Coconino County Supervisor and former Flagstaff Mayor Paul Babbitt is the Democratic candidate in Arizona CD-1 who is looking to unseat first-term incumbent Rick Renzi. This younger brother of former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is running a spirited campaign against Renzi, whose permanent residence is in Virginia.
Babbitt has raised more money than any other Democratic House challenger this cycle. He's still trailing in early polls, but look for him to score a big upset. Babbitt's down-home, folksy style and deep local roots endear him to the multitude of Arizona communities contained within his sprawling district. His environmental credentials, too, are second to none.
Babbitt's campaign received a much-needed shakeup a few months ago with the addition of former Howard Dean state campaign director Frank Costanzo as campaign manager. Unfortunately, Costanzo then underwent quadruple-bypass surgery and was out of the campaign loop for a month. Costanzo is now back and active within the campaign, which looks to be finally hitting its stride.
An interview with Babbitt is below.
- AZ: Polstate interview with Paul Babbitt, AZ CD-1 Democratic candidate
Paul Babbitt, brother of former Arizona Governor and U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, is running for Congress as a Democrat against first-term GOP incumbent Rick Renzi. Babbitt has a virtual lock on the nomination and is running in one of the most competitive districts in the country. Congressman Renzi is a notorious carpetbagger (his permanent residence is in Virginia, not Arizona) and won his last race, against fellow carpetbagger George Cordova, by less than 3% of the vote. Babbitt is a Coconino County Supervisor and former Flagstaff Mayor whose family has lived in the district for four generations.
On Wednesday, July 14, 2004, I sat down with Babbitt at his campaign headquarters in Flagstaff to discuss his campaign.
Polstate: You've always been popular in this district, but you've never run for federal office before. What makes this race different from those you've passed up?
Babbitt: Well, it is a district-wide race, to begin with. As I go across the district, I find a variety of interest groups, of course, because of the extent of the district. The high forested communities have different interests than the desert; the Native American interests are somewhat different than maybe the Prescott area. So there are six or eight various physical geographic areas that are very distinct from each other. That's new. Most of the districts that I've represented in the past are a little more intact, and certainly here in Flagstaff, seem to have overarching kinds of issues that are common. I find that in going across this district, the issues really go to the national concerns, and what I'm speaking of is education, health care, budget deficits. Those kinds of issues are talked about frequently and across the district. So that's a little different for me.
Polstate: How does your experience as Coconino County Supervisor, as former Flagstaff Mayor and City Councilman, help you as a Congressman?
Babbitt: Well, I think it gives me a real pace to set with people who look to government for ideas, first of all, and then probably solutions. I'm used to being in that arena, if you will. And you mentioned my popularity; I like to think that I have a good ear, that I listen very closely to what people are saying about their issue or about their problem or about their concern.
Polstate: What's your game plan? How do you convince First District voters that you make a better Congressman than Rick Renzi?
Babbitt: Well, first of all, I refer to my past here in the Flagstaff community, and extend that then into the district, and say, "I'm committed to the small towns of this district, I've lived here all of my life, and I've been in public service for twenty-seven years in a small-town setting. And I believe coming from here, going to Washington is better representation than being from Berkeley, Virginia, periodically coming TO the district and to the small towns.
Polstate: What do you feel should be done about border security and/or illegal aliens?
Babbitt: Well, we have an economy that attracts Central, South Americans and Mexicans into this economy. And I'm speaking primarily of tourism and the agricultural industry. And as long as those industries are attracting low-wage earners, we should have programs and policies that treat them as invitees, which they are. It is my judgment that they should have the benefit of this society and the things that we offer: health care, education, and the like. They should be treated as equals while they're in this country. Now, it's a different matter if there's a criminal element; certainly law enforcement should be brought in to the picture then, if there is a concern about law enforcement. But by and large -- well, that's just it; they're our invitees, we should treat them as our guests, and treat them fairly and equitably before the law. You know, as they say, we're all immigrants; and we shouldn't fear those inviations when we put them out; we should encourage fair treatment and equality.
Polstate: So does that hold true for illegal immigrants as well, or is that just for quote-unquote legal immigrants?
Babbitt: Well, we need to look at the system and figure out how to really make those invitees here with our knowledge, with the acquiescence of whoever is inviting them, and find a way for everybody to be here. Aside from the problems that their inability to come here come here legally create -- we read about, literally, the hundreds of deaths that occur on the border, and the coyotes, the trafficking in workers and whatnot. That needs to be done away with, and we need to step up to the problem and deal with it very openly.
Polstate: How do you differ from your opponent on the environment?
Babbitt: Well, I'm a Westerner, and I think I have a high appreciation for the Western environment. It's a very fragile environment, it's a huge landscape, it's unparallelled in its beauty; and I'm not sure at all that an Eastern view of the West, and the things that need to be done very carefully in the West as opposed to the East are known to him.
Polstate: So let me expand on that, and just ask you straight out: why are you running for this district?
Babbitt: Well, as I said early on, I'm committed to these small communities. I live here, and I think I can do a job that is not being done with representation from Virginia.
Polstate: How do you appeal to Native Americans in the First District?
Babbitt: I'm known; I've worked with Native America for a long time. My county experience leads me to many, many contacts in Native America, whether it be transportation, health care, education issues. So I'm very comfortable dealing in Native America.
Polstate: What is the role of the Internet in your campaign?
Babbitt: It's very high; I'm very intrigued by what the Internet -- the power of the Internet, and how we can communicate widely in just unparallelled numbers of people, and instantaneously responding to ideas, responding to questions. It's just a very, very powerful tool. So our use of the Internet will be significant.
Polstate: And let me expand on that to just ask you, in general, how do you view the use of the Internet in the future of American politics?
Babbitt: Well, I see it as continuing, expanding significantly as we become more and more accustomed to using the Internet in the electoral process, and for that matter in the legislative process. I think it's all for the good. I think when governmental bodies propose legislation or ideas, just as an example, having the ability to post that on the Internet immediately, and letting the world look at it, is a very good thing.
Polstate: So, you're elected to Congress. What is the first bill you'll propose, and why?
Babbitt: Senator Kerry today is announcing the Forest Restoration Program that includes about a hundred million dollars for an environmental corps. I would be likely to either sponsor or be one of the very early cosponsors of such a measure. We have a history -- I have a very personal belief in support of national service. We have the tradition of the conservation corps in this country that has evolved here in Coconino County to a program that we call the Coconino Rural Environmental Corps, basically taking young people through a program, training to do a variety of outdoor jobs. We train and equip them, they get a modest wage during an eighteen-month period, and when they come out at the end of that they get a voucher for future education. I think it's a wonderful idea and I'm delighted that Senator Kerry is on board with that idea.
Polstate: In your opinion, what is the future of the Democratic Party in Arizona, and how will you contribute to that future?
Babbitt: I think it's very strong. We've had a party now reorganized for about four years under the leadership of the chairman, Jim Pederson, who has created a very vibrant, very enthusiastic Democratic Party. We've seen increases in the number of Democratic registrants. So I think it's very bright; I think we're doing the things that people want to have happen to this society and to this economy.
Polstate: From a national perspective, why should people of like minds -- liberals, left-leaning independents -- take part in and/or contribute to this race rather than to others across the country? What does this race have to contribute to the bigger picture?
Babbitt: I think that when we look at what's happening in the past four years, we've talked a lot about education, we don't fund it; we've talked a lot about, here, healthy forest issues, we haven't funded it. We've come from record surpluses through a very short period where now we're creating record deficits, and I think people are very concerned about their futures. And I think Democrats know better, and have different priorities for spending money, and would have taken a much different path, and this country would find itself in a different position, globally and nationally. And I think there's a lot of concern that maybe we didn't elect the right people the last time around.
Polstate: Isn't that true for a lot of races across the country? What makes your race different from some of the others?
Babbitt: This race has its origins last race, which -- it was then an open seat. The incumbent won by the fewest votes of any sitting member of the Congress. So it's targeted, as they say. There's a realization that it can change from Republican to Democratic, and hence there's so much interest.