The presumed frontrunners in the crowded Congressional District 2 Democratic primary race did not fare well with the left-leaning crowd at a forum last month at Tucson Magnet High School.
Ann Kirkpatrick—who most recently represented the neighboring Congressional District 1 and who has, until her decision to seek the CD2 seat, called Flagstaff and Phoenix home—was outright booed for some of her moderate positions. And only 7 percent of those who filled out a post-debate survey said that Matt Heinz, the physician who lost the CD2 race by a wide margin two years ago, was their choice in the upcoming Aug. 28 primary.
Admittedly, the crowd at the July 19 forum presented by Represent Me AZ is not a representative sample of the Democratic voters who will go to the polls next month. But they clearly favored two of the underdogs who were among the six candidates on the stage: political newcomer Billy Kovacs and former state lawmaker Bruce Wheeler.
Kovacs, a 31-year-old entrepreneur who has been involved in the restaurant and hospitality sector, received the most exuberant cheers. The crowd applauded Kovacs’ comments on environmental issues such as climate change and opposing the Rosemont Mine. Kovacs took his mining opposition a step further and said that Arizona should get rid of mining all together and instead put money into precious metal recycling centers, which he says would be less costly and more sustainable.
“We don’t need to be doing the old idea,” he said. “We need to make sure that we have new ideas.”
Among other important issues, Kovacs supports a $15 minimum wage, abolishing ICE, Medicare for all and tribal sovereignty. He promoted Arizona’s economy as ambassador to the Arizona Technology Council. And as an ambassador with Tech Launch Arizona, he worked to connect talented UA graduates to programs and resources meant to retain young professionals. He’s mentored students and can usually be found supporting youth at political action events.
Kovacs received a 4.5 GPA, a solid A, in the post-debate survey. Audience members were asked to rate candidates on an A-F scale and share who they would vote for. More than 42 percent who pledged support to a certain candidate chose Kovacs.
The runner up was Wheeler, who served in the Arizona Legislature in the 1970s, the Tucson City Council in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and then again in the Legislature until last year. Wheeler earned an A- from the crowd, with a 4.2 GPA and 36 percent of participants pledging their vote. Wheeler was the winner of the previous CD2 forum held by Represent Me AZ.
Like Kovacs, Wheeler falls on the left side of Democratic values, raising his hand to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, legalize marijuana, strengthen Dodd-Frank and support universal health care. His Medicare for All plan worked like this: The United States spends $3.2 trillion on healthcare; 27 million Americans remain uninsured; and the cost of Medicare-for-all $1.38 trillion.
Wheeler supports policies that would regulate the rising cost of prescription drugs. He’s for restricting the use of school vouchers and fully funding public education.
Among other issues he supports are low interest rates for college loans, investing in renewable energy, and fair and humane immigration policy.
The tension was thick between former state lawmaker Heinz and former Congresswoman Kirkpatrick, who have led the polls that have been released so far in the race for the seat now held by Rep. Martha McSally. McSally is now seeking a U.S. Senate seat, leaving the highly competitive District 2 seat open in the November election.
Survey participants gave Kirkpatrick a 2.5 GPA, or a D. Heinz received a 3.3 GPA—an average C-. Only 8 percent of participants plan to vote for Kirkpatrick. An even smaller number pledged to vote for the other two candidates on the stage, retired Assistant Secretary of the Army Mary Matiella and Barbara Sherry, who describes herself as an “LGBT mortgage-broker-turned-rancher.”
At the start of the forum, Kirkpatrick received boos when she was the only candidate to raise her hand saying she would have joined the 18 Democrats who recently voted yea on a GOP resolution in support of ICE.
After the forum, she said that ICE performs a lot of different functions. She supports immigration reform, but said ICE should be a part of that reform.
“The work done by ICE and the Border Patrol must be done in a manner that is humane, ethical, accountable and transparent,” she said in a prepared statement the day after the forum. “Today, in many cases, it is not. ICE needs Congressional oversight. Trump’s policies—especially around family separation—are illegal and should end immediately.”
Kirkpatrick was also the only candidate on stage that didn’t raise a hand in support of federal legalization of marijuana.
Another issue Kirkpatrick has continually taken heat for (and which made it into one of Heinz’s attack ads) is her support of a bill that gave a piece of Apache land, called Oak Flats, to a mining company out of Australia.
Kirkpatrick said she got involved to get then-President Barack Obama’s support and insert environmental protections into the bill, like protecting the sacred site Apache Leap and consulting with the tribe. She added that Obama never would have signed it without her involvement.
That area is in the Copper Corridor and the economy there has largely relied on mining. Kirkpatrick said the local miners want the project, which has yet to happen. And she says many of the indigenous people in the area, many of whom are miners, also wanted it although some of the indigenous leaders opposed it.
“That is one of the richest, if not the richest, copper ore deposits in the world,” she said. “It was gonna be mined, but what I did was make sure that it was mined protecting the environment, protecting the climate for the people who live there, and making sure that it was sustainable.”
Represent Me AZ, which hosted the event, revoked an invitation to the seventh candidate, Yahya Yuksel, for the way he handled rape accusations at a press conference earlier that week. Forum moderator Marion Chubon said Yuksel’s behavior lacked responsibility following the allegations.
Although Represent Me AZ called their survey “very scientific,” the group’s members were being sarcastic. The 215 participants who are motivated enough to attend a primary forum are not a scientific sampling of the 133,300 registered Democrats in the district.
On paper, Kirkpatrick and Heinz would appear to be the strongest candidates. They have raised more money in this race than their opponents, with Kirkpatrick raising more than $1.76 million and Heinz raising nearly roughly $850,000 ($375,000 of which he loaned himself). Matiella is next with roughly $257,000, followed by Kovacs with about $72,000.
Heinz released three attack ads, days before the forum, targeting Kirkpatrick, a day after voters received mailers from Kirkpatrick accusing Heinz of supporting the NRA during his time as a state lawmaker.
Heinz’s attack ads accuse Kirkpatrick of not having “progressive values” for a number of reasons. One, which persisted at the debate, was her checkered past on supporting or opposing gun-control legislation.
One ad has a two-second clip of Kirkpatrick saying she has an “A” rating from the NRA. According to a 2012 New York Times article, Kirkpatrick did have an “A” rating from the NRA, though they did not contribute to her campaign. In 2009, she welcomed the gun-rights group with open arms for their annual conference in Phoenix.
At the debate, Kirkpatrick said she changed her tune on gun control after the 2011 mass shooting at a north Tucson Safeway, where then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords survived being shot in the head and six people were killed, including a 9-year-old girl.
“I re-evaluated my position on guns, and changed my mind,” she said at the forum. “I not only changed my mind, but I changed the way I voted. And I supported legislation that would increase background checks. I supported legislation that would keep guns out of the hands of terrorists on the terror watch list. And I supported legislation that would keep guns from domestic abusers.”
In Kirkpatrick’s attack mailer on Heinz—as well as on the debate stage—the Congressional candidate also accused her opponent of supporting the National Rifle Association when he was a state representative.
“In 2012, the NRA testified at the state legislature about a bill they really wanted to pass, a bill that would allow high-capacity magazines, and Matt Heinz voted for it,” she said. “He supported the NRA.”
Heinz, a doctor who has worked the emergency room at Tucson Medical Center, said the idea that he would support the NRA when he treats patients with gunshot wounds is “ridiculous” and a “distortion of his voting record.”
The vote was on a 2012 bill that blocked the Arizona Game and Fish Commission from limiting hunters’ magazine capacity on authorized firearms. The bill received primarily Republican backing, but a few Democrats voted for the bill besides Heinz, including Reps. Steve Farley, Ruben Gallego and Macario Saldate. Former-Rep. Bruce Wheeler, also a Democratic CD2 candidate, voted against the bill.
Heinz said the bill didn’t have backing from the NRA and had no opposing groups. A representative from the Arizona Wildlife Federation and Sandy Bahr, the conservation director for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, signed up in opposition to the bill during a committee hearing but did not speak. And former NRA lobbyist Brent Gardner registered in support of the bill.