The Arizona Republic | Mary Jo Pitzl
Carlyle Begay, a Democrat who was often viewed as the state Senate’s 18th Republican, officially joined the GOP Monday.
The announcement, attended by a bevy of Republican elected officials, surprised no one and makes no substantive change to the power dynamics in the Arizona Legislature.
But it does give the GOP bragging rights and a chance to make a run at winning over Native American voters in next year’s elections.
Begay, a Navajo from Ganado, told The Arizona Republic that the Republican Party better reflects the values of self-determination and self-empowerment that he holds and wants to emphasize to his district, which includes the Navajo and Hopi reservations.
Besides, he said, he was increasingly isolated within the Democratic caucus after he crossed party lines and voted for the current-year budget. His vote provided the crucial 16th vote needed to pass in the 30-member Senate.
“I want to help the Republican Party build a bridge with those who need and want a chance with those who can provide that chance,” Begay told reporters at a packed news conference attended by U.S. senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, GOP Chairman Robert Graham, Senate President Andy Biggs and more than half of the GOP Senate caucus. His main job, Begay said, is to provide a voice for tribal communities and rural areas “but not through the lens of a political ideology.” He said he votes based on what he thinks is best for his constituents, leaving aside party labels.
“I think that’s what we’re supposed to do,” he said.
However, he turned to the Republican Party instead of registering as an independent because he wants to reinforce what he says is the GOP message of self-determination — the very thing tribes are trying to emphasize to the state and federal governments.
Begay, 34, is a second-term senator, appointed two years ago to fill a vacancy. Last summer, he won a three-way Democratic primary for the Senate nomination, and he cruised to victory in November. He said he plans to run again next year and believes his party switch won’t hurt him.
“They’ll vote for me because they know me,” he said.
Begay said his budget vote, and the aftermath, was the “tipping point” in his decision to re-register as a Republican. Democrats rebuffed him and barred him from using any internal caucus resources, such as for issuing news releases.
“I was being isolated because I was fighting for people to have a voice,” Begay said. Meanwhile, Republicans were welcoming. Gov. Doug Ducey, along with Biggs and House Speaker David Gowan, visited his district twice, most recently in August, he said.
Democrats reacted with uniform nonchalance, saying Begay’s GOP leanings were apparent from his appointment in summer 2013.
“We never really had him as a member of our caucus,” said the Democrats’ assistant minority leader, Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson.
Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs said Begay was “hand-picked by Republicans who have no problem disenfranchising an entire legislative district to serve their own agenda.” She and other party officials predicted Begay will lose the heavily Democratic District 7 seat next year.
Begay said he approached key GOP officials this summer about re-registering as a Republican. Ducey was supportive, Begay said, even though he reminded the governor his defection could deprive Ducey of the ability to tout bipartisan votes on controversial legislation.
Graham said he never asked Begay to switch his registration but is delighted to welcome him to the party.
“He’s been a constituent servant,” Graham said. “He’s authentic. And now we’re going to make sure that our guy wins.”
The party helped Begay produce a two-minute video that details his reasons for switching parties, including GOP support for his efforts to improve education, infrastructure and jobs for rural and tribal communities.
The tribal communities have elected only one Republican in recent decades: Tom Gordon, a member of the Hualapai tribe who served one term in the late 1990s. Rep. Sylvia Laughter was a Democrat from the Navajo Reservation who re-registered as an independent in 2004 as she ran for a Senate seat. She lost that race.
Begay said he already has 15 bills drafted for the upcoming session and hopes that his legislation will be evaluated on its merits, not on the political label after his name. And, he said, he suspects he’ll vote with the Democrats on some issues, something he’s already told President Biggs, R-Gilbert.
He said he wants to be a bridge between different cultures and ideas and said his decision to switch parties in the middle of his term shouldn’t blow up ties with Democrats.
“Time will tell,” he said. “I think that bridge will still be there.”