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From intern to speaker: J.D. Mesnard rises to the top at the House of Representatives

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When Javan “J.D.” Mesnard first showed up at the Capitol in 2002, he was a messy-haired 21-year-old music composition major who had quit his job as a pizza delivery driver for a full-time internship researching bills for the Senate Education Committee.

Next year, he’ll likely be speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives.

Mesnard, a 36-year-old Republican from Chandler, has spent almost his entire adult life at the Legislature.

Following the internship, he got a job as an assistant policy adviser to the Senate Republican caucus. After eight years on the staff, Mesnard resigned and ran for an open seat in the House, where he has served since 2011. On the side, he has completed master’s degrees in public and business administration, teaches government classes at Mesa Community College and owns a real estate business.

Now running for his final term in the House from his solidly Republican Legislative District 17, Mesnard has risen to the top in the race to become the next speaker on a platform of renovating and restoring the institution of the House of Representatives.

Mesnard’s rise was boosted by a document he sent to all Republican lawmakers and candidates for the House outlining his vision for the speakership.

In the 27-page document, which he tiled “A Comprehensive Plan for Reconstructing the Institution of the House and Establishing Caucus-Driven Leadership,” Mesnard promised to restore integrity to the chamber, empower the rank-and-file lawmakers to actually have a say in the budgeting process and to change the House rules to make the chamber run more efficiently.

Many of those changes to rules and procedures – such as establishing House Appropriations subcommittees to examine specific aspects of the budget in more detail – were pulled from a list of best practices that he has compiled in his 14 years as a staffer and lawmaker, watching other legislative leaders succeed and fail.

The speaker is elected by a majority of the House Republican caucus on the day after the general election. Though the leadership election isn’t until November 9, Mesnard has already locked up support from 21 Republicans, a solid majority of the next caucus, and appears poised to beat back his only challenger, Republican Rep. Darin Mitchell.

The invisible line

Mesnard jokes that somewhere in the rose garden between the House and Senate is an invisible line that divides “Javan”, his given name that he used as a staffer, from “J.D.”, the name he has always used when running for office (the D stands for Daniel).

Many longtime Senate staffers still remember “Javan” as the fresh-faced intern who arrived at the Capitol in 2002. In fact, the first time he sat in the speaker’s chair while chairing the Committee of the Whole, he got a text from a senior Senate staffer telling in a motherly way that he needed to sit up straighter.

Senate Chief of Staff Wendy Baldo, who was Mesnard’s boss for eight years while he was on staff, remembers being impressed with young Mesnard.

“He was very eager. He wanted to learn. He was willing to go the extra mile on things. And when you’re on policy staff, especially in the majority, you have a lot of exposure to the leadership, you’re constantly briefing them on things,” she said.

When he told Baldo he was quitting the staff in order to run for office, she wasn’t surprised. Even as an intern, it was clear he was smart, conservative and interested in someday running for office.

“I thought at that time that he probably would be a good legislator. And I still think he’s a good legislator,” she said.

Mesnard’s time on staff has had a profound impact on his approach as a lawmaker – an approach that shines through the document he sent to Republicans outlining his goals as speaker.

The packet is chock-full of highly technical rule changes that will speed up the legislative process in the notoriously chaotic and slow House.

Some of the proposed changes are as simple as promising to assign bills to committees quickly, while other changes are more sweeping, like his proposal to crack down on “strike-everything amendments.”

Other parts of his platform are designed to ensure that lawmakers, not lobbyists, are the ones running the show at the Capitol.

One of his suggested changes is to bar lobbyists from carrying around so-called intro sets, or legislation that has yet to be filed as an official bill, as they shop for legislators willing to sponsor it.

“In the past, Intro Sets were quasi sacred, as they represented a possible change to state law,” he wrote.

The changes reflect his views of the Legislature from the vantage point of a former staffer.

Staffers often venerate the institution of the Legislature, while essentially rolling their eyes at many of the lawmakers who occupy the House and Senate.

Besides gaining the inside knowledge of how the staff works, how good and bad policies are drafted and the technical details of how the House and Senate run, Mesnard left his staff position with a somewhat sardonic view of the lawmakers themselves. That has helped him not take himself too seriously.

He said he remembers watching lawmakers fret over decisions that were politically risky, and thinking they were being melodramatic and self-involved.

“I have that perspective from when I was on staff, where I can remind myself this is not the whole world. It can feel like the whole world when you’re down here. In fact, I remember joking with some of my colleagues at the time that if I ever turn into one of those legislators who are scared of their own shadow, just hit me upside the head,” he said.

Drawing fire from Democrats

Now as an elected official himself, Mesnard feels that stress of having to decide on politically risky votes, and he knows how every little vote can be used against you in an election.

But that hasn’t stopped him from sponsoring and fighting for some of the most controversial bills at the Legislature in recent years.

The bills he backs are often highly partisan – popular within the GOP and derided by Democrats.

In his freshman term, he focused on economic development legislation that Republicans argue would grow the economy. Democrats criticized it as irresponsible handouts to corporations that would destabilize the state budget.

This year, he drew fire from Democrats for his legislation to expand the state Supreme Court to seven members from five. Democrats called it an only slightly veiled way to allow Gov. Doug Ducey to pack the court with two new judges who are beholden to him.

Over the past few years, he has also sponsored several high-profile election bills that had Democrats and others up in arms.

He notably drew criticism from Democrats and Libertarians alike for his attempt to make it more difficult for third party candidates to qualify for the ballot. He justified the legislation by stating if there were no Libertarians on the ballot, Republicans would have won two additional congressional seats in 2012.

He also has sponsored legislation to loosen state regulations on dark money and increase the maximum amount donors can contribute to lawmakers’ campaigns.

Democrats hated those bills, and called them an ugly example of the GOP majority in the Legislature trying to rig the system to their advantage.

But Mesnard never backed down, and has become known as the go-to guy to debate Democrats on the House floor over complex policies that are priorities for the GOP, whether or not he actually sponsored the bills.

Matured by marriage

This isn’t Mesnard’s first attempt to become speaker. In 2014, he also ran for the position but was defeated by Republican David Gowan.

Mesnard said he lost that race because he was also planning his wedding at the time, and the dynamics were different because it was a three-way race.

But Republicans who backed Gowan last time, and are backing Mesnard this time, said there were other factors as well.

In 2014, Mesnard was entering his junior term at the House, meaning if he was elected, he could have remained as speaker for four years.

Republican Rep. David Livingston said part of the reason he didn’t want to support Mesnard in the last speaker election was because, at the time, Livingston wanted to run for speaker in 2016.

Livingston eventually decided not to seek the position this year, partly because he is entering his junior term, and understands many people wouldn’t support him for the same reasons he didn’t support Mesnard.

Left brain, right brain

But he said Mesnard has also personally matured since he lost his last race for speaker, and the most obvious evidence of that is that he’s now married.

“Marriage matures you. It makes you look at life a little different because you have a partner, and successful marriages have discussions and debate, but you still work it out. And that skill applies to politics, without a doubt,” Livingston said, adding that Mesnard’s wife, Holly, has been a good influence on his life.

Former Senate President Ken Bennett has known Mesnard since Day 1. Bennett was chairman of the Senate Education Committee in 2002, and Mesnard was his committee intern. The next year, Bennett became Senate president and hired Mesnard on full-time.

“I know how to pick them,” Bennett proudly declared.

One of the things that endeared Mesnard to Bennett early on was that they both share a love of music. Bennett is renowned around the Capitol for composing “sine die” songs – covers of famous tunes but with lyrics Bennett writes himself about the Legislative session.

Mesnard helped him on a similar project – a cover of Sonny and Cher’s duet “I Got You Babe” that Bennett sang with a Democratic lawmaker, but with lyrics that reflected each side of the aisle’s feelings about a complex policy issue.

Bennett said when Mesnard nailed that project, he knew he would make a good lawmaker.

“If you have skills in music, I think it speaks positively about your skills as a legislator,” Bennett said.

Bennett explained that those two seemingly different skills – playing music and being an effective politician – actually have a lot in common. Playing music, Bennett notes, is one of the few actions that require simultaneous use of both the logical, analytical left brain, and the creative, artsy right brain.

Being a good lawmaker requires similar left-brain-right-brain functionality, Bennett said, because politics is an art, and policy is a science.

The best of the best

Mesnard’s 14 years at the Capitol is no small feat, considering lawmakers are limited to serving eight consecutive years in each chamber.

Democratic Rep. Lela Alston of Phoenix is the only lawmaker returning next year who has spent more years of her life at the Capitol than Mesnard, and she did the bulk of her time between the late-1970s and the mid-1990s, before voters enacted term limits on lawmakers.

Even six years of being an elected official stands out in the House, where few lawmakers have that much experience. In 2017, only seven legislators in the 60-member House will have more years of lawmaking under their belts than Mesnard.

And in his time at the Capitol, Mesnard has seen the state through some very distinct times.

When he arrived to the Capitol as an intern, the Senate was split evenly between 15 Republicans and 15 Democrats and the two parties had to share control.

The first year he was elected to the House, Republicans gained a supermajority, or 40 of the 60 seats, allowing Republicans to run roughshod over the Democrats.

And Mesnard sees the benefit in both of those situations.

With a split Senate, lawmakers had to work extra hard to ensure every policy had something both sides could agree on, and the policies crafted had to be thoughtful.

But with a supermajority, the politics were more congenial. Lawmakers didn’t face the same level of pressure to stick with their party-mates, since the GOP could lose nine votes and still have a majority.

Mesnard hopes his speakership, like his platform, can take the best aspects of those two times and mesh a congenial atmosphere with thoughtful policy.

“I’ve seen and served under a lot of different leaderships. I think the advantage I have is the ability to take the best of the best (ideas) that I’ve seen over these last 14 years,” he said.

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