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Party Animals

Democrats forced Rep. Daniel Patterson out of the Legislature—and it cost them a seat in the House

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When Democrats started calling for the ouster of one of their own—state Rep. Daniel Patterson—he quit the party and, eventually, the Arizona House of Representatives.

Now the Democratic Party is down a House seat.

To recap: The most recent trouble for Patterson, a two-term lawmaker from Tucson's Legislative District 29, began while he was breaking up with his then-girlfriend and campaign manager, Georgette Escobar. According to police reports, he got into a fight with her at their home and stole her dog. Patterson has since pleaded not guilty to four misdemeanor counts of domestic violence in Tucson City Court.

House Democrats then filed an ethics complaint against him, saying he had displayed "a pattern of conduct that may be considered domestic violence," and the House Ethics Committee voted to hire a team of outside lawyers to look into it.

Meanwhile, Patterson and Escobar continued to make news. Escobar was arrested in La Paz County on charges of possession of methamphetamine. She later recanted her allegation against Patterson, posting on Facebook that she "had a breakdown" and that he never hit her. They both quit the Democratic Party, and Patterson reregistered as an independent.

The lawyers delivered a damning ethics report that focused on what it called the lawmaker's pattern of harassing and bullying fellow lawmakers and co-workers at the Capitol. The report was packed with all sorts of unsavory details, such as an allegation that Patterson had suggested to a lobbyist that he would trade his vote for sex. Patterson denied that charge, and sidestepped others, including allegations that he frequently smoked pot.

Democrats tried to expel Patterson shortly following the report's release, claiming they felt unsafe while he was roaming the House. But Republicans said they wanted to give him a chance to explain himself before sending him packing.

The Arizona Constitution allows the expulsion of any member of the House or Senate "for disorderly behavior" on a two-thirds vote by the affected chamber—which brings us to last week, when Patterson got his chance to defend himself before the Ethics Committee. He testified that the ethics report was overly broad, politically motivated and relied on anonymous sources with vendettas against him. He argued that the ethics complaint was invalid and that his due-process rights were being violated. He even claimed that as a middle-aged, white male, he was the victim of racial discrimination by Democrats who wanted a Latino in his seat.

He apologized and pleaded with the committee to let him finish out his term.

"Nothing I've done has violated the trust of my constituents or my ability to represent them here in the House," he said. "Although I've made some mistakes that I truly regret and I'm working hard to correct ... removal from the House would be too severe and a very bad precedent for the state of Arizona. I've already been punished hard through the loss of my committee assignments, the loss of my assistant, the loss of my office and significant damage to my reputation."

However, the committee unanimously recommended his expulsion to the full House. Later that day, moments before the House was set to vote on his ouster, Patterson quit. He was still registered as an independent at the time.

Avoiding questions from a pack of reporters, he slunk out the back door of the House—through the underground tunnel connected to the Senate—and into a car in the Senate parking lot.

"I have been forced to resign due to the fact that the House has become a very hostile work environment for me," he said in his resignation letter. "Due to this, I am no longer able to serve my constituents in the way they deserve."

Patterson's friend and supporter, Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rogers, said he encouraged Patterson to reregister as a Democrat.

Patterson obliged, but it was too late. At 1:36 p.m., Patterson officially resigned. Twenty-five minutes later, he became a Democrat again. Secretary of State Ken Bennett determined that Patterson's replacement must be an independent, though he would "welcome a judicial resolution to this matter, should one arise."

Rogers decided not to sue, considering that the Legislature is about to adjourn for the year; Democrats at the Legislature are vastly outnumbered anyway; and an election—with new districts—is around the corner.

"Is it worth doing this just to make a point with the session almost over, on the off chance that there could be a special session?" Rogers said. "There's really not a lot of reason to do it."

The Pima County Board of Supervisors has selected a committee of Legislative District 29 residents who will look over applications from independents interested in being appointed to Patterson's seat. The committee includes former Democratic Rep. Tom Prezelski; former Democratic Sen. Victor Soltero; former Republican Rep. Lou-Ann Preble; Julee Dawson, director of development and community relations at the Tucson Hebrew Academy; and Kristin Almquist, community outreach director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona.

Although the Secretary of the State's Office said it would be possible for a Democrat to reregister as an independent, assume the office, and reregister as a Democrat, the board indicated it would prefer someone with a history as an independent.

The committee has until Friday to select three registered independents from the district and forward the names to the Board of Supervisors. If all goes according to plan, the supervisors will fill the vacancy next week.

Even with the quick turnaround, the new representative will only get to make a handful of votes. Legislators are itching to end the session and start campaigning, although they have not yet approved a budget.

Republican lawmakers have proposed an amendment to an elections bill that would clarify the law; in the future, a vacated office would be filled by a person who is a member of the party that the vacating office-holder belonged to when he or she was initially elected or appointed.

Pima County Board of Supervisors chair Ramón Valadez was in the Legislature when they set the laws for filling vacancies, and after seeing the process play out, he realizes they could have drafted it better.

"Part of the problem we're having today is that none of the provisions were meant for independents," he said. "And frankly, I'm not sure we'll ever need to do this again."

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