grand Canyon to the White Mountains is Walter Blackman, now in his first term after winning Barton’s slot.

Babbott has lived in Flagstaff for 20 years and served for six years on the Flagstaff city council before his election to the Coconino County Board of Supervisors in 2012. He’s now co-chairman of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative stakeholder’s group, working to promote the thinning of a million acres of overgrown ponderosa pine forests in northern Arizona. He has operated the Flagstaff Marketplace for 18 years.

He believes voters are sick of partisan infighting.

“I bring a small-business owner’s perspective. I really believe strongly that the two parties often confuse hostage taking and grenade lobbing for problem solving. The majority of voters want us to focus on real issues and real problems and not on the hyper-partisan divide that has really brought government at the federal and even the state level to a standstill,” he said.

District 6 has 106,000 residents and has become one of the most competitive districts in the state, despite Republicans roughly 8 percent registration advantage over Democrats. However, nearly as many voters have registered as independents as Republicans, giving them the decisive vote in who actually wins. In the last general election, Blackman got 26.5 percent of the vote, Thorpe 25.9 percent while Democrats French 25.6 percent and Holbrook Councilman Bobby Tyler got 22 percent. In the Senate race, Allen got 50.9 percent of the vote and Holbrook Mayor Wade Carlisle got 49.1 percent.

So far, no one but Babbott and Blackman have said they plan to run for the two House seats.

Historically, legislative rules and the power of the House and Senate leadership have left the minority party mostly watching from the outside — with little chance of getting bills even heard in committee, much less passed on the floor. The only recent exception was then Republican Gov. Jane Hull’s reliance on the votes of legislative Democrats and moderate Republicans to expand the state’s Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System to cover an additional 600,000 Arizonans, with the federal government footing the bill.

Babbott believes the narrowing gap between Republicans and Democrats could open the door to bipartisan solutions — while giving an independent an ability to negotiate solutions on both sides of the partisan aisle.

“I don’t want to reach across the aisle — I want to be in the aisle.”

He says education is his top priority, since it accounts for half of state spending. Arizona schools rank 48th in per-student spending nationally, with the some of the largest class sizes and lowest teacher pay in the nation.

He says the state could raise hundreds of millions of dollars to improve education by rolling back no-longer-needed corporate tax breaks — mostly sales tax exemptions that have accumulated over time.

“Clearly, the No. 1 public policy priority is always — and continues to be — excellence in education. We have a long way to go.”

He noted any real solution will require support from both parties, since the Arizona Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. “But if you look at the corporate tax breaks that have been given over the years — at one point many of those breaks served an economic purpose, but many of them are no longer valid.”

Babbott’s current, districtwide claim to fame remains his involvement with 4FRI, a plan to restore forest health and reduce wildfire threats by relying on a reinvented logging industry to thin a million acres of forest in coming decades. The project has fallen years behind schedule, in large measure because of the lack of a market for millions of tons of small trees and wood scraps. Babbott is in the forefront of the local officials now pushing the Arizona Corporation Commission to create just such a market by requiring the state’s utilities to generate at least 90 megawatts of electricity from biomass.

“As the Camp Fire (in California) showed us,” he said, “although the fires may burn in forested counties, the costs are shared statewide.”

For instance, the California fire has now bankrupted Pacific Gas & Electric, since the $16 billion wildfire started from downed power lines.

Babbott grew up in Vermont and has a BA in political science and an MA in urban affairs and public policy. He helped restore the Orpheum Theater in downtown Flagstaff and for 18 years with his wife has run Flagstaff Community Markets — a Sunday morning farmers market, flea market and artisan market. His wife is a hospice nurse and his 9-year-old daughter attends public school in Flagstaff.

He’s currently one of three elected independents in the whole state — none of them in the Legislature.

His talk to the Democrats marked his first campaign appearance in Rim Country, one of the Republican bastions in a district that stretches from one side of the state to the other. The population centers include of Show Low, Sedona, the Verde Valley and Flagstaff as well as Payson and Pine.

“I believe it is really important that I speak with everyone. I don’t just talk ideology. I talk about solving problems. I believe people are hungry for a different way of doing things in the state of Arizona.”