Power struggle between Hobbs, GOP lawmakers continues: Governor's nominees will have new obstacle

Stacey Barchenger
Arizona Republic

A tug-of-war for power between Arizona's Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs and Republicans who lead the Legislature — a political split not seen in the state for over a dozen years — pulled toward the right Thursday.

GOP lawmakers in the state Senate voted unanimously to create a new committee dedicated to vetting the governor's cabinet appointees, flexing their political muscle over the universal objection of Democrats. The Republicans' new approach creates another hurdle for Hobbs in getting her chosen people into place leading state agencies.

Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, named fellow Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, to lead the bipartisan committee. Hoffman promptly accused Hobbs of "playing games and preventing the Senate from doing its job on behalf of the people of Arizona" by slow-walking her nominations to lead state agencies.

Hoffman, who leads the conservative flank of lawmakers organized as the Arizona Freedom Caucus, already has shown a readiness to challenge the Hobbs administration. On the first day of the legislative session, Hoffman and the Freedom Caucus threatened to sue the governor over an anti-discrimination executive order that he described as an overreach of her authority. They have not yet filed a lawsuit.

Later that day, a handful of GOP lawmakers left the room as Hobbs pledged in her State of the State to protect abortion rights and repeal the state's private school voucher program, a direct attack on major Republican priorities.

Then came Hobbs' budget — a "left-wing wish list" according to House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Glendale. Republicans offered a counter strike in a budget of their own that keeps spending flat, and threatened legal action over Hobbs' potential political use of money raised for her inauguration.

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The political intrigue of split power has sizzled around the Capitol for weeks, and leaves open the question of whether the early platitudes coming from both sides of the aisle — to work together on shared interests for the benefit of Arizona's over 7 million residents — will become a casualty of partisanship.

In her own opening salvo, Hobbs was quick to simply note the power of a veto. She said through a spokesperson on Thursday the Legislature needs to rally behind lifting the aggregate expenditure limit, a cap that threatens to limit school spending after March 1.

"They should be focusing on that and not playing games with the nomination process," Hobbs' spokesperson Josselyn Berry said. "Our timeline for cabinet nominations is on par with previous administrations, and we will continue to work at an appropriate pace. These kind of antics are just meant to be a distraction."

Diana Yazzie Devine (right), CEO of Native American Connections, introduces Gov. Katie Hobbs (left) on Feb. 2, 2023, during the grand opening of HomeBase Surprise in Surprise, Arizona.

'Sometimes it feels a little brusque'

Hobbs has sent two of her 26 appointees to the Senate so far: Joan Serviss to lead the Department of Housing and Angie Rodgers to lead Department of Economic Security. Under Arizona law, people named to lead state agencies must get approval from a majority vote of the Senate within a year of their appointment. Previously, nominees would go to different committees — with different leaders — depending on where they best fit by topic before heading to the 30-member Senate for a vote.

The new Committee on Director Nominations consolidates power over those appointees on Hoffman's desk. The committee will research and evaluate qualifications of Hobbs' picks for agency directors, and vote to reject them or recommend the person for a full Senate vote, according to Senate Republican spokesperson Kim Quintero.

Members of the panel are Hoffman, Republican senators Sine Kerr of Buckeye and T.J. Shope of Coolidge, and Democratic senators Christine Marsh of Phoenix and Eva Burch of Mesa.

Democrats in the Senate unanimously voted against rule changes that created the committee, questioning why it wasn't established at the same time as other committees and why Republicans found out about it a day before Democrats.

Gov. Katie Hobbs talks with reporters after the HomeBase Surprise grand opening on Feb. 2, 2023, in Surprise, Arizona.

“Eventually we’re going to realize that we’re both powerful," Sen. Catherine Miranda, D-Laveen, said to her colleagues on the Senate floor. "There’s dynamics that have changed here. You’re powerful with the majority vote, we’re powerful with the governor, which makes us equal. We are equal."

Sen. Ken Bennett, a Prescott Republican who was Senate president from 2003 to 2007 when Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano was in office, said he expected the committee hearings to be fair and thorough. Strife over the new committee, Bennett said, was part of the political process: "I don’t like to call it divided government, I like to call it shared government.”

“We had to learn how to work through that," he said of the Napolitano years. "This is part of that process, and sometimes it feels a little brusque and uncomfortable, and I apologize for that.”

Division isn't only found across partisan lines in Arizona's current political climate, however. With Democrats winning the top three statewide offices for the first time in 50 years, there's intraparty power grappling at play, too.

An early sign: Hobbs found herself at odds with other statewide elected Democrats last weekend in backing Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo for chair of the Arizona Democratic Party. By a landslide, union organizer Yolanda Bejarano won the leadership post instead.

Hobbs told The Republic on Thursday she reached out to Bejarano, but that they had not spoken since the Saturday election.

Asked why, Hobbs said she had "a lot of things going on. I’m not paying attention to who is calling me back or not, but we haven’t spoken.”

Party spokesperson Morgan Dick, asked to confirm Hobbs' overture to Bejarano, said she was "not going to get into the details" of communications between Bejarano and elected officials. But, she said, "Bejarano looks forward to connecting with the governor and working together to flip the Legislature."

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs talks with reporters on Feb. 2, 2023, after the grand opening of HomeBase Surprise, a 40-bed shelter in Surprise, Arizona.

Arizona Republic reporter Mary Jo Pitzl contributed to this article.

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.