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Excessive heat in Arizona poses added threat amid pandemic

PHOENIX — As people around them sat and napped, some sipping water in an air-conditioned shelter on another sweltering day in a summer of record-breaking heat, Gary Goodman and Lena Stewart spoke of the fatal dangers of living on the street.

“There’s been a lot of friends, a lot of people I know have passed away,” said Goodman, a 47-year-old California native. “I guess they don’t realize, like you know, the oncoming symptoms of heat exhaustion. So, we’ve been finding a lot of deceased people in the tents.”

Goodman and Stewart weren’t together but sat at nearby tables last week in the Phoenix Convention Center. They can’t say with certainty if those they know died as a direct result of the heat, but the numbers back up their suspicions.

Between June and August, Phoenix reported 50 days with a high temperature of at least 110 degrees, surpassing the record of 33 days set in 2011, and July and August were the hottest months ever in the nation’s fifth largest city.

Heat is the top weather-related cause of death in the United States. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show more people are killed on average by heat than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and lightning combined.

The CDC notes that community cooling centers help protect the public during heat emergencies, but this summer they also increased the risk of coronavirus by gathering groups of at-risk people.

In Maricopa County, authorities reported 55 confirmed heat-associated deaths as of Aug. 29, up from 38 all of last year. The county tracks heat-related deaths from May to October. According to the Department of Public Health Administration website, there are 266 cases under investigation, about double last year’s 134 cases.

The record heat wasn’t just in Phoenix, as several desert cities across the Southwest saw triple-digit temperatures and new records, including Las Vegas; El Centro, California; and El Paso, Texas.

The high temperatures continued the first week of September with many cities coming off excessive heat warnings over the Labor Day weekend. Temperatures reached a record 115 degrees in Phoenix, 116 degrees in Las Vegas and 121 degrees in El Centro over the weekend.

Stewart, 57, said she was hospitalized for dehydration last year, when she would frequently ride the city’s metro train system to take advantage of its air conditioning.

“If you have limited means to mitigate yourself from temperatures like this, that can have a toll on your body,” National Weather Service meteorologist Paul Iñiguez said, such as heat exhaustion, heat stroke and, in extreme cases, death.

During the summer, the Maricopa Association of Governments coordinates a Heat Relief Regional Network of volunteers, businesses and organizations to provide cooled indoor locations, bottled water and collection sites for water donations. The Salvation Army also operates emergency relief stations on days with excessive heat warnings.

“We know it is serious. Here in Arizona we treat this like an emergency disaster that happens just like hurricanes in the South and we respond to the need because we know our resources can provide relief and can be lifesaving,” said Maj. David Yardley, The Salvation Army’s Phoenix program coordinator.

“It’s not just the homeless, it’s not just a certain age. It affects everyone. Our senior population doesn’t even have to go out, they could be indoors in their homes having issues with their air conditioning units,” Yardley said.

Jennifer Franklin, a spokeswoman for Maricopa County, said extreme heat is an annual public health challenge, but this year has been unprecedented. “With the COVID-19 pandemic and need for physical distancing, local shelter capacity was reduced out of necessity, and space for heat relief was limited,” she said.

Traditional service locations such as libraries and other municipal buildings were forced to close because of the pandemic, said Tamyra Spendley, a deputy director of Phoenix’s Human Services Department. In response, officials converted the south building of the Phoenix Convention Center into a “heat respite center” providing relief from not only the beating sun and soaring temperatures, but from the coronavirus.

Spendley said the area can accommodate up to 250 people and since opening in late May officials have recorded more than 17,000 visits.

“This feels better. It’s more roomy, more space. The length of time that we can spend here is, you know, more than generous,” Goodman said, adding that he tries to arrive around 9 a.m. and stay until 6 p.m. when he can check into an overnight shelter.

The water is plentiful, which helps stave off potentially fatal dehydration. The meals and especially the brisk air conditioning also make the summer more bearable, he said.

The facility is expected to remain open through Sept. 30, and both Goodman and Stewart hope Phoenix continues the program in the coming years.

“For the majority of people, it’s been a godsend for them,” Stewart said.

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Area Dems rally in CG with Labor Day drive-by parade

CASA GRANDE — The Democrats of Casa Grande rallied on Labor Day to encourage the community to vote while also celebrating the holiday honoring workers.

Cars began filing out of a Walgreens parking lot on Florence Boulevard across from The Promenade at Casa Grande about 10 a.m. in hopes of getting the community’s attention.

Ralph Atchue planned the parade.

“We got a lot of good responses, people honking their horns and thumbs up, and a few negative. For the most part, it was a very positive response,” he said.

According to Atchue, he received more than 50 RSVPs for the event.

“All we looked for today was to let the people of Casa Grande know that there are Democrats and help to energize them and to get them involved,” Atchue said.

Due to COVID-19, Atchue and fellow Democrats had to be innovative in order to rally and celebrate Labor Day in a socially distant matter.

The Democrats drove down Florence Boulevard with their hazard lights on while some cars were decked out with signs and flags. The Democrats then gathered downtown at Florence Boulevard and Marshall Street, where they stood in the Arizona heat in hopes of getting honks from people driving by.

“We are honoring all of the workers, especially our frontline workers, on Labor Day,” said Red Rock resident JoAnna Mendoza, who is running for Arizona Senate in Legislative District 11.

Labor Day is a federal holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September.

“I think folks have become a bit more creative in how they are getting the word out during these very difficult times in our nation. A parade like this, people can just get in their cars and show their support for the candidates that they’re supporting,” Mendoza said.

In order to participate in the parade, people were asked to wear masks and to continue social distancing while holding signs outside.

“I think it’s important to have representatives that can better manage the current pandemic and can prepare us for future challenges, and that’s why I’m running for office,” said Oro Valley’s Dr. Felipe Perez, who is running for state representative in District 11.

Those running had the opportunity to strike up conversations with voters. Due to the heat, the group packed up before noon.

“We’ve all been so isolated and just being able to get out there and meet people and talk to people and listen to their concerns, it’s been pretty nice,” Perez said.

“I encourage everyone to vote on Nov. 3, and it’s even better to sign up for an early ballot if you can,” he added.

Arizona allows all voters to request a ballot by mail if they want to vote that way.

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Pinal Fairgrounds moves forward with new executive director

ELEVEN MILE CORNER — With a new executive director in place and several events scheduled extending into next year, the Pinal Fairgrounds and Event Center is looking toward its post-COVID future.

Former Pinal 4-H Coordinator Misti Todd will take over running the fair and the fairgrounds while former Executive Director Karen Searle will continue to serve as a management consultant.

The 120-acre Pinal Fairgrounds and Event Center is owned by Pinal County but managed by Central Arizona Fair Association, a nonprofit association created to run the facility.

“I am very excited to be a part of Central Arizona Fair Association and work at Pinal Fairgrounds,” Todd said.


Misti Todd

Todd has lived in Pinal County her entire life and said she has fond memories of attending the Pinal County Fair.

“I showed animals here as a youth and my kids did as well,” she said. “I was heavily involved in 4-H over the past 10 years and have seen many children learn and grow while at the fairgrounds. It means a lot to me to have these memories and I look forward to helping continue on the tradition of this facility. So many people look forward to events at this facility and it is truly heartbreaking that we are not able to accommodate them at this time.”

Earlier this year, the annual Pinal County Fair, which had been scheduled to take place in March, was canceled due to COVID-19.

“Canceling the Pinal County Fair was certainly one of the most difficult things I have been through in my lengthy, 33-year fair career,” Searle said. “Although COVID was just blowing up back in March, in fact, we canceled prior to the governor declaring a state of emergency. Canceling the fair was the only decision we could make to keep our community safe.”

While the Pinal County Fair is a key event for area young people who show and sell farm animals each year, Searle said, the impact of the cancellation went far beyond kids.

“When we canceled, we knew the effect on our business partners like food concessions, vendors, entertainers, carnival, etc. would be devastating,” Searle said. “Little did we know at the time that all Arizona fairs would end up canceling, including the state fair in October.”

COVID-19 has had a “staggering” impact on the fairgrounds itself, she said.

“Not only were we forced to cancel the fair, but every event March through May was canceled. This included parties, weddings, high school prom, roller derby, company picnics and so much more,” she said.

Canceling the Pinal County Fair alone cost Central Arizona Fair Association, which manages the fairgrounds, an estimated $110,000.

“As a 501(c)(4), we are ineligible for the PPP program and other state and county programs,” Searle said.

Some events are on the schedule for October, December and January, including roller derby matches, a gun show, the annual bluegrass festival, but Searle said they too might be canceled.

“In essence, scheduled events are on hold,” Searle said. “We are waiting for the county to reach an acceptable COVID level in order to have gatherings over 50. Needless to say we are all on pins and needles. The stress of not knowing if we can open and allow our events to go on is a heavy weight for all of us.”

In the meantime, the fairgrounds are not officially open for events, but camping is allowed.

“Until Pinal County reaches an acceptable level, all events are on hold/canceled/postponed. Should that continue through the first of the year, the fairgrounds faces critical financial hardship,” Searle said.

Partisan groups laying groundwork to shape Arizona redistricting

PHOENIX — Partisan groups have been quietly preparing for the upcoming redistricting process, the first steps of which have just barely begun as hopeful applicants volunteer to serve on the next Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

Democratic and Republican groups are looking to protect their party’s interests at the next redistricting commission. Some have been getting the word out to like-minded people who might be interested in applying for seats on the five-person commission. Some are focused more on influencing the actual drawing of the maps and preparing members of the public to testify at the AIRC for the districts they’d like to see.

In all, 138 people applied to serve on the commission — 55 Democrats, 44 Republicans and 39 independents. The Commission on Appellate Court Appointments will winnow that list down to 10 Democrats, 10 Republicans and five independents, a process it must complete by Jan. 8. The Democratic and Republican leaders in each legislative chamber will choose a commissioner, and those four will select a fifth person from the list of independents to chair the commission.

Republicans widely viewed themselves as being on the losing side of the last AIRC, when a number of critical issues were decided by 3-2 votes in which the independent chairwoman sided with her two Democratic colleagues.

And while Republicans blamed Democrats for what they viewed as a hijacking of the redistricting process — a reversal of roles from 10 years prior, when Democrats believed the first commission favored the GOP — many were also critical of their own party’s leadership for what they viewed as a lack of preparation. FAIR Trust, a collection of Republican lawyers and others who worked with Republicans in Arizona’s congressional delegation, testified frequently at the AIRC in 2011, but ultimately had little influence on the final maps.

This time around, there are at least two GOP groups that are looking to get out ahead of the issue.

Fair Lines Arizona, fittingly co-founded by former Arizona Republican Party chairman Jonathan Lines, is looking to influence the final legislative and congressional maps that the AIRC approves.

“Our focus will be to make sure Republican voices are heard throughout the process. And that’s really going to be our focus throughout,” said Brian Murray, a longtime GOP consultant who is working with Fair Lines Arizona.

The group was founded last year and has already hired a data consultant and legal counsel. But Murray said it’s stayed out of the application and recruitment process, and won’t try to influence the selection of finalists from among the 138 applicants. Instead, the group will be active once the commission begins its actual work of drawing maps. For now, it’s largely on hiatus due to the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as the upcoming election.

Murray, who was heavily involved in the first redistricting commission in 2001-02 as the executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, said Fair Lines Arizona will follow the same playbook that the GOP used 20 years ago: use the six redistricting criteria in the Arizona Constitution to get maps that “represent the people of Arizona as constitutionally as possible.”

Ultimately, Murray said his group wants maps that are fair and adhere to the constitution.

“What happened last time is you had a lot of districts where you had Republicans massively packed into a bunch of districts, and it was probably unconstitutional,” Murray said. “It’s incumbent upon us to show the commission, hey, here’s how you can comply with the constitution and it’s your constitutional duty to do so. We’re simply just going to provide facts to them.”

When the last AIRC’s maps were finalized in 2012, Republicans challenged the constitutionality of both the congressional and legislative districts. The courts ultimately rejected those challenges and upheld the maps.

Fair Lines Arizona has also been in communication with Republican members of Arizona’s congressional delegation and will be working with them moving forward. Murray said he spoke with GOP legislative leadership about the effort last year, but that the coronavirus has put things on hold.

Fair Lines Arizona isn’t the only group formed to represent Republican interests in the redistricting process. Steve Gaynor, a businessman who was the Republican nominee for secretary of state in 2018, created the similarly named Fair Maps Arizona last year, which he runs with former GOP lawmaker Jill Norgaard.

Gaynor would not comment on Fair Maps Arizona’s activities, but he told the Arizona Mirror last year that his organization could play a number of roles, including recruiting and vetting candidates for the IRC, testify or lobby the commission on the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts, or perhaps even draw maps itself.

Fair Maps Arizona has been speaking to Republican groups and has worked to recruit candidates, including independents. Gaynor has also enlisted former Republican Congressman John Shadegg to assist Fair Maps Arizona.

At least three of the independent applicants said they received automated calls or text messages from Fair Maps Arizona. Two of those independents decided to apply after receiving automated text messages from Gaynor stating, “We need more independent applicants, so I’m hoping you or someone you know may want to serve and help us get fair maps.” Another said he was planning on applying and realized the deadline was about to pass thanks to an automated call from Gaynor’s group.

Lines and Murray said they believe their group and Gaynor’s group can work together and avoid stepping on each other’s toes.

“The hope is that, if there is more than one group, that people would coalesce and work together so that there weren’t competing interests within the party,” Lines said.

The Arizona Republican Party has also spread the word about the application process and recruited Republicans to apply, as well as independents and Democrats, according to spokesman Zach Henry. But it’s largely deferring to the outside groups.

“We’re not critically involved with the process. We’re letting other satellite groups take care of that,” Henry said.

Several Republicans say Gov. Doug Ducey and members of his outside political operation have played a role in recruiting candidates for the AIRC. However, Ducey said he hasn’t directed anyone to recruit candidates or take other steps to influence the redistricting process.

“I know that there have been people that have been working to find folks that are willing to do this,” Ducey said during an Aug. 20 press conference. “But it’s not something that I’ve been personally focused on.”

Ducey’s former chief of staff, Kirk Adams, and Sara Mueller, who runs the governor’s political operation, did not respond to multiple messages from the Mirror to discuss redistricting.

The governor’s greatest contribution to the Republicans’ redistricting efforts may have been finished before the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments even began accepting applications. The governor denuded the commission of Democratic members, leaving it with only Republican and independent members, some of whom had clear GOP ties, for more than a year. Democrats vociferously criticized Ducey for the commission’s lack of political diversity, as well for the lack of racial and ethnic diverisity, as it included very few non-white members.

A handful of gubernatorial appointments in July added three Democrats and left the appellate commission with three non-white members instead of just one. But that still leaves Democrats outnumbered by both Republicans and independents as the 15-member commission prepares to vet redistricting applicants and decide which of the 138 candidates make the final list of 25.

On the other side of the aisle, the Arizona Democratic Party is taking the lead. Chairwoman Felecia Rotellini said the state party has held information sessions to get the word out to potential Democratic applicants for the commission, though she said it hasn’t taken any steps to recruit independents.

For now, the party is keeping a close eye on the vetting process for the redistricting applicants, and Rotellini said it will assist Democratic leaders in the House and Senate as they make decisions on who to appoint to the AIRC.

Once the actual mapmaking begins, Rotellini said the party will focus on ensuring that the AIRC draws as many competitive districts as possible.

“The most important thing is we are working towards competitive districts, not gerrymandered districts that really take … the power of the vote away from people. We’ll be watching closely, and to the extent we can be involved, we will be,” she said.

National Democratic forces are also working on redistricting in Arizona.

All On The Line, an anti-gerrymandering campaign organized by the National Democratic Redistricting Fund, has been active in Arizona, one of 10 states where the group has set up operations. The organization was the result of a merger between organizations founded by President Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder.

In states like Arizona that use independent commissions for redistricting, Holder has said his group will train people to advocate for fair maps.

In Arizona, All On The Line has focused on encouraging grassroots participation at the redistricting commission, said Kendra Alvarez, the group’s state director. It has hosted numerous sessions aimed at providing information about the redistricting process, and has partnered with the Arizona Democratic Party on some of them. The group has also sought to recruit AIRC applicants through its information sessions, emails and social media.

Alvarez said All On The Line isn’t trying to be “the redistricting arm just for Democrats,” and wanted to ensure that good people applied for the commission. But she acknowledged that the group’s mailing list consists mostly of Democrats and independents, and that’s who its outreach has largely focused on.

All On The Line will work throughout the redistricting process to encourage and help members of the public to participate, including preparing people for public testimony that could influence the AIRC’s decisions.

“That’s really our focus is how do we mobilize more folks that haven’t been traditionally involved in this, and how do we give them the tools to think about what they need their districts to look like,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez said All On The Line is also committed to doing everything possible when it comes to “supporting communities that have been underrepresented.”