Gilbert's mayoral runoff offers familiar conservative dynamic, but that could be changing

Alison Steinbach
Arizona Republic
Gilbert mayor candidates Matt Nielsen (left) and Brigette Peterson.

Gilbert's runoff election in November will feature two candidates on the right side of the political spectrum, although a more progressive candidate made inroads in the longtime conservative community. 

Candidate Brigette Peterson, who resigned from Town Council to run for mayor, frequently voted alongside former Mayor Jenn Daniels and the council majority. Her opponent, Matt Nielsen, leans further to the political right and touts limited government ideals.

A runoff between two brands of conservatismisn't a surprising dynamic for the Phoenix suburb of more than 250,000 residents that hangs onto its status as a town, despite ranking as one of the largest municipalities in the Valley and the largest town in the U.S. 

Gilbert has always held to values of faith, family and freedom, according to John Lewis, who served as mayor from 2009 to 2016, before resigning to head the East Valley Partnership, followed by a mission in Cambodia for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Through our 100-year history, Gilbert has been known as a conservative community that has welcomed thousands of new friends and neighbors,” Lewis wrote in an email to The Arizona Republic from Cambodia.

The surprise for some this election season may be that a third, more progressive candidate amassed nearly a third of the vote in the Aug. 4 primary election. Lynne King Smith, a registered Democrat, didn't get enough votes to qualify for the runoff, but she did show what some say could be a shift in town politics.

“There’s no denying — and the numbers bear this out in voter registration — that there are more Democrats living in Gilbert now than there were even just two years ago," said Eric Chalmers, a political consultant who helped with King Smith's campaign.

East Valley-basedpolitical strategist Tyler Montague points to more residents moving in from blue states such as California and Illinois. 

“Gilbert has been growing, and it has grown with transplants from out of state," Montague said.“It’s still red, but it’s no longer farmers and Mormons that moved from Mesa — it's got a whole broader, more diverse electorate now.”

Gilbert's changing electorate

About 43% of active voters in Gilbert are registered Republicans, while 25% are registered Democrats and 1% are registered Libertarians. Just more than 30% of active voters aren't registered with either of the major political parties. 

That's a shift from 20 years ago, when there were more Republicans and fewer independents. The fast-growing town has nearly five times more voters now than in 2000. 

Two decades ago, Gilbert's active voters were nearly 61% Republican, 26% Democrat, 0.4% Libertarian and nearly 13% not registered with a party, according to the Maricopa County Elections Department. 

Despite the shift, Gilbert squarely remains a conservative community, reflected in voters sending Republican Andy Biggs to Congress. He is the chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. 

But at the local level, where elected positions are nonpartisan, the hard lines between Rs and Ds are less clear. Gilbert voters have routinely supported town spending requests over the past 20 years. Most recently, voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved a $65 million bond request to build a public safety training facility.

Some of the more conservative Town Council members at the time, Victor Petersen and Jared Taylor, raised concerns about the cost. Taylor continues to criticize spending as the facility is under construction.  

But voters still consider candidates' political ties. King Smith said the first question many residents asked her was whether she was a Democrat or a Republican (she's a registered Democrat). To some extent, her platform reflected that. 

The downtown business owner campaigned on two main issues: support for small businesses and building a “Gilbert for all.” King Smith advocated for diversity and said she spoke with residents from all backgrounds, some of whom said they were feeling like they had a voice for the first time in the town. 

Chalmers said King Smith attracted many first-time voters, new residents and people who had not previously voted in Gilbert because they hadn't connected with the candidates. 

Lewis said the primary election results that roughly split the mayoral vote into thirds "was a good sign that the views of Gilbert citizens were well represented.” 

It's also a sign that the views of residents may be shifting somewhat. In addition to the varying strains of conservative politics common to Gilbert, a third coalition may be percolating: a younger and more liberal slice of the fast-growing town.

“I think that surprised a lot of people," King Smith said.

"As Gilbert changes, we are becoming more diverse, we’re becoming younger and as more folks get involved in our elections, these questions and these issues that are current and are relevant to a lot of younger people in the town are going to have to be addressed," King Smith said.

Some brand of conservative remains Gilbert's clear majority

The two conservative candidates still got a firm majority of the primary votes: 35% for Nielsen and 34% for Peterson.

The outcome set the stage for the Nov. 3 runoff that should clarify the level of conservatism Gilbert voters want.

Peterson would fall into the category of a more moderate conservative, aligned with past mayors such as Jenn Daniels and Lewis. "We are very similar in very many ways," she said. 

Peterson said she is "very conservative" on some issues, like property rights, but is less so on other issues like spending on parks, public safety and transportation. Peterson was a strong supporter of building the town's public safety training facility, calling that a "major difference" between herself and Nielsen.

“If we’re not willing to invest in our community and the town, then others won’t be willing to invest in our community either," Peterson said, referencing town spending that is valuable to residents and necessary to draws in new businesses.

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Nielsen is running for change, urging a renewed focus on limited government, fiscal conservatism, low taxes and individual rights. 

Nielsen believes "unnecessary" spending and regulations can be trimmed back. He said people make good decisions for themselves, and government should, for the most part, not get in the way of their choices. He pointed to the town's recent mask mandate to curb the spread of COVID-19 as an example of that.

Nielsen said he and Peterson are both Republicans, but with differing views. 

"Because I'm so individual rights-oriented, I think I'm probably more — I don't want to necessarily use the word 'libertarian,' per se — but there is that element there," he said. "I think maybe she'd be a little more likely to take a more authoritarian position on certain issues than I would, but again that's just my perception," he said, mentioning regulations and taxes. 

Peterson said residents know her and her views well. She has spent just more than five years on the Town Council, and 14 years on the Planning Commission before that.

“I’m the proven choice for Gilbert, and I have a proven track record in this community of how I vote, and the residents of this community know me," she said. "I think that’s probably the biggest differentiating factor between myself and my competitor.”  

A Gilbert tradition

The dynamics in the mayoral runoff should be familiar to Gilbert voters. 

“It’s really the dynamic of every election,” said Chad Heywood, a lifelong Gilbert resident and Republican political consultant, who is supporting Peterson.

Town government is typically “center-right," he said. The more moderate Republicans win the majority of Town Council seats, and more libertarian-leaning or small-government conservatives usually win one or two seats. 

Nielsen is in the mold of the latter, running on “steady conservative leadership” and endorsed by the two more right-leaning Town Council members Jared Taylor and Aimee Yentes.  

He's also endorsed by council member-elect Laurin Hendrix, former council member Victor Petersen, Republican state Reps. Warren Petersen and Travis Grantham and the conservative Center for Arizona Policy Action.  

Peterson largely represents the consensus position on council, and is endorsed by interim Mayor Scott Anderson and council members Scott September and Kathy Tilque. 

She also has endorsements from neighboring Chandler and Queen Creek mayors, former Gilbert mayors Dale Hallock and Cynthia Dunham and former council members Ben Cooper, Les Presmyk, Don Skousen and John Sentz. Gilbert police and fire and the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce also endorsed Peterson.

Daniels, who resigned as mayor on Aug. 11, told The Republic she is supporting a mayoral candidate but is waiting for that campaign to announce the endorsement. 

Lewis said the two choices are good ones for the town. 

“With this conservative bent, the good news for citizens is that through the leadership of elected officials and talented town staff, Gilbert will continue to be the lowest cost provider of municipal services in the state while maintaining a reputation for providing high quality services," Lewis said. 

Have a story about Gilbert or Mesa? Reach the reporter at Alison.Steinbach@arizonarepublic.com or at 602-444-4282. Follow her on Twitter @alisteinbach.