Andy Biggs probably wishes he never stopped by a recent Legislative District 16 meeting in Mesa, where he reportedly picked a fight with his fellow Republican state legislator, Rep. Kelly Townsend.
The fallout from their verbal donnybrook has encouraged others to go public with grievances against the departing state senate president, who is running in the GOP primary for the open seat in Arizona's Fifth Congressional District. The feud has led to a discussion of what some see as Biggs' hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness when it comes to the treatment of the poor.
Townsend also has chosen to go public with an account of Biggs' daughter asking her for money for personal needs – an embarrassing allegation for Biggs, a multimillionaire who likes to preach self-reliance. All of this dirty-laundry-airing comes at an inopportune time, with a recent poll showing that Biggs' lead in CD 5 has been eclipsed by one of his Republican rivals, former GoDaddy exec and 2014 gubernatorial candidate Christine Jones.
According to Townsend's version of events, which she first detailed in a July 22 e-mail to members of her district — initially published (though later taken down) by Shane Wikfors' conservative Sonoran Alliance blog — Biggs' remarks to the LD 16 crowd initially concerned his candidacy in the CD 5 GOP primary. However, he soon turned his focus to Townsend, who was in the audience with her daughter.
"'But that's not why I came here tonight,'" Townsend recalled Biggs saying, when I interviewed her for this article. "'I came here to talk about something else.'"
That's when Biggs unloaded on her, Townsend told me. "He said I threatened his family — as if I had threatened them with some kind of bodily harm," she explained. Townsend said she approached LD 16 chairman Denis Brimhall and asked for time to respond to Biggs' accusations. She claims Brimhall denied her request and told her to sit down. When Biggs asked the audience if there were any questions, she rose, only to be told by Brimhall that she had to keep quiet or be forcibly removed.
"They're going to call the police on a sitting legislator?" she asked me rhetorically. "What's my crime? Defending myself from this accusation?"
Townsend said that's when she and other attendees walked out of the meeting.
I called Brimhall, but he declined to comment, hanging up on me. So far, Biggs' campaign spokesman, Cesar Ybarra, has not responded to several requests for comment.
The Arizona Capitol Times' Yellow Sheet, which is available only to subscribers, was first to report on the brouhaha. The publication spoke with LD 16's coordinating secretary, Kay Reardon, who backed up Townsend's recitation of events, saying she didn't think it was appropriate that Biggs raised his issues with Townsend at the meeting.
This is the second public flare-up of the Townsend-Biggs feud. During a televised interview with Channel 12 reporter Joe Dana more than a week before the fateful LD 16 gathering, Townsend, a Tea Party leader, had described Biggs as a "jerk" and "punitive in his nature." She went on to recount how Biggs had blocked her bills as retaliation after she'd spoken on a local conservative talk-radio show about a bill he didn't like.
On July 22, the morning after the LD 16 clash, Townsend e-mailed her bombshell of a letter to district members, describing the events of the night before and going into detail about how the long-simmering conflict between her and Biggs developed.
In the e-mail, Townsend writes that the feud began in 2013 over statements she made regarding a bill sponsored by Rep. Michelle Ugenti (now Michelle Ugenti-Rita): House Bill 2648, which would have allowed counties to take over local police departments under certain circumstances.
The bill obviously was aimed at the polygamist community of Colorado City, where the police were under the thumb of the notorious Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (not to be confused with the Mormon Church) and its practices of marrying off child brides to grown men and driving young boys from the community because they were seen as competitors for those same child brides.
As New Times reported in 2013, Ugenti-Rita's bill passed the state House by a more than two-thirds majority. But Senate President Biggs, for unexplained reasons, blocked the bill from coming to a vote on the floor of the state Senate. Separately, both Townsend and Ugenti-Rita expressed frustration with Biggs' intransigence during interviews on the radio show of conservative KFYI host Mike Broomhead.
According to Townsend and sources who spoke to New Times on condition that their names not be published, Biggs retaliated against both women by blocking bills they sponsored.
"The rest of my bills died that session," Townsend writes in her e-mail. "I finally asked [Biggs] if he would speak to me at the end of session, and he agreed and admitted he was angry at me and said I should have never gone on the radio to discuss the issue in the first place."
She further writes that the following year, her bills were not assigned to committees for a long time — a "stall-to-kill" tactic, as bills can only advance if heard in committee by a certain date. Townsend says she was able to do an end run by threatening to go "off the budget," meaning she would not vote for the budget, normally the most important task the legislature's leadership performs during the session.
This is where things get really weird.
As Townsend notes in her e-mail, she is a doula, a childbirth coach. And she was friendly with Biggs' daughter. Townsend writes that "over the course of 6 months," Biggs' daughter had asked her "for advice about a suspected pregnancy. " The daughter also sent Townsend "Facebook messages asking for money," but "[i]t was Christmastime and I didn't have extra funds. I was asked for food money, for money to keep her phone on, money for various other needs."
Biggs' daughter's apparent dire financial straits are at odds with one of the best-known factoids about Biggs: that in 1993, Ed McMahon came to his door to tell him he'd won $10 million in the American Family sweepstakes. Biggs used the money to essentially retire from working as a lawyer, though he maintains a law license in Arizona and other jurisdictions.
"I was confused because I thought her father had won the publisher's clearing house [sic]," Townsend writes in her e-mail. "And I also thought he believed that family should help the needy, not the government. I was dismayed when she told me she had been on foodstamps [sic] for two years because he wouldn't help her. Not that I judged her for that, but because he would often scoff at people for 'drinking from the public trough' as he always put it."
Townsend writes that she contacted Biggs to tell him about what his daughter had been doing. Biggs told her to mind her own business. Shortly thereafter, Townsend "received a new message from [Biggs'] daughter excited that he was buying her and her new husband a house." The woman sent a photo of the house to Townsend via e-mail, and she was "shocked to find a photo of a garden shed with a porch on it. No running water, one room."
According to Townsend's e-mail, the woman asked her "if it was legal to put it on her mother-in-law's back yard without a permit," and the legislator "advised her that as a pregnant mom, she should be in a house with running water." Townsend said she was "horrified" and ceased communicating with Biggs' daughter, though she held on to screenshots of the communications, some of which she shared with New Times on the condition that they not be published. (My attempts to reach Biggs' daughter were unsuccessful.)
In its piece on the subject, the Yellow Sheet cited "a source familiar with Biggs' family" as saying that "the daughter and her husband currently live at Biggs' house and are fully supported by him and his wife."
That may be. But there are crowdfunding sites online, on which Biggs' daughter and her husband have asked for donations to cover various expenses, such as the cost of an MRI and surgery for a knee problem the daughter had. One request was for money to cover expenses for a planned pregnancy, while another asked for money to help the couple adopt, and so on. The fundraising efforts do not appear to have been successful.
Townsend writes in the e-mail that her knowledge of Biggs' daughter's financial problems was on her mind when she voted in favor of a measure to impose a one-year lifetime limit on the federal- and state-funded welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — the most restrictive such limit in the United States. Other states offer two to five years of assistance.
During her July appearance on Channel 12's Sunday Square-Off news show, guest-hosted by reporter Joe Dana, Townsend expressed regret over her TANF vote, saying, "I don’t think a year is sufficient for someone who is truly down on their luck." She blamed Biggs for ramming the welfare limit down the throats of lawmakers.
"I think it’s important to remember whose bill this was. This was our senate president's bill," Townsend said on the show. "Part of that decision is the fact that [Biggs] has very well trained us. He’s punitive in his nature, and if we didn't follow along, we would suffer the consequences."
She also accused Biggs of retaliating against her after she discussed Ugenti's Colorado City bill on KFYI. Biggs' campaign consultant Adam Deguire told the Yellow Sheet that his boss doesn't remember anything about Townsend and the Colorado City bill. Deguire claimed Townsend was never retaliated against, and that her bills were allowed to "sail through." He added that Biggs' only issue with Townsend was that she was "spreading rumors about personal and family dealings," and that because of this, Biggs had been "forced to defend himself."
On July 24, Biggs' colleague, state Sen. Kimberly Yee, came to his defense in a letter to the editor of the Arizona Republic. In the letter, she refers to Biggs as "one of the most professional legislators in Arizona," claiming that he "has never been known to retaliate against anyone."
But in conversations with New Times, state legislators and lobbyists took issue with Yee's assessment of Biggs. One lobbyist, who asked not to be named, said Biggs could be "vindictive" if you didn't toe his line. He was condescending to others and so feared in political circles that, according to the lobbyist, people are scared of speaking out even now, because they worry that if Biggs loses his four-way primary battle in CD 5, he might return to the Legislature and wind up back in the leadership.
Two Republican state senators went on the record to attest to Biggs' imperious style as president of the Arizona Senate: Bob Worsley and Steve Pierce. Worsley told New Times that Biggs never liked him because in 2012, Worsley defeated Biggs' onetime mentor, ex-state Senate President Russell Pearce, in the GOP primary for LD 25.
As a result, Biggs would "block things" that Worsley, a successful businessman, sought to do at the legislature. For instance, when Worsley asked to be chair of the commerce committee, "it was out of the question," he said. In addition, he said, Biggs shot him down when Worsley wanted to set up a planning forum for the state legislature, to set future goals for state government.
"He didn't want to have any state planning function because, he said, governments that plan, fail," explained Worsley, who also said he was aware that other legislators such as Townsend and Ugenti-Rita "had issues with him."
As discussed at length in a recent New Times cover story about the CD 5 race, Biggs singlehandedly prevented any attempt to have Arizona sign on to a constitutional convention from getting a vote in the state Senate, despite the effort's popularity among many conservatives.
Pierce, himself a former state Senate president, said he read Yee's letter to the editor, which he described as "ridiculous." He pointed out that Senate presidents have the power to hold bills from advancing to the floor for a vote, and that Biggs was not shy about employing this power. Indeed, Pierce said, a Senate president doesn't even need to hold the bills himself. Since the president appoints committee chairs and assigns bills to committees, the president need only tell committee chairs to hold certain bills.
A bill on prison reform, which Pierce backed last year, was blocked by Biggs, Pierce told New Times, though Biggs "said he agreed with it." Pierce, who is termed out of his Senate seat, said he was able to speak freely because this was his last year at the legislature.
Asked about Biggs' leadership style, the Prescott rancher, whom Biggs outmaneuvered to become Senate president in 2013, paused a moment before answering.
"Well, he's always right," Pierce said sarcastically. "He would be very cordial to your face. [But] it's fear and intimidation that if you do this, or don't do that, [there will be repercussions]."
Pierce admitted that he had held bills when he was Senate president. But Pierce, a relatively moderate Republican, was mainly known for holding extremist legislation at bay for the good of the state, not for reasons of retaliation.
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"That's when you should hold bills," Pierce told New Times. "It shouldn't be that, 'Hey, I didn't like what you did yesterday, so I'm holding your bill.' There shouldn't be any punishment. It's not about that. But it ends up like that."
Biggs started the CD 5 race as the front-runner, but according to at least one recent poll, he has fallen behind former GOP gubernatorial candidate and ex-GoDaddy exec Christine Jones, who is throwing some of her substantial fortune at the race.
Two other Republicans are in the field, former Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley and state Rep. Justin Olson. Biggs, Stapley, and Olson are all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Jones is not, and may be advancing in part because her opponents are splitting the Mormon vote in the heavily-LDS East Valley.
Hard to know if Townsend's jeremiad will affect the August 30 primary in any way. But it should be noted that if Biggs had not gone after Townsend, as she said he did during that LD 16 meeting, she would have had no reason to write that e-mail, much less hit "send."