The contest for state senator in west Mesa could turn on whether voters believe incumbent state Rep. Karen Johnson has been an asset or a liability for the East Valley.
Johnson, a Mesa Republican, and former Mesa High School principal Mary Jo Vecchiarelli are squaring off in District 18, which covers about one-third of western Mesa. With no other candidates on the ballot, the winner of the Sept. 7 Republican primary will take the office.
Incumbent Sen. Mark Anderson struck a deal with Johnson, who must leave the House because of term limits. Anderson is running for Johnson’s seat.
While technically seeking a new office, Johnson is campaigning as if she is the incumbent. Her speeches focus on her tenure in the House and her signs ask voters to "keep" Johnson for another two years.
"There is one person running who has eight years of experience and there is one who has none," Johnson said. "It takes years to form relationships and get people to have friendships where you can work together on things, not only with Republicans but with Democrats."
Johnson’s supporters are proud of the lawmaker’s reputation as one of the most conservative — and most controversial — members of the Legislature.
"I have never seen Karen have a special interest that’s going to make her look good, as it were," said Florene Brinkerhoff, a retired church office assistant. "Her interests are keeping the family safe. She’s very strong on traditional marriage and family values and education for our children."
But Vecchiarelli said Johnson and some other lawmakers from Mesa have become so entrenched in their positions, they have become ineffective. She points to a rebellion by some House Republicans earlier this year that resulted in the passage of a $7.36 billion budget written largely by Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat.
"Our current leadership has made themselves irrelevant," Vecchiarelli said. "They refuse to sit at the table with people. They say ‘no’ without even seeing what they can get."
Vecchiarelli calls her philosophy "common-sense conservatism," and her supporters argue that her approach would give Mesa more influence at the state Capitol.
"Mary Jo brings a new energy to the race, a new vitality and a fresh perspective," said Donna Trythall-Passey, a homemaker and former coordinator of early-childhood programs for Mesa public schools. "I am most impressed with Mary Jo’s ability to really listen to multiple points of view and make a decision that is reflective in the best interests of many people."
Vecchiarelli is married to Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker, and together the two have been building a network of city and county officials who want to see Johnson defeated. They include state Rep. Gary Pierce, R-Mesa, who represents neighboring District 19.
But Johnson is running as a team with Anderson and Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa.
Johnson said she suspects Pierce’s endorsement will hurt Vecchiarelli among voters who don’t support the planned light-rail public transit system.
Pierce was a leading architect of the proposed extension of the county’s half-cent sales tax for transportation that’s on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.
Johnson was among a handful of lawmakers who voted against the proposal because the ballot won’t have a separate question on lightrail funding.