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Democratic CD2 candidates look to stand out in crowded race

In a six-way race for the Democratic nomination for Arizona's Second Congressional District, the candidates sought to distinguish themselves during a candidate forum in Sahuarita on Sunday. 

The Democrats — Matt Heinz, Ann Kirkpatrick, Billy Kovacs, Mary Matiella, Barbara Sherry, and Bruce Wheeler — are laying the groundwork for the August primary election, which will determine who will run in the November general election.

For more than 90 minutes, the six candidates wrestled with a wide range of issues in front of a full house of more than 400 people, including how to deal with gun violence following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14; issues surrounding health care, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act; the development of two copper mines in Arizona; the future of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and U.S. security, and immigration reform.

CD 2's congressional seat is open because U.S. Rep. Martha McSally is running for the Senate. Five candidates are also running on the Republican side.

Three of the Democratic candidates have previous elected experience: Kirkpatrick served as the former CD 1 congresswoman before she attempted to unseat John McCain in 2016; Heinz was a member of the state house before he attempted to dislodge McSally; and Wheeler is a former state rep and ex-Tucson city councilman. 

Matiella is a former assistant Army secretary seeking office for the first time, along with political newcomers Kovacs and Sherry. 

For the first time in more than a decade, except for the spring 2012 special election, neither party is fielding an incumbent after McSally decided to vacate her seat to seek the Republican nomination for U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake's spot in the Senate, following his announcement last October that he is retiring. 

CD 2 now leans Democratic after McSally left to run for Senate, according to the non-partisan Cook Political Report which moved its ratings in January. And, the district will likely be under intense focus by both parties, because as former U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, said: "The path to a Democratic majority in the House runs right through this district." 

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On the Republican side, four more candidates hopped into the primary race over the last couple weeks, joining Lea Marquez Peterson in the CD 2 race. They are: Brandon Martin, Danny Morales, Casey Welch and Marilyn Wiles.

The forum, co-sponsored by alliance4action, the Democratic Club of the Santa Rita Area, and the Democratic Club of Quail Creek, was moderated by the editor and publisher of the TucsonSentinel.com, Dylan Smith.

This was the third candidate forum for Democrats in CD2 since October, but the first for Sherry, a real-estate broker and a former cattle rancher who recently joined the race. 

Sherry provided one of just a few surprises during the forum, coming out with an unexpected performance that was often fiery, and at times, poetic. Sherry spoke eloquently about several issues, including immigration, when she quoted a a section of the "New Colossus," the poem that adorns the Statute of Liberty. 

Another surprise came during a lightning round, in which the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they supported Nancy Pelosi to again serve as the Speaker of the House. Not one of the candidates, including Kirkpatrick raised their hands.

Kirkpatrick's staff later clarified that she would remain a support of Pelosi's, saying that she had misunderstood how to respond to the question with a raised hand.

The candidates also each said they refused to support the controversial Rosemont Copper Mine, a project that has been held up since 2007 over concerns that the nearly 7,000-acre project could seriously disrupt the region's watershed, and threaten several endangered species, including the northern jaguar. They also said they would join with U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva in working to stop the Resolution Mine project in Oak Flat.

However, following the forum, Kirkpatrick walked back her refusal to support the Resolution mine near Superior, writing that she "misheard" the question. Kirkpatrick had backed a land swap that facilitated the mine project during her time in office representing CD 1.

"As I said in my follow-up answer, I support the Resolution Copper Mine expansion, which has widespread support from the community. The expansion of this 40 year-old mine will create thousands of jobs in an area of Arizona that desperately wants and need these good jobs," Kirkpatrick said. "In Congress, I fought to ensure, as a condition of the mine expansion, a full EPA review and requiring Resolution to comply with all environmental standards."

Kirkpatrick said she had gained "permanent federal protection" for Apache Leap, an area of steep cliffs the tribe considers sacred, but that she would not co-sponsor a June 2017 bill by U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva rescinding a land exchange brokered by Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake. 

"For these reasons, I will not co-sponsor Rep. Grijalva’s legislation, although I will continue to listen carefully to local communities and tribal nations in order to advocate for environmental protections, sacred lands and other community priorities," Kirkpatrick said.

Later, during another lightning round, Kirkpatrick was asked by Smith to clarify her answer to term limits. Along with the other candidates, Kirkpatrick raised her hand in support of limiting the number of times a member of Congress could be re-elected. While Kirkpatrick has supported amending the Constitution to establish a limit of three terms in the House and two in the Senate, she is currently running for her fourth term as a congresswoman. 

Kirkpatrick defended this, noting that she signed a pledge to back such an amendment but that it has not been instituted, and that other party members were free to run for more than three terms. 

During the candidates opening statements, Kirkpatrick blasted the Republican attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, telling the audience about her experiences with medical costs through her grandchildren, two of whom were born weeks early and needed intensive care. 

Kirkpatrick called one recent Republican bill "deadly." 

Heinz said November's election was "the most important election in our lifetimes," noting that he often helped people throughout Southern Arizona as a medical doctor at Tucson Medical Center. 

Sherry said that she decided to run the night of Charlottesville, referring to the "Unite the Right" rally last August in Virginia that devolved into violence, and ended in the murder of 32-year-old Heather Heyer. 

"On the night of Charlottesville, our president could not comfort a nation, I said this was time for me, I have to get up and I have to do this," said Sherry. "If we don't stand up we're going to get run over." 

Sherry noted that she was "openly gay" and that "we have too little representation in Congress." 

"Any of these people, are better than any Republican who could take this seat," she added. 

Kovacs said that it was important that Democrats also support outside groups who have been fighting for important issues for a generation. "I spend more time supporting other groups than I do supporting my own candidacy," Kovacs said, adding that it was important for Democrats to improve turnout among Latinos and young people. 

Smith's first question focused on the school shooting in Parkland, where a 19-year-old man used an AR-15-style rifle to killed 17, and wound 14 others, and asked how the candidates would balance safety with the Second Amendment. 

Wheeler said the issue was difficult, but to start out, he would focus on six principles, including a strengthening of background checks, a ban on bump-stocks, a ban on "large-capacity" ammunition magazines, put age limits on gun purchases, renew the ban on assault weapons, and require Congress to hold televised hearings on the issue. 

He also blamed the congressional process for often "yoking" bill together, for example expanded conceal and carry rights with background checks, further ensuring that "nothing gets done," Wheeler said. 

Wheeler also said that the culture "is steeped deeply in violence."  

"We have a president, and the NRA, that wants to arm our teachers as a solution," Wheeler said, to boos and hissing from the audience. "It’s insane and it needs to be stopped," he said. 

"When it comes to guns, I've changed my mind," said Kirkpatrick, following the shootings in Tucson and Newtown, Conn. Kirkpatrick— who praised the NRA as a "civil liberties organization" in 2009 and at one time had an "A" rating from the gun lobby, in part because she opposed reinstating the assault weapons ban — said that she had a record of legislation to prevent gun violence, including attempts to strengthen background checks and the elimination of the "gun-show loophole." This included bills to stop people on terrorist watch lists, along with stalkers and domestic abusers, from getting guns, and earned her a "D" rating from the NRA, she said. 

Kovacs agreed with reinstating the ban on the AR-15, but also said that the NRA pushed "state by state to erode our laws," on guns and that state-level action, not just "federal capacity" was the way forward. Kovacs said that the candidates "need to stand with groups like Moms Demand Action," and "survivors are the ones we should listen to." 

"The NRA is going to come after all of us," said Heinz. 

Sherry agreed with the other candidates, but also laid into McSally, noting that the former representative had received $75,000 from the NRA. "This is how you defeat the NRA, it's all about money," she thundered. "Fight with your pocketbook, burn up their customer service lines, it’s about the brand." 

Sherry read a growing list of businesses that refused to work with the NRA following the shooting and said, "You kill the brand." 

On healthcare and medical issues, the candidates were mostly in agreement. Wheeler criticized President Barack Obama, saying that he had "kowtowed" to the Republicans by refusing to put a single-payer healthcare program on the table, and he defended Medicare, calling it a "good program that works" and said that Republicans are "chipping away from it." 

Kirkpatrick, however, broke from the pack by calling single-payer healthcare or programs to extend Medicare to everyone, a "massive tax cut" for corporations. The former congresswoman said proponents of single-payer systems have failed to explain how they would pay for them. Instead, she said, the federal government should allow people to buy into Medicare.  

Democrats were in lockstep on several issues. During a lightning round, the candidates agreed that climate change was real, and that the federal government should expand research and development for renewable energy, though they disagreed slightly on whether the U.S. should have a "carbon fee" or use "cap-and-trade" to mitigate pollution. 

All of the Democrats refused to trade funding for a border wall to get a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, to wild cheers from the audience. 

Kovacs said that protect "Dreamers" wasn't enough and that Democrats should aim to legalize all 11.2 million people in the country without authorization. "Look at yourselves and ask where you came from," Kovacs said. The Trump administration had "zeroed out" grants for citizenship, he said. "That's not our country." 

Sherry, likely the candidate living closest to the U.S.-Mexico border, said her ranch was 12 miles from the boundary and "never one time did I see anyone that I feared. Had they come, I would have made them dinner and given them water," Sherry said. "When has it been a crime to want to work?" 

Matiella said she was insulted by Trump's statements surrounding immigrants, calling them "fear-based" and "degrading." 

"More than anything, we have to protect our 'Dreamers', they have earned the right to stay her," she said. 

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Wheeler said that "of course" the U.S. should protect "Dreamers" and added the only way to deport millions is to "create a fascist authoritarian government." 

He added that he wouldn't support something as "obnoxious" as a border wall. 

Kirkpatrick said that as a former prosecutor she had a "zero-tolerance" policy for cartel members and that immigration reform would allow U.S. Border Patrol to focus on cartels. 

The border will be "safe and secure" when people who live along the border, including Southern Arizona ranchers, "feel safe and secure," Kirkpatrick said. 

On a question regarding the fate of Davis-Monthan and U.S. military spending, the candidates almost all supported the Air Force base, except for Sherry, who said she did not want the base expanded because studies show that air particles from military planes affect residents surrounding bases. 

Matiella noted she knows a lot about the military because of her job as an assistant secretary of the Army, and she is a military spouse. She said that the Trump administration had slashed the State Department's budget by 33 percent. "That's just plain craziness," she said. Instead, the Defense Department should be cut, but with renewed focus on "taking care of soldiers." 

On economic development, the candidates focused on different issues. Kirkpatrick mentioned Peterson, the GOP's presumed frontrunner, noting that she had "led the Koch brothers' battle to fight raising the minimum wage." 

"She’s not on our side, she’s not on the side of working people," Kirkpatrick said. 

Kovacs noted that he worked with the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which Peterson has led, mentoring young people to start businesses. Economic development in Arizona should focus on halting the "brain drain" and focus on vocational training at schools such as Pima Community College.

"There's a whole swath of this country that was left behind," Kovacs said, adding that new infrastructure spending and investments would help the state. 

"The economic engine in Southern Arizona is small businesses," said Kirkpatrick, adding that she would pass legislation to require banks to loan to new small businesses, and simplify the tax code for small businesses. 

At the end, each candidate was given a chance to make their final case.

Sherry encouraged people to vote against the "chaos in government." 

"Get on (the phone to) your friends, all the way down to 18 and get them to the polls," she said. "The world fought and fights for a vote, and we take it for granted. We have a voice." 

"This country allowed me, the daughter of migrants, remembering how to pick cotton, how to live in a house without plumbing, this country allowed me to become a political appointee, a public servant for 34 years," said Matiella. "I want tp continue working for you." 

Heinz noted that the six candidates were diverse, with half the candidates being women and a third being gay, and asked voters to "don't just listen to what we say, look at our records." 

"It's great to have a primary, and have a new candidate," said Kirkpatrick, nodding to Sherry. "What unites us, we want to take back CD2; that's our goal." 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The six Democratic candidates for Arizona's second congressional district on stage during a forum on Sunday in Sahuarita.