Clash of Titans: Andy Biggs and Don Stapley Face off in CD5, with Christine Jones Offering a Wild Card Alternative

State Senator Andy Biggs, then-chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, rolled out his radical proposal during a late-night, marathon hearing in February 2011, where a number of controversial bills were being rubber-stamped by the Republican-dominated body.

The erudite ultra-conservative wasn’t coy in laying out his revolutionary blueprint, a complete elimination of Arizona’s Medicaid program, known by its acronym AHCCCS (pronounced “access”), which stands for Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. At the time, it covered about 1.8 million Arizonans, many of them children.

“We are on an unsustainable path,” Biggs lectured weary committee members. “Federal money that’s coming to Arizona is equivalent to IOUs, because we’re not getting real money, we’re getting what’s tantamount to borrowed money [from] the federal government.”

Biggs warned of dire consequences if his harsh prescription wasn’t followed. The current system would “propel us off a cliff,” he said, turning the United States into a social-welfare state like, say, one of the nations of Western Europe, where he claimed “none of these systems work.”

His proposal came at a frightening time for the impoverished in Arizona.

Though the United States had technically emerged from the Great Recession, Americans were still reeling from the after-effects of the 2008 stock market crash and the bursting of the housing bubble. Arizona was especially slow to recover, with unemployment higher than the national average and a housing industry resembling economic roadkill.

With tax receipts in decline, Republicans had taken a chainsaw to the state budget, making Dickensian reductions in Medicaid. First, the state slashed spending for organ transplants for the poor, then it reduced assistance to local hospitals, and finally, it axed about 135,000 childless adults from the Medicaid rolls, cost-cutting measures championed by then-Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican.

But Biggs wanted more. He wanted to end AHCCCS altogether, paring down medical care for the indigent to the nub. Medicaid was “socialized medicine” in Biggs’ worldview, the redistribution of wealth, with money printed to nonstop excess by a forever-in-debt federal government.

Then as now, AHCCCS received most of its funding from the feds, to the tune of $7.6 billion in 2011, with Arizona kicking in around $3.2 billion from its general fund. Biggs’ Senate Bill 1519 aimed to shutter AHCCCS, reject federal money, and set aside about $2 billion to care for the developmentally disabled and the seriously mentally ill, instead of everyone who normally would qualify under the federal plan.

Once Biggs finished his diatribe, Democratic state Senator Kyrsten Sinema, now a U.S. Congresswoman from Arizona’s Ninth District, asked Biggs how he would make up the nearly $9 billion shortfall in medical care his plan would create.

Biggs sniffed that the status quo was “perverse.” As for the shortfall, “I don’t make up that money, it’s just that simple.”

What will people do? Sinema asked. Biggs shot back, “What did they do before we had the infrastructure?” Sure, some hospitals would suffer, he admitted, but they would be better off in the long run.

“I’m not sugar-coating it,” Biggs said. “It will be rough. It’ll be a bitter pill to swallow.”

It fell to Biggs’ fellow East Valley Republican, state Senator Rich Crandall, to drive a rhetorical stake through Biggs’ bill. Crandall, who boasts a master’s degree in accounting from Brigham Young University and an MBA from Notre Dame, had done the books for some of Arizona’s big hospitals. He knew the consequences if Biggs’ solution for Medicaid were put into effect, denying hospitals needed income.

“The first thing that’ll happen,” Crandall said, “literally, by Christmas time, there will not be a rural hospital open in the state of Arizona.”

That scenario would include medical centers in Yuma and Flagstaff. The Maricopa Integrated Health System also would go belly-up by Christmas, Crandall claimed, which meant Arizona would lose its No. 1 trauma center. The talk from his colleagues about resourcefulness and private pay was a joke, because, as he pointed out, “There will not be hospitals to take the private pay in Arizona.”

What business would want to relocate to Arizona if its health-care system had one foot in the grave? Biggs’ bill would “scrap all health care, pretty much, in the state of Arizona,” Crandall concluded, and devastate an already weakened state economy.

Biggs conceded that, without socialized medicine, “the health-care system collapses.” But without his harsh medicine, Arizona and America would remain on what he called the “suboptimal path” to financial ruin. His bill moved out of committee on an 8-5 vote but failed to make it to the floor of the Senate.

The verbal sparring between Biggs and Crandall revealed Biggs as a man who prizes ideological purity above all things, a highly educated extremist. An accidental millionaire who doesn’t need to work and has parlayed his good fortune into a successful political career, serving first as a state representative, then as a state senator, and, since 2012, as president of the state Senate, a position some say is second in power only to the governor.

Now Andy Biggs is a front-runner for higher office, with the opportunity to bring his radical views to a national stage, specifically, the U.S. House of Representatives.

Earlier this year, in a power play by perennial opportunist and occasional Congressman Matt Salmon of Arizona’s Fifth Congressional District, Salmon announced he was leaving office and endorsed Biggs as his replacement, essentially anointing him as his heir. According to published polls and common wisdom, Biggs is the leader in a field of four GOPers vying for a primary win, which in heavily Republican CD5 will decide the general-election contest.

His main rival is former Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley, the scion of a pioneer family with deep roots in the East Valley, and, like Biggs and Crandall, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the area’s dominant faith. State Representative Justin Olson, also a Mormon, is a dark-horse conservative who is seen as peeling off votes from Biggs. The wild card is former GoDaddy general counsel and executive vice president Christine Jones, the field’s only non-Mormon and non-male, who spent millions in her failed 2014 GOP primary bid for governor. She is expected to upend her deep purse once again in this contest.

At issue is whether a fierce ideologue like Biggs advances to Congress, or whether a more reasonable, realpolitik candidate can trounce him, much in the way that Crandall’s logic buried Biggs during that committee hearing five years ago.

Biggs’ 2011 plan to eradicate Medicaid wasn’t the only time he’s displayed a devil-may-care attitude toward those adversely affected by his ideological ambitions. In a riposte to Crandall, for instance, Biggs opined that the only way you get people’s attention is “to do something draconian, something magnificent.”

In other words, there is no glory in compromise, and absolutism is heroic. One Republican railbird who knows Biggs well and spoke to New Times on the condition that he not be identified predicted that if Biggs is elected to Congress, he will join the obstructionist Freedom Caucus and “spend all his time throwing spitballs” at House Speaker Paul Ryan, a middle-of-the-road Republican.

In 2013, Biggs again led the charge against moderation when Governor Brewer reversed herself on Medicaid, pushing for the restoration of Medicaid cuts and a vast expansion of Arizona’s Medicaid plan under the umbrella of Obamacare.

For Biggs, who in the interim had become Senate president, opposition to the expansion became a holy war. But when the state budget finally got to the Senate floor, a coalition of moderate Rs and Democrats wrested control from Biggs, allowing Medicaid expansion to come to a vote, and win, by a margin of 19 to 11.

Adding to the federal debt or deficit was immoral, according to Biggs, even if it extended medical care to 350,000 less fortunate fellow citizens and was backed by an additional $1.6 billion in federal funding.

“This is not about expanding health care because it’s some kind of altruistic program,” Biggs inveighed on the floor of the Senate. “It’s about expanding health care to get federal money.”

The expansion also passed the state House and was signed into law by Brewer. The resulting collapse of Arizona’s economic system as envisioned by Biggs has not occurred.

In this, his last year as Senate president, Biggs once more defied his media detractors and the general public when he forbade a vote on KidsCare, a federally funded program that grants insurance to children whose parents do not qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford insurance on their own. The plan passed through the Republican majority in the House, by a 47-to-13 margin, and stood to pass in the Senate. The program would cover 30,000 kids in Arizona at no cost to the state.

Biggs was unmoved either by compassion or fiscal arguments. In an interview with Arizona PBS talk show host Ted Simons, he said KidsCare would “create a constituency” of children that might never be weaned off the government teat.

Again, Biggs was outmaneuvered by House and Senate Republicans and Democrats, who tacked the needed authorization to another bill, forcing a vote in the Senate. The measure passed 16-12 and was quickly signed by Governor Doug Ducey.

Ironically, during the debate over Medicaid expansion, it was reported that Biggs was one of many expansion opponents who took advantage of the insurance offered to members of the Legislature. Not that Biggs will ever cry poor-mouth. He’s a millionaire who doesn’t need the paltry salary legislators are paid.

Indeed, Biggs made his money the not-so-old-fashioned way: He won it by sending in an entry to the now-defunct American Family Sweepstakes, which in 1993 picked him as a $10 million winner. The commercial that a dorky, fresh-faced Biggs made for American Family back then with Ed McMahon and Dick Clark can be seen on YouTube. McMahon and Clark introduce Biggs as a $10 million recipient, and Clark asks if he’s glad he entered.

“You bet,” says Biggs, wearing big, ’90s-era glasses and a crooked grin. “It’s unbelievable.”

Biggs cringes whenever he’s asked about the sweepstakes. Republicans who know Biggs say he’s embarrassed by the windfall, because for a conservative such as himself, prosperity should be earned, not a matter of dumb luck. When he first ran for the state House in 2002, the Arizona Republic reported that, because of the sweepstakes bonanza, Biggs was able to support a “family of eight for nearly a decade without a job.” Biggs said he spent his free time and excess cash representing the Gilbert-based, anti-gay nonprofit United Families Intentional. He also told the Republic’s scribe that his $10 million fortune “does make it easier in that I don’t have to answer, ‘How can you live on $24,000 a year?’”

Yet, Biggs’ antediluvian politics preceded his free-cash shower. More than once, he’s spoken in interviews of growing up in Tucson in an ardently Republican household, once getting into a physical confrontation with a Democrat neighbor over a political disagreement.

In his self-published 2014 book, The Con of the Con-Con, a 170-page rant about the perils of a constitutional convention, an idea dear to many conservatives who see it as a vehicle to add a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Biggs briefly discusses growing up in the Old Pueblo’s lefty bastion, claiming that he and his family had been persecuted for their conservative beliefs.

He writes: “When my mother wrote letters to the editor expressing conservative values, our home was egged and my car was vandalized ... I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable for being conservative.”

Following his LDS mission in Japan, Biggs married his wife, Cindy, finished his undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University, went to law school, and eventually settled in Gilbert in 1986, according to an interview he did in 2013 for Western Growers, an association of farmers in Arizona and California.

His wife’s mother, Shirley Whitlock, is known in LDS circles for being a firebrand conservative, once president of the Arizona Eagle Forum, the local affiliate of Phyllis Schlafly’s national anti-feminist, anti-gay organization. Whitlock also was a confidante of Arizona Governor Ev Mecham, a fellow Mormon, who believed his 1986 gubernatorial win had been ordained by God. Despite this heavenly mandate, Mecham was impeached and removed from office for corruption 15 months after he was inaugurated.

Whitlock and the Eagle Forum have had an enormous impact on Biggs. In his anti-Con-Con screed, Biggs acknowledges Schlafly as having “influenced my thoughts and my ideas.” Similarly, in a preface to his other self-published book, The Doctrine of Liberty: Insights From the Book of Mormon, Biggs thanks in-laws Wayne and Shirley Whitlock for reading drafts of the book and offering helpful criticism.

Schlafly, like Biggs, opposes the idea of a constitutional convention, as set forth by Article V of the U.S. Constitution, for fear it could be hijacked into doing the bidding of leftists.

A constitutional convention, or “Con-Con,” as it’s referred to among activists, has the potential to “obliterate our current Constitution and replace it with a post-modern, progressive work that is tyrannical in its effects,” Biggs writes in his Con-Con book. Worse still, it could produce a “Communistic Constitution” that the American people would have to obey.

Biggs’ stance on the Con-Con is mirrored by the uber-conservative John Birch Society. The JBS’ official magazine, The New American, praised Biggs’ Con-Con book in 2015, calling it “a powerful weapon in the arsenal of those” fighting to protect the Constitution “from the multitude of threats lurking in the shadowy recesses of Article V.”

As Senate president, Biggs prevented votes on measures that would have made Arizona part of a compact of states seeking a Con-Con. This has drawn the ire of conservative commentators who favor the idea.

The New American also lauded a 2013 effort by Biggs and other Republicans to make gold and silver bullion “legal tender” in Arizona. During the debate in the Senate, Biggs harangued those who viewed the measure as wacky, stating that paper dollars are “currency, which continues to inflate,” since they are not backed by a gold standard. Predictably, Governor Brewer vetoed the bill.

Though Biggs declined to be interviewed for this story, his campaign told New Times that Biggs has never been a member of the John Birch Society, but that he and his wife are members of the Eagle Forum.

The Senate president has had a number of far-right affiliations over the years, including with the anti-gay, anti-abortion Center for Arizona Policy. CAP was behind Arizona’s infamous “religious freedom” legislation, Senate Bill 1062, which would have led to discrimination against members of the LGBT community in Arizona.

A national outcry and threats of boycotts led Governor Brewer to veto SB 1062, but Biggs and other supporters of the measure were defiant, accusing opponents and demonstrators of demonizing a mere technical change to the law.

In another incident, at a May 2015 meeting in Tempe of a local Libertarian-leaning organization, Biggs rubbed shoulders with former Graham County Sheriff Richard Mack, an icon of the so-called patriot movement, and Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, an anti-government organization made up of ex-military and law enforcement officers.

During a videotaped discussion, Biggs sat quietly as Rhodes denounced U.S. Senator John McCain as a “traitor” for sabotaging delegates to the 2008 Republican National Convention who backed then-Congressman Ron Paul for president. Rhodes, who, like Biggs, was a supporter of Paul in 2008, said McCain should be tried, convicted, and “hung by the neck until dead.”

Biggs later told the media that while he didn’t agree with Rhodes’ sentiments, he kept mum because he didn’t want to deny the Oath Keeper his freedom of speech.

Then there’s the subject of immigration, and Biggs’ alliance with former state Senate president Russell Pearce. A polarizing figure, Pearce authored Senate Bill 1070, a brazenly nativist piece of legislation passed in 2010, which, as its preamble stated, sought to make “attrition through enforcement” public policy in Arizona.

Local law-enforcement officers were tasked with inquiring into the immigration status of detainees if the police officer had “reasonable suspicion” to believe someone was in the country illegally — that is, if the detainee had brown skin or a surname indicative of Hispanic heritage.

Biggs’ legwork in the House ensured the bill’s passage. The resulting law led to roiling protests and a costly boycott of the state. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted much of the law, leaving the part about requiring that local cops inquire into immigration status, but only if the inquiry did not detain an individual longer than normal. Police were barred from arresting someone solely on suspicion of a civil immigration violation.

By the time the high court ruled, a backlash against Pearce in his legislative district had snowballed into a recall movement, removing Pearce from office in late 2011. The historic effort featured an unusual coalition of Latinos, Democrats, moderate Republicans and, significantly, many LDS members, who saw Pearce’s anti-Mexican tirades and efforts to depopulate Arizona of Hispanics as harmful to the image of their church.

Pearce, an LDS member, is not representative of the Mormon church’s stance on the undocumented. In 2010, in an effort to head off SB 1070 copycat legislation in Utah, the church declared its support for the Utah Compact, a document advocating humane solutions to America’s immigration problems.

In its statement, the church reminded readers of Jesus Christ’s admonition to love thy neighbor, and that “the meaning of ‘neighbor’ includes all of God’s children, in all places, at all times.” The statement also opposed the breakup of families, encouraging politicians to “create and administer laws that reflect the best of our aspirations as a just and caring society.”

In June 2011, the LDS church doubled down on its opposition to nativist legislation, signaling in a new statement that “any state [immigration] legislation that only contains enforcement provisions is likely to fall short of the high moral standard of treating each other as children of God.”

SB 1070 was never mentioned by name, but it certainly fell into the category of enforcement-only immigration legislation. Despite these pronouncements, Biggs supported Pearce during the recall, at one event calling him an “American and Arizona hero” targeted by the “radical left” over SB 1070.

As an alternative to Pearce, many Mormons in Pearce’s Mesa legislative district rallied around political newcomer Jerry Lewis, a former LDS stake president. Despite campaign shenanigans on the part of the Pearce camp and the predictions of local pundits that Pearce would prevail, the opposite happened: Lewis trounced Pearce by a 12-point margin.

Pearce would attempt a comeback less than a year later, seeking election to the state Senate from a newly drawn East Valley legislative district. But he was crushed by yet another Republican newcomer, SkyMall millionaire and LDS member Bob Worsley.

The fault lines from the Pearce recall haven’t shifted much in the East Valley, where Mormon neighbors and family members were forced to choose sides in a political civil war between the forces of reason and the forces of reaction that seems to repeat itself every couple of years.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons