Senate Republicans chose a Prescott rancher Thursday as president to replace Russell Pearce who was ousted from the Legislature entirely by voters in his Mesa district two days earlier.
Steve Pierce of Prescott edged out Andy Biggs, a retired Gilbert attorney, by one vote after a closed-door meeting that lasted more than an hour. But Biggs remains majority leader and said he will have no problem working with Pierce.
The Republicans also chose Tucson’s Frank Antenori as majority whip, filling the position that Pierce previously occupied.
The new president said he does not expect major changes in the agenda for Senate Republicans, who control 21 of the 30 seats, from the way the chamber was run by Russell Pearce. But Steve Pierce sidestepped questions of whether the Senate will continue the sharp focus on issues involving illegal immigration.
Pierce was one of several Republicans who voted with Democrats to kill several measures that Pearce and most of the other members of the caucus wanted.
One would have denied state birth certificates to children of illegal immigrants. Another sought to force schools to collect data on students who could not prove legal presence in the country, though it would not have denied them permission to enroll.
Pierce sidestepped questions of whether he will continue that focus, saying the decision really is not his.
“My position is to do what the caucus wants to bring forward,’’ he said. “And if that comes about, why, that’s going to be one of the issues.’’
That disappointed Senate Minority Leader David Schapira.
The Tempe Democrat said Pierce is “tone deaf’’ if he believes that Arizonans want the Legislature to spend time debating immigration issues. Schapira said lawmakers need to instead focus on economic issues.
Pierce agreed — sort of.
“I think the No. 1 issue we have is the economy and working forward with getting the state back to work and getting people back to where they can afford to make their house payments,’’ he said. But the new Senate president said that does not mean members of his caucus are giving up in their bid to have Arizona do what it can in the fight against illegal immigration.
That’s also the assessment of Antenori.
He said he expects some of the defeated measures to come back, particularly the one on counting the number of children in public schools who are neither citizens nor legal U.S. residents. Antenori said that will help gauge the actual cost of illegal immigration on Arizona taxpayers.
“The electorate ... wants to know what it’s costing them, and why we’re not being compensated by the federal government,’’ Antenori said. “The issue isn’t going to be educating kids as much as why we have to shoulder the burden for the rest of the country.’’
He said once there is a firm number, that will pressure the federal government “to chip in at least a portion of that.’’
Thursday’s closed caucus was also the first for Jerry Lewis, the Republican who defeated Pearce in Tuesday’s recall. Antenori said it remains to be seen how well he gets along with his new colleagues.
“There were several people who voiced some concerns about his loyalty because of how he got there, who it was who got him there — and who he’s beholden to,’’ he said. That refers to the fact that one of the key recall organizers was Randy Parraz who is not only a registered Democrat but actually tried to be that party’s nominee last year for U.S. Senate.
Lewis declined to discuss his reception, other than to tell reporters he believes he was treated fairly.
Antenori said Lewis addressed the caucus, telling them he believes in Republican principles.
“He didn’t really answer the question about the loyalty thing,’’ Antenori said. “We’ll see how it goes. We’ll see how he votes.’’
Biggs said he does not believe there will be issues.
“Everybody got to state what their thoughts were, their ideas were,’’ he said. “Then we all basically held hands and said, ‘Let’s get on with the vote.’ ’’
And Pierce said he does not believe that, in the long term, the Republicans who supported Pearce will try to torpedo any legislation Lewis sponsors.
“He’s a part of the caucus and we’re all a team now,’’ Pierce said.
“We’ve got to move on now,’’ he continued. “Yesterday was yesterday and we’ve got to look to the future and do what’s right for the state.’’
One potential shift has to do with geography: Two members of the GOP leadership team are now from outside Maricopa County.
Pierce said he believes the Legislature already has been taking care of the whole state. But Antenori said he’s not sure that all the attention — and all the resources — have been spread around equally, particularly in southern Arizona, citing the forest fires of the last few years.
“All the attention went to the Wallow fire, the Monument fire,’’ he said. “And the Horseshoe 2 fire didn’t quite get the attention.
But the issues, Antenori said, go beyond specific events like that, to the question of economic development.
“If you look at the employment numbers, Maricopa County’s economy is starting to pick up and Pima County’s stagnating,’’ he said. Antenori said lawmakers need to push plans to create an “aerospace, high tech, biosciences corridor’’ in southern Arizona.
Pierce waged his campaign based on the argument that the GOP caucus had become divided, not only over immigration but other issues. He described himself as a compromise voice between the more conservative elements represented by Biggs and those who are more moderate like Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, who opted not to offer his name for nomination for the post.
Biggs, who lost by one vote, said he will be able to work with Pierce, at least in part because of the new president’s promise to pay attention to the wishes of the majority of the caucus rather than advancing his own agenda.
“If we have a majority of our caucus that wants to put a bill up on the board (for a vote), that’s what’s going to happen,’’ Biggs said, even if all the Republicans do not ultimately vote for the measure.
According to his official bio, the 61-year-old Pierce is a third-generation Arizonan, moving to Prescott as a young child when his father, Delbert, acquired the first of several properties now know as the Las Vegas Ranch. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in animal science.