A veteran state lawmaker faces the prospect of being disqualified from running for state school superintendent.
A lawsuit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court charges that all of the 11,053 signatures Republican John Huppenthal filed to run for statewide office were collected before Jan. 11. That is the date he actually formed an official committee declaring he was running for school superintendent.
More to the point, attorney Rhonda Barnes, who filed the case on behalf of Democrat Sean Bowie, said state law forbids a candidate from actually circulating nominating petitions before a campaign committee is formed.
She acknowledged that Huppenthal had formed an "exploratory'' committee in March of 2009. But Barnes argued that committee simply allows a candidate to collect money and distribute literature in weighing whether to actually make a run for office, not to actually gather any petition signatures.
Repeated messages left on Huppenthal's home and cell phones were not returned. Huppenthal, a Chandler resident, is one of three Republicans seeking the post.
The current occupant, Republican Tom Horne, cannot seek a third term and instead is trying to become attorney general.
Barnes, who acknowledged she and her law firm work for Democratic candidates, said Huppenthal should not be surprised by the lawsuit.
She pointed out that Huppenthal, currently a state senator, generated some publicity when he first started collecting signatures in 2009. That's because the Arizona Constitution prohibits public officials from becoming a candidate for another office except during the last year of their terms. That year started running when Huppenthal filed his formal declaration of candidacy in January.
But Huppenthal insisted last year that his decision to start getting the necessary signatures to run for school superintendent -- he needs 5,609 valid ones to qualify for the ballot -- did not mean he actually was running for office.
A hearing is set for Friday before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Eileen Willett.
State Elections Director Amy Bjelland said her office is not taking a position on whether Huppenthal's signatures can be counted. But Bjelland said she will be present Friday to answer any questions about the process if the judge asks.
Even if Barnes succeeds in disqualifying Huppenthal from running, that doesn't provide a clear path for a Democratic win. Two other Republicans have filed petitions for the office: Margaret Dugan and Beth Price.
The winner of the GOP primary will face off against the survivor of the Democratic contest between Penny Kotterman and Jason Williams.
Huppenthal was first elected to the Senate in 1992, serving the maximum eight consecutive years there before being elected to the House in 2000. Huppenthal went back to the Senate after the 2004 election.