CD8: Who Is Behind Jesse Kelly's Makeover?

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Republican Jesse Kelly, who is battling Democrat Ron Barber in the June 12 special election to complete Gabrielle Giffords’ Congressional District 8 term, has made a startling political transformation.

For his entire political career (which is about three years old), Kelly has insisted that Social Security and Medicare needed to be privatized. In multiple interviews, he said that both programs were examples of government failures—and that government should have little to no role in helping people in their retirement age or with their health-care needs because government assistance made things worse.

But last week, Kelly’s new position emerged on his Web page: “I support preserving, protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare. I do not support privatizing, eliminating or phasing out these programs in any way.”

That’s a dramatic change in position—and weirdly enough, Kelly and his supporters refuse to acknowledge that anything has changed.

“What we said in 2010, in 2009, in 2011, and now in 2012 is that we have to protect the benefits that seniors have earned,” Kelly said at a press conference last week. “That’s what we’ve said then, it’s what we’re saying now, it’s what we will always say, because these are not welfare programs, these are programs people have paid into all their lives, and we will honor our commitments."

Pressed by reporters from Arizona Public Media and the Arizona Daily Star to explain his new position, Kelly said he was out of time and could answer no more questions.

Kelly’s new role as a protector of Medicare and Social Security came, coincidentally enough, as Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, arrived in Tucson last week.

While no formal changes have been announced by the Kelly campaign, we’re hearing that John Ellinwood, who has been Kelly’s spokesman and one of his chief strategists, has been neutered by NRCC bigwigs. As we understand it, Ellinwood has been told that he’s not to make any statements without the approval of Scarpinato, a former Arizona Daily Star reporter.

We gave Ellinwood a call last week to find out if this was the case, but haven’t yet heard back from him.

Reforming Kelly’s image is a somewhat awkward role for Scarpinato to play, given that two years ago, he was working as a spokesman for former state lawmaker Jonathan Paton’s 2010 congressional campaign. You may recall that Paton lost to Kelly, despite having more experience on the campaign trail and outspending him.

It was in the course of that campaign that Scarpinato first got to know Jesse Kelly. And he didn’t seem all that impressed with Kelly’s honesty and integrity. He told the Weekly that the Kelly campaign “has had about as much accuracy and credibility on things as Countdown With Keith Olbermann.” And he told the Arizona Capitol Times that Paton had lost ground to Kelly in the polls “because no one could have ever imagined that Jesse Kelly would run one of the most negative, slanderous campaigns that we've seen in Arizona probably in decades.”

But now that he’s been given the task of getting Kelly across the finish line by running a negative campaign on his behalf, Scarpinato says it’s all “water under the bridge.”

“Since that race, I’ve become friends with Jesse and gotten to know him and the past is the past,” Scarpinato says.

Scarpinato’s first task for his new pal appears to have been finding a way to convince people that Kelly didn’t really mean it when he said he’d “love to privatize” Social Security and get seniors “off the public dole” of Medicare.

Scarpinato correctly points out that Kelly has always said that current recipients should continue to receive their benefits.

But Scarpinato sidestepped questions about how Kelly’s new opposition to “phasing out” the programs fits with his earlier insistence that it was necessary to privatize both programs for future retirees. Instead, he encouraged The Range to call Ellinwood, who declined to return our calls. Maybe he didn’t have Scarpinato’s permission?

An in-depth look at Kelly and Barber here.

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