PHOENIX -- An educator who couldn't defeat Diane Douglas for state schools chief two years ago is in line to be the Democrat who takes on incumbent Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in November.
Phoenix resident David Garcia parlayed his a laser focus on public education -- and the public focus on the issue -- in besting state Sen. Steve Farley from Tucson.
Garcia had until last year been weighing another bid for state school superintendent, having lost narrowly in 2014 to Douglas despite her running as a kind of one-note candidate under the banner of eliminating the Common Core curriculum.
But that was before Ducey signed legislation last year to create universal vouchers, allowing any student to get state tax dollars to attend private and parochial schools. Garcia called that "the most devastating below to public education in state history'' as he changed his focus and decided to seek the gubernatorial nomination.
Garcia also has been linked closely to the Red for Ed movement and got the endorsement of the Arizona Education Association.
Farley, by contrast, made his bid on the basis of his 12 years in the Arizona Legislature representing Tucson and his knowledge of how state government runs. Farley also has boasted of his extensive knowledge of the state budget, not just where money is spent but who pays taxes -- and, more to the point, who does not.
A centerpiece of his campaign has been his claim that the state forgoes about $13.7 billion a year by exempting various transactions from sales taxes. Farley said ending some of those exemptions would not only generate $2 billion a year in money he said is needed for education and other priorities but also could lower the rate from the current 5.6 percent.
Both were better funded than Kelly Fryer, the head of the Southern Arizona YWCA. She sought to differentiate herself from the other two by saying they were focused too much on border security and not enough on the humanitarian issues of people who are in this country illegally.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Ducey made quick work of defeating former Secretary of State Ken Bennett.
Bennett was plagued by lack of funding, caused at least in part by the fact he did not get into the hunt until April 21. That left him just a short period of time to qualify for public funding, money that he never got before Tuesday's primary. (See related story)
In fact, Bennett told Capitol Media Services he would not have gotten into the race except for Ducey's sudden announcement that month that he had found enough money to boost teacher pay by 19 percent by 2020.
He pointed out that Ducey had for months insisted that there was only enough money in the state budget for a 1 percent pay hike. Only in April, with a teacher strike looming, did Ducey say there was now enough for those larger raises.
"He panicked and caved for the Red for Ed debacle,'' Bennett said.
Ducey said he was bolstered by figures showing state revenues coming in much faster than anticipated, a sign of an improving economy. But Bennett said it actually involved a tax increase -- a boost in vehicle registration fees -- as well as "accounting gimmicks'' of moving money around.
"He is putting at risk the future of the state budget by hoping that rosy revenues that came in for a couple of months during this fiscal year are just going to continue to keep going the next couple of years,'' Bennett said.
But Bennett also found himself at the center of a controversy during the months after Sen. John McCain became ill and there was speculation he would quit. Bennett, who acknowledged he did not support many of McCain's policies, said if he were governor he would not name Cindy McCain to replace her husband.
That drew criticism among those who said speculation was unseemly. But Bennett conceded to Capitol Media Services at the time that at least part of his decision to air his views was strictly political: tapping into Republican voters who are not fans of McCain.
"You look for where your potential votes are and you differentiate yourself to those groups so that you try to get their vote,'' he said. And the way Bennett saw it, any criticism of McCain -- both John and Cindy -- would help him defeat Ducey.
Bennett also tried to lock up the Second Amendment vote by lashing out at Ducey's school safety plans to allow judges to have people locked up for evaluation and seize weapons of those who pose a potential threat. His answer was more guns in more places.
But he found himself gaining little traction, with Ducey, far in front, refusing to debate him.
Garcia also found himself in a Bennett-like situation during the campaign, with his comments suggesting the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a popular issue among certain elements of the Democratic Party. Garcia sought to clarify that he was suggesting restructuring the agency, responsible for internal enforcement -- and administering the now-abandoned policy of separating children from adults who cross the border illegally -- rather than eliminating it outright.
The Republican Governors Association, which already has set aside $9 million to help Ducey's reelection, quickly jumped on that with TV commercials attacking Garcia.
It also did not help that he made a speech in New Orleans telling progressives "Just imagine, no wall. No wall in Southern Arizona.''
And then he had to fire a staffer after it was learned she had previously called the United States a "shhole country.''
Even with Garcia's problems, Farley had trouble capturing the same enthusiasm that Garcia seemed to generate. It got to the point where he actually sought to capitalize on it, complete with a commercial of him in front of a white board with some of his talking points and a final voice over that ''boring has never been so exciting.''
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