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Updated Aug 5, 2014 - 6:21 pm

Arizona lawmaker's death opens door to independent win

Arizona State Sen. Chester Crandell died Monday, Aug. 4, 2014.

PHOENIX -- The death of Republican state Sen. Chester Crandell has boosted the chances for an independent to be elected to the Legislature for the first time in recent memory. Crandell was unopposed in the GOP primary and was set to take on independent Tom O'Halleran in the November general election.

O'Halleran, a former lawmaker from Sedona, would have had an uphill battle taking on Crandell as an incumbent. But with him out of the race, it will be up to the state Republican Party to choose a candidate to appear on the general election ballot. Meanwhile, the Navajo County Board of Supervisors in the coming weeks will have to appoint someone to serve out the remainder of Crandell's term. The district takes in parts of Navajo, Coconino, Yavapai and Gila counties, and Navajo County supervisors will pick Crandell's replacement.

No names are yet circulating for the general election replacement, state Republican Party communications director Tim Sifert said Tuesday. But Reps. Bob Thorpe and Brenda Barton, who also represent the district, would likely be asked if they were interested, Sifert said.

Barton didn't immediately return a call seeking comment. Thorpe said he would be honored if he were chosen, but ``at this point getting over the shock of the last 24 hours is first and foremost on my mind.''

The lack of an incumbent on the ballot could help O'Halleran as he tries to return to the Legislature after a lapse of six years. He was ousted from the Senate in 2008 by Sen. Steve Pierce, but redistricting placed his home in Crandell's 6th Legislative district seat. That district is strongly Republican, but Sifert acknowledged the loss of Crandell makes holding onto the seat more difficult.

``It just throws a lot in uncertainties into the race,'' he said.

O'Halleran said Tuesday he hadn't thought about how Crandell's death in an apparent horseback accident near his home in Heber might affect the race. He had spoken to Crandell three weeks ago about the young colt he was breaking in, O'Halleran said.

``The main thing right now is to pray for his family and make sure they're surrounded by loved ones,'' he said.

The former Republican dropped his party affiliation earlier this year to take on Crandell, in part because he believed he couldn't get a primary campaign off the ground in time.

``The second piece is that I truly believe there is a need for somebody to bring people together and that there needs to be much more discussion concerning the critical issues this state's facing that are not tied to the political structure but to the public policy side and the public-policy need of the debate,'' O'Halleran said. ``And that's very hard to do when you have the pressures of in-party politics.''

Crandell, 68, took a ``young colt'' out for a one-hour ride Monday morning, and when he didn't return, family members went searching for him. They found him dead about 2 p.m.

An autopsy would determine if Crandell died from being bucked off the horse or if he had a heart attack or other medical issue that caused him to fall, Navajo County Chief Deputy Jim Molesa said Tuesday. Results are expected in a day or two, he said.

Crandell championed education, states' rights and rural issues during his nearly four years in the Legislature. He was born in Holbrook and raised in Heber, where he lived with his wife, Alice, and raised nine children. He had a bachelor's degree in agriculture education from the University of Arizona and master's degree in education leadership from Northern Arizona University.

Crandell was an educator for more than 30 years, including 10 years as superintendent of the Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology in Snowflake.

Funeral services were incomplete, the sheriff's office said.

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