There is a sameness to Mesa’s most powerful politicians. White. Male, Mormon. Republicans steeped in traditional family values and tightfisted with taxpayers’ money. But below the surface there are deep divisions, driven more by style and personality than by differences on policy.
In the end, Mesa’s politicians tend to agree on specific legislation. But their diverse backgrounds and political philosophies lead them down different paths to the same policy conclusions, according to elected officials and political insiders from Mesa.
The sameness and the divisions will be prominent this year as Mesa’s elected leaders assume positions that will give the city more political clout than it has had in at least a decade, by some accounts.
Rep. Kirk Adams is the new speaker of the House while Rep. Rich Crandall is chairman of the House Education Committee at a time when school spending is exceptionally vulnerable to evisceration as the Legislature struggles to balance the state’s budget.
In the Senate, Chuck Gray is the new majority leader while Russell Pearce is chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
At the national level, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has gained national attention as the leader in the battle against wasteful spending by Congress. He made an unsuccessful bid this year for a spot on the House Appropriations Committee.
Even at the city level, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith has shaped himself as more hands-on and high-profile in Valley and state politics than his predecessors.
All of those men fit the profile of Mesa politicians, as do the two freshman House members elected to the Legislature from Mesa-based districts, Reps. Cecil Ash and Steve Court.
But the uniformity ends there.
“GRAND CANYON-SIZED DIFFERENCES”
The differences are most pronounced on economic issues, and the willingness to compromise on issues such as tax incentives to lure development and cracking down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants, according to more than a dozen Mesa politicians and political insiders interviewed by the Tribune.
“We are all socially conservative Republicans,” Crandall said. “When it comes to marriage and abortion and things like that, we are very, very similar in our perspectives. But when it comes to economic stimulus and management and finances and things like that, we are very different. We don’t all think alike and vote alike.”
The sharpest divide has been over Pearce’s push for tougher laws against illegal immigrants and the businesses that hire them. Mesa lawmakers voted lock step in favor of the legislation.
But Pearce’s unbending style widened a rift between business-friendly conservatives and Pearce’s staunchest backers who couched his efforts in terms of right and wrong rather than good and bad.
The rancor boiled over last September in what became one of the dirtiest political races in Mesa’s history. The Republican fight for the District 18 Senate seat between Pearce and Kevin Gibbons, Flake’s brother-in-law, became a seminal battle between what political insiders describe as unbending social conservatives and more pragmatic and business-oriented Republicans.
Most Mesa politicians, including Adams, stayed neutral by avoiding any endorsement of either candidate.
The Pearce/Gibbons race was stark evidence of deep divides that have long festered among Mesa Republicans, said Stan Barnes, who has been involved in the city’s politics for 20 years, first as a legislator and now as a lobbyist.
“It’s a lazy man’s mistake to say that all politicians east of the river are alike,” Barnes said. “It’s not accurate, but it’s a quick way to assess Mesa politics. On the surface, to the uninformed, there is a lot of similarity. But one level down, there is indeed much policy difference, personality difference, style difference. That’s where politics blossoms. That’s where it all happens. You get to that level and there are Grand Canyon-sized differences in the Mesa political structure.”
On one end of the chasm is Pearce, who prides himself on a bullheaded, often uncompromising approach to politics.
“I’m not an in-crowd kind of guy,” Pearce said, adding he makes no apologies for standing strong on his core principles.
“I fight hard for the things I tell people I’m going to fight hard for. I get things done that other legislators can’t get done.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Flake, a vocal critic of Pearce’s style, calling it divisive and angry, exactly the kind of image that has battered Republicans nationally and in Arizona.
“I think that kind of politics does not serve us well, the kind of angry politics,” Flake said of Pearce’s style.
Scattered in between are people like Adams, Crandall and Gray, who downplay their differences.
Adams said he is comfortable in both camps, with strong credentials as a social conservative and a businessman’s understanding that making the state’s economy competitive involves more than just slashing taxes and cutting state spending.
“At the end of the day, I don’t know that I can say that I’m more one than the other,” Adams said of the divide between social and economic conservatives. “I’m a very strong advocate of pro-family issues. At the same time, I know that the family is affected when it can’t get a good job because the economy is poor.
“Russell and Jeff certainly aren’t on each other’s Christmas card lists. But that doesn’t mean Kirk Adams can’t get along with both.”
Mesa lacks a political “machine,” a monied class of kingmakers who decide who runs for office and who wins, Adams said.
As a result, there is no set path to elected office in the city.
Adams’ own campaign bears that out.
Adams did not tap into a Mesa money base to run his 2008 campaign. Less than 12 percent of the individual contributions to Adams’ campaign last year came from people who listed Mesa addresses on disclosure forms. That can be misleading, since some people list a business address. More than half of the individual contributions raised by Adams came from lobbyists, according to an analysis of his disclosure statements.
Even among contributions from lobbyists, more than 90 percent came from outside Mesa, according to his reports.
With the exception of Adams and Gray, who ran unopposed, all of the members of Mesa’s legislative delegation financed their campaigns through public money using the state’s clean elections system.
With no power brokers picking winners and losers, the people who rise in Mesa politics tend to bring diverse backgrounds and philosophies, even though their demographics look alike, Adams said.
“Mesa lacks a political machine and there are some benefits to that,” Adams said. “It truly is an equal opportunity for everyone. It’s a meritocracy.”
Smith agreed there is no traditional political base in Mesa that picks and finances the winners. Smith had no prior political experience when he ran for mayor last year, and spent about $80,000 of his personal funds to help finance his own campaign.
The perception of a political machine comes largely because so many politicians look the same on paper, Smith said. There also is the stereotype that a politician in Mesa needs to be white, conservative and Mormon to get elected, he said.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make up about 10 percent of Mesa’s population, according to a church spokesman. While the church does not preach political ideology, it does instill in its members a strong sense of community involvement, Smith said. That translates into high voter turnout among Mormons, and many members of the church running for political office, he said.
But even among elected Mormons, there is a diversity of backgrounds and attitudes toward the role of government, he said.
“You can’t separate totally growing up white, male, Mormon in Arizona because it is part of your life experience,” Smith said. “But I think it feeds into a certain stereotype that just doesn’t exist to the degree that people think it does. This gets back to the stereotype that the Mormon community is extremely homogenous politically, although we are certainly not.
“There are no secret meetings. People believe because of the LDS (Latter-day Saints) connection that there’s some sort of grand thing. What cracks us up is the thought that people go to the Mormon Church and talk politics. I will tell you the quickest way to be asked to be quiet is to talk politics inside a Mormon Church.”
Former Sen. Karen Johnson, a Mesa Republican who retired and was replaced this year by Pearce, said she is disappointed that too many of her fellow Mormons in elected office in Mesa are willing to abandon their core principles and cut deals with the business community.
Differences in Mesa politicians do not necessarily show themselves in voting records, said Johnson, a close ally of Pearce. Rather, they arise in the willingness to compromise core principles, she said.
That leads to tough legislation like the employer sanctions bill being watered down as concessions are made to the business community before a vote is ever taken, Johnson said.
“I call them 'prominent Mormons,’” Johnson said in describing those in Mesa politics who she sees as too tight with the business community and more interested in compromise than standing on principle. “They may be pro-life and they may be pro-marriage. But that doesn’t always cut it. There’s a lot more to governing than just that. To me, it’s really sad that some of these prominent Mormons haven’t stood up for things that I believe are the tenets of our faith.”
One tenet of the conservative political faith that has divided Mesa politicians recently is whether government should be giving special tax breaks to private developers.
Gray last month derided tax breaks totaling more than $136 million associated with the development of two resorts planned in east Mesa, saying the concessions on property and bed taxes given by the city to the developers amounts to the government “picking and choosing winners.”
Other members of Mesa’s legislative delegation, including Pearce, Adams and Crandall, have publicly supported the development and associated tax incentives, which would largely go to Gaylord Entertainment Co.
But last year, Pearce split with other Mesa lawmakers in voting against creation of a special taxing district in Pinal County to finance a rock ’n’ roll theme park near Eloy. Of those still in the Legislature, Pearce voted against the bill, while Adams, Crandall and Gray voted in favor.
TAPPING THE DIVIDE
Gibbons tried unsuccessfully to tap Mesa’s political divide when he ran against Pearce, a decision he says was driven largely by Pearce’s toxic style of politics.
Most of Gibbons’ financial support came from the business community, especially those industries hurt by the employer sanctions law. Pearce’s supporters tended to be those involved in District 18 Republican Party politics, Gibbons said.
“When you’re talking about political circles in Mesa, what you’re really dealing with is those that make business decisions and those that hang out at the District 18 meetings,” Gibbons said. “They are two different types of people — those that are far right and those that are a little more mainstream.”
Many of Pearce’s supporters saw Gibbons as a proxy candidate of Flake, whose approach to dealing with illegal immigration is labeled “amnesty” by Pearce.
Flake denies he had anything to do with Gibbons’ decision to challenge Pearce, though he says he did help his brother-in-law raise money.
Some of the players in the Pearce/Gibbons race, including Flake, also fall into the Adams camp. Flake said he made phone calls to state House members encouraging them to support Adams in his bid to wrest the speakership from former Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, seen by many as an ally of Pearce and his efforts against illegal immigration.
Flake said people like Adams present the kind of image Republicans will need to reconnect with mainstream voters turned off by the rhetoric of people like Pearce.
Adams also raised money from many of the same donors who supported Gibbons, most notably Jason LeVecke, who financed an independent expenditure campaign that attacked Pearce’s character and integrity rather than his politics.
LeVecke could not be reached for comment.
Adams said the support he got from Pearce’s critics does not mean he shares their animosity toward his fellow Mesa Republican. But Adams does acknowledge he does not share Pearce’s style of politics.
“I believe the manner and tone with which we approach disagreements says as much about who we are as leaders as the actual policies we support,” Adams said. “I think sometimes some of my colleagues take a different approach, perhaps more passionate, which sometimes comes across as angry.
“I do want to find reasonable compromises without compromising my principles. The easiest thing to do would be to come down here and not get along with anybody and not listen to other people. The value that I think I bring is I am going to listen. I am going to look for the common ground.”