Yavapai County is sending a familiar face to fill the vacancy left by David Stringer’s resignation from the Arizona House of Representatives: former Senate President Steve Pierce.
The county’s Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on Wednesday morning to appoint the rancher and former Senate president. Pierce served in the Senate from 2009-16, and served as Senate president from 2011-12.
Pierce was sworn in Wednesday afternoon.
The seat has been vacant for the past week following Stringer’s resignation. Stringer, a Prescott Republican, resigned after the House Ethics Committee obtained police reports showing that he’d been charged with having sex with two boys under the age of 15, one of whom was mentally disabled, in Baltimore in 1983. Prior to the revelations about Stringer’s sex crime charges, he’d been under fire for a series of racist remarks he made that became public last year.
Several supervisors mentioned the need for Yavapai County to restore its reputation and the credibility it lost in the past year.
“This is an important seat. It is an important vote. And it’s important for a lot of reasons,” board Chairman Randy Garrison said. “I see this position as being a reset for Yavapai County. I think it’s time we get back some of our reputation that’s been soiled.”
Pierce vied for the appointment with Ken Bennett, a former Arizona secretary of state and former Senate president, and Steven Sensmeier, an unemployed 27-year-old with a degree in intelligence and global security from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who recently did political organizing for U.S. Sen. Martha McSally’s 2018 campaign.
Though there were three candidates, it became quickly apparent that it was a two-person contest between Bennett and Pierce, both of whom have had extensive political careers in Yavapai County.
The supervisors repeatedly commented on the difficult decision they had in choosing between the two, citing longtime friendships and political support for both. They also emphasized their feelings that the appointee had to be able to hit the ground running at the Legislature, where the 2019 session is in full swing.
Several supervisors noted that critical budget votes are on the horizon, and a lot could be at stake for Yavapai County.
“I really need confidence in the people down there that they’ll fight to get the money back where it belongs,” said Supervisor Craig Brown.
Pierce said he’ll fight to ensure that the Legislature doesn’t shortchange rural Arizona by passing on costs to the counties, sometimes leading to local tax increases, in order to balance the state budget. He also emphasized his experience in pension reform, an issue that Supervisor Jack Smith cited repeatedly as being of high importance to Yavapai County.
“I have great relations with the speaker, of course the president, and the governor. I know who the players are pretty well,” Pierce said. “I’m ready to go to work.”
Senate President Karen Fann hails from Prescott, as does Pierce.
Bennett, who during his legislative career was known for giving a presentation that used Kleenex boxes to explain the state budget, stressed his budget expertise. And he noted that during Pierce’s tenure as Senate president, the budget siphoned money from the counties and used it to increase funding to the state’s rainy day fund.
“That’s one of the few differences that I think you might need to be aware of between those that you’re considering,” Bennett said.
Brown noted that Bennett would only be one of 60 votes in the House and one of 31 in the Republican caucus. But Bennett said he, like every other Republican, would be the 31st vote.
Since Stringer’s resignation, House Speaker Rusty Bowers has effectively put all of the chamber’s business on hold. With only 30 votes, House Republicans were without a majority until the supervisors made their choice.
One issue that appeared to weigh in Pierce’s favor was Bennett’s challenge to Gov. Doug Ducey in last year’s Republican primary.
Bennett and Ducey ran against each other in 2014, when they both sought to replace outgoing Gov. Jan Brewer. But Bennett stunned the political world last year when he sought to unseat Ducey in a campaign characterized by inflammatory rhetoric and wild accusations against the incumbent, which left observers who’d known him for years scratching their heads at what many viewed as uncharacteristic behavior.
Bennett said he ran against Ducey in 2018 because he’d been disappointed by the governor’s first term. During the campaign, his criticism focused heavily on what he claimed were unbalanced budgets and a shaky record on gun rights. And if appointed, he said, he would continue to raise issues that might be uncomfortable for Ducey and for others.
But Bennett said he didn’t think his relationship with Ducey would be a problem.
“I’m going to bring things up within the body of the House and in the public arena that might be difficult for the governor or anyone else to swallow. But I have a personal friendship relationship with the governor. It’s probably, I’m sure, a little strained because I ran against him last year. But it wasn’t a personal thing,” Bennett said.
Pierce, who had a strong relationship with Ducey during his first term as governor, said they remain close, and that they plan to have lunch together next week.
Supervisor Thomas Thurman said it was a difficult decision between Bennett and Pierce and that both would be perfect for the position, which several others echoed. But he said he favored Pierce because “there’s a lot of things that were said” during Benentt’s campaign against Ducey.
“I’m just a little bit worried about connectivity down there at the Legislature with anything that could hurt in getting a budget passed,” he said.
After the vote, Bennett was less than magnanimous, tweeting, “Thank you! The good ole boy network keeps churning.”
Pierce said he won’t run for a full term in the House next year, and will only serve out the remainder the term Stringer was elected to in 2018. Bennett made the same pledge, while Sensmeier said he was undecided.