Journalists’ Roundtable

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Three local journalists will discuss the week’s big stories.

TED SIMONS: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon's" Journalists' Roundtable. I'm Ted Simons. Joining us tonight: Mary Jo Pitzl of "The Arizona Republic." Mike Sunnucks of "The Phoenix Business Journal." And Jeremy Duda of "The Arizona Capitol Times."

TED SIMONS: Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick announces that she's running for John McCain's U.S. senate seat. Mary jo, was this a surprise?

MARY JO: It was widely regarded as a surprise. People opened up their e-mail the Tuesday after the holiday and there she is, announcing she's going to seek the U.S. Senate seat and this is right after winning very convincingly the second consecutive term in her congressional seat.

TED SIMONS: Did she jump in? Is conventional wisdom that she jumped in first before Kyrsten Sinema had a chance?

MIKE SUNNUCKS: Kyrsten was the one people thought might get in there because of the redistricting case that we are going to be talking about. But she might be the one to jump in there and take a stab at the senior senator, and then Ann beat her to the punch. We saw some polling when McCain announced he was finally running again and I don't think Ann Kirkpatrick is even on that list, they had other Democrats, Fred Duval, Sinema, but it was quite a surprise she wasn't even much a rumor about that.

TED SIMONS: That redistricting case which we will get to in a second,that really is a major factor here isn't it?

JEREMY DUDA: Probably I mean certainly the conventional thinking but I've spoken with some folks who are close to Kirkpatrick who claim that actually had really nothing to do with her decision and that she kind of announced before the Supreme Court ruling comes out to put an emphasis on that and they say it wasn't because of that, it wasn't because they're trying to preempt sinema who was only expected to get in if the supreme court pulls the rug out from under her on redistricting. But they say they went back after last year's election which you know was supposed to be a tough race and better than she did two years earlier, went back and looked at her numbers, she increased her win percentage even though it was an awful year for democrats. She increased turnout on the Native American reservations. They looked at these numbers and started saying "well gee, maybe I can make a run for the Senate seat."

TED SIMONS: There has to be an idea that polling had been done and Kirkpatrick's camp saw something promising.

MARY JO: That and I think there's also a sense of at least in some quarters of McCain fatigue. What is this? It would be his fifth

JEREMY DUDA: He will be running for his sixth term.

MARY JO: His sixth term. And she's a moderate democrat, she's not a far lefty. She's won across big vast swaths of the state granted its rural Arizona, strong native American support, a couple of things that would help tip those scales.

TED SIMONS: Supported the Affordable Care Act, though, and somewhat vocal in her support of Obamacare. Factor in the race, statewide?

MIKE SUNNUCKS: Oh yeah she has some distinct challenges. She's not well known in Maricopa or county or Tucson, which it's where the votes are. It's a Republican state. I think the thing that maybe she's hoping for maybe you'll see this in other races across the country is if Hillary Clinton's strong democratic nominee and Republicans, what there's 19 of them in the presidential race? If they really muck it up and you have a weak Republican candidate come on out there, that gender gap with women voters could help other women candidates in other states but still, you know, McCain has a lot of built-in advantages. The state of the world right now with ISIS and Russia, what's going on with foreign policy is one of his strong suits. So she has a lot of challenges in overcoming his advantages.

JEREMY DUDA: Sure, the Obamacare vote, that's going to come back to haunt her. We're going to see a lot of footage of her walking out of the meet-and-greet with constituents at a supermarket. But she does have some things going for her. Polling shows that McCain is more unpopular than he ever has been, supporters of Kirkpatrick will tell you that CD1 is like running statewide, it's the largest non at-large congressional seat in the country, she has to run massive amounts of TV every two years, in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, the two major media markets. You know, she travels the district a lot, she campaigns hard. So she does have certainly, some advantages. Certainly this is by far, by leaps and bounds the most serious candidate the Democrats have ever put up against McCain. Really the only serious candidate I would agrue.

MIKE SUNX: I think one thing people thought McCain's weakness was on the right, he's unpopular with the Tea Party crowd, with the right wingers and you might have Matt salmon challenge him in a primary. And that's where he was going to see the big challenge, not from a democrat. I still think her name I.D. is going to be a big challenge for her in the Phoenix overcoming that and to get her close in this race.

MARY JO: Although as Jeremy points out, she's had to run her ad for CD1 in the Phoenix and Tucson areas. So she doesn't live here, she doesn't live in the urban areas but anyone who was paying attention last fall, if you didn't see those cowboy boot ads and the stomping foot, then you've got a really fast remote.

JEREMY DUDA: Sure that was one of the most, I think fourth most expensive house race in the entire country.

TED SIMONS: Yes, it was. So does Sinema--if the supreme court comes back as most think it will with saying the legislature can go ahead and have the responsibility, the authority to draw legislative maps and thus change the political landscape, does Sinema jump in even with Kirkpatrick there?

MIKE SUNX: She might. I mean they could literally just erase that district of Sinema, if the Republicans at the legislature have it -- that's a possibility. They're definitely going to try to take it from her and weaken it. I guess she could get in there. She has a little more name I.D., obviously, in Phoenix. She's younger, she maybe has a little more energy. She's kind of been a darling of some Democrats, more than Kirkpatrick. And I think the question for the Democrats is how much national money comes in? There's a bunch of states out there that went for Obama, Florida, Illinois, those types of states but have Republican senators, the Rubio seat is available. There's a lot of seats Democrats could have a better chance of picking up nationally than going after McCain. I think Sinema is definitely going to take a look at it, depending on what happens with the redistricting case.

JEREMY DUDA: Now Sinema certainly did not seem pleased about Kirkpatrick's entry into the race. The press caught up with her the other day after an event and she said I was as shocked as anyone. And reporters asked her what she thought and she said there's a lot of people who want a choice in the Senate race and the press asked her that doesn't sound like a very enthusiastic measure of support and she said thank you very much and walked off. It sounds like she got caught as off-guard as the rest of us did and she doesn't seem happy about it which probably indicates that if she gets into that race, she's not going to want to deal with that primary, it will be a tough one.

TED SIMONS: And with Kirkpatrick getting into that race, the first congressional district now becomes wide open.

MARY JO: It does. Wide open and when there's a vacuum, it gets filled. Pick a name and it's been floated already for running in the district, both on the R and D side.

TED SIMONS: Democrats Catherine Miranda is a current state senator, Carlyle Begay is a current state senator, and Kristen Cheney is a former state lawmaker. Who are these people? Are these viable candidates for Congress?

MARY JO: Well, they're all--well with the exception of Duchene, they don't live in the district as it's currently constituted and that could change because of what might happen with redistricting. These are people with broader ambitions I will say that than just the legislature.

TED SIMONS: Okay and those are the Democrats and on the Republican side, I mean you got everyone, I mean Kuehne already announced, he lost last time in the primary. Gave a strong race against Andy tobin. Andy Tobin is still out there, he doesn't live in the district. It seems like can Ken Bennett, Johnathan Patton David Gowan, the house speaker, everyone and their brother could be going in.

MIKE SUNX: Sure, it's a very competitive district. It's a swing district it's wide open, we've seen it go back and forth between Republicans and Democrats, you know, over various cycles. You don't see somebody that kind of stands out as that's the person that's going to win each primary so it is wide open. This is what happened when Reince first created it, a little bit of a district now. It was wide open, you had Fred Duval on the democrat side, didn't even finish second in that race, I don't think. Reince was kinda unknown and came out of nowhere. It could be really similar to that, we have very crowded primaries and somebody that mounts just enough on the democratic side, ties with the Navajo nation always helps.

JEREMY DUDA: And there's a lot of fairly unknown folks who might be looking too, a lot of local officials, (inaudible) the county supervisor up in Coconino, sheriff Casey Clark up in Navajo county.

JEREMY DUDA: One other point that I wanted to make on CD1 was anyone making plans, you have to take this all with a grain of salt. Because if there's redistricting, god only knows what that seat is going to look like. And if there's redistricting, chances are it's not going to look very good for Democrats so for any Democrat who's planning for this better make very tentative plans.

TED SIMONS: All right. Do you think Paul Babeu going to enter this race? Is his reputation rehabilitated enough for this kind of a race? A congressional race.

MARY JO: Well obviously he feels that way and put and he scrambled and put a poll out that shows he's got more name I.D. there than anybody else whose name he put in his poll. What was that, four years ago? The scandal that sort of caused him to walk back those congressional plans and run again but successfully for Pinal County sheriff. So it's anybody's guess.

MIKE SUNX: It's a wide open race. I mean he would be the one with the biggest target if he runs because he has the name I.D. because he has the baggage but I don't know if you see that in a primary in that type of district where you see a lot of TV ads in a Republican primary for a district that's not in Phoenix, maybe in the general you would. So he would definitely be maybe the best well known. He has lots of challenges, though, considering his background and what went on last time.

And immigration seems to be his bellwether there. Is that going to be a major factor next year?

JEREMY DUDA: I mean it's always going to be to a greater or lesser degree, it's going to be an issue in Republican primaries or maybe just on a minor level like we saw with the governor's race where it popped up because of the issue of all these central American kids and a couple of candidates really tried to capitalize on that but for the most part, it didn't end up being a major issue for Congress. I think it probably will be a much bigger issue and that could help Babeu but I have a hard time seeing him really recover from everything that happened a few years ago. Maybe that's off the radar now because he has been kind of off the radar but once you get back on the campaign trail and people's memories get a lot better real quick.

MIKE SUNX: And Pinal County is not a cohesive like political base I think to kind of run from sometimes compared to Flagstaff and the Navajo nation, some of the older cities up there, which the folks that come from that district tend to come from Flagstaff and Kirkpatrick did well with the tribe.

TED SIMONS: And real quickly as far as the redistricting case, we're still waiting for the Supreme Court. Is there any indication when the Supreme Court is going to come down with that decision?

JEREMY DUDA: Some people think it could be out as early as Monday. Probably sometime in the month of June is what the expectation always has been. A lot of people think it might be fairly early in the month, maybe next week because it's not a very high profile case. It's relatively straightforward, pretty simple issue, they have to deal with, it's the kind of thing they might want to knock out early.

TED SIMONS: All right we'll keep an eye on that.

MARY JO: And one other thing with the Supreme Court, not only do they have the case involving who has the authority to draw the congressional lines, but they also have before them a challenge to the legislative district lines that were drawn. This challenge isn't about who has the authority to draw those lines. It's about did the commission do it properly and did they tilt in favor of Democrats? The court has never had a hearing on this. They didn't hear arguments on it but they've got to say something about it before they go home at the end of the month.

JEREMY DUDA: They haven't even said whether they'll take the case.

TED SIMONS: Right, so the redistricting one is the one that just get out of the way if they say the legislature has the authority because it's going to be a stampede.

MIKE SUNX: I can't imagine already maps they already have drawn up for this thing.

TED SIMONS: There are basements filled with maps on the wall.

TED SIMONS: Okay, Department of child safety, an oversight hearing with the new DCS, Greg McKay's department. This was an interesting hearing yesterday huh?

MARY JO: It got more interesting as it went on and on and on and on. It was very long hearing. But we have uh, the state set up an oversight committee on child safety a couple of years ago with that charge to see how the agency is doing. Well, it's been one year as of yesterday or as of today, since this new agency was created and they wanted to get a look at how things were going. The agency shared some data with them and the numbers, if you measure DCS by the numbers, not very good.

TED SIMONS: 21% and this is from what you wrote here, 21% removed from homes, 21% of those kids are in group homes?

MARY JO: Yeah, it's almost 18,000 kids right now living out of their family's homes and when they removed those kids, 21% of them go straight to the (inaudible) setting, which is very expensive and not in the best interest of the child's development.

TED SIMONS: 71% higher than five years ago. What's going on in those past five years? Not enough families? What's happening out there?
MARY JO: It's always -- that's the big $80 million dollar question. And it might be $80 million plus and more to resolve that. But is Arizona standard for neglect on children too broad? Does it need to be narrowed? Do we have a lot of bad actors here? Do we have case workers who are just scared to sign off on returning a child, although it's a court that would return a child to his or her home. Some of this is going to be explored in a report that's going to be coming out in the next month or so on this but yeah, the reasons for this growth of foster care is incredible.

MIKE SUNX: Well, the economy could have something to do with it, too, getting foster parents, you know, to sign up and stuff, that's been a challenge in the past. The economy sours. Are more or less people going to be interested? It just seems like we keep talking about same challenges, the same swinging pendulum in terms of resources and money and focus of the agency and removing the child, protecting the child and keeping families together, and it's still some of the same challenges from the old CPS days.

JEREMY DUDA: Sure one of the things that we saw is that the number of this massive back log of cases hasn't gone down.

MARY JO: It's up.

JEREMY DUDA: It's actually, up, yeah, and ultimately, I don't see how Greg McKay is trying to find ways to streamline the process and make it easier for case workers to kind of close out cases that maybe don't need a lot of work but in the end, this is probably going to require more financial resources.

MARY JO: But that's what's so interesting is McKay made his name in the child welfare circles by being the guy that said, "oh my gosh, I found all these cases where they didn't do a full investigation as the state law requires" and that brought him to prominence, triggered all these events that brought about this new agency. And now that he's in charge of the whole operation, he's looking at this saying we can't handle everything that's coming over the transom. More is coming in than we can deal with so we might have to find some alternate ways of dealing with this, which is exactly what this story (inaudible) was a couple of years ago.

JEREMY DUDA: Also one of his knocks against his predecessor Charles Flanagan that most likely led to Doug Ducey replacing him with Greg McKay.

TED SIMONS: Interesting, now as far as McKay is concerned, it sounds like he was grilled a bit yesterday on this? How did he react? What was his response?

Mary Jo: I mean, he took responsibility for what is perceived as low morale and turnover. He said the attrition rate is 27%. It had gotten down to about 22% under the eight months that Flanagan was in charge. And he asked for patience saying it takes a while to turn this around but I think part of the reason for the morale, for the data, the turnover is because we've had this turnover at the top that we created a new agency, they put in Charles Flanagan and then less than eight months later, he's pulled out and McKay is put in, he's starting over again.

MIKE SUNX: If you pay police officers what these case workers get paid, you would see huge turnover with police departments. You have to have some kind of incentives for the folks to stay there and the lack of discretion on the case, it goes back and forth, we don't investigate anything, now, we have to go A. to Z. and we're bogged down with all these things. But I think just the pay, you're always going to have turnover when you're paying $35,000 a year.

TED SIMONS: It's the nature of the beast. You can put whatever initials you want in front of the agency but it seems like you're going to have a case like we just saw with the small child that was 15 pounds at the age of three. Just atrocious stories. They're always going to happen. They will always be with us, correct?

MARY JO: I think, yeah. One child death does not an agency trend make. You do have to look at the overall trends because yes, it's accepted and we had lawmakers a year ago saying look this is great we're creating this new agency and giving it a lot of money but this kind of stuff is still going to happen because we're humans.

TED SIMONS: Right. All right. And help for some of those humans has been somewhat lacking in recent years.

MARY JO: That will be an ongoing source of debate, how much money does the state put into services to help keep families together, prevent things from escalating to a point of danger for children.

TED SIMONS: All right, impact of the lawsuit in the foster care system? Is this going to make of an impact at all?

MARY JO: It doesn't help. But the state is arguing in response to that lawsuit that says Arizona fails on foster care but this is not an issue to be settled in federal court, this is an issue to be settled more locally.

TED SIMONS: We only have a couple of minutes left. We would save the simple story for last. The attorney general dropping his -- the appeal on the ruling on political committees that forced the legislature to make a new rule that isn't quite so vague but now no one's happy with the attorney what is going on? And make it quick!

JEREMY DUDA: This case, a federal judge late last year determined that the state statutory definition of political committee was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad so they rewrote it. That has left this issue of what do you do with all these old complaints, alleged violations of the law that happened under this definition? The secretary of state's office determined most of them are unenforceable but the state is still appealing this so some folks had some hope. The attorney general's office last week told the judge they were dropping their appeal of this. They don't want it to drag on for that long but they are asking the ninth circuit Court of Appeals to vacate the old ruling for kind of unrelated reasons. Now, the Clean Elections Commission, the executive director is unhappy about them dropping the appeal because this will undermine some potentially some ongoing cases against Tom Horne, against the Arizona free enterprise club, the secretary of state's office which under Michelle Reagan wants maximum amount of freedom, free speech, they're upset that they're asking that the ruling be vacated. Because now that worries them that a future legislature will be able to go back and roll back this new definition, make more restrictive laws, restrict free speech. The Attorney General's spokesman put it to me said well if Clean Elections Commission and the secretary of state's office are upset with us, we must be doing something right.

TED SIMONS: Makes sense to you Mike?

MIKE SUNX: It just shows the challenges in trying to curtail dark money, it's so hard because of the Supreme Court ruling and the First Amendment it's a shell game essentially.

TED SIMONS: So you've got an action that has both the secretary of state's office and the Clean Elections Commission both saying not a good idea.

JEREMY DUDA: For very different reasons.

TED SIMONS: Right but they're both saying not a good idea.

They are, the Clean Elections Commission may try to intervene as defendants and defend this themselves instead of the AG's office. They'll be meeting on Monday to decide some of these issues.

TED SIMONS: So why did Attorney General Brnovich do this? And by the way dropping the appeal, saying we're dropping it but we want you to vacate it anyway. What is that all about?

JEREMY DUDA: Asking them to vacate it, it's related to some of the things that the judge (inaudible) said about laws being over vague and having over breadth and they're worried this may set a precedent that could affect other laws, they have some concerns about what the long-term impact of this will be but they also don't want to drag out and appeal for a few years. They're concerned about how that appeal might affect some of their ongoing enforcement actions ironically. So I think to them this seems like the quickest and easiest way to settle this.

TED SIMONS: I told you this was easy to figure out. You did a nice job Jeremy, thank you very much.

TED SIMONS: Thank you all very much, I appreciate it.

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