The Arizona Clean Elections debate in Legislative District 23 featured little actual debate as only two candidates for separate offices agreed to participate.
Democrats Seth Blattman, candidate for Arizona Senate, and Eric Kurland, who is running for the State House, each took part in the discussion, which was hosted online by the Arizona Clean Elections Commission and moderated by reporter Arren Kimbel-Sannit from the Arizona Capitol Times.
Incumbents Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, and Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, did not participate. Scottsdale Republican Joseph Chaplik, who unseated incumbent Rep. Jay Lawrence in the primary, also declined an invitation to the debate.
Both Blattman and Kurland took that opportunity to call out their opposition for failing to debate the issues in a public forum.
“Basically, she’s a hiding,” Blattman said of Ugenti-Rita.
“She thinks she can go ahead and win without having to answer any tough questions, because if tough questions were to be asked of her, she doesn’t have a good answer,” Blattman said.
“What she’s done with her time in the Legislature has served nobody but herself and maybe her largest donors, but there’s no thought of what is in the best interest of people,” he added.
Kurland called the absences a “dereliction of duty, though he jokingly said he gave Kavanagh “a pass.”
“John Kavanagh has served for a very long time; we kind of know where he stands,” Kurland said.
He gave no such pass to Chaplik, the other Republican running for the House in LD23.
“If I was to speculate why he’s not here, I think he’s like George Bush used to say ‘all hat, no cattle,’” Kurland said. “So, I think he’s got a lot of good pictures out there, but there aren’t many policies or words behind the pictures.”
Kurland said he would agree to debate Chaplik anytime.
“We could sit on rocks in the middle of the Salt River; I don’t care,” Kurland said. “Joe Chaplik, you ring me and we’ll talk about the issues that people deserve to know where you stand.”
Despite the early barbs, both Kurland and Blattman spent much of the debate calling for more compromise and reconciliation between the parties at the Legislature.
The candidates said partisanship at the Capitol has caused a stalemate that has stopped meaningful legislation from being passed.
“One of the things I plan on doing when I first get down there is to start building relationship, get to know people where they are and understand where they’re coming from,” Kurland said. “We have a lot of good ideas, and I’m smart enough to know that I don’t know everything.”
If he is elected and the Democrats win a majority in the House, Kurland said will work to elect leadership that is open to working with both parties.
Kurland advocated for an open process and representation on committees that is proportional to a party’s overall representation in the House.
He also said he supported awarding the vice chair position on committees to members of the minority party, even if Democrats win a majority.
“I think there’s room for us to work together. I don’t think we go and have this extreme agenda,” Kurland said. “I think we have to be the adults in the room.”
Both candidates said reaching across the aisle will help avoid the gridlock that has plagued the Capitol in recent years and make it easier to address long-term issues like education funding.
Kurland, a former SUSD teacher, pointed to indicators that residents of LD 23 support increased education funding regardless of party.
“Even though Republicans outnumber Democrats by almost two to one, every time schools go out hat in hand every five years for an override that they would then tax themselves, it passes by double digits,” he said.
Blattman said it is the job of legislators to represent all members of the community, not just those in their party.
“We’re looking to represent every single person of this district, and that means working together,” Blattman said. “That means including the Republicans in any piece of legislation, whether we’re in the majority in both houses or just one.”
In LD23 – where 45 percent of registered voters are Republican versus 25 percent Democrat – that means both Kurland and Blattman would spend a lot of time reaching across the aisle.
“You’re not representing just your party,” Blattman said. “I have the ideals of my party on a lot of issues, but I am meant to represent Republicans, independents, and Democrats…”
But Kimbel-Sannit, the moderator, asked both candidates why they valued bipartisanship when many Republicans in the Legislature have resisted calls to reach across the aisle in recent years.
Blattman said he thinks most residents in Scottsdale are moderates and that legislation no longer represents what constituents actually want.
“If it’s a moderate district, which my district is, we govern as a moderate,” Blattman said. “That’s how I feel about the issue.”
Kurland said his push for bipartisanship was about “a matter of getting out of a model that has failed us,” stating he can work with Republicans on specific issues that appeal to both sides.
For example, he said he could work with Kavanagh, the Republican incumbent, to return local control of short-term housing to cities.
Kavanagh was the rare Republican at the legislature to oppose a 2016 law supported by Governor Doug Ducey that banned cities from regulating short-term rentals.
Kurland also said he could work towards criminal justice reform with Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, even though Blackman holds differing views on many social issues.
“I don’t have to like Walt Blackman, but if I’m elected, I have to work with Walt Blackman,” Kurland said. “It doesn’t mean we have to agree on where we are on social justice.”