GILA COUNTY — The battle for the District 6 state Senate seat is shaping up to be a high-stakes contest, with elements of a civil war.
When term-limited state House Rep. Bob Thorpe (R-Flagstaff) decided to run for the senate seat in the district stretching from the Grand Canyon to Snowflake and beyond – he thought incumbent Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake) was stepping down ahead of her own term-limit deadline.
Thorpe is a former Tea Party activist, volunteer paramedic, businessman and builder of flight simulators.
That meant that in the Republican primary he just had to beat frequent-candidate Wendy Rogers, who has run repeatedly for Congress and the state legislature without success. She’s an Air Force veteran, clinical social worker and business owner, who last year won the Republican nomination but lost to Democrat Tom O’Halleran in Congressional District 1.
But Sen. Allen recently upended Thorpe’s calculations by declaring her own plan to run again, saying that as head of the senate education committee she had too many additional things she wants to accomplish. That creates a three-way Republican primary, with two long-time incumbents squared off against each other.
“Sylvia has concerns about things she wants to accomplish in education,” Thorpe told about 30 people at the Tea Party meeting in Payson on Tuesday. “She’s not really making a strong argument about that — she could do the same things in the House. I’m sure the speaker would allow her to be chair or vice chair of the education committee so she could accomplish the exact same things.”
And to complicate matters further, whoever emerges from the Republican primary will likely face retired Army Col. Felicia French, a Democrat who barely lost to the District 6 House seat to incumbent Thorpe and newcomer Walter Blackman in 2018. French, a decorated medivac helicopter pilot who served in combat, is running again on a platform that calls for more support for education, as well as protecting healthcare for people who gained coverage through the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment system. She announced her bid for the senate seat, then headed off to hike the 800-mile-long Arizona trail solo. French has been sharply critical of the lack of oversight in the financial affairs of charter schools and the growing support for private school tuition vouchers.
Rep. Thorpe this week spoke before the Payson Tea Party, with Sen. Allen scheduled to make her pitch to the group of Republican activists next week.
Former Rep. Brenda Barton was in the audience. Barton tried to convince Sen. Allen to run for the House when she was term-limited out of office last year. Barton then decided to run against Allen, but stepped aside because of problems with her qualifying petition signatures.
House seat vulnerable
Tea Party activist Shirley Dye said she and others still hope to talk Allen into running for the House instead. She said the battle in the Republican primary could leave the party vulnerable to losing the House seat Thorpe is vacating. Incumbent Walter Blackman is running for one of those two House seats — but no strong Republican candidate has yet been recruited for the House Thorpe’s seat.
However, Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott is running for that seat as an Independent. He has been repeatedly elected to local office in the Flagstaff area, which represents the population center of the district that also includes Payson, Show Low, Flagstaff, Sedona and the Verde Valley. Independents account for about 30 percent of the voters in what’s considered one of the more competitive districts in the state.
On the Democratic side, Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans is running for the Democratic nomination. The District 6 seat has been solidly Republican for a decade, despite the relatively balanced voter registration.
Payson Mayor Morrissey said “You and Walt and Sylvia have been an incredible team. I hate to see a battle between you and Sylvia. Wendy Rogers is a non-starter. Would I be out of line by asking maybe if Sylvia could run for the open seat and keep the team together?”
Thorpe noted, “During the years that I’ve run, we’ve been fairly fortunate – most of the people who have run against us have never been elected and don’t have any campaigning experience. It’s always a challenge to raise money. This coming election is going to be very different because two opposing candidates both have extensive political experience.”
“I’m extremely proud of the state because we have a lot of choices for education — private schools, charter schools, public schools, home-schooling. In addition to that, we have empowerment scholarship accounts (ESA),” Thorpe said of his stance on education.
He said the state has begun to restore some of the deep cuts in education made during the recession, but mostly touted the state’s variety of educational choices. The state has one of the most extensive networks of taxpayer-funded of charter schools in the nation. The state also has a voucher system to provide some $62 million in taxpayer-funded grants for tuition paid to private and religious schools each year — an average of about $11,000 per student, according to a 2018 study by the Grand Canyon Institute. (https://grandcanyoninstitute.org/10700-per-student-the-estimated-cost-of-arizonas-private-school-subsidy-programs/).
Sen. Allen has also strongly backed charter schools and ESA tuition vouchers and at one point owned a charter school.
Thorpe focused on a number of efforts he’s made to help veterans and other taxpayers. He’s also chairman of the technology committee and co-chair of the aviation caucus, which focuses on airports. The legislature swept about $100 million from the aviation fund, which comes from taxes paid on planes and aviation fuel and is supposed to help expand and maintain airports and other services for pilots. Thorpe said lawmakers this year restored $10 million of that funding, which will draw perhaps $100 million in matching grants to improve airports.
Thorpe said lawmakers focused on cutting taxes throughout the recovery from the recession, hoping to stimulate the economy.
“We’ve decreased taxes multiple times. We’ve created an environment where we really want businesses to prosper. We want individuals to have good jobs. That’s exactly what’s happening in Arizona.”
Peter Aleshire covers county government for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at email@example.com