Republican Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley, who’s considered among the most conservative lawmakers in Arizona, had a surprising answer for why he deserves a third term as a state legislator: He saved Rio Nuevo and voted to increase state spending.
Finchem is among the three Republicans running in the Aug. 28 GOP primary for two House seats in the heavily Republican Legislative District 11, which spans from Oro Valley, Marana and SaddleBrooke up along the west side of Interstate 10 to the city of Maricopa.
Early voting begins Aug. 1.
One is Brett Roberts, an elected constable in Pinal County and a Republican Party state and precinct committeeman.
The other is Howell Jones, a retired carpenter and first-time candidate who says the Republican Party is actively trying to keep him from getting elected.
“I’m not the Republicans’ choice, let’s put it that way. They don’t like me because I’m not a party guy. While my two opponents are Jeff Flake and John McCain-style Republicans, I’m more like Donald Trump … I’m the outsider they don’t want in,” he said.
Finchem scoffed at that characterization, and both he and Roberts say they’ve never met Jones, who didn’t show up to the district’s Clean Elections Commission debate.
“I think he’s delusional,” Finchem said. “I mean, how do you even respond to somebody who makes that claim and has never been present to make that accusation in person? He has no idea what I stand for.”
Finchem and Roberts have a strong financial advantage in the race. Finchem has more than $62,000 for the campaign and still has more than $44,000 on hand, according to the latest campaign finance reports. Roberts is running with Clean Elections funding, and has more than $22,000 to spend in the primary election. Jones is self funding, and has put $1,100 into his campaign thus far.
Finchem, who was first elected in 2014, has earned a reputation as a strict constitutionalist whose proposals — like repealing the 17th Amendment, which requires U.S. senators be elected directly by the people, rather than appointed by state legislatures — often seem antiquated in today’s world.
He’s made headlines for his bills attempting to make gold and silver “legal tender,” attempting to dismantle the Arizona Board of Regents, and attempting to have the state seize control of federal lands, none of which have been signed into law.
Finchem said although he’s a staunch conservative, he’s not inflexible, and his record on education funding and Rio Nuevo shows he listens to his constituents.
Rio Nuevo — the downtown development project considered a boondoggle by conservatives at the Capitol — isn’t exactly Finchem’s cup of tea, but he realized that after state lawmakers stepped in and implemented reforms, it’s actually been working.
After deriding the project as a waste, Finchem sponsored legislation this year that reformed and extended the life of the Rio Nuevo project until 2035.
“We can declare victory that downtown Tucson has been revitalized and downtown Tucson has been saved from itself and we can step away from it at that point. As a fiscal conservative it was a very tough bill for me to sponsor because I don’t like TIFs (tax increment financing),” he said.
While Finchem was reluctant to increase spending — the state budget has grown from $9.2 billion when Finchem was first elected in 2015 to $10.4 billion this year — the budget is balanced, and the reduced taxes and deregulated business environment Republican lawmakers have implemented are helping Arizona’s economy grow, he said.
And he knows the investments the Legislature has put into education over the past four years will translate into more economic benefits.
“It’s the biggest thing on the radar. We’ve spent more money on that than anything else,” Finchem said.
Jones criticized that spending and said lawmakers should have looked to cut this year if they wanted to spend money on increased teacher pay.
“Nobody ever said, ‘Where can we cut?’ Everyone is always saying, ‘Where can we find more money?’ I don’t get it,” he said.
Jones argued that the #RedForEd movement wasn’t about teacher pay — it was a political rally by out-of-state interests designed to make Gov. Doug Ducey look bad.
Roberts said he supported Ducey’s 20X2020 plan, which will increase teacher pay by 20 percent over the next three years, putting teacher pay on par with the national average.
But he argued that teachers shouldn’t have walked off the job to force the issue, noting Ducey had already offered phased-in 20 percent raises before teachers left their classrooms. He said teachers who did strike should face punishment.
“We have laws on the books and if people break those laws, yeah, there probably should be consequences,” he said.
Roberts supports school vouchers that allow students to take state money to pay for private and religious schools. He offered a mixed view of charter schools, saying both that they should be on a level playing field with district schools, and that they were never designed to operate like district schools and shouldn’t be held to the same standards.
While Finchem has a record to run on, his opponents have a few ideas of what they’d like to do if elected.
Roberts couldn’t cite a single bill he would sponsor if elected, and said he would rather work on repealing laws than adding new ones. He also couldn’t cite a single law he’d like to repeal.
But Roberts argued his diverse professional background as a restaurateur, real estate agent, trucker and detention officer means he will be a quick study on a variety of issues.
Jones said he’d like to sponsor legislation to increase penalties for dumping trash in the desert, and to provide more funding for roads. Beyond that, his biggest talking point on the campaign is that U.S. Sen John McCain should immediately retire.
He acknowledged he has a lot to learn about how state government works.
“If I get elected, it will be a big-time learning curve,” Jones said.