Sure, he was indicted on charges of extortion, wire fraud and money-laundering tied to a land-swap scheme—but Rick Renzi must have done something right.
In Arizona's mostly rural Congressional District 1, it isn't unusual to hear folks say good things about the former Republican congressman. Corruption charges? Those hardly ever come up.
According to former San Carlos Apache tribal leader Wendsler Nosie, he and Renzi didn't agree about most things, but when it came to talking to constituents, "You felt like he would listen, wanted to hear what you had to say, and that he was honest with us."
Renzi, who has pleaded not guilty to the corruption charges in the still-open case, decided not to run for a fourth term in 2008. He was succeeded by Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, who was unseated after one term by Tea Party GOP candidate Paul Gosar.
Kirkpatrick, however, is out to reclaim the seat this year—although the boundaries of the district, which is roughly the size of Pennsylvania, have changed a bit through the state's recent redistricting process.
National Journal recently listed the CD 1 race as 13th among 75 congressional seats across the country most likely to change parties, noting that Gosar has decided to run this year in Congressional District 4, which, on paper, is a more-conservative district than CD 1.
The new Congressional District 1 starts at the Utah border, stretches across most of the northern part of the state (including Flagstaff), and spreads south along the state's east side to include parts of Marana and Oro Valley. Parts of 11 counties lie within CD 1, as do portions of the reservations of 11 Arizona tribes, including the Navajo, the Hopi, the San Carlos Apache and the White Mountain Apache. Democrats have about a 9-percentage-point advantage in voter registration, but many CD 1 Democrats lean conservative.
Voters in CD 1 will have plenty of choices in the August primaries. Besides Kirkpatrick, the Democratic primary includes Wenona Benally Baldenegro, a Navajo attorney from Kayenta who studied at Harvard. Benally Baldenegro lived in Tucson for almost three years, and met her husband, Sal Baldenegro Jr., while working on Democrat Randy Parraz's failed 2010 bid for John McCain's seat in the U.S. Senate. (See "Being Baldenegro," March 31, 2011.)
On the Republican side of the race, the front-runner is Tucsonan Jonathan Paton, a former Arizona state representative and state senator who lost the 2010 Republican primary for the CD 8 seat to Jesse Kelly. Paton told the Tucson Weekly he feels confident this go-round because of successful fundraising and the 51,000 miles he's put on his car while driving to all points of the district.
However, Paton has competition from contractor Doug Wade of Sedona, retiree Patrick Gatti of Show Low, and Gaither Martin of Eagar.
WWhen I talked recently with Benally Baldenegro, she was driving to Window Rock with her mother to campaign; meanwhile, volunteers were preparing to call voters living in the southernmost part of the district.
Benally Baldenegro is undeniably an underdog against Kirkpatrick. While she has some strong endorsements, including one from U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, she is far behind Kirkpatrick in raising money.
According to the latest campaign-finance reports, Benally Baldenegro raised $18,000 between April and June, and finished the quarter with about $8,000 in the bank—and a debt of $6,200. Kirkpatrick raised almost $357,000 during the quarter and had more than $837,000 on hand as of June 30.
"I'm not considered a viable candidate," Benally Baldenegro said. "But history shows that doesn't mean I'm not going to win."
She cites as an example Grijalva's first congressional primary campaign, during which the Democratic Party establishment put its support behind a candidate thought to have more name recognition. But Grijalva ended up winning.
"That's why we challenge that definition of viability. Ann had one term in Congress and lost (56,000) of the people who first voted for her when she lost against Gosar. That's an incredible drop-off. She got (fewer) votes than the Republican loser (against Kirkpatrick) in 2008," Benally Baldenegro said.
She has also spent a lot of time talking to officials and members of all the tribes in CD 1, including her own. The Navajo Tribal Council this year voted for the first time to have tribal elections coincide with state and national elections as part of an effort to increase voter turnout.
"Part of the redistricting of CD 1 was that the (Independent Redistricting) Commission wanted the American Indian population in Congressional District 1 to have a greater voice," Benally Baldenegro said. "There were several maps on the table that did not take that into consideration, but in the end, the commission did agree with Indian tribes."
In CD 1, the Navajo Nation makes up the majority of American Indian voters. Benally Baldenegro said that is a factor she's watching; she's also targeting the Latino vote, particularly in Navajo and Apache counties.
"They are two of the top three counties (in the district) that turn out the highest number of Democratic voters on average in the last two elections," she said. "If we can take the top two counties for sure, then all we have to do is capture one more of the top counties."
If that happens, Benally Baldenegro said she expects to take on Paton, who she believes is too conservative for the district. But first, she needs to pull off the upset against Kirkpatrick.
Benally Baldenegro claims that Kirkpatrick doesn't have strong support in the Native American community, and said Kirkpatrick wasn't around when her constituents needed her most.
"She thinks she can run in the middle, but the problem is, she has this past record," Benally Baldenegro said.
During the lame-duck session in 2010, when Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, Kirkpatrick didn't cast a vote. Although her vote wouldn't have changed the outcome, activists said they couldn't understand why she was the only Democrat from Arizona not to vote on legislation that would have given permanent residency to undocumented youths who graduated from U.S. high schools or served in the military.
Kirkpatrick maintains that she has always been a supporter of the DREAM Act, but that she had a medical procedure on the day of the vote and was unable to be there for it.
Her relations with some tribal representatives may have been damaged during the Resolution Copper dispute near Superior in 2010. A proposed land exchange between the feds and the mining company pitted Kirkpatrick against environmentalists and tribes who opposed the land swap.
This is the same land swap that, in part, ended Renzi's political career, because he allegedly tried to get land owned by a supporter included in the exchange. Legislation for the land swap died, but U.S. Sen. John McCain and Kirkpatrick revived it as part of a jobs bill called the Copper Basin Jobs Act.
The proposed swap included land sacred to Apaches in the Tonto National Forest. Nosie, the former San Carlos Apache tribal leader, told the Weekly that when Kirkpatrick ran for Congress in 2008, she promised that sacred sites would be protected.
Noting that CD 1 is a mostly rural district, Nosie said, "That's a very important thing that every candidate needs to consider and not forget—that in the rural areas, we see the spring water, the streams, the animal life and all the pine trees as an important part of our way of life. There needs to be a balance."
Nosie recalled that after Kirkpatrick took office, rumors surfaced that she was working on a land swap with Resolution. Nosie said he and another Apache council member traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Kirkpatrick and to ask her to speak out in support of Apaches against the land swap. Kirkpatrick explained that she was focused on creating jobs, but Nosie said her tone was insulting.
"We were degraded right in her office," he said. "It took some time to filter what happened, but from that point on, we stopped talking to her, and she never visited us to offer an apology."
Nosie claimed Kirkpatrick said she didn't understand why Native Americans chose "to live in conditions we do, and why we wouldn't support Resolution. ... Why not bring jobs and not hang on to our spiritual belief about preserving Oak Flats as a religious site?"
Nosie said he supports Benally Baldenegro. She grew up on the Navajo reservation, and her mother was a single parent who struggled to make ends meet.
Benally Baldenegro said her positions set her apart in the CD 1 Democratic primary.
"In this district ... yes, some folks probably lean more pro-life—certainly more pro-gun rights—but when it comes to health care and providing federal spending and Social Security and Medicaid, there is such a critical need in rural parts of Arizona," Benally Baldenegro said.
"Another thing about rural Arizona is that a large percentage (of people) are poor or come from lower-income families. Education, free health care and much-needed services are important. But education is the way out for so many of us. That's how we've been able to provide a better future for our families, and the people I talk to in this district understand that."
Benally Baldenegro said her fundraising has been at a relatively low level in part because of her rejection of contributions from corporate lobbyists. Although her campaign is in debt, she said the pace of donations is improving.
"There have been past campaigns where the underdog has been outspent 5-to-1, and they still won," she said. "The ideas that name recognition and how much you've raised determine the race only matter to a very, very select few. But everyday folks in the district don't care. They want a personal connection to the politician, (and don't care) how much money that person has raised."
Paton, considered the likely Republican candidate in the November general election, is being painted by Kirkpatrick as a carpetbagger whose work for payday-loan companies continues to taint him.
(Full disclosure: During this year's legislative session, Paton did work for Wick Communications, owner of the Weekly and various community newspapers across the state. Paton helped defeat legislative efforts that would have lessened public-notice publication requirements.)
Paton said his strategy is to be himself, a conservative Republican who fully supported state legislation such as SB 1070, as well as the law targeting Mexican-American studies in state high schools.
He said he's learned that folks in CD 1 want a representative who is going to be available—no matter their political party affiliation
"I am obviously more well-known (on the southern end of the district), and now we're finally spending more time in that area and getting back to Marana and Oro Valley," he said.
But why CD 1? Why not stay out of Kirkpatrick's turf and run in the CD 2 race against newly elected Democrat Ron Barber?
Paton said the CD 1 race made sense to him because he'd been doing a lot of work for the town of Marana, which is in the new district. Paton is sensitive to the "lobbyist" label, and said the work he has done for the town was not as a lobbyist, but as a contractor helping the town with policy issues.
"A lot of the issues (CD 1 residents) care about, I care about, and I thought it was a great chance to serve. ... It is basically 20 to 30 minutes away from where I grew up. ... I know the issues, and when I saw the district, I felt that it fit me."
Paton said he's confident of winning the primary, because "at the end of the day, we have basically more endorsements, and have visited more places, and have raised more money."
Paton raised $325,000 in the second quarter and had $343,100 on hand as of June 30. Republican opponent Gaither Martin, who has loaned his campaign $57,000, ended the quarter with about $86,000. Sedona contractor Doug Wade raised $10,000 in the quarter, has $9,000 in the bank and $16,000 of debt.
The Federal Election Commission doesn't have campaign-finance information for Show Low retiree Patrick Gatti, but Gatti told the Weekly he's raised about $500.
Paton said that if he ends up running against Kirkpatrick in November, he plans to bring up her vote for the Affordable Health Care Act, more widely known as Obamacare.
However, as someone who has been referred to by opponents as "Payday Payton" for working on behalf of payday lenders, Paton also has a record to overcome in the minds of some.
"I worked for the Community Financial Services Association (of America)," Paton said of his 2004 employment with the payday-loan-industry association. "I worked to put together a charity for CFSA, and the charity did scholarships for kids."
He said he registered then as a lobbyist because he was going to interact with legislators, not because he was going to lobby for specific legislation. "I asked lawmakers to help judge essays that kids wrote. But I didn't go out and lobby people on positions."
Paton brought up Kirkpatrick's own connections to the payday-lending industry, noting that she took about $10,000 in contributions from the industry for her last campaign. "It's hypocritical of her. It was no problem before, but now?"
Paton said he's reached out to tribal officials in CD 1. He said he spoke to the Navajo Tribal Council the same day Kirkpatrick and Benally Baldenegro made presentations to them regarding their campaigns.
However, that does not mean he's pledging to side with tribes in their battles against mining interests.
"I'm not going to make a promise that I can't keep," Paton said referring to the Resolution Copper controversy with the San Carlos Apaches. "I am not going to flip-flop on positions. I think what Native Americans want is someone who is going to tell them the truth."
When Kirkpatrick talked about Paton, she noted that, in contrast to Paton, her family has lived in the district for more than 100 years.
Kirkpatrick said she wants to serve again in Congress, because she has a vision for the district that involves creating a "diversified, sustainable economy that brings back a manufacturing base. Unlike other candidates, I have a jobs plan that I talk about."
The plan includes creating jobs in emerging technologies such as wind and solar power, and biosciences; continuing to fight for the protection of the Grand Canyon from mining and to preserve the more than 12,000 jobs the natural attraction has created in the region; and focusing on education.
A fact sheet provided by her campaign says that during her term in Congress, Kirkpatrick introduced a permanent reauthorization of Indian Health Service funding into the Affordable Care Act.
"I was born on tribal land and raised in the White Mountain Apaches' nation. I have a very good relationship with all the tribes ... and they know that I am fighting for them," Kirkpatrick said.
Paton said he'd heard complaints that when Kirkpatrick first took office, she closed a congressional office that Renzi had opened on the Navajo Nation. Kirkpatrick said that wasn't an unusual action. "Whenever there's a new congressional takeover, you have to completely revamp the office. We didn't want to take over Renzi's existing offices. ... He was in the middle of an indictment."
Kirkpatrick said constituents, Native American and otherwise, tell her that jobs and economic development are the most-important issues. Kirkpatrick said her strategy for creating jobs is to work with everyone, regardless of party affiliation.
"When I served ... six of my bills passed and were signed, and all had a Republican co-sponsor. That's because I believe in solutions and results," Kirkpatrick said.
Republican U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl's SB 2109, the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act, is a divisive issue in the district. In early July, the Navajo Tribal Council voted to oppose the proposal, which would settle long-standing water claims to the Little Colorado River. The Hopi Tribal Council approved the settlement, but nothing is likely to happen as long as the Navajos disapprove.
Kirkpatrick said she has a deep respect for tribal sovereignty, and that in the end, it is up to the tribes to decide what takes place next.
Regarding what occurred between her and Nosie of the San Carlos Apaches, Kirkpatrick said the Superior area has historically been a mining community, and that her work with Resolution was about creating jobs.
"I've always had good friendships with the San Carlos Apaches," she said.
"I think it's important that people have a choice in this campaign. Paton is a lobbyist, and I'm a leader, and I have a lifetime of experience," Kirkpatrick said. "He's just looking for a place to run. In every small town I've visited, they ask me, 'Why do we want someone from Tucson? ... They don't know anything about us.'"
Among the underdog Republicans in the race, Gatti and Wade responded to the Weekly's request for an interview, while Martin did not.
Both candidates who responded had harsh words for Paton. Wade, a Sedona contractor and a Vietnam veteran, said he finds Paton's work with the payday-loan industry troubling, considering how those businesses have a reputation for preying on members of the military.
"I don't see how any veteran could be involved in the payday-lending industry," Wade said regarding Paton, who voluntarily served in Iraq as part of the U.S. Army Reserve.
Wade said this is his first experience in politics, and he thinks that's why it's been difficult for him to raise money. "I'm not a career politician, but a small-businessman. It's challenging running a business and campaigning at the same time."
Wade said he entered the race because he cares about the country, his family and community. The residents of CD 1, he said, were hit hard by the recession and are still recovering. "The people I know are feeling the pain out there," he said.
Gatti said he served as a city councilman in La Verne, Calif., before moving to Show Low when he retired three years ago. "I can say I've got more legislative experience than anyone running," he said.
Gatti questioned why it was so important for Paton to leave his work as a state legislator to serve in Iraq.
"He portrays himself as a warrior, but he was in the National Guard, which I consider to be of lesser quality than full Army," Gatti said (although Paton is actually in the Army Reserve).
Gatti and Benally Baldenegro were the only two candidates to recently address the Hopi Tribal Council. Gatti said that while he understands the important role the district's congressional representative has in working with area tribes, he thinks Native Americans need to deal with federal spending cuts and to rely more on casino revenue. "Native Americans are receiving a hell of a lot of money from their casinos," he said. "The federal money just can't keep on coming."
He describes Benally Baldenegro, a member of the Navajo nation, as "a Hopi Indian and educated outside the reservation and brought back in to do work for the reservation."
And so it goes in Arizona's Congressional District 1.