PINETOP-LAKESIDE — Senator Mark Kelly and staff visited the White Mountains last week and the Independent caught up with him at Darbi’s Cafe on Oct. 12. He had been meeting with mayors and city managers in the region to listen to some of the regional concerns.
For purposes of the interview, deputy press secretary Ariella Devorah wrote that the senator has “his priorities” during this visit and wanted to focus on issues such as investing in infrastructure, wildfire and drought prevention and mitigation, and expanded internet in rural communities. She said that “since this is the second press stop and we’re limited on time.”
It was unknown exactly how much time Kelly had available for the media that day but the issue that couldn’t be ignored is the stalled $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” legislation sometime called the “reconciliation bill.” It’s called that because it is slated to be introduced in the senate through a process called reconciliation, which is a type of bill that needs only a simple majority of votes to proceed. With regard to that bill, the Independent drafted a series of questions for Kelly. His staff answered them and they will be published in Friday’s edition.
Regarding large-scale legislation, it might be noted that another trillion dollar measure, a so-called “infrastructure” bill has already passed the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 69 yeas, an achievement that Sen. Kelly takes partial credit for. That bill is stalled in the US House.
In any event, the Independent set off to Darbi’s for the meeting. Restaurant staff sent reporter and editor in to a semi-private dining area, unintentionally interrupting a lunch meeting Kelly had arranged with local officials. Once that meeting was over, Kelly and aide Devorah, with coffee in hand, sat down for a visit.
Kelly is a small man in stature, the perfect sized person to crawl in and out of Navy aircraft and space shuttles. He is a retired astronaut who rode the Space Shuttle Endeavor into orbit and back again four times. Before his career at NASA, Kelly served as an aviator off the carrier U.S.S. Midway and flew 39 combat missions in the Desert Storm campaign. He was born in the City of Orange, New Jersey. He is 57 years old, has two children, and is married to former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was terribly injured by a gunman while participating in a Tucson event with constituents in 2011. Six others died.
The main topic at Darbi’s was the collapse of recent efforts in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which Kelly calls “Four fry.”
4FRI was managed by the US Forest Service and had high expectations of thinning hundreds of thousands of acres of forest to restore them to health. Each acre used to accommodate about 100 trees — now each acre has up to a thousand mainly small diameter trees and the ever-present biomass, or slash, consisting of many tons of vegetation, grasses, dead trees, and bark piles on each acre of forest. This material is flammable and in an incident of “ignition,” as Kelly put it, results in catastrophe.
4FRI was intended to find contractors to thin the forest and remove the biomass because Kelly said that a public works project to do it would be prohibitively expensive. Rather, if contractors had a way to make money off the debris the problem would solve itself. The most talked about way to profit from this material is to burn it for energy, but electricity providers typically rely on fossil fuels to do that. In any event, after several years of reviewing bids from contractors to do that, called requests for proposals, or RFPs, the Forest Service cancelled the whole process. Sen. Kelly sits on the Senate’s Subcommittee of Public Lands, Forests, and Mining, and he said that even he was taken by surprise at the move.
What can Senator Kelly do about it? Noteworthy is the fact that the senate operates on a system of hierarchy depending on how senior a particular senator is. Kelly has been in the senate for all of nine months, but his tenderfoot status doesn’t seem to hold him back. He said that he had demanded “answers” from the Forest Service and has entree with the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. Kelly said that it would be unacceptable to him for the Forest Service, now that it has started the RFP process all over again, to take “years” to accomplish it.
Kelly said he is also working with Utah’s senator, Mitt Romney, to “look from bottom up,” on the west’s major fire problem but took no firm position about whether Kelly believes that so-called “Firewise” measures should be mandated.
Firewise is a protocol whereby homes are maintained to reduce the risk of catching fire from airborne burning embers generated by a nearby forest fire. Trimming trees near structures, keeping a property weed-free, having proper shingles on a roof and having screens on attic vents are some of the measures that can be taken. Some communities have passed ordinances requiring the measures; Kelly said that a resident should understand the benefit of Firewise protocols: “I think people should be responsible to their properties,” he said.
Kelly’s short tenure
An explanation is in order about how this retired astronaut, a most unassuming man, ended up as one of the members of “the most exclusive club in the world,” the U.S. Senate. Sen John McCain passed away at the age of 81 in August 2018. Gov. Doug Ducey appointed former Sen Jon Kyl to the seat on a temporary basis. In the meantime, Sen. Jeff Flake decided not to run again so in 2018, Republicans produced Martha McSally to run for the seat; Democrats chose Kyrsten Sinema; Sinema won, Kyl’s temporary tenure ended and Ducey appointed McSally to John McCain’s old seat. Under the rules, Arizona held a special election in 2020 to elect a senator to fill the rest of McCain’s term.
The race pitted then Sen. McSally vs. Kelly and Kelly won. However, because the term of that seat ends in 2022, Kelly has announced he will run again, this time for a full six-year term. He has approximately seven Republican opponents who have expressed interest in the job, the most prominent among them is Mark Brnovich, currently Arizona’s attorney general.
Kelly didn’t win the 2020 special election by much — 51.2% to 48.8%; he won Apache County, but lost Navajo County to McSally. Midterm elections usually favor the party opposite the one which holds the presidency. It is well known in politics that presidential elections are about the future, but midterm elections are about today. And polls show that voters are generally unhappy with the state of affairs, today.
Surveys taken in May (Centersquare) and in July (Mother Jones) have Kelly favored by all voters by 45% and 47% respectively. However, this past weekend during Sunday Night Football, an ad paid for by One Nation lauded Sinema for her courageous opposition to to the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill but repeatedly urged that Kelly “has been silent.” Sinema is up for re-election in 2024. According to Ballotpedia, Kelly raised $90 million for his race against McSally (who raised $57million) and next year’s contest is expected to cost as much if not more.
Arizona voters have sent effective leaders of both parties to Washington over generations. Carl Hayden, dubbed “the silent senator,” served seven terms in the Senate and his behind the scenes efforts are largely credited with the abundance of water the new state needed to grow. John Rhodes, powerful committee chair and minority leader in the US House, served 14 terms. US Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was from Arizona as well as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Four candidates for president, including Barry Goldwater, John McCain, Bruce Babbit and Mo Udall, called Arizona home as did Vice President Dan Quayle.
St Johns' own Stuart Udall (Mo's brother) and Babbit served as Interior Secretaries. Whether Kelly will have the same political success remains to be seen, but by all appearances, he shouldn’t be underestimated.
Fridays’ edition of the Independent will feature the senator’s written responses to the questions submitted to his staff during the October 12 meeting.