Former Senate President Steve Pierce is poised to make a reluctant comeback at the Capitol in the wake of David Stringer’s sudden resignation on Wednesday.
Candidates for the appointment to the Legislative District 1 House seat have not even been narrowed down yet, but a desire for a swift return to the usual order of business has the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors eyeing Pierce, a legislative veteran whose only interest is in serving through the remainder of Stringer’s term.
Pierce said he did not volunteer himself but rather was asked to step up by the precinct committeemen.
“I told them that I didn’t want to go down there, that I’ve been there and done that, but that I would do it to help in any way I could until the next election,” he said.
If appointed to the seat, Pierce said he will not seek re-election at the end of the term.
State GOP spokesman Zachery Henry said the Secretary of State’s Office gave the party official notice of the House vacancy yesterday evening, and the party will notify the Yavapai County Republican Committee by tomorrow morning at the latest.
The committeemen intend to meet on Sunday to select three candidates for the county supervisors’ consideration. They have five days to make their selections, but with Pierce as a clear frontrunner, supervisors are already anticipating the final list by April 1 ahead of the regularly scheduled meeting on April 3.
Yavapai County District 5 Supervisor Jack Smith said Pierce served the district well when he was in the Legislature from 2009 to 2017, and he’s confident Pierce could get back to work quickly.
“We need somebody that can hit the ground running. We need to have somebody that knows the process, knows what’s going on and can continue the drive on a lot of our issues,” he said.
Each of the candidates will be considered on their merits, he said. In any case, the supervisors are hopeful they will be able to vote on the appointee April 3 and begin to move on without Stringer.
“Our past makes us who we are today,” Smith said. “It hurts everybody because we have a lot of work to do in our state, our great state. But we’re going to take care of the process and move forward now.”
Whoever gets the appointment will presumably come into the House with less baggage than Stringer.
But District 2 Supervisor Thomas Thurman said he’d prefer to give the seat to someone who does not intend to run for the office later. He doesn’t want to give the impression the supervisors have a preference for the would-be incumbent.
“It’s tough to beat an incumbent unless they’re inept,” Thurman said. “I don’t want to even go there.”
District 1 Supervisor Rowle Simmons likes Pierce for his disinterest in running later, too, but more importantly, there would be no learning curve in the middle of session with Pierce.
If he is on the list submitted to the supervisors, Simmons said he’s likely “a slam dunk.”
The voters of Legislative District 1 may recognize a few other names on the list of hopefuls, including Stringer’s 2018 primary opponent Jodi Rooney and former secretary of state turned failed gubernatorial candidate Ken Bennett.
Like Pierce, Bennett has experience at the Legislature. But his rash of failed campaigns in the last three elections don’t seem to be working in his favor.
Even Simmons, who said he’s been a staunch Bennett supporter in the past, thinks “it’s time for Ken to hang it up.”
A full list of candidates is available in the Yavapai County Republican Committee letter below. Story continues after the document window.
Whoever the supervisors ultimately select will join the House at a tumultuous time.
The appointee could start as early as April 3, day 78 of the legislative session. Much has yet to be settled, including what will come of tax conformity negotiations and the state budget.
But Stringer’s departure does check a box on the House’s to-do list.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers was relieved to be done with that at least.
“I’m grateful that the House will not be forced to take action against one of our members, and we can begin to put this matter behind us,” Bowers said in a statement accepting Stringer’s resignation after nearly a year of distraction.
Calls for Stringer’s resignation have resounded through the Capitol since last June, when his first comments many found offensive were caught on tape and shared publicly.
He said there weren’t “enough white kids to go around” in Arizona’s public schools and warned the Yavapai Republican Men’s Forum that immigration was an “existential threat” to the country.
“If we don’t do something about immigration very, very soon, the demographics of our country will be irrevocably changed and we will be a very different country and we will not be the country you were born into,” Stringer told the group.
He insisted that his comments had been well-received at the time but were later taken out of context. Prominent members of his party, including Gov. Doug Ducey and then-Arizona Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Lines, disagreed. They joined a chorus of calls for Stringer to step down, even before the multiple bombshells that landed over the next few months.
Another recording followed in November, this time featuring Stringer telling Arizona State University students that African Americans “don’t blend in.” The students challenged him, asking whether people looking different mattered to him.
“I don’t know,” Stringer responded. “Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it doesn’t to a lot of people. It seems to matter to a lot of people who move out of Detroit, who move out of Baltimore. You know we have white flight in this country.”
Again he was called on to resign. Again he remained steadfast.
But he did lose something in the wake of that controversy.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers stripped him of his chairmanship of the newly created House Sentencing and Recidivism Reform Committee. Stringer had sought the committee for years in his quest for comprehensive criminal justice reform. But before its first meeting, Bowers dissolved the committee altogether. Several bills that may have stood a chance before Stringer instead died without a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.
Stringer was additionally removed from the Judiciary Committee and the House Education Committee. That left him with just one assignment to the committee on government, but even that would not last.
The real shocker came in January.
The Phoenix New Times reported that Stringer was indicted in Baltimore, Maryland, on five sex offenses, including a charge for child pornography, in 1983. Expunged records the New Times seems to have obtained in a fluke indicated guilty judgements were entered by the Baltimore Circuit Court for three of the charges.
Stringer never returned multiple requests for comment from the Arizona Capitol Times, but he did insist on his innocence through Capitol Media Services without providing details about why he had plead guilty to anything.
“I have never been convicted of a crime,” he said. “The case was expunged 29 years ago.”
That wasn’t good enough for many of his colleagues. Calls for his resignation turned to calls for his expulsion.
Bowers removed Stringer from his final committee assignment pending an ethics investigation that was launched by complaints from Reps. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, and Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, who had first sought unsuccessfully to simply expel Stringer on the floor.
Stringer continued to resist calls for his resignation.
In doing so, he left Legislative District 1 with just one representative, Rep. Noel Campbell, able to vote on legislation during the crucial committee hearing process.
House spokesman Matt Specht could not immediately say whether Stringer’s replacement would receive any committee assignments. But it hardly matters now: The deadline to hear bills in committee was March 29.