To hear Ted Downing tell it, political parties are at the root of gridlock, groupthink and other poisons in the political process.

So after more than four decades as a Democrat, he switched his party preference to independent and is running for the state Senate against Democratic incumbent Paula Aboud.

Aboud and Downing have grappled politically before, with Aboud winning the 2006 primary. Downing, a 67-year-old University of Arizona anthropology professor, said the race is less about a District 28 rematch than about his ballot initiative to ask voters in the 2012 general election if they'll agree to a nonpartisan, unicameral Legislature.

"I've thought long and hard about why the Legislature in Arizona is so different from what I hear on the street - because I'm convinced that people are not represented by what we're seeing in Phoenix," Downing said. With few competitive Arizona districts, primary voters - who tend to be more motivated and who often skew to the extremes of the spectrum - end up determining who wins a race.

Take Russell Pearce, a controversial Republican senator from Maricopa County who sponsored the equally controversial immigration law.

There are 61,750 voters in his district, in which about 26,500 GOP voters outnumber about 17,780 Democrats.

Pearce won a recent primary with 6,604 votes. Those relative few made the decision for a larger district, he said.

"We have to stop the politics of fear and hate. It's so polarized," he said. "We can't talk about real needs until we calm down and listen to each other."

In District 28, there are 36,400 Democrats, compared with 21,691 Republicans and 22,300 independents.

As he's been collecting signatures, he said, he's running into Republicans and independents who have never voted for anybody in the district. While he's still supporting the Democratic designee, Terry Goddard, for governor, he said Republicans will appreciate his early calls for more transparency and accountability of the city's faltering Rio Nuevo project. "By opening the general, Republicans and independents are now at play."

The 655-signature requirement is about double what he'd have to raise if he were a Democrat, but he said he's on track.

Tucson has had some experience with a high-profile defection. Carol West, a Democratic city councilwoman, switched her party registration to independent in her final term.

West said Downing called her to hear about her experience, and she explained it made sense since she was serving a ward with a Republican majority. "Plus, I'm a pretty independent person anyway and I found I was increasingly struggling with what the Democratic Party wanted me to do." Although she said she struggled with the decision for some time, ultimately, she said, "It was a very freeing thing."

But hers isn't a perfect test case. Since she made the decision in her final term, she didn't run as an independent, saying that would have put her longtime Democratic friends in a bind, having to choose between her and whomever the Democratic Party had decided to float.

Former Tucson Mayor George Miller is staying on as one of Downing's supporters.

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 573-4243 or