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Mesa to be in national spotlight as it hosts GOP debate

MESA – In 2009, this city had so many foreclosures that President Barack Obama appeared at one of its high schools to speak about the national housing crisis. In 2011, a Mesa district recalled its state senator and anti-immigration leader Russell Pearce in a historic election. A month ago, Gov. Jan Brewer shook her finger at Obama at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.

And on Wednesday, four men vying for the Republican presidential nomination will debate in the heart of Mesa’s downtown.

For better or worse, Arizona’s third-largest city is making national headlines.

“Mesa is finally being perceived as a place where things are happening,” Mayor Scott Smith said. “And things should happen in Mesa. This is not a small town.

“We’re bigger than Cleveland, St. Louis and Atlanta,” he added. “But we haven’t always done a good job of acting like a big city.”

With the Arizona presidential debate on Wednesday and the state’s presidential preference primary slated for next week, is poised for the spotlight, Smith said.

CNN and the Arizona Republican Party chose Mesa as a debate location, partly for its downtown, seven-acre, $98 million Mesa Arts Center and partly for the population’s GOP support.

“We’re home to a lot of good, conservative Republicans, and we’re going to have a big impact on the election,” said Sherry Pierce, president of Mesa Republican Women.

Those conservative values were first planted in Mesa in 1878 by its Mormon founders, whose 1927 temple is less than a quarter mile away from the arts center on East Main Street. Today, Mesa is about 11 percent Mormon, a figure that doesn’t necessarily help Republican presidential candidate and church member Mitt Romney, Smith said.

“There’s no doubt that Mitt Romney is a popular guy in Mesa. But Mesa has grown far beyond the little Mormon town it used to be,” he said. “While Mitt certainly has a lot of support here, I don’t think he’s got a stranglehold on Mesa. Mesa is too big for that.”

Political scientist Bruce Merrill of Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy agrees that while Mormons have shaped Mesa, they aren’t a dominant force in the city today. And, he said, they don’t all have the same opinions.

“Mormons are going to tend to want to vote for Romney, but many of them are very right-wing, libertarian people who may lean more toward Ron Paul,” Merrill said. “Mormons are not homogeneous people.”

Neither are Mesa’s residents, Smith said, pointing to the surprising recall of über-conservative Russell Pearce.

“What the Russell Pearce recall showed is that contrary to what a lot of people think, we’re still a very independent city,” Smith said. “Mesa residents can’t be labeled. If they could, they wouldn’t have voted 2-to-1 to implement upon themselves the first property tax in 60 years, despite its reputation as a Republican, fiscally conservative city.”

On Monday, businesses on East Main Street were gearing up for Wednesday’s influx of visitors, reporters and political leaders.

Most of these business have operated in downtown Mesa for less than five years. They’re helping revitalize a district that mostly housed empty storefronts and government offices a decade ago, a transformation that’s expected to accelerate when the Metro light rail line expands here.

Tom Price, manager of Gotham City Comics and Coffee, ordered several more pounds of coffee beans for new visitors, as well as the shop’s Wednesday night Dungeons and Dragons players; De La Cruz Bistro will stock up on extra servers and kitchen hands; Breah Bittner at Sweet Cakes Cafe helped make a few extra batches of the bakery’s award-winning cookies.

“It’ll definitely bring in dollars, that’s for sure,” Bittner said. “It will be national exposure, so people will see what we have to offer here in downtown Mesa.”

Smith said he hopes the debate can help promote these businesses and break the streak of negative headlines coming out of Mesa.

“One bad event can mark you forever,” Smith said. “But it takes a series of good events to really change perception for the better. We have those good things – we have a First Solar plant opening, we have Boeing plant, we have the Cubs during spring training, we have a booming downtown, we have the extension of the light rail and the expansion of Banner Heart Hospital. Now let’s hope for a successful debate.”

Viewing party:
• Date: Feb. 22, 2012
• Time: 4 to 9 p.m. Debate on screen from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
• Location: Downtown Mesa, between Center Street and Sirrine
• Food: Vendors include Cucina di Vita Italian Deli, Queen’s Pizzeria and Cafe, Downtown Rendezvous, The Grill on Main, Kirk’s Sports Grill and Nunthaporn’s Thai Cuisine.
• Entertainment: Live music from Michelle Moyer and Take Cover.

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