PHOENIX -- The political arm of the League of Conservation Voters is going to funnel $875,000 into getting eight Democrats seated in the new legislature.

Chispa AZ PAC says it intends to make independent expenditures on behalf of the contenders, both incumbents and challengers. That could give them a leg up over their foes.

But Laura Dent, the group's executive director, said this is about more than just getting these eight elected. She said that the real push is to "flip the switch,'' putting both the House and Senate into the hands of those she said will allow Arizonans to "finally take back their power'' and pursue an environmental agenda.

The move comes as Democrats hope to take control of the Arizona House for the first time since 1966. They currently need to pick up one set to tie and two to become the majority. There also are hopes of nabbing the Senate majority.

Dent said, though, this isn't specifically about changing political control of the chambers, though she acknowledged that all the candidates who will get financial backing are Democrats. Instead, she said, it is to elect a sufficient number of lawmakers who support environmental causes and who will not take money from those who work for monopoly utility companies.

The main focus will be on concentrating the cash in ousting some Republicans Chispa believes may be vulnerable.

One is to try to beat either Reps. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, or Bret Robert, R-Maricopa, by pushing the candidacy of Felipe Perez a family physician. Dent said Finchem in particular has what she calls an anti-environment slant.

Chispa, which tends to focus on Latino voters, also will put extra cash into the Senate race for that same district where retired Marine JoAnna Mendoza, of Red Rock, hopes to unseat Vince Leach, R-Saddlebrooke.

Leach in particular has been in the crosshairs of environmental groups because of his sponsorship of measures they see as particularly favorable to utilities.

That included pushing through a 2018 measure that would limit the fine for a utility that violates any voter-approved renewable energy standard to as little as $100. And Leach has sponsored measures to make it more difficult for initiative drives to qualify for the ballot.

The candidates are running in Legislative District 11, which includes Maricopa, Arizona City, Picacho, Red Rock and Saddlebrooke in Pinal County

Another big cash infusion will go into what could be an opportunity for Democrats to take a Senate seat long held by Republicans.

In LD 6, Wendy Rogers pushed aside incumbent Republican Sylvia Allen in the GOP primary. Chispa hopes to use that divisive race to elect Democrat Felicia French who, like Rogers, is retired military.

There also are funds backing Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans who hopes to win one of two House seats in the same district, a race complicated by the fact that Art Babbott is running as an independent.

And Chispa is looking at a House seat vacated by freshman Rep. Tony Rivero, R-Phoenix, as possibly providing an opening for Peoria Democrat Kathy Knecht.

Chispa is no stranger to political spending. What's different this year, Dent said, is the decision to focus the cash on a handful of candidates.

"Our goal is really to do all that we can to support changing the balance of power at the legislature so we're electing more champions that are focused on environmental efforts, focused on ensuring that we're prioritizing environment and environmental justice in particular,'' she said. All that, Dent said, will help transition Arizona into a place where there will be a "conservation-environment agenda moving forward.''

Most of the dollars, Dent said, will go into contacting voters on a one-on-one basis, using things like phone banks to build support for Chispa-backed candidates.

There are some incumbents in what generally would be considered relatively safe Democrat districts that also will get Chispa help. That includes House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez of Yuma, Rep. Kirsten Engel of Tucson and Rep. Mitzi Epstein of Tempe.

Dent said the organization wants to protect them against efforts by Republicans to pick them off. Epstein in particular could be vulnerable to a challenge from former state Rep. Bob Robson.

Chispa has thrown some big money at campaigns in the past.

Two years ago the organization financed a $2.8 million television ad buy in support of Democrats Sandra Kennedy and Kiana Sears for the Arizona Corporation Commission. Kennedy won; Sears did not.

Dent said no decision has been made whether to back the three Democrats in this year's race.

"Right now our main focus is on the legislature,'' she said.


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