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azcentral: How do we get Arizona's governor candidates to talk about issues that matter?

Posted on December 27, 2021 • Category: Op-Ed
By Sybil Francis, President & CEO, Center for the Future of Arizona

Arizona Central

Opinion: Arizonans have spoken clearly about the issues that matter to them. Yet few governor candidates have been specific about how they would address them.

Arizonans will elect our next governor in less than a year.

Already, candidates are campaigning, touting the issues they see as winners. Already, pundits are critiquing candidates’ strategy. Already, reporters are telling us about fund-raising and poll numbers.

But one thing is sorely missing: Serious public discussion about what voters want to hear from the candidates.

It can be too easy to get caught up in the game of politics, the jousting for advantage and strategizing over messaging, that we forget the point of an election isn’t merely to sell a candidate. It’s to advance the American experiment in self-governance.

And that means listening to voters. What issues matter the most to them?

Arizonans agree on several key issues

We know something about that at the Center for the Future of Arizona because an important part of our mission is to listen to Arizonans to learn what matters most to them. What have we learned?

The Gallup Arizona Survey, which the center commissioned in fall 2020, told us that we are not a divided as we think and agree on much more than we disagree:

  • Arizonans agree that educational attainment and a strong education system across the board is vital to building a better future, but only 26% think our K-12 public education is high quality. Majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents want more money spent on public education.
  • Arizonans believe that education and training are necessary to build their careers, but they worry that opportunities are limited. Only 46% of employed Arizonans earning less than $60,000 feel that they have access to the education and training they need.
  • Arizonans are struggling with child care. One-quarter of those with children 18 or under say the cost or limited availability of child care prevents them from going back to work or school.
  • Arizonans overwhelmingly support sustainable practices that protect our air, land, water and wildlife – and want action. Seventy percent or more want regulations that protect rural water supplies, improved air quality, a transition to clean energy, expanded space for parks and outdoor recreation, more spending to prevent forest fires, and steps that reduce the urban heat island effect.
  • Arizonans support comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship, including for Arizona’s “Dreamers” that were brought to this country as children. A whopping 86% believe this is necessary, yet our political system has not delivered.

Few candidates are talking about these things

If you peruse the websites of the leading candidates for governor, you’ll find few if any specifics on how they would address even one of these issues, much less all of them.

So, how will we find out any candidate’s thoughts on making child care more affordable? How will we find out what they plan to do, if anything, about increasing career education and training opportunities? Or their plans for protecting rural water supplies?

Every voter could try to ask candidates about the issues that matter most to them. But because candidates are zealous about message discipline, don’t expect them to make this easy.

The best solution lies with the state’s news organizations – the legacy newspapers, the TV and radio news stations, the new nonprofit online outlets. Imagine if they were to collaborate on creating a voter-centric agenda for covering the upcoming elections.

This wouldn’t be novel. Three decades ago, the Charlotte Observer pioneered the approach of letting voters set an election agenda. It focused on issues that 500 readers helped the paper pinpoint. Readers’ questions were asked of candidates and, if they declined to answer, white space ran next to their name.

It turned out readers weren’t interested in gotcha questions or what a candidate’s brother did 20 years ago. They wanted to know what candidates would do to solve the most vexing problems in their lives.

As one of the editors involved in the project wrote, “We should always put the voters – our readers and viewers – in the forefront of coverage. They’re the ones who will have to make a choice. We should write about what they care about and how a particular candidate would affect their lives. Too often the latest tweets, polls, or other shiny objects of politics have little to do with that.”

Reporters and editors were no longer gatekeepers, deciding what voters needed to know, but conduits for voters and the issues they identified as important. Real accountability between candidates and voters was created.

Media plays a key role in this conversation

Today’s media landscape is much different than it was in 1992, but the validity of this approach remains – especially if the state’s diverse news organizations collaborate in sussing out what really matters to voters.

Trusting News, Hearken and the Membership Puzzle Project have already collaborated to provide an outline for creating a citizens agenda. It emphasizes the need to talk to a wide swath of the community, beyond the usual sources.

It encourages going into various communities and asking, “‘What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?’ This is a more expansive and inclusive question than ‘What are your top issues?’ What people want the candidates to be talking about may not be framed as an election-year ‘issue.’ ”

If they do this, the answers reporters and editors hear will likely echo the ones we heard when Gallup surveyed thousands of residents in late 2020 about the Arizona they want.

Or the answers may be slightly different when asked in the context of an election and “what do you want candidates to talk about?”

But one thing will remain the same. The candidates would have us believe that this state will fall into ruin if their opponent or, worse yet, the other party wins. They benefit from emphasizing a partisan divide.

But CFA’s Gallup Arizona Survey found Arizonans agree on far more than they disagree, including the need to come together to find solutions that can drive our state forward to a brighter future.

How will the candidates for governor solve the problems that matter most to Arizonans? That’s the election coverage we need in 2022.


Sybil Francis is president & CEO of the Center for the Future of Arizona, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that brings Arizonans together to create a stronger and brighter future for Arizona.