January 18, 2017

Speaker of the Arizona House J.D. MESNARD: College Internship Launches Political Career

(Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been edited and paraphrased for brevity and clarity.)

J.D. Mesnard was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2010 and has been re-elected ever since.  For the 2017 term, he was elected by his peers to be the leader of the majority Republican caucus and Speaker of the House.

Where were you born and raised? Are you a native Arizonan?

I am not.  I grew up in a military family so for the first 10 years of my life we moved around a lot.  I was born in Tampa, Florida at MacDill Air Force Base, and also spent time in Colorado, New Mexico, and Spain, before moving to Arizona when I was 10 years old in the fifth grade.  We moved to the southern valley in Tempe and now I live in Chandler.  I went to high school and then on to Arizona State University where I was a music major.  I was a music composer and my eventual goal was to move to California and write music for movies and television.  At one point, I did in fact, go to California and worked with a movie producer, but it didn’t quite work out.


How did you transition into a political career?

When I was in my last year of college, I learned about an internship with the state Legislature.  I applied, was accepted and was placed in the state Senate.  So in early 2002 for about four to five months, I worked as an intern in a non-partisan research role for the Education Committee.  I fell in love with the policy making process.  At the time Ken Bennett, who was the president of the Senate, was also the chairman of that committee.  We became acquainted and after I graduated I joined his policy staff and became an assistant policy advisor, which was pretty heady stuff for a 22 year old.  I served him for four years and then stayed on for another four years after he left.

By that time I had served eight years in the state Senate and thought I had as much experience as anyone else running for office.  In 2010 two open seats came available in my district and I decided to run for the House and liked the idea of becoming a policy maker rather than a policy advisor.

I was only 29 years old—when I decided to run—and came from having absolutely no political connections…and I won.  I thought it was pretty neat.


Did you run on a specific platform?

I actually did just the opposite.  I didn’t run on a platform.  I campaigned stating that I didn’t have a big agenda.  I purposely didn’t make a lot of promises.  I think the biggest problem with most politicians is that they make a lot of promises that they can’t keep.  They think they are going to be able to make lots of changes but then they get elected and it’s almost impossible to get almost anything done that they promised they would do.  They end up being like everyone else and not fulfilling their promises.

What I did instead was post an issues page on my website stating my position on every issue that I could think of.  It was a very good exercise and has helped me quite a bit while I have been in the Legislature.  I can refer back to it and understand my thinking at the time.  My thinking has changed a bit over time as being in the government tends to do that.


How do you describe your ideology?

I was raised in a conservative household and I remain a conservative.  I have refined my political viewpoint over the years, but my belief is that you should tell people where you stand as clearly as you can.  When I ran for speaker I did the same thing.  I wrote a 27-page paper telling the other legislators of my vision for the House.  In many ways it had to do with changes in the process.  I am a policy wonk and I think the process is very important and it has to be open.  My goal is to empower legislators so that we can effectively accomplish the agenda we have set.  Since I became speaker-elect (this interview took place several days before Mesnard officially assumed the post), I have worked with the Democrats and have tried to be fair.  Of course, I support my caucus, but I also serve the entire House and I have worked through some issues with the Democrats and have made some changes.  For example, we took some money away from the Republican budget for staffers and added it to the Democrat side to be fair.  I think I have been very fair.  And the process has been fair.


Arizona has been a solidly Red (Republican) State but there has been talk that it is moving closer to the Blue State side.  Any thoughts on that?

More and more I do hear that we are becoming a Purple State (in play for both parties) and I think that is true.  We do have two distinct populations that are growing.  We have a large and growing senior population, which tends to be more conservative.  But we also have a growing immigrant population plus a lot of people coming in from California that are creating a changing melting pot.  I do not think that we are making a huge right to left move, but we are gradually moving in that direction.

But we have always been somewhat purple.  We elect Democrats to Congress and have had governors and other statewide officer holders from the Democrat party, though we don’t have any right now.


As Speaker of the House do you have any specific legislative items on your agenda for this term?

As a legislator I have some specific items I care about, but I do not have an agenda that as speaker I am going to force through the caucus.  Two of my most important issues are tax reform and federalism, which involves the issue of state rights.  I believe these are issues that represent the viewpoint of the caucus.


What is the biggest issue or challenge facing the Arizona Legislature this session?

I am not sure I would call it a challenge, but the state budget continues to be something we have to watch.  Right now we have a structural balance and we are in a much healthier and stable financial position.  We’d love to have a situation where our coffers are overflowing and we can spend more on education and public safety.  But for this year, I believe we are going to have a status quo budget.


For your first time in elected office, you will have a Republican president.  What Arizona issues might this impact and how do you expect it to play out?

Of course immigration will be a big issue and it is an issue with some unique characteristics for Arizona.  We have a far different situation than anyone else.  We do have a Republican president but you can’t call him a conventional Republican.  There are a lot of unknowns.  We have to take a wait and see approach.  We are just not sure what will happen or what he will do.


On a more personal note, what does the “J.D.” stand for and tell us about your family?

The J.D. stands for Javan Daniel.  Javan is a biblical name as he was the grandson of Noah.  It is an unusual name with an unusual spelling so I’ve always found it easier to go by my nickname J.D.

I did get married two and half years ago.  In fact we still celebrate on a monthly basis and we just celebrated our 29 month anniversary.  My wife, Holly, is a nurse and we have a happy marriage and a great life.


Our members grow the best fruits, vegetables and nuts in the world.  Do you consume our products?

Absolutely.  And as I have been in the Legislature and attend Ag Day, which we have every year, I have learned more and more about the agriculture in this state.  I am an urban guy and I was less familiar with agriculture.  As our country has changed, agriculture has become less pervasive as an occupation, but it is still extremely important and is critically important to our state.  One of my favorite ag products at Ag Day are cheese curds.  I am a mozzarella guy and so I look for them every year.