One of the curiosities of Arizona politics is how widely supported efforts to make government cleaner — the approval of term limits in 1992 and so-called clean elections public financing of candidates in 1998 — coincided with the rise and now dominance of the extreme right.
Term limits were a fad in the early 1990s, ostensibly meant to eliminate a permanent political class. Although never implemented on a national level, they gained traction in many state and local government. "Clean elections" was intended to take big money out of politics, especially in the aftermath of the bribe-ridden AzScam scandal.
Under the new rules, a Burton Barr, who ruled the Legislature as House majority leader from 1966 to 1986 would have been impossible. Barr's time, working with such Democratic leaders as Alfredo Gutierrez and Art Hamilton, also was the high-water mark of legislative achievement for Arizona.
Had term limits been enacted nationally, we never would have had a Carl Hayden, who served in the Senate for 42 years, or a John J. Rhodes, who served in the House for 30 years. And thus, no Central Arizona Project, which demanded such longevity from lawmakers from what was then a small and politically weak state challenging mighty California.
As for clean elections, Vox had an interesting but ultimately unpersuasive article where a professor said it encouraged office-seekers to spend more time with voters. The academic might have data, but he obviously never lived in Arizona and saw a two-party state become a bulwark of the New Confederacy.
Among the achievements of the post-reform state government are the charter school racket, the private prison racket, draconian restrictions on reproductive choice, assorted laws that have hurt cities' economic-development abilities, many state mandates to remove local control (the ban on banning plastic bags and preventing cities from imposing affordable housing requirements on developers being the most recent), and darkly comic anything-goes gun liberalization — guns in bars being one example.
Already shamefully low funding for K-12 education has been cut further. St. Janet's all-day kindergarten, a helpful remedy for poor families, was rolled back. Money for universities, a foundation for a quality economy, has been repeatedly slashed. The Legislature fought transit constantly (although with Phoenix light rail and the Tucson streetcar, WBIYB).
At the same time, the honorable members never met a freeway they didn't like. Cuts in funding make it impossible to fix child welfare agencies. They raise suspicions about the efficacy of water and environmental protection. And the state wants to nullify federal laws among other revels.
Arizona got SB 1070 and the international reputation as a hateful and bigoted place. It got Joe Arpaio.
In other words, we got the Kookocracy.
Which came first, the chicken or the Kook?
Both clean elections and term limits came during a decade of nearly unprecedented growth — the state grew by 40 percent. A good deal of this was "the big sort" — people of similar life paths, desires, and political ideology clustering together. The Republican lock on state politics was solidified.
At the same time, the Republican Party was changing dramatically, becoming the party of Newt Gingrich, not Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, Jerry Ford, or even Barry Goldwater. Hillary's "vast right-wing conspiracy" was real, inasmuch as it described a well-funded and sophisticated apparatus meant to win on the ideas front and win elections. And it was nationalized. The "Goldwater" Institute is one of the faux think tanks the right placed in every state. The power of the right was further enhanced by the "mainstreaming" of the Christian Coalition into the party. In Arizona, this was enhanced by a peculiar anti-progress LDS (very different from that in booming Salt Lake City).
As a result of all this and more (lapdog corporatized media, etc.), clean elections did little to even a playing field already dominated by the right. Nor does it address arms-length donations to PACs and other organizations free to spend as long as they don't endorse a specific candidate. The aftermath of Citizens United and the unprecedented dark money that went into the latest election have made the 1998 reform all but useless.
In Arizona, progressive candidates don't merely have to face the spending of the Koch brothers and their ilk, but they don't dare cross such powerful instruments of the Real Estate Industrial Complex as the Arizona Rock Products Association and Home Builders Association of Central Arizona. No wonder land use is a joke, sprawl continues, and serious responses on water are lacking.
As for term limits, the state lost institutional knowledge and expertise. There's no incentive to become a Burt Barr or Harold Giss, masters of the legislative craft and building coalitions, when ALEC and the NRA write the bills for you.
Instead, the peculiar nature of term limits creates a semi-permanent class of know-nothing ideologues who move from chamber to chamber, office to office. John Huppenthal, Tom Horne-y and Ken Bennett are classic examples. They are water-carriers for the right, independence and intellect are career killers.
Kyrsten Sinema, the one-time Green Party candidate for Phoenix City Council, learned the score in the Legislature and succeeded as a squishy Democrat. Now in Congress, this highly intelligent woman regularly votes with Republicans.
The Kookocracy could never have built the Arizona they now proceed to wreck. They aren't even elected by most eligible voters. But until more than nativist, reactionary, old white Republicans vote in larger numbers, this is the horrifying result.