It opened brightly enough, with the customary expectations of progress and prosperity that have marked each new year in the East Valley for the past decade.
Construction began on an Arizona State University complex in downtown Mesa. Cranes loomed high over downtown Tempe while on the streets below, a new streetcar line was being born. Gilbert and Chandler sung to the tunes of hammers and saws creating square mile after square mile of homes and stores and factories.
As this election year dawned, candidates were crafting their sales pitches to voters who, for the most part, were only dimly beginning to contemplate another march to the ballot box.
The biggest point of uncertainty seemed to lie in a presidential impeachment then in play in Washington. But even that proved to be a melodrama without drama as Donald Trump’s Feb. 5 acquittal by a Republican Senate became a predictable anticlimax.
Only the closest observer of international news could have suspected, in that January that now seems of another world, that 2020 would rip our lives apart in almost unfathomable ways.
COVID-19 arrived early in the East Valley. In late January, when the United States reported only five total cases, an ASU student who had recently returned from China was among them.
Whatever ripples of concern that may have caused, however, seemed to vanish as the student recovered and no new cases immediately emerged in our area.
But by mid-March there was no longer room for complacency. Suddenly, grocery store shelves were stripped bare of pasta, popcorn, canned goods and especially toilet paper as panicked East Valley residents hoarded essentials for what seemed like a long siege ahead.
Churches and shopping malls closed their doors. Movie theaters followed suit, as did bars and restaurants. The Cactus League baseball season was aborted.
School let out early for the year and kids had to rely on distance learning – in many cases without devices or internet connections. Proms and graduation ceremonies were scrapped.
The question of when and how to return to school in the fall created no end of agony for administrators, teachers, parents and the students themselves and pitted parents against parents against school districts over the safety of in-class learning.
To a large extent, that agony and strife continues in East Valley and other school districts.
As of mid-December, Maricopa County had lost more than 4,500 of its friends and neighbors to the virus. Thousands of other people had needed hospitalization and many of them still deal with lingering health problems.
Weddings and funerals, business meetings and church services came by way of Zoom. Hugs and handshakes were things of the past.
The economic price was steep as well. Some businesses could not survive their springtime closures, perhaps the most visible symbol of that being the now-vacant Nordstrom store at Chandler Fashion Center.
But city finances did not fall off the cliff as expected. Mesa, for example, slashed staff early in the recession only to find as summer rolled along that people were skipping vacations, spending money at home and shoring up the city’s sales-tax collections.
Gilbert and Chandler also found revenue actually increasing after May, partly the result of online sales as well as the reopening of many small businesses.
And despite the agony shared by many small businesses, one area of the region’s economy that thrived in spite of the pandemic was – and continues to be – the housing market.
Home values and prices saw double-digit increases as a shrinking inventory of re-sale homes left frustrated buyers competing in bidding wars for houses. As rents also increased, other developers won approval for hundreds of new units in luxury complexes across the East Valley.
To mask or not to mask
Incredibly, the virus and the science involved in mitigating became politicized, so much so that wearing a mask – or not wearing one – became controversial.
Anti-mask campaigners in the East Valley, following Trump’s lead, couched their rhetoric in terms of personal freedom even if that meant infecting someone else.
Among the more prominent anti-maskers was U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, a Republican who represents part of the East Valley. Biggs regularly parroted Trump’s dismissal of the COVID threat.
When Trump himself caught the virus in September, Biggs urged the president to take a drug that Trump had promoted in the spring but that had no proven effect in combatting the disease.
Doctors ignored Biggs’ medical advice. Trump recovered anyway.
As the year ends, it appears vaccines against COVID will be widely available in mid-2021.
But until they have been sufficiently deployed, the disease seems likely to have a dire effect on East Valley life well into the new year.
Some uncertainty looms over when classrooms will be reopened, for example. Mesa Public Schools will start the first two weeks of the second semester with at-home learning for most students.
While officials have vowed to reopen campuses Jan. 19, they have added as a caveat that reopening will depend on the benchmarks for virus spread – which currently are in an upward trajectory and well above the threshold for substantial virus spread.
Historic political year
Maricopa County turned against the president it had supported in 2016, flipping its support to Democrat Joe Biden.
In 2016 the county voted 49 percent for Trump and 46 percent for Hillary Clinton. This time out, Biden netted 50.3 percent of the county’s vote, and Trump 48.1.
The swing helped Biden nail the state’s 11 electoral votes on his way to the White House, the first time since 1996 that a Democrat had carried Arizona.
The East Valley’s two congressional districts voted in predictable fashion, but even here there was erosion in Trump’s support.
Heavily Republican District 5 gave Biden 41.9 percent of its vote, as compared with 36.5 percent for Clinton in 2016. The more liberal Ninth District voted 60.8 percent for Biden compared with 54.7 for Clinton four years earlier.
Some Republicans – with Trump in the lead – persisted in an unprecedented and baseless effort to overturn the results of a legitimate American election.
Among them was State Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, who urged the Legislature to ignore the will of the voters and direct that Arizona’s electoral votes be handed to Trump.
The Republican speaker of the House, Rusty Bowers, also of Mesa, noted that acting on Townsend’s suggestion would be illegal.
“I cannot and will not entertain a suggestion that we violate current law to change the outcome of a certified election,” Bowers said.
But other East Valley lawmakers are figuring prominently in the ongoing battle. Outgoing Gilbert Sen. Eddie Farnsworth has subpoenaed Maricopa County for millions of voter records – which the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to fight.
Overall, however, the East Valley’s political stripes did not change that much.
Solidly red legislative districts reflected that in the candidates they sent to the Legislature and Republicans retained control of both houses in the Arizona Capitol.
All county offices except for sheriff were won by Republicans, who even took back the County Recorder’s office from Democrat Adrian Fontes.
The East Valley’s congressional representation remains the same, with Biggs winning re-election in Fifth District and Democrat Greg Stanton in the Ninth.
The East Valley’s nonpartisan municipal elections installed new mayors in Tempe and Gilbert.
In Tempe, former City Councilman Corey Woods defeated two-term incumbent Mark Mitchell in March with a decisive 57 percent of the vote and became the city’s first African-American mayor.
In Gilbert, former council member Brigette Peterson defeated Matt Nielsen in the November mayoral runoff election.
In Chandler, voters in a historic election sent the city’s first Black woman, Christine Ellis, to City Council. With the election of another newbie, OD Harris, Council will now have two Black members.
Mesa Mayor John Giles, meanwhile, won two-thirds of the vote in his re-election campaign against right-wing challenger Verl Farnsworth. Mesa voters also elected Giles ally Julie Spilsbury to City Council, replacing Jeremy Whittaker, a frequent critic of Giles’ policies.
Racial tensions hit home
The death of George Floyd at the knees of Minneapolis police in May sparked protests – some violent – across the country and in the East Valley.
Downtown Scottsdale became a war zone on May 30 when looters and vandals ran amok in and near Scottsdale Fashion Square. By year’s end more than 50 people had been arrested in connection with the rampage.
In Gilbert, groups protesting for racial equality and others supporting police and Trump traded insults and shouts every Thursday for months in demonstrations at the intersection of Warner and Gilbert roads. All the protestors vanished after the Nov. 3 election.
Several peaceful demonstrations also occurred in Mesa, where a new police chief presided over the department’s implementation of new procedures to review use-of-force incidents.
Beyond politics and COVID-19
The year may have been dominated by the virus and politics, but other developments and people in Mesa and the region also made 2020 memorable.
Waymo, whose self-driving vans have been ubiquitous in the East Valley for years, announced in October that it would begin offering driverless ride-hailing services to the public.
Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport announced in January it set a record for commercial passengers in 2019 – 1,774,763 to be exact. Airport activity all but collapsed after COVID hit, but by year’s end it was recovering.
The East Valley endured a year of unprecedented heat, which continued well into November. The region broke records for number of 100-, 110- and 115-degree days in a season, and logged its two hottest months in history in July and August. For the first 19 days of August, the average round-the-clock temperature at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was 100.6 degrees.
Dr. Andi Fourlis became superintendent of Mesa Public Schools in April as the Governing Board saw two 12-year veteran members, Elaine Minor and Steven Peterson, retired and voters giving the nod to two new members, Lara Salmon Ellingson and Joe O’Reilly, as well as a second term to Kiana Sears.
Mesa voters approved a $100 million transportation bond in November, with the biggest projects slated for the city’s fast-growing southeast corner.
Mesa City Council approved the 1,200-acre southeast Mesa Hawes Crossing project over some objections that it could impinge on operations at Gateway Airport.
Legacy Sports Park broke ground in September for what will be a privately operated 320-acre sports complex at Ellsworth and Pecos roads in Mesa while the city also approved a nearby project for a mammoth “surf lagoon” nearby.
Ground broke in October for Grande Vita, a $300 million multi-use campus near Crismon Road and Hampton Avenue, Mesa, with senior living facilities, hotel rooms, restaurants, medical offices, condos, a nursing school and a rehab clinic on 20 acres.
Mesa City Council also approved plans for several large apartment complexes that, along with a project nearly completed by the development arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will infuse downtown with hundreds of apartments.