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Home / legislature / House members play coy as Mesnard and Mitchell vie to become next speaker

House members play coy as Mesnard and Mitchell vie to become next speaker

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UPDATE: Republican Rep. J.D. Mesnard has apparently locked up the support necessary to become the next speaker of the House. Twenty-one Republican lawmakers and candidates who are likely to win their races in November – a definite majority of the future House GOP caucus – have publicly committed to supporting him.

J.D. Mesnard and Darin Mitchell, the two Republican lawmakers hoping to become the next speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, both claim they have a majority of the members of the next House Republican Caucus in their corner.

Which is mathematically impossible – unless they’re lying or being lied to.

That’s the tricky business of running for speaker of the House, where a small group of GOP lawmakers comprises the electorate, perception creates reality and the ballot is secret.

An Arizona Capitol Times analysis shows the race is still too close to call. Neither candidate has released a list of 19 Republicans – likely the majority of next year’s House GOP caucus – who are supporting their bids for speaker.

That’s partially because many of their targets are playing coy, arguably with good reason.

Publicly supporting the losing speaker candidate can have severe consequences for an ambitious lawmaker.

Stories of real or perceived retaliation against those who voted for a losing leadership candidate permeate the Capitol. Being on the outs with the speaker can mean a lawmaker is placed on subpar committees or stripped of committee chairmanships. Or worse, their bills never see the light of day.

Lawmakers have several strategies for dealing with hotly contested leadership races. The most obvious is to simply pick a candidate and vote for him or her.

But another more cautious strategy is to remain neutral as long as possible in order not to make the wrong enemies.

Even if they have a personal preference, some lawmakers believe it’s better not to publicly declare their allegiance too early, lest they wind up opposing the eventual victor. Instead, they wait until the race starts to tip, then join the winning side early enough to garner favor, but late enough to ensure it is, indeed, the winning side.

Others play the speaker-hopefuls against each other, holding out for offers of better committee assignments, chairmanships or other perks.

Some privately promise to support both candidates, knowing all the while that whichever side they choose, their ballot is kept secret and they can always claim they supported the eventual winner.

Which is how Mitchell and Mesnard can both claim to have 20 or more supporters in a future caucus they agree probably won’t be larger than 36 or, at best, 38 members.

Almost every lawmaker who has sought a contested leadership position at the Capitol tells a similar anecdote: If they received 10 votes, then 15 of their colleagues swore afterward to have supported them.

However, few leadership races end in a close vote-count. When one candidate appears to be gaining a clear advantage, lawmakers often swarm to the expected winner, hoping to gain favor in exchange for supporting the new speaker.

For months, Mesnard and Mitchell have been courting Republican incumbents and candidates who appear likely to win their election, attempting to convince them to publicly declare their support for either candidate. And following the primary election, both sides insisted they have the votes to win the speakership.

Trey Terry, a political consultant working for Mitchell’s campaign for speaker, said the primary election results solidified Mitchell’s lead.

“I feel very confident Darin Mitchell will have the support needed on the day after Election Day,” Terry said after the primary.

Mesnard, meanwhile, also declared victory and said Mitchell’s campaign is spreading misinformation in an attempt to remain relevant in the race.

“I understand anyone running for speaker is trying to create a perception, but I would just say to anyone who wants to know, just go ask the candidates and members themselves. It will become very obvious,” Mesnard responded.

With the exception of a handful of truly competitive seats and the possible Election Night upset, the next batch of representatives was essentially decided in the August 30 primary election.

Now the pressure is on for the returning and future Republican representatives to pick a side in the battle for the speakership.

Unchecked authority

The speaker controls almost every aspect of life in the House, from the roof down to the carpet.

He has unchecked authority over the chamber’s $13 million budget, the ability to hire and fire any employee in the building and the power to unilaterally kill any bill. The speaker is also the face of the chamber and the Republican majority, the dispute-settler between Republican and Democratic leadership squabbles and the scheduler of daily activities.

And Republicans have two distinct choices in Mitchell and Mesnard.

The two candidates have different backgrounds, come from different factions of the Republican Party, have different leadership styles and offer different visions for the House, though only Mesnard has put his vision on paper.

Mitchell, a home inspector who first arrived at the Capitol in 2012 after beating back a challenge to his candidacy stemming from a Arizona Capitol Times investigation showing he did not live in the district he sought to represent, hails from the most conservative wing of the party, commonly referred to as the “Liberty Caucus.”

He spent the past two years as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which deals with tax issues.  He also serves on the House Agriculture, Water and Lands Committee and the House Committee on Federalism and States’ Rights.

Much of the legislation he has passed into law has been relatively low profile, often centering on tax issues and water policy, which is a big deal in his expansive, largely rural district, which spans from Yuma to Litchfield Park, where Mitchell resides.

Mesnard, a former Senate policy analyst who has spent the past six years as a representative from Chandler, belongs to the middle third of the Republican caucus, neither part of the Liberty Caucus nor a member of the moderate wing of the party, a group sometimes referred to as the establishment or business wing.

He has served on the House Ways and Means Committee for six years, on the Commerce Committee for four years, including as chairman of that committee for one year during the latter half of his freshman term, and on the Judiciary and Elections committees for two years each. In 2013 and 2014, he served as the speaker pro tempore, a leadership position that essentially made him right hand man to then-Speaker Andy Tobin.

Second run for speaker

Mesnard ran for speaker in 2015, but lost to current speaker David Gowan, and subsequently was one of only two incumbent Republicans who did not receive a committee chairmanship in the Gowan administration.

He has shepherded into law some of the most high-profile bills of recent years, including a bill to expand the number of Arizona Supreme Court justices, legislation to outlaw “revenge porn” and a bill to loosen state regulations on so-called “dark money.”

But in the speaker’s race, Mesnard has struggled to distance himself from the more moderate wing of the party – even though he rarely, if ever, votes with them on hot-button issues that divide the caucus.

On the major issues of the past few years – budgets, Medicaid expansion, Kids Care restoration and drastic expansion of school choice programs – Mesnard and Mitchell’s voting records have been identical.

Still, Mesnard has been dogged by the perception that he is not conservative enough.

Republican Rep. Anthony Kern summarized many conservative Republicans’ sentiments when he said he’s supporting Mitchell because Mitchell is the more conservative candidate.

“It has nothing to do with personality. It has to do with (political) philosophy,” Kern said, adding that he would work well with either candidate.

Another criticism Mitchell and his supporters are lodging against Mesnard is that, with Mesnard’s seatmate, Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough, poised to take over the Senate presidency, that would give a lot of power to their Chandler-based Legislative District 17.

Mitchell’s supporters point to Yarbrough’s Grand Canyon University tax credit bill this year as an example where Mesnard voted for a bill he personally opposed because his seatmate asked him to. The bill failed miserably in the House on a 17-39 vote.

Mesnard copped to the fact that he supported the bill to “appease” his seatmate, but said there’s nothing unusual about that, and added that he and Yarbrough aren’t close.

“People throw one to their seatmates, that’s not unusual. But to try to make that translate into whatever Mitchell is saying, that I’m going to do whatever (Yarbrough) wants or something like that, A, that’s not how I work, and B, that’s not how the dynamic between the speaker and president ever works. My loyalty is to the House,” he said.

Mitchell, meanwhile has the challenge of distancing himself from the current speaker, David Gowan, whose disastrous speakership started with plans for massive renovation of the building that drew a written rebuke from half of the House Republican caucus and ended with an attorney general investigation into his use of state-owned vehicles for private and campaign purposes.

Mitchell wasn’t a member of the leadership team in the House, which faced extensive criticism from the caucus for its top-down approach. But he spent the past two years well within Gowan’s inner circle. His seatmate and close ally, Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro, served as the majority leader and is helping Mitchell’s campaign for the speakership.

Gowan, Montenegro and Mitchell were among the lawmakers caught traveling in state vehicles for suspicious purposes. Mitchell drove almost 3,200 miles in state-owned vehicles over a few months, including taking a state car on his trip to the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual conference in San Diego.

In an only slightly veiled reference to the current leadership team, and a nod to some of the criticism facing Mitchell’s candidacy, Mesnard wrote in a booklet outlining his vision for the speakership that “if the speaker’s primary M.O. is making threats and retaliation in order to demonstrate strength, then something is wrong.”

Picking sides in the primary

Casting a vote for speaker is a big decision for Republicans.

And because the leadership election usually takes place the day after the November election, before lawmakers are officially sworn into office and before all the ballots are even counted, it’s also the first decision any freshman Republicans will make at the Capitol.

That means a candidate who is barely leading in the polls on Election Night could cast the deciding vote for the House speaker on Wednesday afternoon, and then go on to lose their race as vote-counting continued Thursday.

Freshman Republicans, especially, play a big role in the leadership elections. While many of the incumbents naturally support their allies in the chamber for leadership elections – people they have built up relationships with over years at the Capitol, freshmen come in as fresh slates, and those seeking leadership positions often court them early and aggressively.

Both candidates’ strategies rely on incoming freshman lawmakers for support, some of whom may or may not actually end up winning their elections.

But Mesnard said Mitchell broke an unwritten rule in leadership campaigns by playing in the primaries.

During the primary, Mitchell hosted fundraisers for Republican House candidates who he believes would back him for speaker.

Several of the candidates Mitchell helped, such as David Stringer in Legislative District 1 and Travis Grantham in LD12, faced contested primary races in which their primary opponents backed Mesnard.

The outcome of those elections could determine who ends up as speaker.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for people who are in leadership or seeking leadership to be picking sides in the primary,” Mesnard said of Mitchell’s tactics.

In 2012, then Senate President Steve Pierce’s Republican Victory Fund bitterly split the caucus by spending six figures to help Sen. Rich Crandall defend his Senate seat in the primary against Rep. John Fillmore.

Many accused Pierce of picking sides in the primary to ensure he would remain Senate president. Crandall won re-election, and Pierce’s move might have cost him the presidency, as he lost the race for Senate president by one vote.

But Trey Terry, a political consultant working for Mitchell’s speaker campaign, said Mitchell’s and Pierce’s actions aren’t analogous.

First, Mitchell didn’t use the caucus’ independent expenditure committee to help candidates; instead, he just connected them to political donors. Second, Pierce was sitting president at the time, which is different from being a candidate for the chamber’s top office, Terry said.

“You can pick sides in the primary based on how you want the Republican caucus to look, what kind of Republican caucus you want to have,” he said, adding that’s acceptable even if the goal is to select a caucus that would support Mitchell’s bid for speaker.

Mesnard said he tried to be helpful to all Republican House candidates in the primary, even if they support Mitchell for speaker, but he made a clear distinction between “being open and helpful and (offering) equal opportunity, and endorsing or trying to pull someone across the finish line at someone else’s expense.”

‘Mesnard has got it’

There are signs Mesnard is pulling ahead.

The Arizona Capitol Times reached out to all 37 possible or likely members of the GOP caucus in 2017. Eight didn’t return calls for comments, and dozen others said they either haven’t made up their minds or didn’t want to disclose their decision.

Seventeen have publicly declared support to one candidate or another. Thirteen of those are publicly backing Mesnard, while four have pledged their allegiance to Mitchell.

But several of those who have pledged to Mesnard were surprises, and considered pickups from Mitchell’s natural base of support.

Mesnard recently scored an important ally in Republican Rep. David Livingston, who is now publicly endorsing Mesnard’s campaign for speaker. Livingston is considered one of the chamber’s stalwart conservatives, undercutting Mitchell’s claim that the conservative wing of the caucus is solidly behind him.

Republican Paul Mosley also surprised Mitchell’s camp when he announced on the day after the primary that he would be supporting Mesnard.

Mosley said both Mesnard and Mitchell have been actively seeking his vote, and even though Mitchell helped him immensely with his primary election campaign, he and Mesnard have “created quite a good friendship.”

Mosley said Mesnard has more experience as a lawmaker than Mitchell and he thinks he’ll be a unifying force.

Mitchell’s Senate seatmate, Republican Don Shooter, was also seeking the speakership as he moved from the Senate to the House, but bowed out of the race following the primary election.

He said the results convinced him he didn’t have a chance to become speaker himself, and further cemented his belief that Mesnard has a solid lead in the race.

“The numbers I come up with are (Mesnard) with maybe 24, and Mitchell with maybe 12 on a good day. Mesnard has got it. This race is over,” Shooter said, adding he has crunched the numbers with others who agree with that assessment.

Now that it has become clear that Mesnard has the advantage, Shooter said Mitchell’s problem is: “How do you convince people to go to a sinking ship from a ship that’s floating away? The truth is, you can’t.”

Shooter said he didn’t get any promises from Mesnard for supporting him. But Shooter plans to make his case that he would be a good chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which he currently chairs in the Senate.

“But my support is not conditional. And that’s not because I’m altruistic – I just want to be on the winning side,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Mesnard had never been chairman of a committee. He was chairman of the House Commerce Committee for one year in his freshman term.

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