WASHINGTON – President Bush may have been the first sitting president to visit Flagstaff, and on Arizona Rep. Rick Renzi's (search) behalf no less, but that doesn’t mean the lawmaker is going to give him a rubber stamp on immigration policy.
Like other lawmakers from border districts in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, the freshman Republican is urging Bush to balance his proposal for allowing illegal Mexican immigrants working in the United States to obtain legal guest worker status with tougher border controls.
“I spoke to the president about it and I expressed myself honestly,” he told Foxnews.com. “This [guest worker proposal] could only be discussed in concert with controlling the border. We’re not talking about building a wall, but having the proper tools.”
Renzi explained that while Arizonans are “very loving, and accepting and forgiving people,” they are also burdened by hundreds of thousands of illegals coming into their already fiscally strained counties each year.
“Many people believe we are putting the cart before the horse,” he said.
And though it may buck the president, who boosted Renzi’s candidacy in the 1st Congressional District with two visits in 2002, Renzi said he will put the needs of the district first when it comes to national immigration policy.
“I’m not so much disagreeing as I’m trying to enhance the policy,” he said.
If Renzi had been accused of being an outsider — having moved permanently to his Arizona district just a few years before running for the newly created first district in 2002 — a narrow victory and his congressional duties have found him getting to know his district much better. He has constantly been on the road, traversing the nearly 60,000 square-foot area and listening to what his voters want.
“The common thread is rural, rural America — a very rural existence — where the education and health care needs and strains of the community are very real and very tough,” said Renzi, who was born in New Jersey, grew up in Arizona and spent some time in Washington, D.C., and Virginia before moving back in 1999.
“I really felt coming out of the election, that it was such a contentious race that we had to go out right away to the people with the desire to really and truly be a representative who has a great work ethic, being there in the community, and to go through the good times and the bad times with them,” said the 45-year-old father of 12.
A businessman and lawyer, Renzi outspent his Democratic opponent George Cordova (search) by almost $1 million in 2002, but won by only three points -- 49 to 46 percent. The district, which spans almost half the area of the state, has more registered Democrats than Republicans, with the most concentrated Native American constituency in the United States — a demographic group that tends to vote Democratic.
“He is going to be one of the top Democratic targets in this election cycle,” said Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report (search).
“This is a top race for us,” said Greg Speed, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “He is one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country and with good reason. He’s not well-known in the district, and he’s done little to fix that.”
Rep. J.D. Hayworth (search), R-Ariz., who used to serve much of the first district before the 2000 redistricting, begs to differ.
“I will tell you, he got here and went to work on day one, and has introduced more legislation than any freshman member -- he’s really delivering for rural Arizona,” Hayworth told Foxnews.com. “[His constituents] have to be pleased with his stewardship.”
Renzi has shepherded several bills through the House and saw his Military Tax Relief Act (search) signed into law on Veterans’ Day 2003. He said he helped to bring $60 million for health care services onto the tribal reservations, and millions more for education and health care funding for rural communities throughout the district.
But Democrats smell vulnerability, and are already lining up behind Paul Babbitt (search), an 18-year member of the Coconino County Board of Supervisors and brother of former Arizona governor and U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt (search). Babbitt will officially announce his candidacy on Feb. 19, and has told Foxnews.com he has a good shot at energizing the electorate there.
“The power of the incumbency is great, and I don’t take anything for granted in this race, like name recognition or the fact that I’ve lived here practically all my life,” he said. “I will be in this district, in the communities, with a message that reflects their concerns.”
Babbitt, who is also a past Flagstaff mayor and city councilman, said he doesn’t think Renzi has done a good job at recognizing the district's concerns, including the high cost of health care and below-average public schools. “I think it’s important that a rural voice represents this area,” Babbit said.
Diane Prescott (search), who lost the Democratic primary in 2002 by a few thousand votes, said she hopes the Democrats know what they are doing by rallying behind Babbitt and discouraging a primary. She said that after hiring a professional staff and raising $205,000 by September in hopes of running for the nomination in 2004, she was told to back off by party officials. She has since withdrawn her candidacy.
“It’s a wide-open race – it’s not a slam-dunk for either side,” said Prescott, an attorney. Aside from name recognition and a base in Coconino County, she said Babbitt is untested.
“Name recognition without the tough work ain’t going to do it,” she said.
Gonzales suggested that Democrats “are looking at the last cycle as a lesson learned” and didn’t want to risk an ugly, resource-consuming September primary this time around. But whether their strategy is a winning one, remains to be seen, he said.
“It’s still difficult to beat the incumbent,” he said. “But the first re-election is generally believed to be the best time to do it.”