Arizona Republic congressional reporter Rebekah Sanders provides an update on how the primary election races for Arizona’s congressional seats are shaping-up.
Richard Ruelas: The Arizona primary is two months away. Here to talk about what's happening in the Arizona congressional races, particularly the race to replace congressmen Ed pastor, is Rebekah Sanders, reporter with "The Arizona Republic," my colleague over there. Subscribed on AZcentral.com; we should get that out of the way. And Rebekah Sanders, if that is your real name, because who knows anymore with all the stuff going on in this race.
Rebekah Sanders: This race is all about names.
Richard Ruelas: We should start with Cesar Chavez.
Rebekah Sanders: Which one?
Richard Ruelas: First of all, did he go by Cesar or Caesar? How did he pronounce it?
Rebekah Sanders: That's a great question. I can't quite remember.
Richard Ruelas: How did we find out who he was? You looked throughout campaign filings and suddenly you see the name Cesar Chavez and you figure this cannot be the famed labor leader.
Rebekah Sanders: Right.
Richard Ruelas: Where do we go from there? How do you get to knock on this guy's door?
Rebekah Sanders: When Ed pastor announced he was retiring after decades in Congress, one of the names that popped out as filing for this race was Cesar Chavez. And clearly in this very largely Hispanic district, that name would carry a lot of weight, you know, no matter who owns that name. Even if it's not the civil rights leader who's deceased, it would it still ring bells with voters. So I started questioning who this was. And it was just a lot of digging, and then eventually a tip that we figured out who this really was.
Richard Ruelas: Who is he really?
Rebekah Sanders: His former name is Scott Fistler, and he was a Republican who ran in the same race two years ago as well as city council last year, and then very politically savvy, and decided that he was going to change his name and party affiliation to have a better shot.
Richard Ruelas: Is this fun for him? Did he think he could actually win? Was he trying to be a gadfly? A distraction? Did you get a sense of why he might be doing this?
Rebekah Sanders: I think that he sincerely believed he wasn't going to be found out because I was the first and only reporter to actually talk to him and get him on the phone before we had the story out there. And he said -- He hung up on me when I essentially laid out to him that I knew who he was.
Richard Ruelas: Hey, Scott, he didn't like that.
Rebekah Sanders: That's right. I think, though -- I think it's coming from a genuine place of his wanting to have a meaningful place in the world, honestly. He's a disabled military veteran who is unemployed, and I think he saw this as a way that he could get a better leg up in the political process, and maybe gain some supporters.
Richard Ruelas: To at least be seen -- he wasn't doing this in a mean-spirited way.
Rebekah Sanders: I don't think it was mean-spirited at all. And in fact, I think he was a little bit caught off guard by the negative blowback.
Richard Ruelas: And again, I think it's been made sport of, but the hearing, the court hearing, because we had the grandson of the labor leader taking him to court to get him off the ballot. The hearing was very emotional, right?
Rebekah Sanders: Right. It was kind of incredibly surreal scene to have Chavez versus Chavez. And the Cesar Chavez, the candidate representing himself, going up on the witness stand and essentially cross examining himself because he didn't have the funds to hire an attorney, and winging it essentially, and breaking down in tears on the stand as he talked about the military service of his family. And kind of making the case that I'm just trying to do my duty to my country, I'm not really trying to hurt anybody. But of course his opponents in the race and also many political observers felt like, yeah, but this is a pretty cynical way to participate in the political process.
Richard Ruelas: Had he not been removed from the ballot, do you think there was -- Is this race tight enough he would have been maybe a difference maker?
Rebekah Sanders: That was another one of the reasons that I started really trying to dig into this guy's background, because it's probably going to be such a close race. This is probably going to come down to Ruben Gallego, former state lawmaker, and Mary Rose Wilcox, both very well-known strong campaigns. They are going to be trying to knock each other out, and if the vote between them is very small, anybody taking votes away could make a difference.
Richard Ruelas: And the other name game was in that race too. What did -- What did Mary rose think she would accomplish with the Ruben Gallego thing? Was there something there at the root of it, by questioning his name change?
Rebekah Sanders: That's right. So Mary Rose Wilcox had a bit of a campaign stumble recently when she filed a lawsuit that essentially sought to get Ruben Gallego off the ballot or, at least, to modify his name on the ballot by saying he hadn't legally changed his name. In fact, he had, and when this lawsuit was filed, it gave him a platform to not only show that he had followed the rules, but to tell this story of why he dropped his last name, because it was his father's who abandoned the family, and he wanted to take on his single mother's last name instead, because it was more representative of him.
Richard Ruelas: Now, Mary Rose Wilcox is an accomplished politician, she's been in office, public life, do we think or did she say that she didn't know why he changed his name? Was this something she didn't ask or vet, or --
Rebekah Sanders: It's an open question how gettable this information was. When Gallego went to court to change his last name, the clerk who was filing the paperwork in fact misspelled his last name. And so the search online does not pull up his records.
Richard Ruelas: So if Mary Rose thought he was trying to hide something, the online records themselves were something she couldn't access because she didn't know where they were.
Rebekah Sanders: Probably. Although the Gallego campaign argues that with greater due diligence and deeper research, they should have found it and that the Wilcox campaign was sloppy. That remains to be interpreted.
Richard Ruelas: I guess at some point, because just like we did with Scott Fistler, a reporter might have asked, someone from the Wilcox campaign might have even asked Ruben himself why he changed his name. I don't know whether candidates don't ask that of each other, but some way to find out what it truly was. It seemed like he was able to run with this pretty well that day it broke.
Rebekah Sanders: What I think about in this campaign tactic is should they have seen that the potential blowback was probably greater than the potential benefit of doing this? Although, if they had been able to get Gallego off the ballot, that would have been huge. It would have essentially ended the race. So it was pretty tantalizing to try and, you know, make this move. But ultimately, it did not turn out the way they had hoped.
Richard Ruelas: Maybe it would have been worth it. Eventually, we'll get down to issues in this race.
Rebekah Sanders: I hope not.
Richard Ruelas: More fun to do the names.
Rebekah Sanders: Way more fun.
Richard Ruelas: Rebekah Sanders, we'll follow the coverage on "AZ Central" and "The Arizona Republic." Thank you for joining us.