Partisan tension fractures Arizona's delegation after the Capitol riot

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., objects to certifying Arizona's Electoral College votes during a joint session of the House and Senate convenes to count the electoral votes cast in November's election, at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

On the 70th anniversary of a nuclear explosion in Nevada that exposed many Americans to radiation, Rep. Greg Stanton, a Democrat, announced he was seeking to add residents of Mohave County and southern Nevada to a federal fund to compensate its victims.

The next day, Rep. Paul Gosar, a Republican whose district includes Mohave County, introduced a bill that would effectively do the same thing.

Two years ago, Stanton and Gosar were both part of a bill to help the “downwinders.” But that was before Jan. 6.

The weeks since the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol, which some blame specifically on Reps. Gosar and Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., have exposed deepening rifts within the state’s delegation as the historically red state has evolved into a purple battleground. 

All of Arizona’s Democratic House members are, at least for now, unwilling to work on some things with GOP colleagues they view as complicit in undermining public confidence in the presidential election and who, in varying ways, helped goad a mob into violent insurrection. 

There is bipartisan agreement among most of the state’s 11 congressional members: They are hesitant to discuss the post-insurrection dynamics publicly. 

“My focus is on getting results for Arizonans — and to move the needle on tough issues, you have to work with the right people,” Stanton said in a written statement to The Arizona Republic. “Many times that means reaching across the aisle to find bipartisan common ground, and there are circumstances when the wrong partners can jeopardize making progress.”

U.S. Representative Greg Stanton spoke at the groundbreaking of ASU's Thunderbird School of Global Management, Oct. 7, 2019.

For his part, Gosar declined to comment.

Lara Brown, the director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, said the Republican Party nationally is trapped in an ideological cul de sac and Democrats are not along for the ride.

“This is an existential moment,” she said. “We’re in a situation right now where there’s a substantial contingent of the Republican Party that wants to believe there was no pandemic, there was widespread election fraud and that President Trump should still be in office. There’s nowhere to go with that.”

The acrimony is out in the open

All four of Arizona’s GOP House members voted to set aside election results — even after they witnessed the rampage. All but one also wanted to set aside Arizona’s results. 

The lingering resentment from the Arizona Democrats is testing their will to work together. 

“If I’m going to advocate to the federal government, to the (President Joe) Biden people, I’m not going to jump on with people that just tried to invalidate his election,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz. 

Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., acknowledged a deeper rift and said it has been moving in that direction for years.

“I think that’s sort of the tone all through Congress. It’s a level of partisanship that is much bigger than the 6th. It’s been building up for a while,” Schweikert said. “The world is so polarized. … You don’t raise money by saying, ‘I worked with the other side to accomplish this.’”

He said the polarized present is an outgrowth of the entire political class, from those in office to lobbyists and the media, who cater to or speak with those with narrow interests.

“It’s become the business model,” he said. Add to it the forced isolation of a year in quarantine, and Congress has retreated to its comfortable partisan corners, Schweikert said.

In January and February, when Arizona was among the worst hot spots in the country for COVID-19 infections, the state’s congressional delegation wanted the same thing: 300,000 more vaccines weekly.

All 11 members asked for additional help, and nearly at the same time. But instead of speaking with one voice with one letter, they sent five letters that went to multiple places. 

Coming just days after the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol, most of Arizona’s House Democrats signed one letter. The House Republicans sent one of their own. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., sent one by herself, then added another with Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., making the same request. Stanton penned a separate request.

Unified, it was not. The flurry of letters illustrated a delegation still staggering from the Capitol rampage.

“It left scars that I don't think will heal for a long time. That's not just in Arizona, that's across the board,” said former Rep. Jim Kolbe, a former Republican congressman who once represented the Tucson area in Congress and has since registered as an independent. 

“It’s very difficult — I’m not sure it’s possible — when you have differences as pronounced as we saw on Jan. 6 and the day that they met to ratify the votes for the state and where you have members of the Arizona delegation voting to disenfranchise their own constituents.”

Different attitude in the Senate

U.S. Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema

The dynamics are playing out differently in the Senate, where Arizona is represented by two centrist-positioned Democrats, Sinema and Kelly, who is new to the chamber and is just beginning to forge relationships. 

Each of the senators blames former President Donald Trump and the toxic political environment for contributing to the Jan. 6 events, but both said they will continue to work across the aisle — and with members of the state’s delegation — on issues that matter to Arizonans. 

Earlier this month, for example, Sinema and Kelly joined Gosar in supporting a federal land swap in La Paz County for economic development that is also backed by the state’s three other House Republicans. 

“Listening to and partnering with people of different parties and different beliefs can be difficult — and today, it’s never been more important,” Sinema said in a statement to The Republic. “I promised Arizonans that instead of focusing my energy on areas of division, I would do the hard work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to deliver results for Arizona.”

Kelly struck a similar tone in his own written statement: “Being an independent voice for Arizona means working with anyone to get things done for our state. That’s what I’ve done so far and what I’ll continue to do.”  

The La Paz County Land Solar Development and Job Creation Act of 2021 is identical to an effort the Arizona delegation tried unsuccessfully last congressional session. There is one notable difference: This year, Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., has not signed onto the legislation. An O’Halleran spokesperson said La Paz County officials had not reached out to the congressman about the bill.

O’Halleran, a political moderate and former Chicago police detective, declined to talk to The Republic, but he told Bloomberg he isn’t interested in sponsoring bills with “ring leaders” who attempted to overturn the election results. 

“Until they have a sense of changing their direction, they’re not going to be a choice of mine to go and sponsor a bill,” he told Bloomberg.

Democrats say Republicans crossed a line

Reps. Andy Biggs, Debbie Lesko and Paul Gosar

The rupture within the House delegation is a sore subject among the members, who largely blame their cross-party colleagues for the icy environment.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., the dean of the state’s congressional delegation, speaks bluntly about the worsened relations.

“It’s not just the fact that the entire Republican delegation voted for the big lie and continues to some extent — particularly two of them — to promote it and to continue to stir the belief that President Biden is not legitimate.

“The fact that Mr. Gosar goes to an extreme white supremacist group and talks about the changing of America because of the changing demographics speech he gave there,” Grijalva said in a reference to Gosar’s recent speech at an event organized by a white nationalist. “The association is not only uncomfortable for me, politically I don't want to be associated with it.”

The event: Rep. Paul Gosar speaks at white nationalist event, skips in-person D.C. votes

Biggs, who is seen by many on the political left as an instigator, has felt the chill on Capitol Hill.

“I've had people tell me, ‘We just don't really want to work with you guys because of January 6th.’ We've had bills that we've co-sponsored with others in the past and they've said, ‘We're not going to let you sign on or we’re not going to sign onto your bill,’” Biggs said in an interview.

“It's not just me,” Biggs continued. “It's the vast majority of Republicans have expressed that the Democrats have been pretty clear they're not going to work with us. (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi has said that Republicans are the enemy within.”

Gallego, a Marine Corps veteran who memorably handed out gas masks to members on the House floor during the riot and later sheltered reporters in his office, said he can’t overlook the harm of Jan. 6. 

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., appears with then Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., on Oct. 12, 2018, at Democratic headquarters in Phoenix.

“I don’t want to be mad at my Republican colleagues, and not working with some of them, because I still need to get work done for my state, for my issues. But then how do you also hold accountable some of the worst actors?,” Gallego said. “I definitely feel like I can’t, in good honesty, work with them on anything.

"At some point, if it's important enough to Arizona, maybe I have to suck it up. But in the meantime, it doesn’t mean I have to."

These days, Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., is lumped in with Biggs and Gosar, though her social media comments before the riot were less caustic. She urged people to ensure “legal votes” are counted as part of maintaining “election integrity.” By contrast, Biggs — and especially Gosar — spoke of election fraud.

Lesko declined an interview, but in a statement said she will continue to look for ways to work together.

“It is an honor to serve with the other members of the Arizona Congressional Delegation,” she said. “During my time in Congress, I have always looked for opportunities to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to do what is best for Arizona. I will continue to work with the delegation in the 117th Congress to improve the lives of all Arizonans.” 

Arizona’s members occasionally have found bipartisan cooperation on some issues despite the deeply partisan split that has gripped Washington for a generation.

Throughout the pandemic, for example, they signed onto letters to the federal government about the need to keep agriculture inspectors along the border safe from the disease, asked for more federal aid to combat COVID-19 and wrote to Trump in support of a major disaster declaration for the Navajo Nation, when COVID-19 ravaged the area.

The pandemic's impact:How COVID-19 struck the heart of the Navajo Nation 

But more recent collaboration is in shorter supply.

Moving forward, but not together

Biggs, Gosar and Lesko figured prominently in a report earlier this month compiled by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., on what she viewed as troubling social media posts after the election.

Gosar got the most attention from Lofgren and he has attracted outsized attention for his zealous — and baseless — claims of election theft. It has, unsurprisingly, left him on the outs with many Democrats.

Acting on his own, Stanton's office said he secured a hearing on adding downwinders to the federal aid fund for fallout victims, a first on the issue in the House in two decades. 

The downwinders issue has attracted bipartisan support from Arizona’s delegation in years past. Even so, it wasn’t resolved under Gosar’s lead, even with GOP control of the House. Stanton’s bill has two co-sponsors, both are Nevada Democrats.

Such a freezeout is relatively new for Gosar.

While he has long been controversial, Gosar usually has found relatively broad Democratic interest in his bills, at least by Washington’s hyper-partisan standards.

Throughout his congressional career, 19% of the cosponsors to Gosar’s bills have been Democrats, according to an Arizona Republic analysis of data compiled by GovTrack, a nonpartisan website that monitors federal activity.

That is largely due to the dozens of times he found cosponsors in Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., and Sinema.

Within Arizona’s delegation, only O’Halleran, who is a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, has drawn more cosponsors from the other party than Gosar: 21%.

By contrast, Grijalva and Biggs, who are among the delegation’s most prolific for introducing legislation, have each attracted less than 5% support from people outside their parties.

But even Kirkpatrick has pulled back from Gosar and her GOP colleagues.

“On a personal level, I like Paul very much and his family, and all of the Arizona delegation, quite honestly,” said Kirkpatrick, who lost her seat to Gosar in 2010, but returned two years later and worked cooperatively with him on some issues. It was a rapport that he reaffirmed in early 2020 after she acknowledged alcohol dependency.

“But, you know, the D.C. lockdown was terrifying. Gosar and Biggs were actively supporting the insurrection and were active in the 'Insurrection Caucus.' And I think that they have to be held accountable.”

For Kirkpatrick, that means investigations into the roles of everyone who helped create the climate that led to the riot. Meanwhile, she said she can’t work with “fringe, alt-right members of Congress.”

“It's just not productive or effective for my office to cooperate with those who are aligned with policies that undermine democracy, promote conspiracy theories and who put a person like Donald Trump over hardworking Arizonans," Kirkpatrick said.

Renewing pitched partisanship

The strained relations are not entirely new to the delegation.

Seven of Arizona’s 11 members of Congress were in the Arizona Legislature at some point in their careers. For decades, the State Capitol in Phoenix has mostly been a place where Republicans flattened Democratic bills and where GOP ideas routinely passed on party-line votes.

Four members of the delegation were in the Legislature at the same time six of the eight years spanning 2005 to 2013.

That includes arguably the state’s most polarizing legislation in a generation: Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s immigration-enforcement law.

Biggs and Lesko backed that bill; Sinema and Gallego did not.

While many in the delegation have known each other for years, the arrival of Kelly required belated introductions to Biggs. 

Kelly only joined Congress in December after winning a special election in 2020 and had never met Biggs until weeks after his swearing-in. The two met, he said, sitting next to each other on a plane.

The delegation has passed on the kind of get-togethers that have been common in some state delegations like Nebraska and Texas that help members develop personal relationships and share information unfiltered by staff.

For a time, Lesko organized periodic breakfasts for the members, only to see attendance wither, and, with the onset of the pandemic, the sessions eventually vanished. 

The breakfasts were a throwback to an earlier era when members of Arizona’s delegation set aside time in a harried Washington to attend religiously, said Kolbe. 

“It’s the key, the grease that gets the legislation passed and makes sure Arizona’s interests are looked after, and a way of exchanging information between members about their doings and about what’s happening in the state, with the Legislature, with the governor,” he said. 

Kolbe said the meals "required a personal commitment to making it happen."

The absence of those regular meetings, he said, signals “these important conversations that facilitate legislation and action on behalf of Arizona are not occurring. And if they’re not occurring, you’re not getting as good of a response for what’s needed for the state.” 

Grijalva said that former Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was able to bring the state’s delegation together because of the respect he commanded. And he noted that he and Kolbe had significant disagreements on many policy issues.

“But when it came to issues as fundamental as roads, transportation, resources for schools, the University (of Arizona), we were on the same page and we worked and planned together to get those done,” Grijalva said.

Grijalva acknowledges the current divisions aren't good, but he isn’t budging.

“Are there bipartisan issues that we could work on? Probably. Is there anything that is being jeopardized because we're not working together? I don't think so," Grijalva said. "I think that the differences and the continued attacks on the legitimacy of this administration are not going to change."

Reach the reporters at ronald.hansen@arizonarepublic.com and yvonne.wingett@arizonarepublic.comFollow them on Twitter @ronaldjhansen and @yvonnewingett.

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