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KJZZ Friday NewsCap: Why are Arizona legislators quitting? Maybe it’s the $24K salary

KJZZ’s Friday NewsCap revisits some of the biggest stories of the week from Arizona and beyond.

Former Arizona House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding and Chip Scutari of S+C Communications joined The Show to talk about the new chair of the Arizona Republican Party, the resignation of an embattled state lawmaker and more.

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Conversation highlights

On resignations in the state Legislature

MARK BRODIE: Rep. Leezah Sun (D-Phoenix) resigned seemingly very shortly before the House was set to kick her out. Was it surprising to you, given how she defended herself in the House Ethics Committee? Were you surprised at all that she decided to resign?

REGINALD BOLDING: I wasn’t surprised at all. I don’t think anyone was surprised. And I think that one of the things that the caucus members would say, quietly, is that people really wanted her out. I mean, ever since she was elected to office, I know that there’s always been some type of issues that’s plagued itself within the caucus or its leadership.

And it’s unfortunate. Obviously, her behavior was unfortunate. And I can tell you, had she not resigned, Democrats would have led the charge to expel her. They were 100% on board, ready to go and ready to get her out of the caucus.

BRODIE: Chip, the Ethics Committee released a report that was not terribly favorable to her, found that she committed a pattern of disorderly behavior in violation of House rules, abused her official title and position. And some of the testimony that came out — she allegedly threatened to kill a lobbyist. I mean, that’s not good stuff.

CHIP SCUTARI: Yeah, she threatened to throw someone off a balcony, which is never good So she’s definitely needed anger management or serious professional help. And as we were talking before The Show, this has been a pattern with her, this disruptive behavior. This belligerence happens and there’s no place for that at the state Capitol or in your house or in any place of business.

So I give credit to the Democrats, the Arizona House Democrats, for working together. And, yeah, it seemed like a bipartisan push to get her out of the Capitol. So it’s good for that. The Arizona Dems seem like they have to hit the transfer portal like they’re a sports team. You know, because they lost Reps. Athena Salman (Tempe), Jennifer Longdon (Phoenix), Amish Shah (Phoenix).

So they have quite a few vacancies to fill. I do think Jevin Hodge is a good appointment to fill Rep. Salman’s spot because I think he could be a rising star in the Dem party, and I would love to get Reginald’s take on this, but maybe there’s some hope for new blood and new voices at the Capitol on the Dem side.

BRODIE: Yeah. I mean, how much of it, Reginald when we talk about some of these Democrats — obviously Rep. Sun is a different story — but the other three all basically said in some variation the grass is greener somewhere else, right? Like this isn’t enjoyable. It’s deadlocked, it’s not fun. We can be more productive outside the Capitol. That seems like it’s kind of a problem.

BOLDING: No, I mean, it is a problem. When you look at Reps. Shah, Longdon and Salman — they all were effective in what they did with the constituent bases that they represented. And I think that when they’re saying that, “Hey, the Capitol is in gridlock, we feel like we can actually do a better job of affecting change in Arizona from outside of the Capitol,” it is something that we need to look back at and say, “How can we change the dynamics of what’s happening at the Legislature?”

But with that said, when you’re trying to impact wide-scale statewide policy changes, the Legislature is a place that you want to be. And I’m hopeful that there’s going to be some great folks who will be able to fill the shoes of those folks. And I think Jevin Hodge absolutely is a rising star in a Democratic Party, and I’m just really glad that he’s got the seat.

SCUTARI: I think this calls for — again, I’ve said this on The Show many times — but we need to raise the salary for state lawmakers. It’s still $24,000, which is tough to live on. I think a livable wage of $50,000 to $60,000, you’d get a different, maybe more widespread, good talent to go to work down there.

But doing it for $24,000 a year when you have basically January to June, where you’re down there completely — it’s tough to run a business. It’s tough to work for an employer. I think it’s high time that there should be a bipartisan push to get something on the statewide ballot to give these folks — whether left, right or center — a big pay raise.

BRODIE: Reginald, Gov. Katie Hobbs has made it pretty clear that it is one of her goals to flip one or both of the legislative chambers. Democrats have been talking about this for a very long time. I wonder, though, if the number of resignations now — is that an indication that maybe Democrats aren’t so optimistic of that happening after this year’s election?

BOLDING: No, I wouldn’t put a correlation between the resignations and the efforts to flip the chamber. I think every resignation that you saw, it was for good reason. When we talk about Rep. Salman, she has been leading reproductive justice rights. Amish Shah, he feels like he has a really good chance in Congress — which I think he does — to win that race in CD1. And then also Rep. Longdon. She’s been a strong advocate when it comes to protecting our community health clinics and families.

So I think there’s different cases there. But with that said, if there is going to be strong policy changes that the governor wants to implement, she has no way to do that outside of flipping one or both of these chambers, because we’ve seen the gridlock that took place last year. And we’re starting to see that again this year.

On new Arizona Republican Party Chair Gina Swoboda

BRODIE: Chip, speaking of comings and goings, the state Republican Party had a bit of that over the last week or so with Jeff DeWit last week resigning after, of course, the leaked audio recording from Kari Lake of a conversation that they’d had some months before. On Saturday, the party met and voted for Gina Swoboda to be the new chair of the party. What’s your impression of her as a leader, and what challenges do you think she will have to deal with coming in and taking over this new position?

SCUTARI: Well, first, I was kind of sad to me as someone who covered politics in Arizona for a long time — those Saturday meetings used to be somewhat fun, where you could talk with people, schmooze a little bit, hear what’s going on. They blocked the media from coming. It was very divisive, a lot of booing. So I think that’s where the Arizona Republican Party at that level has gone, which is very sad.

And I think for those not fluent in political speak, when you see the words “Trump endorsed,” that means that person — whether it’s Gina Swoboda or whatever — is willing to embrace the “Big Lie,” willing to say that Donald Trump won an election. He didn’t. Joe Biden won fair and square.

So I think whenever you see those two words, “Trump endorsed,” you have to put in your mind — whether you’re Republican or Democrat — that means you’re willing to embrace the “Big Lie” for Donald Trump. And I think Ms. Swoboda has a huge uphill climb, not only with our finances, but I saw her on the Steve Bannon podcast talking about how they’re going to find election irregularities.

And she started a nonprofit called Voter Reference Foundation, which analyzes state voter rolls to find false information. That’s been debunked. So I think it’s just going to be more of the same with her leadership. It’s going to be about election integrity, trying to overturn the elections, stopping different electoral procedures. But that’s the way the party’s going, and that’s what they wanted. And we’ll see how this plays out in a big, crucial election year for Arizona and America.

BRODIE: How much do you think it matters, the state of really either party, given super PACs and given the ability of — we saw two years ago of donors to give money, for example, to a county Republican Party to get ads on the air and get stuff they wanted done, sort of bypassing the state party. Does it matter, sort of the state of a state’s political party?

SCUTARI: You know, it used to matter a whole lot more. Now for presidential race, U.S. Senate race, governor’s race — it doesn’t matter. What it does matter is raising money and also for ledge candidates for getting out the vote for those.

BRODIE: Like down-ballot type votes?

SCUTARI: Yeah, when we were talking about down-ballot, if the Dems can either turn over the state House or flip state House and flip the state Senate, that’s where it matters. But for Joe or Jane Six-Pack on the street, they don’t really know who the Arizona Republican or Dem party chair is, and nor do they care.

So both political parties will find other ways around that to raise money and to funnel cash to their candidates.

BRODIE: Reginald, what do you think? Does it really matter for Democrats who are trying to win races — like Republicans are like — does it matter if the other party is sort of in a state of flux?

BOLDING: Well, you know what? When Democrats saw that Gina Swoboda was elected chair, we quietly stood back and just clapped our hands and said, “Look, this is a continuance of what we’ve seen out of the state GOP for the last several cycles.” And what we’re seeing is that the more extreme that you’re having a Republican Party, the more extreme candidates that are going to win these primaries, which makes most of these races that are in competitive districts or in districts that lean right all winnable for Democrats.

I remember many moons ago, sitting at the state Legislature, testifying was Gina Swoboda on election irregularities. I think it’s important to know she also works for the Senate Republicans, the Elections Committee. So Democrats know that having someone really extreme is going to make it more difficult for institutional Republican donors to put their money into parties.

I would say this. I do think parties matter when it comes to coordination across several candidates — local, state, federal. But ultimately, as you mentioned, no one on the street really knows who the chair of either party is.

SCUTARI: But once again, this shows that Donald Trump is not only running his campaign, but pretty much every swing state infrastructure, which is a big deal. Ten, 15 years ago, five years ago, whether the president was a Republican or Democrat, they weren’t getting involved at this level to make sure they had their endorsed people in charge.

And it sends a message to moderate Republicans like myself — I guess I’m a raging RINO now, I don’t know what to consider myself — that basically we’re not here for you. And if you listen to Gina Swoboda talk, it was all about election integrity, election irregularities. Bothing about K-12 schools — which I care about for my kids. Nothing about health care. Nothing about affordable housing. Nothing about private sector for a small business owner. It was all about election irregularities.

Brodie: Well, and interestingly, all of the candidates — I mean, Jeff DeWit worked for Trump both on his campaign and in his administration. The other candidates were all supporters of former President Trump. So it’s not like you had sort of the Trump wing and another wing of the party going for the chairmanship. It was all sort of varying degrees of support for the former president.

SCUTARI: Yeah. And I don’t know, Jeff, DeWit well. I’ve met him a couple of times in TV studios. Seems like a pretty nice guy. He seemed like maybe the one person in the state Republican apparatus of Arizona that could thread the needle between being a MAGA guy, but also reaching out to common centrist Republicans. He kind of had that everyman quality to him.

And so I think Gina Swoboda, I don’t think she has that same type of personality or persona. So I believe it was a big loss for Arizona Republicans to lose Jeff DeWit as chair.

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.