The race for the two House seats in the state's 23rd Legislative District has opened up with the decision from longtime Democratic legislator Pete Rios to step down and run for a spot on the Pinal County Board of Supervisors.
Rep. Barbara McGuire is a Democratic incumbent. But the other six candidates in the field also want to be one of two representatives to help guide one of the fastest-growing areas in the state.
Five Democrats and two Republicans are vying for the two House seats. The top two vote-getters from each party will advance to the November general election.
To a candidate, job growth, transportation and improved infrastructure are cited as prominent issues in the campaign.
Pinal County has too few roads, which is an impediment to job growth, they say.
The sprawling district, traditionally Democratic but shifting with an influx of new people, includes the fast-growing areas of Pinal County as well as its more rural hinterlands, parts of Gila and Maricopa counties and six Indian reservations.
The two Republicans on the ticket will advance to the Nov. 4 general election, as will the top two vote-getters among the Democrats.
The makeup of the candidates reflects the diversity of the district. Some are political newcomers. Some live in the newly formed suburbs in northeastern Pinal County. Some have deep roots in the rural southern part of the county. And others are from areas that sit on the edge of what could become explosive growth - such as Casa Grande and Coolidge.
Ernest Bustamante of Mammoth already knows his way around District 23. He was elected as a Democratic state representative in 2002 and served a single two-year term.
Bustamante said one of the main concerns for him is the trend in the area of people growing up in Pinal County, but having to leave it for Pima and Maricopa counties for a good-paying job. He sees the problem most acutely with teachers.
"We have an increase in population. We have all these suburbs being built," he said. "We need to make sure that we have a very competitive pay structure for our teachers."
He labels himself fiscally conservative and a moderate Democrat who supported a statewide full-day kindergarten initiative while in office. But Bustamante said he also focuses on more local issues such as support for the state's rural airports and business enterprise zones.
A manufacturing base of "green" energy like wind and solar power could help Pinal County begin to establish an industrial and manufacturing business base, he said.
Bustamante said he's shown a record of working with a Republican majority on fiscal issues, while remaining steadfast in keeping "safety net" programs, like health clinics, and health and social service programs for children and seniors strong.
Emily Verdugo-Aldrich is a Democratic write-in candidate, but not by design, she said. The former Coolidge City Council candidate lost a narrow re-election bid, and that thrust her into the state campaign late.
She said her primary focus is on economic development. Coolidge has retail development, like the Wal-Mart on state Highway 79. But it doesn't have the type of businesses needed to sustain a community.
She said that counties and cities, community activists and legislators could be instrumental in building coalitions that focus attention on the area.
"If you know anything about Pinal County, you know that we need more than rooftops," she said. "We need manufacturing. Retail is awesome, but that can't sustain us for a long period of time."
Verdugo-Aldrich said she is a moderate Democrat who sees a need to expand social service programs to focus on the working class, not just the poor.
"The state shouldn't deny anyone health care," she said.
As a write-in candidate, Verdugo-Aldrich will not receive Clean Elections funds, and she is not asking for donations in such a tight economy. Her campaign is rooted in a network of family and friends in the county, and some of her own money, she said.
"If I'm elected, they'll know it's me and not the money that it's about," she said.
Dorian Bond, a recent Democratic convert, has been active in Queen Creek politics, but can't run in the town because he doesn't live within its boundaries. So he set his sights on a legislative seat, he said.
The owner of Bond Investigations Inc., which works for the Maricopa County Public Defender's Office, Bond said that he understands the need to create business incentives for companies to locate in Arizona. A lack of incentives at the state level has helped block industries that might otherwise have come to the state, he said.
"We would like to be self-sufficient," he said of the district. "We can have families that don't have to go to Maricopa County to get a job.
Bond said he has a moderate social agenda and opposes the immigration sweeps recently conducted by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Bond was part of a Queen Creek advisory board that recommended an alignment that could give freeway frontage to the quickly growing town. The major problem with the freeway is that it's not funded in Pinal County. He said advocacy in the legislature could help steer Arizona Department of Transportation funds to the important corridor.
"It's going to begin with ADOT and then we can see if we can reallocate funds there."
Krista Pacion, a Casa Grande Democrat, ran in the 2006 district primary - losing by less than 350 votes to McGuire.
Pacion said that she has built on the foundation of her 2006 campaign, and has been active in the Pinal County Democratic Party since then, she said.
"The last two years has been about building on 2006," said Pacion.
Pacion said that creating jobs, transportation links and better educational opportunities her priorities.
She said that the rural San Manuel area could be fostered into an ecotourism area.
If elected, Pacion would work to give more people more access to college, she said.
She also would support incentives to businesses that allow employees to telecommute and work flexible schedules. Pacion, a technical writer, works from her Casa Grande home.
Frank Pratt, one of the two Republicans in the race, ran for the House seat in 2006 and lost to McGuire.
The Casa Grande business owner hopes that the shifting demographics and a different campaign can propel him to a victory this time around.
"I was just down (hundreds) of votes, and it was a decidedly Democratic year," he said.
He said that campaigning this year he has heard a consistent message from voters: improve transportation, education and the economy.
Pratt said the county needs transportation improvements in the Maricopa area, Johnson Ranch and Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix. He said a successful sales tax that has built hundreds of miles of roads in Maricopa County could be a solution in Pinal County.
"If we could do something like that in Pinal County, I would support that," he said.
Barbara McGuire is the lone incumbent, having won one of the two spots in 2006.
She is a centrist Democrat who has shown an ability to work with both Republicans and Democrats on major issues, according to her campaign manager, Tom Elliott.
"She's more in the middle of the road because District 23 is a family-type district," Elliott said. "She is more about issues that focus on seniors and children."
McGuire could not be reached to discuss her campaign.
In the Legislature, the freshman lawmaker attempted to stop "wildcat dumping," a big problem for the rural areas of District 23. Her bill was stopped in committee, Elliott said.
But McGuire wants to build on the two years of experience she has had to get to know key players on issues at the state level.
McGuire was key to stopping a plan that would have shut down a mine by Kearny by filling it with waste, and putting people out of work, Elliott said.
McGuire also sees the need for "satellite" health care facilities around the county that can ensure quick medical service even in rural areas.
"The issues that most people talk to her about are fuel, health care and the economy," Elliott said.
John Fillmore describes himself as a conservative Republican. He ran unsuccessfully for the House seat in 2006.
Fillmore criticizes a state budget that stuffs in billions in bonding that's not needed, photo enforcement money that is funneled to the state, and one that places an added financial burden on counties and cities, he said.
"Our government is not looking at cutting," he said. "They are looking at spending more. The Legislature is taking care of the government. Who is taking care of the citizens?"
Fillmore says jobs and transportation are at the heart of the concerns surrounding District 23.
Some of the state's money going to build roads in Maricopa County should be redirected to the fast-growing areas of Pinal County, Fillmore said. The state should also look to innovative solutions like private toll roads in some areas, he said.
In the future, light rail or passenger trains could go from Phoenix to Tucson via Coolidge and through the middle of Pinal County.