Matt Heinz, Arizona Democratic Lawmaker, Announces Run To Succeed Gabrielle Giffords

An openly gay Arizona lawmaker has become the first Democrat to enter the special election to succeed Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Congress.

Matt Heinz, a two-term state representative from Tucson, announced Tuesday that he would be entering the April 17 Democratic primary, a contest scheduled after Giffords resigned from Congress last week to focus on her recovery from a 2011 assassination attempt. Heinz, a self-described moderate, has been quick to link himself to Giffords' legacy and noted that he, like the Democratic Giffords, can work with Republicans.

"No one can replace Gabrielle Giffords," he said. "What we can do now is quickly get someone in that can honor her strength and leadership in governing in a way similar to her."

Heinz is likely to face a four- or five-way primary fight for the right to meet one of two Republicans in a June 12 special election to represent the current 8th District. State Rep. Steve Farley, state Sen. Paula Aboud, and businesswomen Nan Walden and Lisa Lovallo are all considering entering the Democratic primary. On the Republican side, state Sen. Frank Antenori and the GOP's 2010 House candidate, Jesse Kelly, have announced plans to seek the seat. The winner will have to run in a newly drawn district, labeled the 2nd District, in November for a full two-year term.

Heinz highlighted his background in the Arizona legislature, noting that he has worked with the Republican majority to pass 14 bills and amendments in four years, including measures regarding hospice care, banning synthetic marijuana and making it easier for college students to register to vote. He has recently been promoting tax credits for the state's algae farming industry.

He said that he left the Democratic legislative leadership in 2011 -- after four months as minority whip -- because he wanted to work more closely with Republican members. He had won the whip's job in a coin toss.

"It was difficult to work for my constituents and work together in a bipartisan fashion with my colleagues in the Republican caucus as I had been doing," Heinz said.

Farley has indicated that he will only run if he gains Giffords' endorsement. But if she does not endorse or chooses to endorse a Republican, Farley said he would also consider entering the race. There has been speculation in Arizona political circles that Giffords might back Lovallo, a registered Republican who has donated money to Mitt Romney, in the Democratic primary.

Giffords has not indicated whether she will endorse in the special election. Aboud, Walden and Lovallo could not be reached for comment.

With Republicans having an edge in voter registration in both the new and old districts, the GOP believes it can regain the seat. State Republican spokesman Shane Wikfors said the party will be sitting out the primary between Antenori and Kelly.

"We believe our values are more in alignment with the mainstream views of the voters," Wikfors added.

An Arizona Democratic insider has noted that among Heinz's strengths are his work as a doctor and his status as a gay man. Heinz acknowledged that both could help him in the primary, saying that being a doctor and knowing other doctors may help him in fundraising early on and that he can tap in to the state's LGBT community for political support. He said that his campaign would not be undercut if Aboud, who is also gay, were to enter the primary.

"That's a great thing," Heinz said. "That is a testament to where we have come as Americans and Arizonians."

Giffords' predecessor, Republican Jim Kolbe, is gay. There are currently 16 doctors in the House; only six openly gay individuals have served in the House.

Beyond fundraising, Heinz suggested his medical experience would help him work well in Congress.

"If someone's heart has stopped, we don't convene a committee to solve it -- we restart it," he said.