Anyone anticipating sparks at the two most-recent debates among the Congressional District 8 Republican candidates went home disappointed.
The only drama during two days of what were essentially candidate question-and-answer sessions happened before most of the candidates arrived at the SaddleBrooke Republican Club's panel discussion on Wednesday, March 14.
Curtis Dutiel, a volunteer with the Pima County Democratic Party, arrived with video equipment. First, he was told he couldn't film during the meeting. Then he was told to leave.
Dutiel said a member of the club told him: "This is a private, members-only event."
At the end of the candidates' discussion, Dick Alford, president of the club, told the Tucson Weekly that videotaping club meetings is against its bylaws. When told that others had been videotaping during the discussion, including someone from Dave Sitton's campaign and a TV news cameraman, Alford said he hadn't noticed, and that he didn't know who asked Dutiel to leave.
The evening opened with an invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance. That was followed by a directive to the four GOP candidates—seeking their party's nomination in the special election to serve the remainder of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' term—to focus on their positions. The evening wasn't so much a debate, they were told, as "a chance to get to know you."
Their responses were remarkably similar on most issues: Obamacare is evil; small businesses suffer under Obama; federal spending is out of control; and Arizona's border with Mexico is wide open for terrorists to enter the United States.
A bit of one-upmanship began when the candidates professed their support for the military and recounted their own service.
"I've been running to the gunfire my entire life," said state Sen. Frank Antenori, who is retired from the Army's Special Forces. "You sent me on a mission to fight for you," he said of his election to the Legislature.
Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel, reminded the audience that she was the first woman to fly in combat and the first woman to command an Air Force fighter squadron, before declaring to the audience later in the evening that she's "a warrior."
Jesse Kelly, a former Marine, brought up his military record and also reminded the audience that he came close to winning the seat in the last go-round.
"We will finish the job this time," he said.
Dave Sitton, the only one of the four candidates who did not serve in the military, asked the veterans in the audience to stand.
The campaign buzz is that Kelly leads the pack because of his name recognition after narrowly losing the CD 8 seat to Giffords in 2010. The loss was highlighted on a flier from Antenori's campaign, which compares Antenori to the other candidates—but mostly contrasts him with Kelly, noting that Kelly lost an election while Antenori was winning one, and pointing out that Kelly had been living in Texas for six months.
The impact of the recent redistricting process also colored the session. SaddleBrooke is likely to become part of the new Congressional District 1 for the next 10 years; most of CD 8 will become CD 2 once redistricting is complete.
McSally was asked why SaddleBrooke residents should care about the special election if they can't vote for any of the candidates in November.
"Do not look at this as, 'This is only for six months, and then we don't care,'" McSally responded, adding that it is important to get a Republican in the seat as soon as possible to secure it for the party.
At Sabino High School, the Sabino Teen-Age Republicans hosted a debate on Thursday, March 15, with questions provided by conservative radio hosts Emil Franzi (a former Tucson Weekly automatic-weapons editor) and Jon Justice. It was moderated by another conservative Tucson radio voice, Joe Higgins.
Franzi asked the first question, which was suggested by one of the Teen-Age Republicans: "What animal would you be?"
Sitton, a UA sports broadcaster, drew on his ties to the UA and called himself a "wildcat."
Antenori picked "eagle," for its "sharp eye, symbol of freedom and free spirit—something at the top of the food chain."
Kelly, who is quite tall, said: "Anyone who has seen me stand up would say 'giraffe.'"
McSally said she once took a personality test that compares people to animals, and she came out a lion, which is "for people who are warriors and are leaders and want to get things done."
When the proposed move of louder F-35 jets to Tucson was brought up, Sitton said he had heard that Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild wasn't interested in fighting to bring them to Tucson. Kelly wondered if it was too late to get them for Tucson. Antenori said someone, presumably him, needs to exert political pressure to bring the jets to Tucson.
But it was McSally's remarks on the F-35 that received the most rousing applause of the night. Mentioning a discussion she had with a Holocaust survivor who lives in Sierra Vista, McSally said the woman told her that she "understands the sound of freedom. ... That jet noise is the sound of freedom."
The need for a special election to replace Giffords also was an issue.
"This is a special election, a special time and a special place," McSally said, describing the shifting dynamics in the community since Giffords—and the sole Democratic challenger, Ron Barber—were among those shot at a Congress on Your Corner event on Jan. 8, 2011.
McSally said "the nation is watching. ... Whoever wins this thing, it's going to be an indicator of what is going to happen in the fall, so it is really important. This is a Republican district, and we need to win this seat."
Antenori acknowledged that Barber is a nice guy, "but I have a funny feeling that he's going to go on and support the policies that got us into this mess."
Early voting in the April 17 Republican primary begins this Thursday, March 22.