All three of the Democrats running in one of Tucson's few competitive legislative districts say they can beat the Republicans in November and tip the scales of state government—but only two of them will survive the primary election.
Democratic voters in the Aug. 28 primary for the newly drawn Legislative District 10 have a choice between Rep. Bruce Wheeler, who is running for re-election, and two political newcomers: Stefanie Mach, a small-business owner, and Brandon Patrick, a former Arabic translator in the U.S. Air Force.
Unlike in most districts, which heavily favor one party over the other, the race in LD 10 won't be over after the primary. The district includes the Sam Hughes neighborhood to the west, and opens up in the east, capturing the Sunrise Ranch area to the northeast and Saguaro Canyon to the southeast.
Although Democrats in the district have only a 4.5 percent edge over Republicans, Pima County Democratic Party chair Jeff Rogers says he's confident the party can pick up both House seats.
"Even though we have a slight (voter-registration) advantage, the Republicans in that district are pretty moderate, so I think that our advantage is greater than the statistics actually show," Rogers said. "I'm feeling pretty good about that district."
The two Democrats who move past this (so far) friendly primary election will face Rep. Ted Vogt, who was appointed to the Legislature in 2010 and later elected to the seat, and Todd Clodfelter, a GOP chair from Vogt's old eastside district.
Wheeler, who served a term in the House in the 1970s and then was elected to the Tucson City Council in the '80s and '90s before returning to the Legislature two years ago, knows this election won't be easy.
"I'm running like I'm two points behind. I'm not taking anything for granted," he says.
If sent back to the Capitol, his first priorities will be to reintroduce a bill that he sponsored last year to fund ninth-grade Joint Technical Education District classes, and draft another bill to offer tax credits for the film industry. He says the voters want a representative who will solve problems, not create them.
"The solution to our education problems, if you watch the Legislature, they say it's allowing guns on campus," he says. "They want to make a statement. They want to make a radical, ideological, nutcase statement about allowing guns on campus instead of sitting down and setting some education goals."
Wheeler says the voters know him from his years in elected office and accomplishments like helping solve the Central Arizona Project brown-water fiasco while on the City Council. He says he has earned a reputation as a reasonable guy who can work across the aisle, which will be a big help if Democrats pick up seats in the Legislature and gain some pull around the Capitol.
"I think we Democrats realistically have a chance to pick up seven seats in the House," he says. "And if we have 27 (members to the Republicans') 33, then that helps the chances of stopping the nonsense, and maybe working out agreements on some worthwhile legislation."
Brandon Patrick hopes to be one of those new Democrats in the House. Though he's barely old enough to hold the office, he has a résumé that includes not only battlefield experience, but political experience as a City Council aide and as head of the committee to kill Tucson's Proposition 200 in 2009.
Patrick says he can be an effective leader in the Legislature because he's a coalition-builder, and he can bring together people who wouldn't usually work together, like he did to successfully fight the aforementioned Proposition 200, which would have forced the city to spend more on police and firefighters—at the expense of other city services.
"Most citizens want the government to work and don't care about the petty things that separate us from the people on the other side of the aisle," he says. "That's what I like to focus on, the common ground."
He believes Democrats can take the two seats if voters understand how detrimental the Republican leadership has been to the state's education system and economy.
If elected, he says the first bill he will introduce would grant tax credits to solar-energy companies in Arizona. In the long term, he would like to review all of the state's tax credits to make sure they are going to industries that deserve the breaks and are creating jobs in the state.
However, his campaign has been slow to get off the ground. More than a week after early voting began, he still had not turned in his qualifying $5 donations to receive Clean Elections funds.
Stefanie Mach, the CEO of her own consulting business for nonprofit organizations, is also running her first campaign for public office, though she's worked within the Democratic Party for several years.
Mach, who at a young age was in a car accident that left her with serious injuries, doesn't think of herself as a typical politician. She says she decided to run for office only after seeing how extreme the Republican-led Legislature has become.
"My fear of what is happening in the state politically is greater than my fear of being in the public eye," she says. "I know I can help. I'm not willing to stand by on the sidelines waiting for someone else to do the work that needs to be done."
Mach has a master's degree in public policy in education. She says her experience—in the classroom; volunteering to build houses; and working both with the nonprofit world and in the private sector—gives her the ability to connect with voters from all walks of life. If elected, she plans to focus on growing the economy and creating jobs.
Mach acknowledges that the campaign against the Republicans will be tough, and to make sure she is prepared to take them on, she has been mostly self-funding her campaign—to the tune of $15,000 as of the last campaign-finance reports.
"Money does matter," she says. "We can't ignore it and say that's not the case and think that we're still going to reach as many voters as we need to."