Radical Bipartisans Stage a Coup

Pop Rocket, June 2013

We have a small group of subversives and traitors in the Arizona Senate working to undermine American values and turn this country into a socialist dependency state. At least that's what their most vocal opponents are saying about them. The funny thing is that the subversives and their opponents wear the same party lapel pins.
     I've written before about the conflict going on for years now within the Republican Party in this state. In May that conflict erupted into open war on the floor of the Senate as the body came to its vote on the (re-)expansion of our Medicaid system (AHCCCS) to include Arizonans making up to 133% of the income level the federal government defines as the poverty line. A very reluctant Governor Jan Brewer brought the measure to the Legislature not because she cares all that much about the thousands of working poor that would be able to access basic health care with state support, nor the many health-care workers who would be employed in that care, but rather because of the large pile of federal matching dollars that would come with it. For her the choice was stark: do the expansion and bring a couple of billion clams into the state, or don't, and spend half a billion out of the general fund. Every year. Not passing it would have been just stupid.
     If you've been paying any attention you likely know that the Senate passed an amended version of the governor's proposal as SB1492 on May 16, and as of this writing the bill is facing a gory flaying in the House. What you may not know is who made it happen and how, and why this vote was an important sign of positive change in our Legislature.
     To get this vitally important bill passed, five Republicans crossed the aisle to vote with the Democrats: Bob Worsley, Michelle Reagan, Adam Driggs, John McComish and our own Steve Pierce. Driggs is the majority whip, McComish the majority leader, and Pierce the immediate past president, illustrating that the fracture in the majority cuts through to the very top.
     I trace the history of this vote back to the zenith of Tea-Party power and the brief tenure of Russell Pearce as Senate prez. The utter craziness of those sessions led to Pearce's recall and unprecedented defeat by his own voters in a special election, but while that occupied the headlines, influential non-crazy Republicans realized it was time to take their party back.
     They replaced Pearce as president with Prescott rancher/developer Steve Pierce, whom veteran legislator and political consultant Stan Barnes called "the adult in the room." With clear disdain for the over-the-top talk and pointless theatrics so beloved of the Tea Partiers, Pierce got the Senate back to work and kept it out of the headlines. The right wing knocked him to the back bench in the following session, replacing him with the reliably extreme Andy Biggs, but Pierce wasn't finished.
     As early as mid-March this year Pierce and his small group of like-minded senators began exercising muscle by siding with the united Democrats in the sort of bipartisan coalition voting that hasn't been seen in Phoenix in a very long time. Ahead of the Medicaid vote, just as a demonstration and warning, they even went so far as to defeat a perfectly good bill that everyone wanted passed, then they brought it back and passed it. At about that point Biggs' rhetoric clearly showed less confidence he could block the Medicaid expansion, even resignation to its passage. It was a classic palace coup, and while Biggs still occupies the chair, he no longer wields the power.
     Regular readers know that I don't share much with Senator Pierce in terms of policy positions, but over the years I've gained some confidence in his practicality and personal integrity. He doesn't say much, but he means what he says, and when he described his vote in an op-ed in The Arizona Republic as "not an act of courage, but simply what we were elected to do," I didn't read any false modesty.
     That's not to say that there won't be consequences. The battle is far from over, and we can be confident that the rightward forces will at least try to knock all five of the radical bipartisans out in the 2014 primaries. But it seems to me that the Tea Party star is fading and Republican voters are almost as sick of the crazies and the gridlock as the rest of us, preferring the party would focus on solving real problems over beating up on Republicans who won't walk the crazy talk.
     It's about time. For too many years sensible Republicans have been honoring Ronald Reagan's eleventh commandment ("Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican") and watching their party slide into chaos and defeat as simpletons and hate-mongers have had their day. I've seen the wincing on their faces as they groped for excuses to explain the sorry behavior of their wayward brethren, even as the nutbars were throwing them under the Big Bus of Righteousness for their trouble. Former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole recently said that the party should put up a "closed for repairs" sign for the coming year and try to figure out a positive agenda. I hope that those among our state Republicans still attached to reality will take that advice, find their spines and continue the work that Steve Pierce began here.

Update, June 6: In the past week Speaker Tobin has indicated that he does not have the votes to block the Medicaid expansion in the House. The House Appropriations Committee may still strip the Medicaid language from the budget bill, but if that happens supporters will very probably restore it through floor amendment and pass it anyway.

Note: This is my final column for Pop Rocket. I think that while the deep pockets of Western Newspapers will likely keep it afloat out of proportion to its real value, the paper's relentless mediocrity makes it an ultimately pointless waste of time and effort for me.

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