May 11, 2005
Banning photo radar on Valley freeways? Voted down twice in the state House of Representatives after sailing through the Senate. Applying organized crime penalties to ecoterrorists?
Vetoed for the second straight year by Gov. Janet Napolitano.
Repealing the AIMS test as a requirement for high school graduation? Blocked by the Senate’s most powerful leader — President Ken Bennett, R-Prescott.
This year has been a roller coaster for the sponsor of those measures, Sen. Thayer Verschoor, a Republican from Gilbert. And the ride would discourage almost any politician with big expectations.
But rather than grumbling or complaining, Verschoor is laughing with a boom that echoes across the Senate floor and down the hall.
In only his third year in the Legislature, the former Army paratrooper has emerged as one of its more visible Republicans. Known as much for his sense of humor as his staunch conservative philosophy, Verschoor appears idyllic or naive, but his friends insist he is quite sincere.
"I really enjoy being here," Verschoor said. "This is not, in any way, a burden for me. I enjoy dealing with people. I enjoy negotiating and I enjoy the process."
Fans and critics alike describe Verschoor as principled and tenacious, a difficult negotiator who never leaves a bitter taste afterward.
"I never found him, personally, to be anything but honorable and direct," said Sen. Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale. "I have never known him to hold a grudge. I wish more people would be like that."
Before the legislative session ends this week, Verschoor hopes to prevail in his effort to change the requirement of Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards test, an issue that may eventually define his political career. Verschoor has become the champion for thousands of parents who resent the possibility that their children can be good students but still not graduate because they failed a single test.
Some of Verschoor’s children will have to clear this hurdle unless he can
reach a deal with Bennett, either this year or next. But Verschoor said his passion to change the role of AIMS, so at least some students can graduate without passing it, is tied to his conservative politics, not his family.
Arizona is harming education through overregulation of district schools, Verschoor said. His AIMS legislation is only one in a series of reforms he intends to offer that would loosen the state’s control of local decisions.
"I would like to see public schools compete on more of an equal playing field with charter schools and private schools," Verschoor said. "My feeling is accountability is the parents and their ability to move their children back and forth to the best place."
Verschoor, 43, reflects the political and cultural values found in the Republicandominated 22nd District, which covers Gilbert, southeast Mesa, portions of Apache Junction and Gold Canyon. The Arizona native is married, the father of five children and a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who served on a two-year mission to Louisiana.
After his mission, Verschoor joined the Army and served three years with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division as a specialist dealing with weapons of mass destruction.
He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Arizona State University, but managed a convenience store for seven years. Later, while running a mail and packing business, Verschoor took a second job driving bus routes for Valley Metro across the East Valley.
Even as a senator, Verschoor still likes to show he has more in common with the average worker than the state’s high and mighty. He posed for a Tribune photo in a business suit, but often wears a short-sleeve polo shirt and slacks at the Capitol.
Once he settled in Gilbert, Verschoor also became active in Republican politics. He took on the drudge work of local party leader and volunteered with several campaigns, including for U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., and then-Rep. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa.
Verschoor got his own political shot in 2002, when the area’s Senate seat had no incumbent. He defeated former Gilbert Mayor Cynthia Dunham in the primary, and then cruised to victory over the Democratic opponent.
His party leadership and campaign statements created an image of Verschoor as an iron-clad ideologue in the minds of his new colleagues. He admits he sought to change that impression without compromising his views.
"They thought I would come down here and operate as a bomb-thrower and be more entrenched and more combative than I was," Verschoor said. "I overcame that by working with people on different issues on both sides of the aisle."
He also learned from veteran lawmakers from both parties, and lists among his mentors former Sen. Pete Rios, D-Dudleyville, now in the House.
For his part, Rios said he considers Verschoor a friend, although they agree on almost nothing politically.
"I kid him a lot, and I joke with him, and I’ve even taught him a few dance steps on the Senate floor," Rios said.
But Rios won’t be in Verschoor’s cheering section if his GOP friend wins re-election next year and seeks a Senate leadership post in 2007. Verschoor could be an early contender for the president’s office, which will be open.
"He would be difficult to deal with," Rios said. "I think he’s going to be real firm in his positions, even though I’ve advised him to be a little looser and to move around a little bit."
But Verschoor is convinced he would be effective.
"I think I’m very openminded even though I have a strong, conservative core," Verschoor said. "I try to be sure I’m fair and upfront and straightforward with people so no one is blindsided by me."