As COVID-19 cases skyrocket in Arizona, wildfires burn through mountains and tax dollars.
The Bighorn Fire begins in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Credit: Kelly Michals
The saguaro cacti should’ve been finishing their blooms in June, not burning to the ground.
But it is 2020 after all. As if having recently reached the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in the world wasn’t enough, Arizona is also suffering from an onslaught of debilitating wildfires. Scorching hundreds of thousands of acres and forcing thousands to evacuate from their homes, spanning from outer Phoenix to Tucson to north of the Grand Canyon and even the Navajo Nation, four major wildfires over the past two months have marked a boiling point in Arizona state history.
Who could’ve predicted this? Exxon, actually, more than 40 years ago. An internal company memo from 1979 warned that due to rising CO2 levels created by their products, “the southwest states would be hotter, probably by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit, and drier.”
The ripple effects of wildfires, especially in the tinderbox of an increasingly hot and dry desert landscape, are wide-ranging. There is the obvious damage to homes, crops, and living landscapes; the closures of roads and highways; the significant scar on regional biodiversity. But there are less obvious consequences, too, like the flash floods that happen when rain falls on eroded landscapes after a wildfire, carrying blackened sludge filled with wildfire debris downstream and infiltrating homes and waterways below. Since the Bighorn Fire struck Pima Canyon in early June, the County Regional Flood Control District has sent out letters to 400 homeowners warning that their already-flooding property will be at even greater risk during the summer monsoons.
Who had this on their 2020 hellscape bingo card? pic.twitter.com/fUNvIVS7aw
— Official Pima County (@pimaarizona) July 16, 2020
Travis Bruner, Conservation Director of the Grand Canyon Trust, told me that suppression of the natural fire cycle north of the Grand Canyon has set back a nearly 20-year-long forest restoration effort designed to prevent just this kind of disaster from occurring. “Climate change only increases our urgency and the need for forest restoration in northern Arizona,” Bruner said. “We are going to continue to see fires burning like this if we’re not able to perform the forest restoration that would minimize the threats to communities.”
That’s not to mention the unforeseen financial hits to communities near the path of destruction. “Recreation and tourism on public lands is an incredibly important economic contributor in northern Arizona,” said Bruner. “These severe wildfires are going to have negative impacts that way and could limit the number of people who want to come visit these areas and spend money in these towns.”
In one of the fastest-warming states in the country, where the largest, most destructive wildfires have all occurred in the past two decades, the destruction will almost certainly get worse. Combined with a drought problem that’s expected to more than triple by mid-century, Arizona could see 115 days with high wildfire potential by 2050. Forty-five percent of Arizona’s population, or almost 2.9 million people, are already at risk of experiencing wildfire damage — a statistic playing out in real time as thousands of people face evacuation from their homes with little to no notice.
Senator Victoria Steele of Tucson, where the already $37-million Bighorn Fire still blazes through the Catalina Mountains, says it’s time to come to terms with the crisis putting Arizonans in danger.
“The people of southern Arizona are grappling with our new reality of a hotter, drier future and the knowledge that these fires are no longer confined to one season, but all year long,” Sen. Steele said. “We cannot write off these wildfires as random acts of nature. It will take political courage and quick action for us to mitigate the consequences of climate change.”
The fossil fuel industry’s successful efforts to stall climate policy for decades mean that, regardless of future actions, communities will still need to deal with the costs of already-baked-in climate disasters like this summer’s wildfires. With local budgets, public healthcare, and lives under unprecedented pressure from the state’s extraordinary spike in COVID-19 infection rates, communities could end up paying a fatal price.
This struggle is nowhere more plain than in Arizona’s portion of the Navajo Nation, a Native reservation spanning northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico, where decades of uranium and coal operations left a scar. The Nation has been devastated by unusually high coronavirus rates since the pandemic started: Indigenous people account for 20 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Arizona, but make up just 3.9 percent of the state’s population. Then, the Wood Springs Fire 2 made its way to the reservation. The still-active fire has left Navajo families preparing for evacuation procedures that officials fear will lead to increased COVID-19 transmission due to the close quarters of public shelters, and pollution from wildfire smoke in the region could increase vulnerability to that risk.
“With this Covid and this fire now, the only thing we can do is pray and help each other,” Wilson Stewart Jr, a Navajo Nation council delegate, told the Guardian.
One thing is clear across the Grand Canyon state: communities have been left to fend for themselves against the fossil fuel industry’s destruction for far too long. Polluters spread climate denial through false advertising, fake science, and lobbying in order to sell their products — yet they have contributed nothing to helping communities stay safe from the outcome.
“The Bighorn Fire is an example of what goes wrong when we fail to address climate change and get real about its implications,” says Arizona House Member Andrés Cano, who represents Tucson and the rest of Pima County. “Our land, lives, and livelihoods are at risk because oil and gas executives decided their bottom line was more important than our health and safety.”
Communities in California and Colorado that have taken Exxon and other fossil fuel companies to court point to local wildfires as one of many damages that the industry knew their products would cause. It’ll be up to Arizona’s elected officials to decide whether they too will take action to ensure their communities don’t foot the bill alone.
“This is about state and grassroots leadership beginning to hold ourselves and our organization accountable,” California NOW President Kolieka Siegle said.
Furious that the National Organization for Women has yet to remove President Toni Van Pelt over allegations of racism, a group of state chapter leaders have started a social media campaign to push her out of office.
Over the month of July, the California NOW chapter is hosting Facebook live streams with 20 other state chapter leaders who will demand Van Pelt’s resignation and discuss their experiences with racism in the organization more broadly. The point of the campaign, California NOW president Kolieka Seigel said in a recent broadcast, is to “address systemic racism within our own ranks, to uplift the experiences of women of color and to collectively tell our story.”
“This is about state and grassroots leadership beginning to hold ourselves and our organization accountable and charting a path forward, ” she said, adding that the chapters are also calling for an oversight committee to monitor the leadership and for a revision of NOW’s bylaws.
Six chapters, including Washington state, Florida, Minnesota and Nevada, have already posted videos, and Seigel told The Daily Beast that the remaining 15 chapters will post theirs before the month’s end. Twenty-five of the organization’s 36 chapter presidents have also signed onto a letter to the NOW board demanding Van Pelt step down or be removed.
The campaign comes after a Daily Beast investigation revealed dozens of allegations of racism within the iconic feminist group, from the state chapters all the way to the national organization. Among other things, former employees accused Van Pelt of sidelining and disparaging women of color, including by telling them, “I don’t care about your opinion.” Both her previous vice president, a Native American woman, and her current vice president, a Black woman, have accused her of discrimination.
In a statement last month, Van Pelt told The Daily Beast that she understood it was “critical to acknowledge my own privilege and strive to be a better ally.”
“As the leader of NOW, and a leader within the intersectional feminist movement, I must hold myself and our organization accountable to do more,” she said. (NOW did not respond to a request for comment on the latest campaign.)
“Here in Minnesota we believe that feminism is intersectional, and if one of those pieces is falling off, you’re really not qualified to lead a feminist organization.”
Many of the organization’s leaders were not satisfied by the response. In addition to the state chapter presidents, nine national board members signed into a letter asking Van Pelt to resign. After a vote to remove her failed to go forward, the entire D.C. NOW board resigned their positions. On Friday, the executive board of the NOW Twin Cities chapter also resigned en masse.
“Instead of acting swiftly to condemn and weed out racism and transphobia within NOW, much of the organization has worked to protect and defend this leadership,” the executive board wrote in a letter announcing their departure. “It is now clear that the problems within NOW are systemic and that the institution as a whole is unwilling to do the work to change.”
In the livestreamed videos, chapter leaders described why they signed onto the letter demanding Van Pelt’s resignation. Jerri Burton, the Nevada state chapter president and a national board member, said her chapter signed on after hearing complaints from members and from political candidates they had endorsed. Marquita Anderson of Minnesota NOW said her board decided Van Pelt’s behavior was “unacceptable” after reading a 22-page complaint signed by 15 former NOW staffers.
“Here in Minnesota we believe that feminism is intersectional, and if one of those pieces is falling off, you’re really not qualified to lead a feminist organization,” she said.
Van Pelt has shown no signs of stepping aside, and the national board would need at least two more votes to forcibly remove her. But Victoria Steele, an Arizona state senator and one of the nine board members calling on the president to resign, told The Daily Beast they would not stop fighting until she was gone.
“For God’s sake, we’re a women’s group,” she said. “We’re a feminist organization. Why should we have to scream this loud?”
As hospitals inch closer to reaching full capacity, doctors and nurses continue to ask the public to reduce the risk of virus transmission.
Arizona’s hospitalizations from coronavirus have doubled in the last month as high daily case counts continue. State data show that for weeks, Arizona hospitals have been running short on beds for COVID-19 patients. Capacity for inpatient beds, especially in intensive care units, has been hovering at about 90%.
The state health department set up what it calls the Arizona Surge Line, which allows for the transfer of patients between hospitals when they don’t have sufficient resources to care for someone.
Jennifer Schomburg is the CEO of Northwest Medical Center, which operates Northwest Hospital in Tucson and Oro Valley Hospital.
She said that the hospitals she oversees have used the surge line both to accept patients from other facilities and to transfer patients to different hospitals. She said that transfer patients generally end up going to hospitals in Maricopa County or Yuma, but that she did not know of any patients sent out of state for treatment.
The availability of certain medical specialists and equipment can impact the hospital’s ability to accept surge line requests.
“We have had to deny specific transfers coming through the surge line or other hospitals if I didn’t have that type of bed, like an ICU bed, available or an ICU nurse available,” Schomburg told The Buzz.
Schomburg said that the hospital is not currently under crisis care, explaining that status is triggered when the hospital experiences significantly worse conditions, such as a severe shortage of critical supplies, having to treat patients in unapproved areas and not having enough trained staff on hand.
The community has shown their support for health care workers, Schomburg said. She also said that the hospital staff has been working long and hard during the pandemic and will continue to do so.
“I believe so much in the strength of this team and of our staff, not only in their clinical excellence but also in their heart,” Schomburg said. “They put their heart and soul in the work they do.”
Catherine Dewsnup is a nurse who oversees the emergency rooms at Northwest Hospital. She said that though her job has always been hard work, the extra safety measures necessary during this pandemic have added to the workload.
“In the last two weeks, with the increase of patients that have come in, it’s a labor-intensive job,” Dewsnup said.
She said COVID-19 patients tend to stay in the hospitals longer. Dewsnup has also seen people with chronic health issues, such as diabetes, delaying their ER visits due to fears about coronavirus, which can greatly affect how much care that person will end up needing.
Dewsnup says her staff has been handling the stress and workload well, but still urges the public to take caution.
State Sen. Victoria Steele of Tucson visited Tucson Medical Center Tuesday to talk with medical staff about how they’re handling the pandemic. Steele said she visited TMC at the invitation of hospital officials after she wrote on social media about her concerns with the state allowing hospitals to implement triage standards of care if they became overwhelmed with patients.
“[TMC is] not at complete capacity, but it could happen,” she said.
Steele said doctors and nurses feel discouraged that people aren’t taking precautions to prevent coronavirus infection seriously enough, while they fight day in and day out to save lives.
“And they really are asking the governor to reconsider and to please put a mask mandate in place. Because people just aren’t doing it,” Steele said.
Steele recorded an interview with Dr. Clifford Martin, an infectious disease physician and head of medical staff at TMC, which she shared with AZPM. TMC has declined interview requests from AZPM in recent weeks.
Martin said the governor’s decisions made early on, like the stay-at-home order, were the right steps.
“Unfortunately, we opened things up so quickly, without appropriate baby steps to introduce regular life again,” Martin said. “Without mask requirements, without really effective education about what it really means to social distance and why it was important. So we backtracked really quickly.”
Steele said health care workers she talked with asked for the governor to institute a statewide mask mandate and also asked for more personal protective equipment. She said TMC is not currently transferring patients out of the city, but they have in the past.
TMC, Northwest Hospital and others will be receiving relief workers soon to help with staffing to handle the surge of cases.
Medical professionals in hospitals are not the only ones seeing patients with the novel coronavirus. Roy Loewenstein is an outpatient internal medicine doctor with Arizona Community Physicians in Tucson. He diagnoses COVID-19 and counsels patients who contract the disease.
“A lot of people over age 70 think it’s a death sentence and, on average, it isn’t,” Loewenstein said. “And a lot of people younger than 40 think it’s not a big deal, and that’s not true either.”
He said that right now there is nothing he can really give patients to treat the disease other than ibuprofen. However, some new therapies being tried elsewhere, like dexamethasone, give him hope.
By now it has become clear that people who do not show any symptoms of illness can still transmit the coronavirus. Loewenstein echoed the desires of other health care workers and said that people should engage in preventive behaviors like hand-washing, mask wearing and social distancing, even around people who appear healthy.
“If you do one simple thing, we can have hundreds less ICU beds taken up,”
Banner Health OBGYN Hospitalist Dr. Dionne Mills said.
PHOENIX — COVID-19 cases continue to run rampant across the state.
According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, there are 128,097 confirmed cases and 2,337 Arizonans have lost their fight with the virus as of Tuesday. Each of those cases and deaths take a toll on health care workers.
Since last week, the number of positive cases has drastically increased by 36,512 cases. The state is reporting more than 5,942 hospitalizations with 88% of ICU beds and 85% of inpatients beds in use.
In a Twitter video shared by Arizona state Sen. Victoria Steele, Tucson Medical Center’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Clifford Martin said, “There’s a disconnect with what people in the community are experiencing and what healthcare workers here on the front line are experiencing.”
Tucson Medical Center COS, Dr. Clifford Martin on the “disconnect” that some in the public have and how it “bruises” our front line healthcare heroes. pic.twitter.com/KFeG5InGGI
— Victoria Steele (@VictoriaLSteele) July 14, 2020
The virus has taken a toll on healthcare workers across the state. In the same tweet, Steele announced the state will be sending 75 ICU trained personnel and crisis counselors to Tucson Medical Center to help staff with the “emotional trauma they’re enduring day after day.”
“You don’t just stop taking care of a patient because a whistle blows or it’s that time of day or you need to go punch out,” said hospital physician Dr. Matthew Heinz. “That goes for the nurses and the doctors and everyone involved.”
Heinz often works 10-hour overnight shifts as the flood of COVID-19 patients continues to infiltrate hospitals.
“We’re working longer hours because people are sicker,” Heinz said.
But it’s not just the public getting sick. Physicians and nurses are also fighting to stay healthy.
On Monday while delivering a message to Gov. Doug Ducey to hold the start of schools across the state, Banner Health OBGYN Hospitalist Dr. Dionne Mills reminded those in attendance that the virus has been deadly to healthcare workers, including her own family.
“So many of our brothers and sisters in medicine have been killed because of their exposure to people who didn’t have to get sick, including my cousin Debbie Anne Stewart, a devoted nurse who watched over 40 of her patients die before succumbing to the virus herself,” said Mills.
Medical professionals, according to Mills, should not have to prove the reality of COVID-19 to the community.
She says there is no other side. The virus is deadly but preventable if people will take responsibility for themselves and others.
“If you do one simple thing, we can have hundreds less ICU beds taken up, and way less techs and nurses and everybody exposed, dead, dying, or sick,” she said.
State health care workers want the public to listen to science, wear a mask, and social distance when around other people. She also says just because a hospital bed is available it may not be the right one for a COVID-19 patient and the bed itself could limit necessary medical interventions.
Mills also wants the public to know the virus impacts all people. She says many of her pregnancy patients sick with COVID-19 are in their 20s and 30s.
Frontline health care workers urge public to wear a mask
Local medical professionals are reiterating the call for people to wear masks as they deal with a surge of COVID-19 cases.
State Sen. Victoria Steele of Tucson visited Tucson Medical Center Tuesday to talk with medical staff about how they’re handling the pandemic. She said the message they gave to her was simple:
“‘Wear a mask. For god’s sake, put a mask on! Wear a mask! This is easy for you. Wear a mask’,” Steele said.
The state senator said she visited TMC at the invitation of hospital officials after she wrote on social media about her concerns with the state moving to triage standards of care. Steele said despite the state enacting its “crisis care” standards, TMC officials say they currently do not have to ration care for patients, yet.
“They’re not at complete capacity, but it could happen.”
Steele said doctors and nurses feel discouraged that people aren’t taking precautions to prevent coronavirus infection–like wearing masks, staying home and washing hands–seriously enough, while they fight day in and day out to save lives.
“And they really are asking the governor to reconsider and to please put a mask mandate in place. Because people just aren’t doing it,” Steele said.
Steele recorded an interview with Dr. Clifford Martin, an infectious disease physician and head of medical staff at TMC, which she shared with AZPM. TMC has declined multiple interview requests from AZPM in recent weeks.
“The early efforts to encourage people to stay home…was the right thing to do, because the way this virus spreads is by close contact and it’s very contagious,” Martin said. “Unfortunately, we opened things up so quickly, without appropriate baby steps to introduce regular life again. Without mask requirements, without really effective education about what it really means to social distance and why it was important. So we backtracked really quickly.”
Martin said the rush to reopen and put the pandemic behind us has led to things “skyrocketing.”
He lauded the efforts of the tireless health care workers at his hospital.
“If you look outside, if you go to restaurants, you look at stores, you go to the mall, you don’t see the impact of this disease like you would if we were in a war and bombs were dropping. You don’t see sick people walking around in the street,” Martin said.
“So there’s a disconnect with what people out in the community are experiencing and what our health care workers here on the frontline are experiencing. And I think they’re hurt. Because they see people making decisions that are making their jobs worse,” Martin said.
Steele said health care workers she talked with asked for the governor to institute a statewide mask ordinance and also asked for more personal protective equipment. She says the governor has arranged for 75 health care workers to come to TMC for six weeks to relieve and assist local nurses and doctors.
“We don’t know when they’re coming, we hope it’s soon. Because the need is now,” Steele said.
According to Steele, TMC is not currently transferring patients out of the city, but they have in the past.
Victoria Steele is running for reelection in District 9 in the Arizona Senate.
Parking lot face off with protesters leaves lawmakers shaken
The scene Sen. Victoria Steele encountered when she walked out of the Senate last week was like nothing she has seen in nearly a decade at the Capitol.
Steele, D-Tucson, knew demonstrators stood outside. She had seen some on her way into the Senate that morning, but, at the time, they kept their distance, heckling and promising to recall every lawmaker who voted to end the session — never mind that they all face elections in a few months anyway.
But after the Senate voted 24-6 to adjourn sine die, the group of about 20 people – none wore a mask – in a parking lot reserved for lawmakers shifted from yelling at a distance to surrounding senators’ cars, banging on windows and screaming into the vehicles. Steele walked out to see a fellow senator who voted for the sine die motion, Phoenix Republican Kate Brophy McGee, trying to back her car out as demonstrators swarmed around her and uniformed Department of Public Safety officers stood watching. Steele grabbed her phone and started recording as she walked to her own car.
“They could have stood six feet away and yelled to me and talked to me, and I would have listened,” Steele said. “But when I got out there and I saw them screaming and I saw Kate Brophy McGee honking her horn to try to make them move, I knew they didn’t want to talk.”
The demonstrations on May 8 — as well as a previous rally at the Capitol during which a man threatened to shoot legislative Democrats — shook lawmakers.
Steele said the parking lot demonstration and “Reopen Arizona” rallies remind her of the atmosphere in southern Arizona a decade ago shortly before then-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot. Giffords, a Democrat who represented a district that voted for Sen. John McCain for president in 2008, was in a swing district that’s a top electoral target of the then-nascent Tea Party. McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, put crosshairs over Giffords’ district in a map depicting the 20 districts Republicans wanted to reclaim.
Giffords retained her seat, and investigators found no evidence that her shooter had clear political views or that the shooting was politically motivated. But that shooting at a congressional event followed months of Tea Party activists denouncing Giffords as a traitor to the Constitution, broken windows in her Tucson office and an incident in which a protester who attended one of her constituent meetings dropped a gun on the floor.
All of that, Steele said, reminds her of what’s happened over the past several weeks.
“Are they just being loud and obnoxious and saying stupid things or are they dangerous?” she asked. “I live about a mile away from where Gabby was shot, and I saw how nasty things were getting before that.”
Fellow Tucson Democrat David Bradley, the Senate minority leader, said he hasn’t seen the tactics used by lockdown protesters at any point during his 16 years at the Capitol, including when the Tea Party was at its strongest. The Red for Ed movement crowded the Capitol grounds and the Tea Party was angry, he said, but neither major protest movement made people feel unsafe.
“I don’t remember them ever accosting people in the parking lot or following people into the building,” Bradley said.
One huge distinction between the current protests and the ones before is the importance of personal space, Bradley said. In pre-pandemic times, someone yelling in a lawmaker’s face could just be part of the job. But now, getting closer than 6 feet is threatening.
The videos Steele took of her encounter with protesters show a man identified as Bryan Masche follow her to her car and loom over her as she unlocked it. Masche was at one time the star of a reality television show about raising sextuplets. The show went off the air around the time Masche was arrested for domestic violence. He pled guilty to misdemeanor counts of threatening and intimidating and disorderly conduct, according to media reports at the time.
Steele asked the man to give her some distance, but he said he didn’t have to go anywhere and ordered her to get in her car.
“This guy is like 2 to 3 feet away from my face, and he is spewing his droplets into my face,” Steele said. “I don’t know if this guy was exposing me to COVID-19, and I take care of my elderly parents.”
Brophy McGee has encountered similar demonstrations. Her work with the Department of Child Safety earned her the ire of a cadre of parents who have lost custody of their children, and in some cases she’s had to seek security escorts from meetings because those parents followed her.
Despite being a practiced hand at dealing with angry people, Brophy McGee said she found the protesters “very scary.” “Security got me into my car and I appreciated that, but then all hell broke loose,” she said. “They ran up to my car. They pounded on the windows. They got in my face. I’m used to being confronted. Shoot, I was on a school board. I’ve worked with angry people and angry constituents a fair amount, and I get it, but I think they went beyond the pale.”
Senate President Karen Fann planned to meet May 13 with Democratic leaders to discuss security concerns related to last week’s protests.
Fann encountered the demonstrators when she arrived around 8:30 a.m. on May 8, and one handed her a two-page paper explaining that they would immediately try to recall any senators who voted to adjourn sine die. But by the time she left late that afternoon, the parking lot was clear, and Fann said she saw encounters other senators had solely through videos posted on Facebook.
This is the fifth in a six-part series examining the half-century fight to add women to the U.S. Constitution—and a game plan on where we go from here.
Get caught up:
- Part 1: “We Want In!,”
- Part 2: A Long History of Obstruction, Delay and Trickery
- Part 3: A Patchwork of Laws, Statutes and Court Rulings
- Part 4: From Addressing the Wage Gap to Combatting Violence Against Women, We Still Need an Equal Rights Amendment
Part 5: Where We Go From Here
“We know that equality for women will always elude us when it isn’t etched into the Constitution,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), an advocate for the ERA in Congress, says.
We are in the final homestretch of the long-fought battle for the ERA—but the fate of the amendment rides on the fall elections.
“The ERA resolution is being blocked by McConnell and by the leadership of the Republican party,” says Feminist Majority Foundation president (and Ms. publisher) Eleanor Smeal, who for part of the 1970s and ’80s was president of the National Organization for Women, which led the ERA fight.
“That’s why we have to flip the Senate. It isn’t individual Republicans. I believe if the ERA were put on the Senate floor, we would pass it. The problem is the leadership, and whoever they are beholden to. We must flip the Senate to have leadership that will remove the time line.”
Democrats need a net gain of four seats to win control of the Senate, and Smeal says they have a good chance in six states: Arizona, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, Kansas and Iowa.
Like in Virginia, feminists have strong on-the-ground campaigns in these states and are using the ERA to motivate people to get out and vote.
“In Virginia in 2019, the ERA was ‘on the ballot.’ It was one of the motivating reasons that people voted,” Smeal says. “I think that women’s rights will be on the ballot in some key states this November. It will be the reason people will say ‘I’ve had it with these Republicans. I want equality for women.’”
Supporters are also working to win additional ERA ratifications in states such as Arizona and North Carolina. In Arizona, advocates are hoping to flip their state’s legislature this November and bring the total to 39 ratified states.
Arizona state Sen. Victoria Steele told Ms., “We are going to do in Arizona what Virginia just did. This year all seats are up for election. We have turned purple, and we’re about to turn blue.”
Arizona advocates are using the ERA in the elections not only to flip the state legislature, but also to win a second U.S. Senate seat for Democrats.
“It’s a huge, huge issue here,” Steele says. “They have fought us [on the ERA] at every turn. But we’re not giving up.”
As Smeal says, “It was never a matter of if, only when the ERA would be ratified. Women have fought long and hard for equal rights under the law and waited too long for full equality. It’s time—long overdue—for the 38 states that have ratified the ERA to be recognized and for the ERA to be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
“The days of women working twice as hard for half as much must end.”
Political Notebook: FBI investigates state senator’s
Zoom bombing; Chuy’s scene of rally
State Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said she’s spoken with the FBI after an online town hall she was holding last week was interrupted by somebody who shared child pornography.
Steele called the incident “violent,” “traumatic” and “hideous” for the roughly 125 people who tuned in on the virtual Zoom discussion alongside state Reps. Pamela Powers Hannley and Randy Friese, who also represent the north-side Tucson district.
But it ultimately triggered Steele, a child sexual abuse survivor, who said she didn’t feel safe, suffered heart palpitations and had to spend the night on the phone with friends because she was unable to sleep.
“I will be OK, but I will never be fine as a result of what happened to me as a child,” Steele told the Star. “I was a victim of this when I was a little girl. It has had an ongoing impact on my life. I’ve had to work with it. I’ve had to deal with it my entire life.”
Steele has become an advocate to stop child sexual abuse and violence against women. She co-founded the Tucson Chapter of the National Organization for Women. She also has pushed for state legislation to curb sexual abuse, including an unsuccessful attempt this session to narrow the exceptions that prevent some clergy members to be classified as mandatory sexual abuse reporters.
For that work, Steele said she feels like she was targeted by the video.
“I do think that was issue-specific because … they didn’t show the video until I started talking about child abuse,” she said, adding the video came in the 49th minute of the town hall.
Steele said she was notified by the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which forwarded her case to the FBI, with whom she has interviewed. An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.
Steele, who sent out an email to the participants of the Zoom call with a list of mental health resources, said she’ll continue to be outspoken regarding her opposition to sexual abuse.
“Why do I do this work? Because I know what it’s like and I want to prevent this and stop the monsters who are doing it,” she said.
TUCSON CONTINUES ITS FIGHT AGAINST LEGISLATURE OVER ELECTION DATES
The city of Tucson has filed a complaint against the state regarding its move to change the timing of elections, arguing that it violates the city’s charter, and ultimately continuing a yearslong battle with the Legislature.
The city has long fought the state over its passing of laws in 2017 and 2018 that require Arizona cities with odd-year elections to switch to even years, or the same years as state and federal elections, which have the highest turnout.
In January, the Tucson City Council had unanimously passed a motion for the city’s legal staff to argue that the statute “cannot be applied to the city as a charter city with respect to the timing of either candidate or non candidate elections, including the charter amendment elections that are purely a matter of local concern.”
The city’s complaint, which was filed in Pima County Superior Court on May 1, asserts those points, according to a copy obtained by the Star.
A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who is named as one of the defendants along with the state, said Thursday the office has not been served and is “not commenting at this time.”
COUNTY ATTORNEY CANDIDATE GETS ENDORSEMENT DESPITE COMPETITOR’S FAMILY CONNECTION
The Tucson Police Department Officers Association has endorsed Jonathan Mosher, a Democratic candidate for Pima County Attorney, calling him “a well-respected prosecutor, successfully working on a number of high-profile cases with many members of our association.”
The association, which has more than 700 officers, detectives and sergeants, said in a news release that Mosher, who has held the positions of chief criminal deputy, chief trial counsel and felony training supervisor, “tenaciously” prosecuted cases involving officers who were the victims of crime.
That endorsement comes at the expense of another Democratic candidate for county attorney, Laura Conover, a criminal law attorney who is running as a criminal justice reform candidate. She is the sister of Sgt. Jason Winsky, supervisor of TPD’s mental health support team.
Conover has otherwise picked up a number of key individual endorsements, including ones from U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, state Reps. Pamela Powers Hannley and Andrés Cano, and Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson.
Mosher boasts endorsements from outgoing County Attorney Barbara LaWall, county Supervisor Ramón Valadez and state Sen. Andrea Dalessandro.
DESPITE LIMITS ON GROUPS, RALLY HELD AT CHUY’S
More than 100 people, led by Daniel McCarthy, an Arizona candidate for U.S. Senate, and Garret Lewis, a local radio host, held a political rally this week at Chuy’s Mesquite Broiler in Oro Valley after the restaurant had its liquor license suspended because of coronavirus restrictions.
The restaurant’s owner, Christopher Evenson, told KVOA that the meetup was intended for supporters who “share the same ideas on how everyone feels and stands politically.” Photos shared on Facebook showed many of the attendees were from the Tucson Trump MAGA Meetup group.
While local and state orders ban public gatherings, Evenson told the station that what he thinks happened at the restaurant wasn’t illegal. Oro Valley police did not issue any citations but drove by to make sure the event was peaceful.
“The short answer is no. I do not think it is illegal,” he said. “We are all adults, congregating where we want to congregate.”
Evenson, who has already said he plans to appeal the suspension, called the police decision the “correct step.”
“At this point in time with how long this thing has gone on, I think that is the correct step,” he said. “There is more dangerous activity going on elsewhere than congregating for business sake and political beliefs.”
VOTE BY MAIL OPEN FOR CORONAVIRUS-CONCERNED VOTERS
Voters who usually vote at the polls and may want to do so from home this year are now able to sign up to vote by mail for the Aug. 4 primaries.
Those interested can do so at www.recorder.pima.gov/BallotByMail, by printing and mailing a form on the website, or calling 724-4330.
To be eligible, you must be registered to vote at least 29 days before Election Day, 18 years of age on or before the day of the election, and must request a ballot by 5 p.m. July 24.
Meanwhile, those who are already on the permanent early voter list received a notice this week about the primary. Almost one-third of voters who received the notice are “independent” or “party not designated” voters, so they have the option to choose which political party’s ballot they would like to receive for the primary.
Bisbee man confesses he’s molesting his daughter.
Church tells bishop not to report abuse to authorities.
Senator Steele: “How can Mormon Bishops turn a blind eye to the rape of a child? If a member of the clergy of any religion knows a child is being sexually abused, they must report it. My Senate Bill, 1235 would make reporting of these incidents mandatory for all.”
Bisbee man confesses he’s molesting his daughter.
Church tells bishop not to report abuse to authorities
Corrections & Clarifications: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the federal agency
that investigated an Interpol report of child abuse. It was the Department of Homeland Security.
When a Bisbee man told his Mormon bishop he was sexually abusing his own 5-year-old daughter, the bishop provided counseling. He involved the man’s wife in the sessions, apparently hoping that knowledge of her husband’s activities would prompt her to keep their children safe.
What the bishop didn’t do was report the abuse to police. He didn’t have to. Although Arizona law classifies clergy, as well as many others, as mandatory reporters of child abuse, there is an exception for clergy to not report if they believe it is “reasonable and necessary within the concepts of the religion.”
The bishop’s counseling sessions apparently had little effect. The man continued to molest his daughter, and later, after her birth in 2015, his infant daughter. He made videos of the encounters and posted them on pornographic websites, which were eventually discovered by Interpol, reported to his employer, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and led to criminal charges.
The wife also was investigated for conspiring with her husband to allow the child abuse and indicted on 12 criminal counts. She pleaded no contest to two counts of child abuse.
Court transcripts from her 2018 sentencing hearing reveal a timeline that showed the abuse happened over a seven-year period, that the bishop and his successor knew of the abuse and that there was an ongoing criminal investigation into the church’s role in the matter.
Now, an attorney is readying a lawsuit against the two LDS bishops as well as a Border Protection agent on behalf of the two girls, who have since been adopted by separate families. The investigation into “certain members of a local church community” is ongoing, according to Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre, declining to name any names.
And a state lawmaker vows to again introduce legislation to eliminate the so-called confessional exception when it comes to admissions of ongoing abuse, prompted in part by the Bisbee case.
Arizona’s mandatory-reporting law requires clergy, among many others, to contact law enforcement or child-welfare officials when they suspect child abuse.
But the law also allows clergy to not report if they are told of the abuse in confidence or during a confession. In those cases, state law says, clergy may withhold a report if the clergy member feels it is “reasonable and necessary within the concepts of the religion.”
Thirty-two states besides Arizona have such exemptions, commonly called the “clergy-penitent privilege.” They are a necessary protection of the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom from government dictates, say attorneys who have represented religious institutions.
Keeping confessions confidential is a key tenet of many faiths. Historians believe it originated with the seal of confession in Roman Catholic canon law, tracing it back centuries, to the origins of the Christian Church.
In the ninth century, Catholic church law added punishment for any priest who violated the confessional seal. Today, that punishment would likely be excommunication, church officials say.
Other faiths also recognized the confidentiality of confessions. That secrecy is necessary to make a penitent feel free to confess his or her wrongdoing and seek forgiveness.
Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert.
NATHAN J. FISH/THE REPUBLIC
To force a clergy member to report a confidential communication “changes the whole nature of the confessional,” said state Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, and a member of the Mormon Church. Earlier this year, he declined to give a hearing to a bill that sought to further narrow the clergy exemption.
Piercing the confidentiality that surrounds confessions would invite a First Amendment clash, said Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference.
“Basically, it’s the government regulating a sacrament,” he said.
Courts have largely upheld the clergy exemption.
A January decision from the Montana Supreme Court concluded that Jehovah’s Witness elders who learned of a member’s repeated sex abuse were not required to report the abuse to authorities “because their church doctrine, canon, or practice required that clergy keep reports of child abuse confidential.” The man had for nine years abused two of his stepchildren as well as his step granddaughter.
Calls for change
In recent years, adult survivors of child abuse and others have pushed to overturn these exceptions. They argue the laws allow child abuse to continue, when in other circumstances — such as a teacher who reports abuse — there is the opportunity to stop the perpetrator before further harm is done.
Legislation introduced this year in Arizona and Utah, and last year in California, sought to remove or modify the clergy-penitent exception. The bills failed, but the sponsors say they’ll try again.
“One person’s First Amendment rights give way when they infringe on another person,” said Stephanie Carson, a Tucson-based volunteer with the activist group Stop Civil Abuse Activists for Reform and Safety. “When in doubt — hello — protect the babies.”
Sen. Victoria Steele, D- Tucson
MARK HENLE/THE REPUBLIC
In Arizona, state Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said she’ll renew her effort next year. Her proposal, Senate Bill 1235, would have required clergy to report if they know that abuse or neglect is still occurring or if they determine that it will recur.
“I don’t think most people are going to confess that they are sexually abusing little children,” Steele, a Christian, said when asked about the practical impact of her bill. But, she added, anyone who learns about such activities in any confidential session should report it.
After all, she said, the intent is to protect children.
Lawmakers in other states cited the same motivation as Steele, but their efforts to abolish the privilege have faltered in the face of opposition from religious institutions.
Last year, California state Sen. Rep. Jerry Hill introduced a bill to eliminate the clergy-penitent privilege for child-abuse reporting.
“The exemption for clergy only protects the abuser and places children at further risk,” Hill, a Democrat, said when he proposed the legislation. Hill held the bill after it won little support, saying he would try again when there is more support.
A Democratic lawmaker in Utah proposed similar legislation, and it met a similar fate.
“My intent is to protect children,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Angela Romero told Deseret News earlier this year. “This isn’t about the Catholic Church. This is about religious institutions ensuring that people aren’t hiding under the guise of confession to get away with hurting children.”
‘No duty to report’
Cochise County Court records show the Bisbee bishop cited the clergy exemption as the reason he did not report Paul Adams’ abuse to police.
That bishop, John Herrod, told a Department of Homeland Security investigator that after learning of Adams’ molestation of his daughter, he sought legal advice from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints headquarters in Salt Lake City.
“The church conveyed that he needs to continue counseling sessions, and that there’s no duty to report to authorities due to the clergy-penitent privilege,” Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent John Edwards testified in August 2018.
Edwards also testified that Kim Mauzy, who succeeded Herrod as bishop in the Bisbee Ward, knew about the father’s abuse and followed the church directive to not report.
By following that direction, the counseling sessions – and the abuse – continued for years and extended to the couple’s youngest daughter. Court records indicate she was molested as young as 6 weeks old.
Church officials and their attorneys did not return The Republic’s repeated calls seeking comment.
The abuse only stopped in 2017, when Adams was indicted on 11 counts of child sexual abuse after Interpol tipped off Homeland Security to pornographic videos he had posted.
The subsequent investigation determined the videos were shot inside his Bisbee home and involved two minor girls.
While awaiting trial at a privately run federal prison in Florence, Adams was found hanging by his neck in December 2017. He was facing prosecution on both federal and state charges related to child abuse, child exploitation and production, distribution, possession of child pornography.
It took an investigation into his wife Leizza Adams’ role in the girls’ abuse to uncover the fact that clergymen had known about the abuse and had followed church directives to not report it to authorities.
That revelation prompted the ongoing investigation.
In a statement, Cochise County Attorney McIntyre confirmed “there is a pending investigation being conducted by an outside agency regarding alleged failure to act by certain members of a local church community.”
Meanwhile, parents of the two girls hired attorney Lynne Cadigan to explore a lawsuit against the church as well as Border Patrol agent Shaunice Warr. Warr was friendly with the mother and told investigators the mother shared with her that her husband was emotionally and physically abusing her and her children. As a peace officer, Warr is a mandated reporter, Cadigan said.
(All five of the couple’s children have since been adopted and have different last names from their birth parents.)
“The persons or institutions that keep this abuse a secret are morally and legally responsible for the harm to these children,” Cadigan said. “Law enforcement needs to step up and charge those responsible for not immediately reporting these crimes.”
Cadigan said she can’t fathom why a clergy member would decline to report ongoing child abuse and instead keep it confidential, as happened in the Adams case.
“Why would any cleric refuse to report the rape of a child?” she asked. “If a pedophile knows the cleric will not report his crimes, the cleric is enabling this monster to continue raping children.”
Not a blanket exception
Religious officials are quick to point out the exception to the mandatory-reporting law is narrow. The law does not absolve clergy from a duty to report suspected child abuse that they learn of outside a confessional-type setting, said Gerard O’Meara, who represents the Catholic Diocese of Tucson.
Under a long-standing agreement with the Pima County Attorney’s Office, the Tucson diocese automatically reports to that office any reasonable suspicions of child abuse, he said.
“It’s passed on to the county attorney and we (the diocese) stand back,” O’Meara said. Only after law enforcement has done its investigation does the church step in.
Although he couldn’t cite any prosecutions of a priest, O’Meara recalled one case where law enforcement declined to file charges against a clergy member who confessed to child abuse. Despite that, the diocese took action “and that individual is no longer part of the priesthood,” he said.
The exception for confessions or admissions made in confidence is designed to protect religious freedom.
“For the state to attempt to erase that from our statues would be a violation of our canon law,” O’Meara said. The consequences for a priest who ignored that canon law are “grave,” he said: He could be defrocked.
There was a similar agreement between the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the Phoenix diocese, created in the wake of a 2003 clergy sex-abuse scandal that reached all the way up to the diocese’s bishop. But that lapsed after then-County Attorney Rick Romley declared the agreement fulfilled.