As we’ve mentioned before, Legislative District 26, where Republicans Pete Hershberger and Al Melvin are fighting for a Senate seat in the Sept. 2 primary, is in the ScrambleWatch spotlight. The two candidates squared off in a Clean Elections debate last night.
Although the district leans Republican, Democrat Charlene Pesquiera won LD26 in 2006 by fewer than 500 votes over Melvin. Melvin had ousted Sen. Toni Hellon in the GOP primary two month earlier with a campaign that accused her of being too liberal; he hopes to give Hershberger the same treatment this year.
Hershberger counters that he’s in step with the voters of the district, which stretches from Saddlebrooke through Oro Valley and across the Catalina Foothills. Hershberger has represented LD26 in the House of Representatives for eight years. He argues that Melvin can’t win a general election in the district.
Here’s a slightly delayed liveblog of key debate moments:
7:05 p.m.: Moderator David Bartlett skips the standard introductory question that lets candidates talk about who they are and jumps right into the issue of illegal immigration by asking whether the candidates support Arizona’s employer sanctions law.
Melvin says securing the border is the first step in his five-point plan to improve Arizona. “We need to enforce all of our existing laws and when we do that, we will get control of the illegal immigrant situation and and we’ll start to save the $2 billion a year that it’s costing Arizona taxpayers.”
Hershberger says he supports “the toughest employer sanctions bill in the country” and calls for more border security and some kind of guest-worker program. “We will continue to work on this issue,” he promises.
7:09 p.m.: Hershberger cites this year’s budget as an example of legislative success because it bridged a shortfall of more than $2 billion. “We did in a bipartisan way,” Hershberger says. “We did a combination of things to pass a budget that’s still going to maintain a vision for Arizona.”
He laments that the Legislature still deals with too many “contentious issues that distract us from the business at hand and I wish that we could get beyond that.”
7:10 p.m.: Melvin takes his first direct shot at Hershberger. “I have to disagree with my opponent,” he salvoes. “In the eight years that he’s been in the House, we’ve had bloated budgets and not enough tax cuts.”
Melvin points out that only four Republicans in the House and four Republicans in the Senate voted for this year’s budget. “They passed a Democratic budget and it’s a crying shame and it’s not the first time it’s happened.”
Melvin also zings Hershberger for opposing the permanent repeal of the state’s property tax, which raises $250 million a year. “When I get to Phoenix, I will not raise taxes. I’ll cut them and I promise that I will,” he vows.
7:13 p.m.: Melvin lays out his five-point program for Arizona: securing the border, improving education, providing tax relief, finding more water (through private desalinization plants) and improving the environment, with an emphasis on nuclear power as an alternative energy supply.
7:14 p.m.: Hershberger defends his opposition to a repeal of the state’s property tax.
“We had a $2 billion deficit in Arizona and we borrowed $500 million for new school construction to fill that hole,” he says. “Why would we do a tax cut with borrowed money? Why would we pay interest, borrow money, and turn around and give a tax cut? The voters of this district are smarter than that.”
7:15 p.m.: Hershberger tells the audience that a special session may be needed to address a budget shortfall later this year, which could require across-the-board cuts to state agencies.
7:16 p.m.: In case anyone has forgotten what he said seven minutes earlier, Melvin reminds the audience that Hershberger was one of the few Republicans to support this year’s budget.
“When you get into a situation like this from the overspending in the eight years that my opponent was in the House, then you have to make cuts.”
Melvin tells the audience that illegal immigration costs the taxpayers $2 billion a year and calls for more tax and spending cuts.
7:18 p.m.: The candidates are asked whether they support more state spending on preschool. Melvin says more preschool money should come with tax breaks and school choice.
Hershberger pimps his chairmanship of the “children’s caucus” and says high-risk kids in poverty settings should be first in line for state-subsidized preschool. He adds that Melvin’s comments about the budget are “partisanship. He would like for there to be total partisanship in Arizona. I believe in bipartisanship and I believe that the voters of District 26 want statesmanship, not partisanship.”
7:20 p.m.: The candidates field a question about how the state can best help people struggling with rising gasoline and grocery prices.
As Hershberger begins to wonk out about helping poor people, our mind starts to wander. We ponder: How did the Children’s Action Alliance get the contract to moderate this gig, anyway? It smells like Hershberger put in a fix somewhere to ensure a bunch of questions that would make him look like a hero.
And another thing: It seems like half the crowd is made up of liberal Democrats. Why are they packing the room for a GOP primary debate?
We tune back in to hear Melvin defending himself from charges that he’ll be a pawn of The Powers That Be in Maricopa. He complains that Hershberger is “heavily funded by Phoenix and Maricopa-based lobbyists and other political action committees.” He calls for lower taxes to help the poor.
7:22 p.m.: Melvin calls for tort reform to reduce health care expenses and gripes that trial lawyers support Hershberger.
7:23 p.m.: Hershberger says the trial lawyers so do not support him. He says health care costs would be lower if more poor kids had state-supported health insurance.
7:25: p.m.: Hershberger says he opposes the proposal to amend the Arizona Constitution to ban gay marriage. “I don’t not support taking referendums to the ballot to create wedge issues for social policy,” he says.
Melvin says he supports the proposition. “It has to be in the constitution to protect it from activist judges…. There’s no other way to protect the basic building block of society.”
7:28 p.m.: Melvin says the key to providing more kids with health care is getting rid of illegal immigrants.
7:30 p.m.: Hershberger says he’s “very proud” that he’s been able to stand up to the GOP leadership in Phoenix.
7:32 p.m.: Melvin calls for a private toll-road between Tucson and Phoenix.
7:34 p.m.: Hershberger says he opposes guns in schools and bars.
7:35 p.m.: We’re at closing statements after just half an hour. What, the organizers couldn’t have thought of more questions? What about abortion? Energy policy? Sustainability? Conserving state trust lands? Eliminating the payday loan industry? Investment in universities?
Hershberger says he’s a “good fit for the district. My family has represented this district and I have been meeting with my constituents for eight years now…. My opponent lost his only election. He couldn’t win the a general election when he had a 10,000-vote advantage…. His policies are confusing.”
7:36 p.m.: Melvin says he’s running “to give this district solid Republican mainstream representation based on Republican principles of smaller government and lower taxes, unlike the liberal representation we’ve had from my opponent. You know, these legislative seats don’t belong to any one family, they belong to the people. We don’t have a political aristocracy in this country or in this district.”
Melvin says Hershberger thinks like a “socialist” and calls him “the most liberal Republican in the entire Legislature” and “the Democrats’ most favorite Republican.” He concludes: “They can rely on him every time for a bloated budget or a higher tax.”
7:38 p.m.: The two Republicans shake hands. It’s a wrap!