Lawmakers: Atmosphere At Arizona Legislature More Toxic Now

PHOENIX (AP) — Senate President Karen Fann’s Sept. 10 press release was short on details but clear on one point – a senator had received a threat of some kind over the Senate’s audit of the 2020 election in Maricopa County.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, disclosed later that day she was the target of the threat. Ugenti-Rita, one of the few Republican senators to publicly criticize the audit, said she went public to bring attention to the volatile environment and in hope of protecting everyone.

Even though threats of harm, inflammatory messages and acts of intimidation can be part of heated public policy debates, her colleagues on both sides of the aisle agree that the atmosphere today is more toxic than it used to be, the Arizona Capitol Times reports.

And Fann’s and Ugenti-Rita’s responses exemplify the different approaches lawmakers take to working in such an environment.

Fann said she typically does not publicly discuss threatening messages to herself or to other legislators because she feels that brings more attention to the negativity and generates more angry emails.

“The reason I had to put the presser out was because I had a member who got one and pretty well demanded that I should put something out to say it was not acceptable,” she said. “And I said, ‘Fine, I’ll be glad to do it; it’s not acceptable,’ but, you know, personally I think the more you raise attention to it, the more you just feed into it. That’s all.”

Ugenti-Rita said that on Sept. 9 she got a deluge of volatile emails accusing her of delaying the audit, but one email with bad grammar and spelling told her to “give the American people the audit report or were coming for you.”

The writer, an audit supporter who called himself “Matt Boster,” addressed the senator with an ethnic slur and a swear word and said he knows where the senator and her family live and where she shops for groceries.

Ugenti-Rita said general tone of the emails has her worried something bad will happen.

“This is something deeper, part of a bigger sentiment that is brewing,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios said emails like the one Ugenti-Rita reported to police have gotten much more common.

“Over the years politics has gotten so much uglier and the nature of emails that we get is ridiculous,” said Rios, D-Phoenix. “There are occasions where we refer phone calls or emails over to DPS.”

Fann said she’s “absolutely” noticed a significant uptick in nasty and threatening emails this year that include “every four or five letter word you can think of.”

“The emails I’ve gotten from Democrats over these last few months have just been to some point, out-and-out disgusting,” Fann said.

Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said threats are never appropriate, but he doesn’t think this year has solicited more than usual. Throughout his tenure, he has seen an ebb and flow, Petersen said. Some issues, such as the audit, draw more intensity from angry constituents.

“Unfortunately, I have seen that myself – I get plenty of choice messages,” Petersen said. “I don’t usually talk about them or broadcast them, but it’s something I’ve seen over the years.”

Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said that while he isn’t sure if there are more threats to elected officials than there used to be, there is a lot more “general nastiness.” He said this worries him because it could discourage good people from running for office. He blames the last two presidential elections, and how the losers responded to them, for the poisonous climate.

“In 2016, after Trump’s victory, you saw a lot of nastiness in general, just hatred from the left towards him and his movement,” Shope said. “You flash forward four years to 2020, you see basically the same thing going the opposite direction. I think it kind of starts from the top in that sense.”

A slew of the threats this year have come from people who apparently believe the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. After Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, joined Democrats in voting against holding Maricopa County supervisors in contempt in February for refusing to turn over documents the Senate wanted as part of its review of the election results, he was deluged with harassing and threatening phone calls and emails. He got police protection and temporarily left his home.

Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and her staff have similarly been harassed and threatened, and Hobbs has also requested police protection at times. She has referred to this regularly in making her case for why she should be elected governor.

“I’ve fought against misinformation and even death threats to defend Arizona’s elections,” she tweeted recently.

Protesters who wanted to overturn the election results have shown up at the homes of Hobbs and of House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa. Shope had protesters show up at his home in May, angry at his opposition to a bill that would have banned private businesses from asking for proof of vaccination. Shope said there used to be an understanding that people’s homes were off-limits.

“I guess the lesson of the day is now there are no limits, and that’s not good long-term,” Shope said.