“I predicted that 12 years ago,” said Pinal County Supervisor Pete Rios, a Democrat who won re-election and served 22 years in the Legislature. “I have people who said, ‘I remember when you said this was going to happen and we were all hoping you were wrong.’ Those involved in political circles could see it coming.”
What Rios saw was conservative Republicans moving from Chandler, Ahwatukee Foothills, and Mesa into more affordable homes in Maricopa and San Tan Valley while the Democratic communities in eastern Pinal County stopped growing.
No Republican held county office until 2008, when Sheriff Paul Babeu and County Supervisor Bryan Martyn won their elections and Rep. Frank Pratt, a Casa Grande Republican, won on his third try for a seat in Legislative District 23. Pratt became the first from his party in Pinal County to be elected to the Legislature since 1990.
Republicans made more gains in 2010, winning the Pinal County clerk of the court race and all three seats in former Legislative District 23.
But the takeover was virtually complete on Nov. 6 when Republicans nearly swept the five board of supervisors races, knocked off entrenched Democratic incumbents in two county offices, including county attorney, and took over two other offices long held by Democrats who retired. A tight race for county treasurer is undecided as votes were still being counted as of Nov. 15, but it appears Democratic incumbent Dolores Doolittle will hold on. Sen.- elect Barbara McGuire, a Kearny Democrat, was the only one from her party to win a contested legislative seat out of six districts in the county.
The new era replaces mostly rural Democrats whose roots run deep in the county with conservative Republicans from the suburbs who, for the most part, have shallower roots. A longtime tradition of elected Democrats choosing their successors is part of the past, too.
Elected Republicans were a rare breed in Pinal County going back as far as territorial days. If you were a Democrat, you were elected.
Jim Hartdegen, a Casa Grande Republican who served in the Legislature from 1977 to 1991, was one of the rare exceptions. He was forced out as a peripheral figure in the AZScam scandal, pleading guilty to misdemeanors for accepting $440 above the legal amount in campaign contributions.
And before Hartdegen, there was George Kline, a Republican who beat Rios in a House race in 1980 in a district that included large parts of Pinal County. He served only one term.
Rios said Democrats knew by 2000 they would eventually be overtaken.
Registered Pinal County Democrats outnumbered Republicans in 2002 by roughly 11,000, but by 2012 Republicans had gained a 7,500 voter advantage.
“That trend will continue,” Rios said. “At some point there will be a lot more Republicans in Pinal County, and I think they will surpass the independents.”
In 2002, only one Republican ran for a seat in former LD23. The district included parts of Maricopa County, all Indian land in Maricopa, two precincts in Gila County and most of Pinal County except Saddlebrooke, Oracle Junction, the Tohono O’Odham Reservation, Apache Junction and Gold Canyon. Rios, representing LD23, was re-elected that year to his 10th term in the Legislature.
Rios’ daughter, Rebecca Rios, joined him at the Legislature in 2004, when he was elected to the House and she won the LD23 Senate seat he had occupied, creating a seemingly unbeatable Rios dynasty.
The scene began shifting in October 2005, when Pete Rios’ seatmate, Cheryl Chase, switched to the Republican Party in the middle of her third term.
Chase, who was elected Nov. 6 to the Board of Supervisors in a landslide, explained her switch in 2005 by saying the Democratic Party had become too liberal and didn’t represent her rural values anymore.
Chase did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.
She took a shot at challenging Rebecca Rios for the Senate in 2006, but lost by roughly 4,000 votes. Rebecca Rios lost her Senate seat to Steve Smith in 2010.
The game took a big change in 2008. Pratt remembers vividly a moment when Babeu’s opponent, former Democratic Sheriff Chris Vasquez, was hyping his deep roots in Pinal County during a debate.
“Paul Babeu said, ‘I’ve only lived in Pinal County five years, like 90 percent of the people here in this room,’ and completely took that off the table,” Pratt said. “We don’t even make that an issue anymore, there are so many new people in the county and the fact that you grew up there, have roots there doesn’t even mean a whole lot anymore.”
Most of the newly elected Republicans are relative newcomers to the county, having lived there for 12 or fewer years, according to biographies on their campaign websites.
“It’s kind of a new breed of people that are very different than the people who have dominated the county,” Pratt said.
Rios said he is philosophical about the new Republican era, especially since he saw the population explosion of San Tan Valley.
“All of a sudden where we had no community, we have 81,000 people and the majority of them are Republicans,” Rios said.
He said the county is fiscally sound and the long-term comprehensive plan laying out where housing, business and transportation routes will go is in place. He said most of the Republican supervisors-elect are reasonable and have the best interests of the county in mind.
The strongly conservative Republicans like Sen. Steve Smith, who moves to the House in January, and Sen. Al Melvin, who was re-elected, give him some concern, but he doesn’t think political affiliation really matters for most of the elected county offices, except for county attorney.
In the race for county prosecutor, Lando Voyles teamed with Babeu and garnered name identification he wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Rios said he and many others fear the two Republicans are going to become a destructive tandem like disbarred former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
It was proved in disbarment proceedings against Thomas that he and Arpaio would target county leaders, judges and politicians with investigations, lawsuits and criminal charges when they disagreed or challenged the lawmen.
“The county manager and I have a bet going as to who they’re going to sue first, me or him,” Rios said.
Babeu did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Pratt said the county is still evolving politically and there is no dominate city yet, but he suggested watching whether San Tan Valley incorporates. If it does, it will have nearly twice the population of any Pinal County city and have lots of political muscle to flex.
“It’s almost like an extension of the East Valley and Maricopa County,” Pratt said. “It’s going to be an interesting county.”
GOP lawmaker thrives in Pinal County
Rep. Frank Pratt’s journey to winning election in former Legislative District 23 parallels the rise of the Republican Party in Pinal County.
Even though LD23 and the newly drawn LD8, Pratt’s new district, are Democrat districts on paper, they cover large parts of Pinal County, where Republican voter rolls have grown by nearly 2 to 1 over the past decade.
“We win well enough in the Republican areas that we can overtake the Democrat areas we know we can’t possibly win in,” Pratt said.
Pratt first ran for office in 2004, when Democrats had nearly 7,000 more registered voters than Republicans in Pinal County and a 10,000 voter advantage in LD23, which covered most of the county.
His Democratic challengers were Pete Rios, who was running for his 10th term, and Cheryl Chase, seeking her third. They beat Pratt convincingly.
The next election cycle, Rios easily held onto his House seat, but Pratt lost by only 294 votes to Democrat Barbara McGuire. Republicans had moved to within 2,000 registered voters of the Democrats countywide by then and 5,600 voters in LD23.
Pratt finally broke through in 2008, winning a House seat even though the voter registration gap had not changed from the previous election in either the district or the county.
That year saw Bryan Martyn become the first Republican ever to be elected to the Pinal County Board of Supervisors and Paul Babeu the first ever elected Republican sheriff.
Republican voter numbers finally surpassed Democratic numbers in the county and came within 2,000 voters in LD23 in 2010, a year that saw Pratt’s re-election. He was joined by Republicans John Fillmore in the House and Steve Smith in the Senate.
Voter rolls dropped for both parties countywide in 2012, but more for the Democrats, who are at a 7,400 voter disadvantage. Republican candidates swept nearly all of the county races on Nov. 6.
LD8 still has a Democratic advantage of about 6 percentage points, but Pratt and T.J. Shope, a Coolidge Republican, won House seats easily, while McGuire appears to have won her Senate race over Republican Joe Ortiz. All three Democrats won in Gila County, but Pratt and Shope took Pinal County while McGuire was edging Ortiz there by a razor-thin margin.
— Gary Grado
Path to power
Democrats in Pinal County often took a path to power from staffer to appointee to elected incumbent. Following are a few examples.
• County Recorder Laura Dean-Lytle has won three elections since 1990, but she worked for the county since 1983 and was appointed in 1999 to replace her predecessor, who retired.
• County Attorney R. Carter Olson began working as a prosecutor in the early 1990s and was appointed in 1996 to replace Gilbert Figueroa, who was appointed as a judge in Pinal County Superior Court. Olson was elected three times before leaving for the bench in 2007.
• County Attorney Jim Walsh, a former top aide to Attorney General Terry Goddard, was appointed to replace Olson. Walsh was elected in 2008 and lost on Nov. 6 to Republican Lando Voyles.