Democrat Todd Camenisch complained last week that state Sen. Frank Antenori was avoiding debates with him after the League of Women Voters canceled a Sierra Vista event when the group didn't hear back from the Republican lawmaker.
"I'm quite surprised," Camenisch says, "but I guess Frank realizes that a Marine can kick an Army guy's ass any day."
But Antenori, a retired Army special-forces soldier who now works as a project manager for Raytheon, says he's not dodging anyone; he just had a fundraising event planned with his fellow GOP candidates on the day of the proposed forum with Camenisch.
"I'm out raising enough money to bury him like a freaking fish in the backyard," says Antenori, who adds that he's ready for three debates with his Democratic challenger.
It's certainly true that Camenisch, who teaches graduate-level science courses and does research at the UA College of Pharmacy, has an uphill battle in Legislative District 30, which includes Tucson's eastside, Green Valley and Sierra Vista. More than 41 percent of the voters in LD 30 are Republicans, while less than 29 percent are Democrats.
Antenori has shown that he's won over Republicans by capturing two-thirds of the vote in his GOP primary win against Marian McClure, who represented the district in the state House for eight years before being termed out in 2008.
It's been a meteoric rise for Antenori, who made his political debut with an unsuccessful congressional run in 2006. While he finished a distant fourth in that GOP primary, he continued to build his political network and won a House seat in LD 30 in 2008. And earlier this year, after warning the Pima County Board of Supervisors that they would be "better off with a happy Frank Antenori than an angry Frank Antenori," he was appointed to the Senate seat when incumbent Republican Jonathan Paton stepped down for his own unsuccessful congressional run.
Still, Camenisch, who now serves as a Catalina Foothills school board member, thinks he can unseat Antenori by winning over moderate Republicans and the nearly 30 percent of voters in the district who identify as independent of the two major parties.
The former Navy corpsman and Marine medic was an independent himself before he signed on with the Democratic Party last year to run for the Senate seat. A former Republican who once volunteered for Ronald Reagan, Camenisch said he believed the GOP was not open to a "moderate and fresh face," so he decided to go with the Democratic team.
He says he was inspired to run because he was disturbed to see the impact of budget cuts on the Catalina Foothills School District.
"From serving on the school board, it became readily apparent how dramatic the cuts are to public education—and the short-sightedness at the Capitol," Camenisch says. "The GOP control over the last 40 years has led us to this state."
But Antenori argues that the free spending of moderate Republicans and former Gov. Janet Napolitano is to blame for the state's ongoing budget woes.
He says his biggest accomplishment is those deep cuts to Arizona's budget. Since Antenori took office, GOP lawmakers have sliced about $2 billion in annual state spending, including cuts to education, health care and social programs.
"We stopped the major hemorrhaging on the spending, but we still don't have it quite under control," Antenori says. "We have to find a way to get the economy going."
If he's re-elected, Antenori wants to focus on the budget during the next legislative session, and not spend time tackling issues like revoking birthright citizenship for children born to illegal immigrants. He says he's told his fellow Republicans to "knock off the garbage on the 14th Amendment and all this other crap, and start talking about doing some tax reform and some regulatory reform to get some businesses back in this state."
Antenori would prefer to strip down the tax code, eliminate deductions for mortgage payments, end credits for school tuition and establish a new flat tax for all income brackets—even if it means increasing taxes for people who now do not owe state income taxes.
"It'll be a small amount, but I think it's more important to get everybody contributing so that everybody shares the burden equally, and everybody is an equal shareholder in the state based on a percentage of their income," Antenori says.
But he concedes that he doesn't have much support for that plan, which means he may have to compromise, as he did this year by supporting a proposal by House Speaker Kirk Adams that would have cost the state $650 million per year in tax revenue when fully implemented in 2018. Most of the benefit would have gone to business owners and Arizona's wealthiest residents.
That proposal stalled in the Senate, because Senate President Bob Burns said it was irresponsible to cut taxes by that amount when the state is already facing a deficit of more than a billion dollars next year.
Camenisch complains that the state's budget is hundreds of millions of dollars from being balanced, even with the gimmicks that GOP lawmakers used.
"It's games and gimmicks and nasty politics," Camenisch says.
One major issue that's still a problem: The state is short more than $100 million for its health-care programs. Antenori joined with most GOP lawmakers to eliminate KidsCare, a program that provides children in households up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level with insurance. He also voted to reduce the eligibility for AHCCCS, the state's Medicaid program, from 100 percent of the federal poverty level to one-third of the federal poverty level.
But lawmakers had to reverse those cuts after the federal health-care reform package passed, to ensure that Arizona would receive its federal health-care dollars.
Camenisch says it was short-sighted to cut those health-care programs, even without the federal health-care reform program, because it meant "throwing away hundreds of millions in matching federal funds."
But Antenori is prepared to cut the programs again, and risk losing even more federal dollars.
"Maybe we should call their bluff on it," Antenori says. "We'll end up in court. I'm not an expert in that area."
Antenori argues that the government does too much for unemployed and low-income citizens, who he calls "tax-eaters."
Camenisch says Antenori has benefited from government programs for most of his life, from his days in the military to his current job at Raytheon, which receives government contracts.
"He is one of the best examples of a tax-eater," Camenisch says. "His whole adult life has been supported by our taxes. Why would you want to demonize taxes? He should be boasting that he's a great success story as result of taxes and investments by the people."
Aside from fiscal issues, Antenori made headlines earlier this year by sponsoring legislation that would have made incandescent light bulbs legal in Arizona, despite federal regulations that will soon restrict their use. Antenori had hoped to set up a legal fight with the federal government regarding the extent of its powers over the state, but Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed his bill.
He says he won't try to resurrect the legislation next year.
"I made my point," he says.
He also got attention for a bill that would have prohibited anyone who receives state assistance from possessing alcohol, tobacco or even premium cable channels. That bill didn't get a hearing.
He says he's not going to pursue that legislation further, except perhaps to ask anyone getting state assistance to sign an affidavit stating that they understand that the help they receive "is coming from hard-working taxpayers."
Camenisch calls those bills a waste of resources at a time when the state can't afford such silliness.
"These shenanigans are just ridiculous," he says.
Meanwhile, Camenisch hopes that he'll soon get a chance to square off with Antenori in a debate. Antenori says that the Democrat will need more than a few debates to win the election.
"If he's seeing the polling that I'm seeing, he'd be making less noise about getting a chance to go on TV with me, and more effort on his side about raising money and getting his message out, because it ain't getting out there," Antenori says.