June 2016: It is dusk in south Chandler, a sprawling city of roughly 250,000, whose dwellings spread out and punctuate the East Valley’s dry, flat desert landscape. As the sun begins its descent, the horizon turns into a deep hue of red and orange. Yet even as the sun is fading, there’s no sanctuary from the heat but going indoors, and it is here, in a beautiful home in an affluent neighborhood, that Christine Jones, a former executive of GoDaddy, has come to beg for votes, not money.
Jones is seeking to represent Arizona’s 5th Congressional District two years after her disastrous foray into Arizona’s gubernatorial race, where she spent $5.5 million and finished a poor third in the Republican primary.
Jones is the only woman in the four-way GOP race, but that’s not her only distinction. Among the candidates (the three others are Senate President Andy Biggs, Rep. Justin Olson of Mesa, and former Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley), she alone has not been elected to office. Perhaps more interestingly, she’s the only one who is not a Mormon in a district that is proud of its Mormon heritage.
In a different place or at a different time, her lack of experience as an elected official (she served as a law clerk for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office in the 1990s) might have been a liability, but not in this part of the world, and particularly not in a year that has seen Donald Trump, the great outsider – or pretender, depending on who you ask – upend conventions and bend political reality in his favor.
“I’m not a career politician,” Jones tells the gathering of roughly a dozen people. “I’m a conservative business leader.”
She goes on to tell her life story – how she grew up poor in Denver, learned from her aunt that education is the ticket out of poverty, and subsequently became a CPA and a lawyer; how she rebuffed the National Security Agency, which wanted her clients’ records, while she was working at GoDaddy; and how she found her true home in Arizona.
She vows to go to Congress to get things done and wonders aloud why the federal government can’t secure the U.S. border with Mexico, insisting there are smart ways to do it. She drives home the one point she repeats several times during the night: She’s fortunate enough to finance her own congressional bid, freeing her from the entanglements that would arise if she begged, presumably like her opponents would, for campaign contributions from “special interests.”
Forswearing special interests, of course, seeps with populism. It is a useful catchphrase on the campaign trail, but ultimately unworkable, and perhaps even debilitating, in a democratic experiment designed for competing interests to find a common ground.
Ordinary citizens often don’t have the inclination or the resources to devote entire months to watch lawmakers’ day-to-day dealings, and that’s why many form advocacy groups that trade in specialized areas: the Arizona Education Association for teachers, the AARP for older residents, the Civil Defense League for gun enthusiasts. Business types send lobbyists to the Capitol, while faith-based organizations also ply in the political arena.
Jones isn’t the first to regard “special interests” as political actors that must be rebuffed or avoided. Even Gov. Ducey began the year by excoriating “special interests,” and ended up embracing a cacophony of them just a few months later in his successful bid to extract more money from the state land trust to give to K-12 schools.
The unavoidable truth is there’s no avoiding special interests, and the push and pull among them and between policymakers often produce effective legislation.
Bereft of any legislative history, Jones can comfortably call herself a conservative, and others can freely debate the meaning of her kind words for Hillary Clinton or her supportive gesture toward President Obama, statements that her opponents used against her in 2014 and will likely deploy again this year.
For now, however, Jones’ trickier job is to convince CD5 voters that she’s one of them.
At the south Chandler home, she mentions her ties to the East Valley. Her husband, she adds, teaches at a Chandler high school, and they go to a church in the city.
In fact, both the church and the high school are located outside of the district’s boundaries, but her campaign dismisses questions about her residency as nothing more than identity politics.
Yet identity politics plays a bigger role in CD5 perhaps more than in any other congressional district in the state. CD5 stretches across Chandler, Mesa, Gilbert, Queen Creek and Apache Junction. It is decidedly Republican, which means the victor of the GOP primary will undoubtedly win the general election in November.
The neighborhood Jones visited on June 7, located in the southern part of Chandler, is new. But the East Valley’s history of civilization is far older, beginning at least 2,000 years ago, when the Hohokam Indians first built a sophisticated irrigation system that spanned 500 miles and turned the desert into an agricultural oasis believed to have supported 50,000 people. Mormon pioneers later cleared these ancient canals late in the 19th century, built their own irrigation system, and once more, water flowed in to the arid land.
Mormons, who founded Mesa City, remain a minority in the East Valley, but their share of the population is far bigger here than in many other areas of Arizona and its members are active in politics.
That’s one reason why this region has successively sent fellow members to the state Capitol or to Congress.
And that’s also why many aren’t so dismissive of the so-called “identity politics.”
GOP activist Tyler Montague, who supports Stapley, said Jones’ money makes her a contender, but a key problem she faces is her status as an “outsider.”
“The general consensus is that there’s enough leadership in the East Valley that we don’t need to import it from Paradise Valley or wherever she lives,” he said. Jones’ filing papers indicate that she lives in northeast Phoenix.
A recent autodial poll shows Biggs and Stapley cornering the LDS vote in CD5. Interestingly, Jones has more LDS supporters than Olson, according to the poll.
Marcie Pond, the Chandler resident who opened her home to Jones on June 7, doesn’t mind a non-Mormon like Jones representing her in Congress.
“We’re more open-minded,” said Pond, who, like her husband, grew up in the church.
Pond said she likes Jones’ values. She has circulated petitions for Jones and has urged friends and others to at least take a look at the CD5 candidate.
“When you don’t know somebody,” she said, “go home and find out (about that person).”
After meeting Jones for the first time at her home and hearing her speak, Pond said her support for the CD5 candidate is affirmed.
Unlike in other competitive congressional primaries, where the races have been lumbering for at least a year, the contest in CD5 is unfolding in full sprint.
Arizona’s political community awakened in February to a game-changer: After just two consecutive terms, Rep. Matt Salmon, who represents CD5, has decided to retire from Congress. Salmon spared no time in anointing Biggs as his pick to succeed him in Congress.
Those who are familiar with the decision said it makes perfect sense for Salmon to choose Biggs. Both are conservative stalwarts. Salmon co-founded the House Freedom Caucus, whose notable exploits included helping to force John Boehner out of the U.S. House speakership and into retirement and the willingness of its members to shut down the U.S. government over the Affordable Care Act three years ago. Biggs, meanwhile, is respected as a principled ideological warrior, a man who wouldn’t bend to tie his shoes if that meant betraying his beliefs.
Indeed, one of the great ironies of his reign as Senate president is that he has led a GOP caucus that has openly defied and rolled him twice (over KidsCare restoration this year and Medicaid expansion in 2013) and still has retained its respect.
He was gracious in his defeat over KidsCare restoration, saying he didn’t like what was happening but “it’s happening because a majority of the body has the prerogative to do so, and that’s fair and just according to our rules.”
Biggs’ political savvy has allowed him to take a stand while keeping government functioning, instead of, as Senate president, simply stopping things in their tracks.
The prevailing sentiment is that Biggs is the frontrunner in the race.
Polls show him ahead, although his opponents have doubted their methodology. He has raked in the most endorsements from prominent party members and leaders from the East Valley.
But pundits said it’s a horserace, and none of three other candidates – Jones, Olson, Stapley – should be counted out.
Three polls on the race showed a huge number of undecided voters, the latest of which had them at 57 percent. The numbers suggest that many voters are keeping an open mind, and the race is wide open.
“I wouldn’t bet on or against anybody,” said former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, who hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the race. He said there’s no doubt that Biggs has had a “big start,” but Stapley has “deep base” and a long history in Mesa. One poll shows Stapley with a higher name ID than Biggs, which is not surprising, given the prominence of his family in the region.
“And I don’t ever count out anyone who has a lot of money like Christine Jones,” Smith added.
Olson is lagging behind in the polls, but underestimating him could be anyone’s undoing.
The former analyst at the Arizona Tax Research Association burst onto the political scene in 2010 when he defeated then-House Speaker Kirk Adams’ hand-picked seatmate and even garnered more votes than Adams in the former Legislative District 19.
“People love Justin,” said former legislator Tricia Groe, who now lives in Queen Creek and who supports Biggs. “They just wish he had not entered the race.”
At the Chandler home, Jones is wrapping up her meet-and-greet event, and is applauded after recounting her encounters with the NSA.
“A lot of our time, talent and treasure have been spent in the East Valley, and it is the place we are connected to the deepest and with the most roots,” Jones tells a reporter, adding that the Founding Fathers had expressly allowed people to run in any congressional district because the lines get redrawn so often.
“When people really stop to think about it, what they really want is somebody who represents them. So, I’ll stack up my credentials in the East Valley against anybody that’s been here five generations,” she said.