Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick is returning to the House after serving one term and losing her bid for reelection in 2010. In her comeback election, she defeated Republican Jonathan Paton, an Iraq War veteran and former state legislator. Of her decision to run again, Kirkpatrick told National Journal, “I kind of looked around to see if there was anybody else in the district who was interested and who could win, and basically it boiled down to, ‘We’ll give it another try.’ ”
Kirkpatrick hails from the White Mountain Apache Nation reservation in eastern Arizona; although not Native-American, she grew up speaking both Apache and English. Her father owned a general store and her mother was a public-school teacher. Her uncle, William Bourdon, served in the state Legislature, and while still in elementary school, Kirkpatrick campaigned for him. After earning her bachelor’s degree from University of Arizona, she spent two years teaching in Tucson. She subsequently earned a law degree and worked as a prosecutor for the Coconino County Attorney’s Office, specializing in drug-crime cases. She later served as the city attorney of Sedona.
In 2004, Kirkpatrick ran for the Arizona House of Representatives. At the time, conventional wisdom held that a non-Indian could not be elected in state District 2, where two-thirds of the registered voters were Native Americans. Undeterred, Kirkpatrick challenged incumbent Rep. Sylvia Laughter, a Navajo and political independent. Kirkpatrick campaigned door-to-door and won. In office, she worked to provide Indian tribes with money to build communications infrastructure.
When allegations of misconduct by incumbent U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., surfaced in 2007, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee identified the seat as one of its top targets. Kirkpatrick resigned from the Arizona Legislature to campaign for the Democratic nomination. (Renzi opted not to seek reelection and was eventually indicted on charges relating to a land deal that allegedly benefited one of his former business partners.) Kirkpatrick won a four-way Democratic primary with 47 percent of the vote, and the DCCC helped with a fall advertising campaign. In the general election, she soundly defeated GOP antitax activist Sydney Hay. In the House, Kirkpatrick mostly supported President Obama’s agenda, voting for the $787 billion economic-stimulus bill and the 2010 health care law.
Kirkpatrick faced a 2010 challenge from Republican Paul Gosar, a dentist and political newcomer. Gosar attacked her for supporting the health care law and took a hard line on immigration, touting his endorsement from controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his crackdowns on illegal immigrants. Kirkpatrick refused to follow many other Democrats in tight reelection contests who distanced themselves from the Obama administration, and she lost the race, 50 percent to 44 percent.
During the intervening two years, Kirkpatrick practiced law out of her house. She also dealt with tragedy after her mentor and good friend, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and several others were shot, some fatally, by a gunman in front of a Tucson-area grocery store. “I was devastated and grieved for a long time,” Kirkpatrick said.
In mounting her comeback, Kirkpatrick faced Paton in a vast, newly drawn 1st District comprisingmore than 55,000 square miles. Both candidates had to travel extensively to campaign. The district has the nation’s largest share of Native-Americans, which worked to Kirkpatrick’s advantage because of her ties to that community. Democrats attacked Paton for the brief work he did as a lobbyist for the payday-lending industry, while he hammered Kirkpatrick for spending too much taxpayer money on her staff. But 2012 proved to be a better year for Democrats than 2010, and she pulled out a win.
Gregg Sangillo contributed to this article.