You’d think getting elected would be the hard part.
But if you’re a Democratic member of the Arizona state Legislature, where Republicans hold majorities in both the House and Senate, the end of the campaign marks the beginning of uphill battles, strategic decisions and some good old-fashioned politicking.
First, the basics
To understand the challenges Democratic lawmakers face, you may need to remind yourself of the basic process through which the sausage is made bills become laws (or die en route).
Simple enough, right? Well, not really. What the chart doesn’t show are the litany of formal and informal rules that make the process a bit trickier for Dems to navigate.
Luckily, all three representatives for District 24 are dedicated and undaunted Democrats who don’t back down when faced with majority-rule shenanigans.
Reps. Lela Alston and Ken Clark, both of Phoenix, fight the good fight in the House and in the state Senate minority leader Katie Hobbs, who is running for Secretary of State, isn’t one to sit idly by, either.
All three generously took the time recently to help me understand the challenges they face as minority lawmakers.
Getting to step one
Just getting a bill sponsored can be difficult. Unsurprisingly, partisanship is the main culprit.
“Even if they’re not all like this, there are enough of the Republicans who reflexively will not want to support Democratic bills that you have to be very selective about what can make it through,” said Clark.
So Democrats spend a fair amount of time seeking a Republican colleague to co-sponsor a bill, a tactic that has the added advantage of giving a bill bipartisan credibility.
Recently, however, the rules were changed allow only one primary bill sponsor. For Democrats, it’s the kind of rule that turns prospective bills into nonstarters.
Alston has a simple solution, and she’s not the only Democrat who employs it.
“I’ve had bills that I figured would not get through because I’m a Democrat that I have handed over to my Republican friends because I’m more about getting the job done and less about getting the credit,” Alston said.
Clark also appreciates the values of Republican allies.
“There have been times that I’ve encouraged Republicans to run certain issues,” Clark said. “You lose control of them that way, but that’s the price you pay.”
The worst scenario of all is when partisanship blocks legislation lawmakers on both sides of the aisle actually agree on.
“We have some of the same good ideas but if there’s a ‘D’ by it that just makes it harder to get through,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs recounted the frustration of seeing one of her bills die in the House two years straight only to watch it sail onto the governor’s desk once it had a Republican sponsor.
Of course, even bipartisan support isn’t a guarantee a bill will be signed into law.
Clark recently ran an HOA bill with a Republican colleague that passed both the Senate and the House unanimously…before it was ultimately vetoed by Governor Doug Ducey.
Getting a bill heard—a glimmer of hope
Say a Democratic bill does get sponsored – great! Cue the famous School House Rock song (just pretend it’s about state-level legislation).
Well, maybe not.
The Senate or House leader decides if a bill moves forward to committees.
The good news is that House Speaker Javin “J.D.” Mesnard, R-Gilbert, is a bit more willing than previous speakers to allow Democratic bills to get heard. Alston attributes Mesnard’s receptiveness to Democratic legislation to the Speaker’s experience as a former staffer for the state Legislature.
“He has a knowledge of the legislature that’s different than many other past speakers,” Alston said. “It’s my feeling that he has a really high regard for the institution and how it works and how it should work, and kind of a basic sense of fairness within the parameters we work in.”
Overall, Alston said Mesnard has “been much more willing to assign bills to committee and allow or encourage committee chairmen to hear them.”
Unfortunately, a stamp of approval from the Speaker also means one of the biggest hurdles a bill faces during the process: committees.
The immense power of committees
Committees pose several threats to a bill, but particularly bills sponsored by Democrats.
Committee chairs control their committee’s agenda which means if the chair doesn’t want to hear a bill, they don’t have to. Chairs are not obligated to explain why or give a reason either, though special interests have been known to play a role.
Committee chairmanships are, generally speaking, the product of good old-fashioned politicking, handed out as rewards for past votes or support passing or blocking legislation. So deciding what bills get put on a committee agenda (or don’t) is also a way for the chair to build political capital, which means there’s not a lot of incentive in a committee chair putting Democratic bills on their agendas.
There are procedures under which the legislature as a whole can discharge a bill from committee, but it’s a difficult process and would require most Republicans to vote against their own party. As a general rule, that simply doesn’t happen.
But say a committee chair decides to hear a Democratic bill. Hold the champagne because now there’s committee stacking to contend with.
For a bill to get out of committee, a majority of members have to agree on it. But it’s not uncommon for there to be a very uneven representation of party members, usually heavily skewed towards Republicans.
A committee of nine, for example, may have only three Democrats.
“They make it so that you would have to have two, maybe three, Republicans who change sides and maybe votes with the Democrats,” Clark said. “So even if you think can pull one Republican over it’s not going to be enough.”
Even the number of committees a bill gets assigned to can be a barrier; Alston described a bill getting assigned to three committees as potentially “a kiss of death.”
So what’s a Dem to do?
The first thought that naturally comes to mind is for the Democratic caucus to simply change the rules.
But Hobbs said that just simply doesn’t work. Rule changes are based on a majority vote but custom dictates that representatives vote along party lines when it comes to procedure.
For example, multiple attempts to change conflict of interest laws to prevent Senate President Steve Yarborough, R-Chandler, from benefitting from school vouchers, have failed.
“We’ve tried to introduce rule changes every single year that would make him voting on these bills a conflict of interest on these bills and the rule changes don’t pass,” said Hobbs.
Why not boycott?
“It doesn’t work. You do it once, you’re not going to be let in the room again,” said Clark.
So why not kick up a fuss, lambast opposing legislators on the floor?
“The double-edged sword is if you want to stand up for your constituents, the people who are under-represented, minority voters, minorities, and folks who don’t have a lot of money to be down here, you end up having to really push hard against these guys,” Clark said. “Well, if you push hard, they’re not going to hear your bills.”
Ultimately, it’s more effective to find ways to get along.
“If someone sees you as someone who really just wants to get something done and not someone who’s a bomb thrower, then they’re more willing to work with you,” said Hobbs.
All hope is not lost, however. There is more to governing and representation than passing legislation, after all.
“It isn’t always just about bills,” Alston said. “It’s what you stand for, or what you stand up for,” Alston said.
In some cases, victory comes in the form of bad bills getting killed, or key amendments being stricken or changed.
And overall, relations between the respective leaderships in the state Legislature have improved.
“I’m hesitant to condemn because I want to believe in a more open process, and at least the relationship between their leadership and our leadership is better,” Alston said. “It seems to me there’s less contention now than there was in the last several years.”
Still, Alston chuckled remembering when, not too long ago, the Republican caucus grumbled about too many Democratic bills successfully wending through the House into the Senate. At the time, Alston said, around 200 Republican bills had gotten out of House but only eight or ten Democratic bills had made it that far.
“It really is a fairly small number, but it is a number, it’s not zero,” Alston said. “So we’re pretty happy about that.”
And it was enough to make the Republican caucus nervous. Soon after the complaints, the rules were changed. Now members must prove to the House speaker that a majority of both caucuses support the bill before he’ll allow it to be heard.
Clarks pointed out the Democratic caucus has one more member this year, which has allowed the House caucus to block twice as many bills.
“This year is a great illustration of the difference one member can make,” said Clark.
And, he added, the House Democratic caucus tends to stick together. As a whole, it is not a caucus to be taken lightly.
“When it comes to the budget, our tight relationship as a caucus, and our ability to reach out to Republicans on the margin has allowed us to have influence in key areas,” Clark said.