Last year, Democrats considered GOP State Rep. Ethan Orr a friend.

In his first year in the Legislature, Orr voted with Democrats and moderate Republicans to expand Arizona’s Medicaid program and approve Gov. Jan Brewer‘s budget, the session’s signature bills. He also worked on a variety of bills with the Democratic legislators who share his Catalina Foothills district, Rep. Victoria Steele and Sen. Steve Farley.

Now the bipartisan romance is over.

Dr. Randy Friese, a University of Arizona Medical Center trauma surgeon, has entered the race aiming to beat Orr and turn Legislative District 9 into an all-Democratic enclave. As it stands, LD9 is one of just two among the state’s 30 districts represented by a Republican and a Democrat, and Dems have just a slight registration edge over the GOP and independents.

Friese has key backing: Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, announced their support this week. Some have even spoken of Friese, who treated Giffords and other victims of the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shooting, as a potential replacement for U.S. Rep. Ron Barber when that seat becomes open.

“They’re very hard after me,” Orr told me Wednesday. “They’re going to make this a real race.”

The push against Orr has put Steele and Farley in a potentially awkward position. Steele has worked with Orr on legislation such as a bill to fund mental-health first aid, and it’s useful for members of the minority party to have a member of the majority who will help them get their bills heard.

Still, Steele has come out firmly for Friese.

“I’m solidly a Democrat. I think we need to bring Democrats into the House. We have a chance in the state to take more Democratic seats,” she said.

Farley has not endorsed Friese or Orr, and he’s unhappy with the way some Democrats are turning Orr into an enemy because of his party. Farley noted he’s worked with Orr on initiatives in the past and is working with Orr on a bill to give bicyclists and pedestrians greater traffic protections.

“I don’t believe that as Democrats we should indulge in the same politics that we’ve seen from the tea party-leaning Republicans,” he told me Thursday.

He also noted that, since the top two vote-getters win the House seats, there’s a danger that Orr and Friese might win, leaving Steele out in the cold.

“Above all, I want to make sure Victoria Steele gets returned to the Legislature,” Farley said.

For his part, Friese said he joined the race after a gradual process of consideration and watching Phoenix politics. He said he disagrees with Orr’s vote in favor of new, more restrictive election laws last year, as well as his vote to repeal the law this year, which had the effect of nullifying a ballot measure this fall.

Perhaps the most fundamental difference: Orr tends toward a pro-life viewpoint on abortion.

From Orr’s perspective, he’s caught between Democrats, who are gradually turning against him, and conservative Republicans, who have considered him an enemy because of his Medicaid and budget votes. Only the corporate wing of the Republican party, people like Orr’s ally Jim Click, are likely to stand firmly behind him.

It’s a risky move on the Dems’ part, taking on a well-liked and useful pragmatist such as Orr. But over the long run it could pay dividends, especially if Friese turns into the star they’re hoping for.

WOOTEN PROCLAIMS, THEN FLEES

You would think it was the biggest day in Chuck Wooten‘s short political career on Monday, but it was hard to tell by the way he acted. That was the day he stepped out onto Presidio Plaza and read a speech announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination for Congress in Arizona’s 2nd Congressional

District, the seat Barber holds.

Wooten told a couple of dozen supporters and bystanders that he’s running on a platform of trust, leadership and guts, qualities conservatives are looking for. Then, his speech over, a volunteer told the crowd that Wooten was busy and would have to leave immediately, shaking no hands, kissing no babies and entertaining no questions.

The new candidate turned and left with two men in suits and sunglasses, doing their best Secret Service imitation. Then they got to the parking lot’s elevator in the corner of the plaza and began waiting, and waiting.

Eventually a downtown character approached and started chatting with Wooten, so I decided to walk over and see if I could get in at least a question about how he’s different from leading Republican candidate Martha McSally.

No questions today, one of the suited men told me when I approached and stepped into the newly arrived elevator. He asked me to leave, and eventually I did. I had phoned Wooten before, and I’ve called him since. Still no questions, still no answers.

Granted, Wooten is new to politics, and maybe he has a secret plan I’m not aware of. But his guarded behavior at such a key, celebratory moment makes it hard to take his candidacy seriously.

MARQUEZ FINALLY
GETS A HEARING

No doubt all six of the nominees to federal judgeships in Arizona were thrilled to have their names forwarded by U.S. Sen. John McCain on Jan. 28.

None of them could have been as relieved as Rosemary Marquez. President Obama nominated the longtime Tucson criminal defense attorney to be a federal judge on June 23, 2011, 2½ years ago.

Her nomination was among dozens blocked or delayed by Republicans as part of U.S. Capitol politics. At times, people have blamed former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl for the delays in forwarding her nomination; at times McCain was blamed. When I asked new U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake’s office about the status of Marquez’s nomination in March of last year, they said the senator was still “reviewing her writing samples.”

Whoever was to blame, it’s a shame it took this long for her nomination to go to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Let’s not forget, the late U.S. District Judge John Roll died on Jan. 8, 2011, because he stopped by Giffords’ event to thank her for working to relieve the backlog of cases at Arizona federal courts. Roll’s death aggravated the backlog, yet the nomination games went on.

Finally, the Senate Judiciary Committee will give Marquez and the five others and up-or-down vote.