Insiders predict several experienced politicians could replace ousted Harris in House

Insiders predict several experienced politicians could replace ousted Harris in House

Senate President Steve Yarbrough (R-Chandler) (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Former state Senate President Steve Yarbrough, pictured here, is one of the possible replacements for Republican Liz Harris, who was expelled as a state representative on April 12, 2023, after the House Ethics Committee released a report that found then-Representative Harris violated a House rule and engaged in disorderly behavior. Yarbrough, also a Republican, confirmed his interest to the Arizona Capitol Times and said he was informed by the Legislative District 13 GOP that the nominees would be named by the night of April 17. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Insiders are predicting several experienced politicians are potential replacements for Liz Harris after the Arizona House of Representatives voted 46-13 to expel the Chandler Republican from the Legislature because she allowed a guest speaker to make “defamatory” criminal allegations against elected officials at a February legislative hearing.

The expulsion on April 12 came a day after the House Ethics Committee released a report that found then-Representative Harris violated a House rule and engaged in disorderly behavior when she invited Scottsdale Realtor Jacqueline Breger to a joint Elections Committee hearing on Feb. 23 that damaged the “institutional integrity of the House.”

Among the possible replacements for Harris is Julie Willoughby, according to Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler. He said Willoughby, who lost to Harris by fewer than 300 votes in the 2022 general election, is an obvious candidate. Ron Hardin, who lost in the Republican House primary in LD13 last year, also expressed interest at a local party meeting this week, he said.

Willoughby didn’t respond to request for comment. Former Senate President Steve Yarbrough is also interested in the vacant seat, first reported by The Washington Post. Yarbrough confirmed his interest to the Arizona Capitol Times and said he was informed by the LD13 GOP that the nominees would be named by the night of April 17.

“I have no idea whether I’ll be one of the three and, of course, if I were, who knows what the board of supervisors would do after that,” Yarbrough said.

After the vote to expel Harris, House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said, “It’s a sad day. It’s not to be taken lightly. I don’t think it was taken lightly.”

Harris, expelled, House, legislation, Yarbrough, House, ethics
Republican Liz Harris, who at this time was a state representative, speaks on the floor of the Arizona House of Representatives on March 13, 2023. (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

A House resolution was filed shortly before the motion to expel Harris and the resolution was read on the floor prior to the vote. It states that Harris “undermined the public’s confidence in this institution and violated the order and decorum necessary to complete the people’s work in the State of Arizona.”

During the Elections Committee hearing, Breger accused private citizens, elected officials including Gov. Katie Hobbs and Toma, judges, as well as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of participating in a bribery deed scheme and public corruption with the Sinaloa Cartel.

Breger was representing suspended attorney John Thaler, who presented the same allegations to a federal judge. The judge dismissed Thaler’s case as “a delusional and fantastical narrative.”

She was invited by Harris in an attempt to platform election conspiracy and the House Ethics Committee determined Harris knew the contents of Breger’s presentation before the elections hearing and made efforts to avoid having House leadership screen the presentation before it occurred.

Harris didn’t speak during the vote to expel her. As she packed her office belongings into her vehicle after she was expelled, she told Arizona’s Family the ethics report is a “lie” and she is an example of what happens when a lawmaker doesn’t “toe the line.”

Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, who was among the Republican lawmakers present at the Election Committee hearing, said he was disappointed that Breger’s presentation was allowed.

“It tied my reputation without my consent to allegations that I don’t wish to be associated with,” Kolodin said as he explained his vote against expelling Harris.

Kolodin explained that he thought Harris made an “error in judgment” but didn’t think expulsion was the appropriate action for the House to take.

“It sets a bad precedent cause we don’t want to expel members for what members of the public say. It sets a bad precedent because we now assume that because she knew some of the stuff in the testimony, that she knew it all; which is a bad rule of evidence to go by,” Kolodin said. “It sets a bad precedent because it says we’re going to expel members for playing shell games and hiding the ball. Well, if we start expelling members for that, there would only be a few occupied seats down here.”

Most of the 13 Republicans who voted against expelling Harris were Arizona Freedom Caucus members. Ethics Chairman Rep. Joe Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, and Ethics Committee member Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, voted against expelling Harris despite the committee unanimously ruling she violated a House rule. Chaplik said the committee made no recommendations for actions to take against Harris because an incident of this magnitude should be decided by the entire body.

“The board has decided her fate and I’ll tell you this is a difficult decision,” Chaplik said when it became clear that the expulsion resolution had two-thirds of the votes it needed to pass.

Chaplik led the Ethics Committee hearing for Harris on March 30, where she testified that she knew about the bribery deed scheme Breger had presented but didn’t think it would be included. Ethics members reviewed anonymously leaked text messages that were screenshotted from Thaler’s phone during the hearing that show Thaler, Breger and Harris discussing Breger’s testimony before and after the joint elections hearing.

Thaler confirmed the messages were screenshotted from his phone in a cease-and-desist letter he sent to Chaplik following the hearing. He noted in the letter that he didn’t provide the committee with those messages and didn’t authorize anyone to give them to the committee. The committee’s report states the way the messages were provided was “unusual,” but Chaplik determined they were relevant.

In his letter dated April 3, Thaler threatened to sue, demanded the committee stop disseminating the text messages, recall all copies sent to others and destroy any existing copies of the messages, including striking any reference to them in the transcript of the hearing. Thaler also defended Breger’s testimony and claimed there have been computer hacking attempts to hinder his work and destroy his office’s files.

“Fact is neither you nor the complainant has any idea what evidence we have gathered or the story of unchecked rampant public corruption it tells,” Thaler wrote.

Rep. Stephanie Stahl-Hamilton, D-Tucson, initially filed the ethics complaint against Harris. The Ethics Committee affirmed her complaint that Breger made criminal allegations, which Harris denied during the Ethics Committee hearing. That committee largely rejected Harris’ testimony and Toma said after her expulsion that she contradicted herself numerous times during the ethics process.

“The only thing that we have down here is our word and our integrity. And when that is clearly crossed; when you can no longer count on someone’s word or integrity, they can no longer be an effective legislator. They cannot represent their district well. They cannot be a part of anything significant and so as difficult as it was, it was just the inevitable and the right thing to do,” Toma said.

Toma also denied his vote to expel Harris or the ethics investigation was personal even though he was named by Thaler and Breger as a lawmaker who was allegedly taking bribes. Harris was the lone Republican who initially refused to vote for a “skinny” budget in February. The joint Elections Committee hearing was scheduled shortly after Harris eventually voted for the budget and some consultants speculated Toma granted Harris the hearing in exchange for her vote, although Toma has never confirmed that.

The vote to expel Harris didn’t come easily for many Republicans. Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, voted to expel former Rep. Don Shooter in 2018, and he told his fellow lawmakers not to take their vote lightly. He voted to expel Harris and said while the vote should hurt for members, the institution was more important than any individual member.

“I’ve had to do this one other time and I think of that vote all the time,” Livingston said.

All Democrats voted to expel Harris except for Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, D-Tucson. Gutierrez wasn’t present on the floor because she was sick, but she said on Twitter she would have voted to expel Harris.

House Minority Leader Andrés Cano, D-Tucson, thanked the Ethics Committee for taking the investigation seriously and upholding the legislative duty to gather facts and evidence.

“Misinformation, lies and conspiracies are not harmless, and it’s not just politics. The defamatory allegations that Representative Harris invited her guest speaker to make are patently absurd, but there are many people who believe them. They believe the lies, and they continue to threaten retribution because we dispute them,” Cano said in the statement.

After Harris was expelled, members in the gallery supporting Harris shouted toward the floor that representatives should be ashamed and another said, “You will all be dealt with.” House members have been getting flooded with mass emails from a group calling itself “We, the People” threatening retribution if the House took action against Harris.

According to state law, the Legislative District 13 Republican precinct committees will pick three candidates to fill Harris’ seat. Those nominees will go to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which will make the final choice.

Mesnard said other names have been thrown around, though he could not verify each person’s interest. That list includes Chandler City Council member Mark Stewart, and former Chandler City Council members Rene Lopez and Nora Ellen – Mesnard’s mother.

Other names rumored to be interested in the vacancy include Darla Gonzalez, grassroots director for the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, and Marsha Atkin, a former New Mexico legislator who lives in the East Valley.

Mesnard was unsure if a candidate’s re-electability would factor into the LD13 Republican Party’s decision on who to nominate, noting that some candidates like Willoughby are poised to run for re-election but others, such as his mother, probably would not run in 2024.

“Those could all be variables that could help or hurt depending on who you’re talking to,” he said.
LD13 GOP Chair Marcia Weiss signed a letter with other Republican leaders in the 5th Congressional District that condemned the House’s decision to expel Harris and said it sets precedent that will be used against Republican lawmakers by Democrats “for generations to come.”

“It is disappointing that a more suitable disciplinary action was not found in response to the Ethics Committee Report versus the most extreme action that was possible,” CD5 GOP leadership wrote in the letter.

Harris’ removal from office narrows the Republican slim majority in the House to 30-29, and the caucus won’t be able to pass any legislation on party lines until another Republican is appointed to replace Harris.

The House is taking April 17-21 off, which allows some time to replace Harris. Although Toma said the week off was more related to having needed discussions to move forward with the state budget and not related to Harris.

Yellow Sheet Editor Wayne Schutsky contributed reporting to this article.