When it comes to political power, the quiet bedroom community of Gilbert carries a big stick. The once tiny farm town is home to more than 180,000 residents and three of the state Legislature’s most influential lawmakers.
Republican state Reps. Andy Biggs, Eddie Farnsworth and Sen. Thayer Verschoor combine for more than 14 years of legislative experience and preside over three key legislative committees.
But that could change next month.
Furious over a number of legislative issues, the Gilbert Town Council has turned its back on the longtime lawmakers and thrown its support behind three relatively unknown Republican candidates with little or no political experience: Karl Kohloff and Terri Lea Tobey for the House, and Joe Bedgood for the Senate.
The rare move by the council transformed what could have been an easy re-election campaign into a political civil war that’s strained political and personal relationships and threatens to shift the balance of power at the statehouse.
“It’s gotten pretty bitter,” said Bill Norton, chairman of the Republican Party in District 22, which covers Gilbert, parts of Mesa and Apache Junction. “When you boil it down, what we have here is a situation where the Town Council is upset about a single issue.”
The issue? A bill sponsored by Biggs this year requiring Gilbert to provide fire coverage for unincorporated areas of town — also known as county islands.
Norton said there are subtle philosophical and political differences between the council and the legislators, but it was Biggs’ bill that sparked the local political fury.
The measure, HB2145, required local fire departments to provide service to county islands that make up more than 20 percent of a town’s or city’s planning area.
Town officials warned the measure could cost local taxpayers more than $7 million over the next five years.
Even so, the Gilbert lawmakers pushed forward and the Legislature eventually approved the bill.
But last week, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled the law was unconstitutional because it unfairly targeted Gilbert.
“This bill wasn’t good for Gilbert,” agreed Councilwoman Joan Kruger. “And from my perspective, I’m not convinced the incumbents have the best interests of Gilbert in mind.”
“It’s time for something new in District 22,” she said.
Like Kruger, Gilbert legislative challengers expressed concern over the widening rift between the Town Council and lawmakers.
They said the fire protection bill highlighted their differences.
“They don’t really represent the cities and towns. And they’re not middle-of-the-road Republicans,” said Karl Kohlhoff, a retired Mesa employee running against Biggs and Farnsworth.
But Biggs — who lives on a county island — said the council and his opponents need to remember they represent more than just Gilbert.
“We also represent Mesa, Apache Junction, and we also have to think of what’s best for Maricopa County and the state,” Biggs said last week after a candidates forum.
He then criticized his opponents, painting them as opportunists who seized on his bill for political gain.
“If they were so concerned about this issue, then why didn’t they show up to any of the legislative or committee meetings we had downtown?” Biggs asked.
The issue extends beyond the arena of hardball politics.
The battle is very personal for some as it’s pitted longtime political allies against one another and strained personal friendships that go back years.
None is so affected as the relationship between Verschoor and Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman.
The outspoken mayor had once worked on Verschoor’s political campaign. In fact, Berman takes credit for getting the senator elected.
But Berman, who recruited at least one of the challengers, said he isn’t supporting or voting for Verschoor this year.
Although Verschoor didn’t write the fire service bill, the mayor said he should have done more to kill it.
“I don’t want to say anything negative about Thayer, but to speak candidly, I think he’s as guilty as the rest of them,” he said last week.
Berman maintains they have a good relationship, saying “he’s still my friend” — although he noted they haven’t spoken much lately.
But when it came to Farnsworth, Berman was blunt. “He’s called me a liar, and I think he needs to grow up,” he said. “I think you’re going to see some changes in the district this year.”
However, an endorsement from the council doesn’t necessarily translate into a political victory — and it doesn’t seem to worry the incumbents.
“I think voters are going to make up their own minds,” Farnsworth said. “I think this has all been blown way out of proportion.”
With no official polling results available, it’s uncertain where the race stands. But if the challengers were to sweep the incumbents out of office, the political fallout would be felt beyond the district’s borders.
Currently, the three lawmakers oversee the House Transportation and Judiciary committees and the Senate Transportation Committee.
Next year, Biggs plans to make a run for House speaker, and Verschoor could land a spot in Senate leadership, which sets the tone and direction of the session.
As experienced legislators, the three can flex their collective political muscle to deliver projects coveted by the East Valley.
For example, the three Gilbert legislators were involved in cutting a deal for the expanded Arizona State University Polytechnic campus that with its neighbor, the Williams Gateway Airport, is considered by many regional leaders as essential to the economic vitality of the East Valley.
Many people believe the deal wouldn’t have happened without the experienced lawmakers and their influence.
If the Gilbert challengers score an upset, that could weaken the political force in the East Valley.
Freshmen lawmakers have little say on issues.
“They’d be a vote on the floor, but they wouldn’t have any influence on policy,” said Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa.