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What the Devil won't tell you

Kirkpatrick falters after CD2 debate with self-inflicted owie

Or 'How I learned to love Barbara Sherry'

A rookie shone and a veteran stumbled ... in a weird way.

That's my takeaway from the third debate among six Democrats seeking to represent Arizona's 2nd Congressional District. It's a wide-open race with U.S. Rep. Martha McSally leaving the seat to run for the U.S. Senate. I'll run down my take of where each of the candidates are after watching them go six-on-six for 90 minutes.

Paul Ingram did a bang-up job with the play-by-play. You can read it here. From a purely political take, all the candidates did well for themselves, but newcomer and novice in the race Barbara Sherry did the most to set herself apart. She brought fire and charisma to the stage the others would do well to study. Time after time, she connected with the room on a visceral level and that is a hell of a trick for a first-time candidate in her first debate. She told me afterward she was "so nervous I thought I was going to stroke out." The woman can own a room, which in political campaigns is the one thing that can't be taught.

At one point, she said "I can sell it." I wasn't sure at the time what the "it" was, but goddammit, I was ready to join her army and charge a hill with a bayonet fixed.

Snapping out of it at the end, my more clearheaded take concluded the afternoon was a clear win for former U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. She's the establishment choice with the most access to real money and with five opponents all trying to be the insurgent pick. The five Not-Ann's focused on showing their own chops rather than trying to chop down Kirkpatrick. So Kirkpatrick won for having emerged unscuffed. Then she scuffed herself ex post facto.

A couple hours after the debate, Kirkpatrick changed two answers. First, she flip-flopped on supporting U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva's legislation protecting San Carlos Apache land from a new mine in the Globe-Miami area. She also backtracked and said she would support Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House, should Democrats win back control of Congress, after failing to raise her hand for a "yes" to the question during the debate.

She said she didn't hear the questions. Well, everyone else seemed to hear.

The exchange on the mining questions went down pretty straightforward. Moderator and TucsonSentinel.com Editor and Publisher Dylan Smith asked, "Would you cosponsor Rep. Grijalva's Save Oak Flat Act?" All six candidates raised their hands. Dylan then followed up with a "wait Ann, but you supported the Resolution Mine" and asked if she was changing her mind? She elaborated on how good it was for the economy and how the mine had a lot of support in the area.

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See, Kirkpatrick represented another district in Congress when she lived in Flagstaff like eight minutes ago. She's a bit sensitive to the charge that she's carpetbagging, as if she's trying to be our "step-congresswoman."

But it is what it is, and she's here and people are ready to listen. So never mind my snark, the retirees from somewhere else seemed to accept Kirkpatrick without too much question.

Also, a nearby mine would have wild support among the population surrounding the Cobre Valley. Mining is everything in my former stalking ground. The region has been economically devastated by mining's retreat and if you make my mistake and call yourself an "environmentalist" up there, you best not have anything going on for the next hour because you were going to get an earful.

Kirkpatrick could have answered accordingly and said "if I can work with Raul to protect the economy in Globe, then I'll co-sponsor the legislation." See, the bill would have to be re-introduced in the new Congress next year, after the election. Easy-peasy. But it does point to the challenge of representing different constituencies.

Her responses on supporting Pelosi were just bizarre. Not one of the other candidates said they would support the Democratic leader — which was a bit of a major "wow" moment in the debate because the field seemed to be dashing to the left. This group of candidates isn't scared of the all that left-field territory, which is another interesting takeaway. But left field is typically from where Pelosi draws her support. The screaming lefties abandoned Pelosi and left Kirkpatrick as the one to continue to support her. She didn't during the debate and then did afterward.

Kirkpatrick served under Pelosi's leadership during six years in the House. If she knows and respects the woman despite Pelosi's treacherous job approval numbers, she could have said so. On the other hand, Pelosi has never required Democrats to support her during their purple campaigns. She ain't Trump, who requires perpetual personal loyalty above all else. Ultimately, Kirkpatrick never has to tell us firmly whom she supports for leadership because it's a private vote; the caucuses work these things out behind closed doors.

Kirkpatrick comes off like she's treating the question as harder than it was. If President Donald Trump has taught us anything, it's that it's OK to be yourself. Boy, has he taught us that.

Part of the authenticity voters hanker for is being able to say "I did what I did and would do it again," or "I did what I did and wouldn't do it again... " Voters these days seem to prefer that to canned, poll-tested answers. Sure, you'll bug some people and others will be "outraged." Shrug and move on. Run a good campaign and the chips will fall accordingly.

Kirkpatrick comes off looking like she tried to please the room and then take a bunch of it back when she realized she would have to please different rooms with different opinions.

Maybe Kirkpatrick misheard the questions, but how? They weren't that fuzzy.

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I don't think this changes the dynamic of the race that favors Kirkpatrick because the anti-establishment vote has to coalesce around one of the other five, who all did well. If the not-Ann vote splits among the other candidates, then she'll coast to the nomination. In that case, my read of the room is that the Democrats will support her with enthusiasm to smack the smirk off Trump's face.

So here's my rundown of where the candidates are and how I would critique them now. I arranged it from newbies to old hands.

Barbara Sherry

Whatever "it" is, she has it. Jesse Kelly had "it." Frank Antenori had "it." Gabrielle Giffords had "it." Ron Barber, God love him, never had "it." "It" has been sorely lacking in Democratic candidates in Southern Arizona. It's impossible to zone out while listening to her, and this was her first debate performance. That's all natural grit. She doesn't just reveal that she's gay, she asserts it — but she asserts pretty much everything.

She veered a bit near "chemtrail" territory talking about particulates created by Davis-Monthan jets and perhaps promised the politically suicidal when she said she wouldn't support any expansion of the Air Force base.

Now the trick for Sherry is to leverage "it" into an actual campaign and that's the other half of the challenge. Fundraising, scheduling, organizing and honing a message are all hard work that stands between her and a legit challenge for the seat. That can be learned. "It" can't.

Billy Kovacs

People who've seen him over time, say he's improved. So he can learn. He is a solid young candidate who has cuts an impressive figure in person. He's got some "it," too.

The kid on stage had the best answer to the healthcare question of any all day when he pointed out that Obamacare was just a first step in improving our system but subsequent changes will be a long, hard slog.

He had oomph behind his answers but can mangle the occasional sentence. At one point he said "I will not be 'kowtowed.'" Billy, being kowtowed to means being shown the respect due a Chinese emperor. The word he was looking for was "cowed."

Mary Matiella

She struck me as having the biggest gap in her potential versus her performance. The woman was the chief finance officer of the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army. That kind of insider knowledge of where bodies are buried could be an valuable asset for a congresswoman.

Matiella's just gotta learn how to turn that experience into an opportunity to connect with voters. She acts more like she's applying for a job than running for office. At the end of her closing statement, she finally found it and turned her narrative into an opportunity to reach out. She's the daughter of migrant farmers who grew up in a house without indoor plumbing but rose to the top echelons of the Pentagon. Pretty good stuff. She should tell us more about that.

She's willing to do the work and in hiring a bad-ass campaign manager Shasta McManus, she's willing to run a professional operation. Now she needs to give voters a reason to support her beyond her resume.

Bruce Wheeler

I don't get Bruce Wheeler. I know Bruce Wheeler. I like Bruce Wheeler. How come he's not a bigger blip on the radar? Is it that he's a mature white guy? Well, he's not, is the thing. He's half Venezuelan. Should maturity be a problem? Blame JFK for forever making Democrats fall for youth.

As a two-term Tucson City Council member and three-term state lawmaker, he's the kind of candidate who should be obvious an obvious player. Instead, he's kind of treated like "Oh yeah, Bruce..." He's smart. He knows his stuff but he gets met with "meh," too much for my liking or his own good. On the stump, he gets weighed down by explaining too much detail about the ins and outs of crafting legislation, rather than talking about how policies affect people's lives.

He's well-liked in political circles, unlike some political veterans who slither through the Democratic community oblivious to how they put people off. Then again, you don't see Bruce with acolytes. He doesn't go hire the D.C. person constantly scrolling their device, oblivious to the locals. There's never anyone around Bruce to kick his ass into gear.

He didn't do anything wrong during the debate. He just needs to figure out how to stand out, and not wander into the weeds.

Matt Heinz

Heinz was good. He's always good. The question is, is he good enough to get over the hump to win the seat he's seeking for the third time? He knows his stuff as well or better than anyone on the stage and yet he did as well, not better, than anyone else on the stage.

He did little to differentiate himself from Kirkpatrick. Afterward, he said he said he didn't feel like it was the right venue to swing away. The reasoning goes, if the first thing voters know about Heinz is that he's on the attack, then they won't like him. But, if he's running for Congress for the third time and voters still don't know him, then ... maybe that's why he's running for Congress for the third time.

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Ann Kirkpatrick

Until she started recanting on some of her answers, Kirkpatrick accomplished what she meant to accomplish. She held more than held her own against a field of impressive upstarts on the debate stage. The former congresswoman got in a solid body-shot at her more progressive opponents when she explained that she hasn't supported any "single-payer" healthcare proposals because they never come with a way to pay for them.

She knows how to win. She knows what to do. She'll have the money to mount the most serious run.

Kirkpatrick also knows how to lose, having been ousted once from her House seat and failing in her bid to take on U.S. Sen. John McCain's. Has she taken to heart lessons from those efforts?

After Sunday's forum, her retractions, walk-backs, clarifications, whatever you call them, were self-inflicted owies that were absolutely unnecessary. No campaign runs more scared than the front-runner. It's all downside. Trying to win without anyone in particular to beat can mess with the head. At the same time, it's not like the campaign wants to elevate any of the competition by going after them. So they stew in fear, wondering what glitch will turn a juggernaut into a flagging bid. So they try too hard without trying to look like they are trying too hard and sweating everything as a lethal threat.

My advice to the Kirkpatrick campaign is simple: Don't do that. Hammer. Nail. Wall. Repeat. Maybe you'll hit your thumb. That's fine so long as you don't throw a fit and start tearing at the wall with the claw end. Then things get harder and louder real fast. Look at it this way: At least you aren't talking about carpetbagging.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who has spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and has worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you what the devil won’t.

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1 comment on this story

Mar 10, 2018, 12:39 pm
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RE: Kirkpatrick.  I have been with a group from Superior for 13+ years that has been trying to oust the Resolution Copper Mine.  For years Kirkpatrick would NEVER EVER meet with us.  Upon contact her office would first ask for donations.  Then she was never available, even when we went to her office in D.C. a couple of times. She decided to side with McCain & Flake on this subject and even co-sponsored the bill with Paul Gosar (R) to give these sacred public lands away to a foreign mining company. Ask her how much $$$ she has received from Resolution Copper.  It isn’t about the jobs.  The mine is going to be automated… that means robots NOT a lot of workers.  Also, the mine will cause a crater larger than 2+ miles wide x 1000+ ft. deep.  That is larger than Meteor Crater in Northern Arizona. The Apache Leap Escarpment that she says will be protected is a lie.  The Escarpment sits less than 2 miles from the future mine crater…and Superior is just beyond that, so how is the mine not going to crater this area in???  She has been severely picketed in CD1 over this matter.  I do not feel she listens to her constituents.  Can someone tell me WHY she felt she had to move to CD2?  Is it because she can no longer stomach the idea of having to represent a large constituency of Native Americans?  Is she upset with the Native American Elders because they called her a traitor & a liar to her face at a meeting in Superior?  Voters need to really know this woman better before they decide to vote for her.  Just because she wears a “D” after her name does not make her a democrat.  I have always said she is a Republican in Dems clothing. In my opinion she is NOT A GOOD DEM!!!

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