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6 Democrats who want to take on Congressman David Schweikert in CD1 struggle to stand out in debate

The six Democrats vying for the chance to unseat Republican Congressman David Schweikert in Arizona’s Congressional District 1 struggled to differentiate themselves from one another at a debate in north Phoenix on Wednesday.

Over the course of an hour, the candidates described many similar policy positions and often reverted to attacking Schweikert, as well as the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and former President Donald Trump. 

“You're going to see six good people, all of whom are going to state very similar positions on the issues,” candidate Andrei Cherny, a former chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, said at the start of the debate.

Five of the six candidates agreed there is a “crisis” at Arizona’s border with Mexico.

Only Kurt Kroemer, former CEO of the American Red Cross in Arizona, had a different take. He said there are problems at the southern border that need to be addressed, including a surge of resources, like judges and staff, to speed up the asylum process.

But he said attempts to blame illegal immigration for rises in crime and drug trafficking are inaccurate, citing dropping crime rates and Border Patrol figures that show most fentanyl trafficked into the country is being moved by legal residents through official ports of entry.  

“Most of the folks here are parroting the Republican talking points about immigration,” Kroemer said.

Cherny, former state lawmaker Amish Shah and Andrew Horne, a dentist and business owner, said Congress needs to send more resources to the border to deal with the influx of people entering the country.

Marlene Galan-Woods, a former broadcaster, said Republicans and Democrats are to blame, and called on Congress to craft comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients.

Conor O'Callaghan, who works in the financial industry, called for economic development programs in South America to curb the flow of immigrants seeking to enter the U.S. and efforts to streamline the asylum process.

He also took issue with Galan-Woods’ argument that both Democrats and Republicans are to blame.

“She said that this has been an issue for four decades, and that there's blame to be had on both sides of the aisle,”  O'Callaghan said. “And I realized that Ms. Galán-Woods was a Republican for most of those four decades, but that's just simply not true.” 

Galán-Woods, who told 12News she switched her party registration from Republican to Democrat when Trump was elected, criticized O'Callaghan for bringing it up and said the Republican Party changed, not her.

“My values have never changed,” she said, promising to support legislation on abortion and voting rights, though she failed to explain how her current positions – like “we will codify Roe”  – comport with contradictory platforms of the Republican Party she was a member of prior to Trump’s election.

O'Callaghan took square aim at Shah’s Democratic bonafides as well, repeating a rumor that Shah voted for Trump in 2016.

Shah declined to address O’Callaghan’s accusation.

“So this is the kind of thing where we get distracted in politics,” Shah said. “I've always run this for seven straight years, on positivity and substance, and we're just going to leave it at that.”

Shah previously told the Arizona Agenda he switched his registration to Republican briefly in 2016 as a strategic decision to help Democrats but wouldn’t elaborate on the details of that plan.

Those digs were few and far between, though, as the candidates largely agreed on topics like President Joe Biden’s handling of economic issues.

The candidates said that Biden’s economic policies have created positive results for Arizonans, but emphasized that message hasn’t broken through with many average residents due to the impact of inflation on the costs of everyday goods and a housing market imbalance.

“And so the government can make policies to make it easier to build and build up and build sustainably,” Shah said, adding he would like to see Congress bring down the costs of healthcare premiums and prescription drugs as well.

O'Callaghan, Cherny and Galán-Woods said that Congress should repeal the Trump-era tax cuts that they say benefited wealthy Americans at the expense of the middle class.

In the absence of distinct policy differences, each candidate attempted to make the argument to Democratic voters in CD1 that they are uniquely qualified to defeat Schweikert.

The Republican incumbent has repeatedly survived close reelection contests despite a handful of scandals while in office, including claims he misused campaign funds, congressional ethics violations and lawsuits alleging his political allies weaponized homophobia against other candidates

Shah said he was best positioned to defeat Schweikert because he is the only candidate with legislative experience, citing his relatively-successful track record passing laws in the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature, where many Democrats have a difficult time moving legislation.

“We need somebody who knows how to win and knows how to do the job,” Shah said.

Woods, the former broadcaster, pointed to the array of endorsements her campaign has received from unions and prominent Democrats, including former Gov. Janet Napolitano and current Attorney General Kris Mayes.

“They trust me to beat David Schweikert,” she said.

Both O’Callaghan and Horne pointed to their deep roots in the district. 

“David Schweikert has gone up against candidates with great resources and great teams before,” Horne said. “What he hasn't gone up against is somebody who is born and raised in this district, who can reach out to the people, who owns a small business, and who can motivate the people to vote for him.”

O’Callaghan, who was born in Ireland and moved to Scottsdale as a child, also said his campaign war chest proves he is the only candidate with the resources to beat Schweikert.

“It's gonna take upwards of $10 million to beat David Schweikert,” he said. “I raise money in all 50 states. We have more cash on hand than David Schweikert.” 

Both Cherny and Kroemer, meanwhile, leaned into their professional experience.

Cherny repeatedly cited his diverse career, which included stints working for former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as time with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. military

“There's only one person on this stage with a 25 year track record that Democrats can trust,” Cherny said.

Kroemer, for his part, said his career working with nonprofits like the American Red Cross provided him invaluable experience supporting families in times of crisis, both in the U.S. and abroad.

“There's just nobody else in this race that’s done that work on the ground,” Kroemer said.

Surprisingly, the topic of abortion rights received barely any airtime during the debate, even though it is a top issue for Democratic voters

That didn’t sit well with Galán-Woods.

“We have got to make sure that every girl and every woman in this country has equal access over her body,” she said. “I don't know how else to say this, and maybe that's why I'm so emotional about it. And maybe it's because I am the only woman here talking about this, fighting for this.”

Abortion did receive significantly more airtime during a PBS debate last month. The candidates were in lock step agreement that the U.S. Supreme Court erred in overturning Roe v. Wade and agreed Congress should pass legislation ensuring access to abortions for all Americans.

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Wayne Schutsky is a broadcast field correspondent covering Arizona politics on KJZZ. He has over a decade of experience as a journalist reporting on local communities in Arizona and the state Capitol.