Midterm elections are top Arizona news story for 2014

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX (AP) -- The last 12 months produced a frenzy of breaking news in Arizona as the midterm elections were settled, wacky storms barreled through the state, fights over immigration played out in the courts, a national uproar erupted over veteran health care and the state's best-known sheriff had to answer for his actions in court.

Politics were never far from the conversation in many of the stories, especially as immigration was back in the news, Arizona lawmakers passed a religious rights measure and gay marriage became legal in the state.

In the end, the midterm elections topped the list for the biggest story of 2014.

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MIDTERM ELECTION

Republicans swept every statewide office in November's general election after a campaign season in which residents were bombarded with TV ads. Doug Ducey's 12-point trouncing of Democrat Fred DuVal to become the state's next governor led the way, and Democrats were left with a disheartened base in a bad election year for the party. The state's August primary produced some surprising results. Two Republican incumbents, Attorney General Tom Horne and Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal lost their jobs in the primary. In congressional races, Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick held on to her seat, and Republican Martha McSally edged out Democratic Rep. Ron Barber by only 167 votes.

WACKY WEATHER

A series of strong storms pummeled Arizona during monsoon season, creating dramatic rescues, turning freeways into rivers and flooding homes as retention basins overflowed. A long dry spell that began the year was broken by the first rain in 70 days in early March, followed by a series of dust storms, and then a near-historic summer monsoon season that saw Phoenix and its suburbs receiving more than twice the average rainfall. A Sept. 8 storm that was made up of remnants from Hurricane Norbert brought more than 3 inches of rain to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in just seven hours. The area's normal seasonal total is 2.7 inches. The topsy-turvy weather also led to an unlikely pest infestation in the desert: an outbreak of mosquitoes.

IMMIGRATION: The hundreds of children on the floor covered in aluminum blankets behind chain-link fences were not in a third-world country. They were in Nogales, Arizona, in a warehouse-turned-shelter for the thousands of mostly Central American children who crossed into Texas. The surge in unaccompanied minors forced the Border Patrol to fly hundreds of children to Nogales, where they were kept in the large warehouse. The move sparked anger in a state known for its aggressive anti-illegal immigration measures, and factored in the Republican primary for Arizona governor. Immigration also became a prominent issue in the courts as Arizona fought to keep driver's licenses out of the hands of young immigrants allowed to remain in the country. The state lost, and immigrants began getting licenses this week.

SB1062: The Arizona Legislature again became a big national story when the Republican-controlled body passed a law that allowed businesses to refuse service to gays. By the time the bill reached Gov. Jan Brewer's desk, CEOs were calling Brewer urging a veto and there were fears the NFL would move the 2015 Super Bowl if Senate Bill 1062 became law. Pushed by the powerful Center for Arizona Policy, proponents said the bill simply gave added protection from lawsuits to people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays or others who offend their beliefs. But opponents called it an open attack on gays that invited discrimination. In the end, Brewer vetoed the bill.

LENGTHY EXECUTION: Convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood took his last breath on July 23 after hundreds of gasps for air. The execution of Wood would become an international news story for the unusual amount of time that it took him to die. His attorneys filed an emergency request to stop the execution while it was ongoing, but it was too late. Later, records revealed that Wood had been injected with 15 dosages of a sedative and a painkiller. Wood's attorney called it a botched execution, a claim Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan adamantly denies. However, Ryan said in a letter to Brewer this week that the department would no longer administer the drug combination used in Wood's execution. The state has agreed to hold off on executions until it resolves a lawsuit filed by Wood and other death row inmates.

VETERANS HEALTH CARE

Phoenix became the epicenter of a national furor over the quality of health care for military veterans in 2014. What started with allegations of veterans dying while waiting to see a doctor in Phoenix quickly morphed into a national investigation at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The head of the Phoenix office lost her job along with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The government also ordered a $16 billion overhaul of the agency. In the end, an investigation found that at least 40 patients died while awaiting appointments, but officials could not "conclusively assert" that the delays caused the deaths.

GAY MARRIAGE: Arizona's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage fell in October as a federal judge struck it down as unconstitutional. Judge John Sedwick's ruling made Arizona one of more than 30 states to allow gay marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up appeals from states where their laws had been struck down. Gay couples began lining up at county clerk's offices to get their licenses.

BUDGET CRISIS

Arizona enters 2015 facing a dire budget situation. The state has a projected $1 billion deficit for the budget year that begins July 1, brought on by a sluggish economic recovery and a 2014 court fight over school funding. A judge is also deciding whether to force the state to make back payments for education that it stopped making during the recession.

JOE ARPAIO

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio spent the year under heavy scrutiny from a federal judge in a racial-profiling case that focused on the sheriff's immigration patrols. The judge scolded Arpaio for repeatedly violating his orders and conducting inadequate investigations into alleged widespread wrongdoing by the sheriff's s smuggling squad, including an allegation that a former deputy had been shaking down immigrants in the country illegally. Also in 2014, Arpaio ended his last major foothold in immigration enforcement after becoming a national leader.

GIRL WITH UZI

A 9-year-old girl accidentally shot an Arizona firearms instructor with an Uzi, setting off a debate over youngsters and guns. Charles Joseph Vacca died Aug. 25 from a single gunshot to the head at the Last Stop range in White Hills after helping the New Jersey girl fire a few rounds as her parents video-recorded her. Vacca had stepped back to let the girl hold the Uzi by herself, but the gun's recoil wrenched it upward, killing him. People at the shooting range desperately tried to keep the unconscious Vacca alive as they urged 911 dispatchers to send a medical helicopter. Prosecutors did not file charges, saying the instructor was most culpable.

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