Children often follow in their parents’ footsteps when choosing a career, but Nora Ellen and JD Mesnard turned that dynamic on its head – twice.
He was in the first year of his first term in the Arizona House of Representatives in 2011 when his mom made her first run for Chandler City Council and won.
Now, Ellen has her eyes set on her son’s State House seat as he goes after the Senate seat in Legislative District 17, which covers most of Chandler and Sun Lakes as well as bits of Mesa and Gilbert.
Term limits are propelling both their moves in next year’s election as incumbent Sen. Steve Yarbrough retires.
Ellen will be in the second year of her second and last four-year term on the council and Mesnard will be wrapping up his eighth year in the Legislature, where he has been House Speaker since December 2016.
It wasn’t always a matter of mom following her only son.
When Mesnard was 4 years old, Ellen saw music in his future.
“I started giving him lessons when he was 4 and I noticed he had a real talent,” recalled, who plays piano and some guitar. She concedes her son “is much more talented than I am” when it comes to music, although she sings in her church choir and plays in small informal groups.
Mesnard stayed on that initial career path at Arizona State University, where he majored in music composition.
He had his sights on a career writing film and television scores, noting, “I love soundtracks and movie scores. I love epic music.”
Growing up, Mesnard favored John Williams, the legendary composer who has won dozens of awards for composing the scores to movies such as “Jaws,” the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” series and other blockbusters.
These days, he likes Hans Zimmer, who is echoing Williams’ award-winning career with scores to movies like “Gladiator,” “The Lion King” and several of the Batman movies.
Mesnard also continues to play piano – including one in his Capitol office.
“I don’t have as much time as I used to,” he said, saying he loves to compose and improvise. “I’m really good at playing by ear,” he added, noting he prefers classical and neo-classical music but is warming up to jazz as well.
Politics emerged in his life by chance.
“It all comes down to one conversation I had with a musical colleague,” he recalled.
That colleague talked about getting a legislative internship.
“It was one of those things where I had some extra time and I was a senior, so I applied,” said Mesnard, who wound up with a research internship in a nonpartisan capacity for the Senate Education Committee.
It turned out he liked policymaking even more than music – which was fine with his Realtor mom.
“I thought it was great,” she said of his decision to leave music as a pastime and take up politics and government fulltime. “I saw his leadership skills and his problem-solving abilities and how he cares about people. We need honest and compassionate people in office.”
While Mesnard was on the Senate staff, his mom was moving slowly toward politics.
“I was encouraged by the mayor and other City Council members to serve on the Neighborhood Advisory Committee because I’d been involved in the city and because of my real estate experience,” she said.
Added Mesnard: “She’s always been involved in helping the community. That’s where I got that value. We both found ourselves moving in the same direction in different ways, not planned.”
Even before Ellen moved to Chandler 15 years ago, she was involved in the community, serving on a Kyrene School District curriculum task force while she lived in South Tempe, just over the Chandler border.
“She was always one of the parents on the field trips,” Mesnard quipped. “She was always involved in the school, so I wasn’t surprised when she joined the Neighborhood Advisory Committee.”
Ellen said she decided to run for the Legislature next year “because I’m termed out” on council. “This is my last term and it’s a natural progression for me to serve at the state level. I’ve been encouraged to do that.”
Although she said she sought her son’s advice before her first council run, she made her decision to run for Legislature without seeking his counsel – although, she added, “he probably knew” what she would do.
He said when she did tell him, his thought was, “She’s going to be a great candidate and a great legislator.”
During her first council run, Mesnard recalled, “We did our own thing but we worked together.”
Now, as they plan their 2018 campaigns, he said they likely will do the same thing because “we each have our own identify and we don’t want to lose our identity.”
Naturally, they have talked about next year.
“I think his best advice for me was I have to raise support and reach out to people to help me,” Ellen said.
Mesnard said that while they will do some campaigning together, that will likely occur more during the runup to the November general election – if they both survive the August primaries.
Right now, she said, she’s reaching out to people and getting a start on a campaign war chest.
Her son sympathizes with her task.
“It’s tough asking people for money,” he said.
Although “a senate race can be more competitive, can be more expensive,” he said raising money “will be easier for me than it will be for her. I have a bit of a head start.”
His mom added that she’s confident of eliciting the support she’ll need, noting, ”I’ve had a good relationship with the Republican Party for many years. Relationships with people are important because that’s how learn what’s important to them.”
Moreover, Mesnard said, he’ll be ready to pitch in as a kind of shadow advisor during the campaign.
“She will have an advantage over someone with no experience,” he said. “There are some issues she might not be familiar with and I’ll help her with that.”
He also is apprehensive about what might be said about his mom during the campaign.
“As her son, when people pick on your mother, it’s hard. I don’t care what they say about me, but when they say something about my mom, I am a bit more sensitive. The state level is more competitive than a city election. It can be more merciless in some ways. In my experience, personally, people get personal. But when you get personal with my mom, I have trouble not taking it personally.”
And despite the looming campaign and the work ahead, mother and son say they’re not so preoccupied as to let it dominate their day-to-day relationship.
When they get together, she said, “We talk about what families talk about We don’t really talk about politics.”
Mesnard added, “I imagine we talk about it as much as anyone else. I’m vaguely aware of what’s going on in the city. She’s semi-tapped into the state level. I’ve never known her to talk about politics that much.”