Brigette Peterson Gilbert

When Brigette Peterson becomes Gilbert’s new mayor this month, it will mark the beginning of a new stage of service in a long history of service to the town.  

If someone told her 25 years ago when she pulled into town that one day she would be its mayor, Brigette Peterson said she would have responded with “some expletives.”

But the Massachusetts- transplant will become Gilbert’s 33rd mayor on Jan. 12 when she takes the oath of office.

“I never expected to be mayor,” said the 56-year-old Peterson, decked out in a purple top, her trademark color. “It’s a very big role. It’s exciting, overwhelming, humbling.”

Peterson recently reflected on her new role while seated in the kitchen of her home, then decorated in holiday cheer. 

“I decorate every holiday of the year,” said Peterson, who has a separate bin of decorations for each celebrated day – Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s, Thanksgiving.

Peterson is handy with crafting and created a few of her holiday decorations as well.

Last month, it was “Christmas light” at the house. Instead of three bauble-laden trees, she’s erected one little tree because of the latest addition to the household – an adopted brown tabby, 7-month-old Stanley. Trees are temptations for climbing felines.

Peterson, who adopted Stanley in July, has other rescues, including Sven, a domestic shorthair cat; Snuggles, a lhasa apso; and Tami Jo, a golden retriever that flunked out of an assistant-dog program.

An avowed animal lover, Peterson came under attack during the election by an informal cat group that posted signs around town accusing her of legalizing animal cruelty. At issue was a 2018 ordinance that Peterson as a councilwoman joined in approving that banned the feeding of homeless cats on public property. 

The group said the ban prevented people from baiting traps in places like parks to practice trap, neuter and return – a proven humane method for reducing the feral cat population. Some cat advocates were cited and one resident was arrested for violating the ban and went through a costly court battle to defend himself.

Peterson said she is conferring with the Gilbert Feral Cat Association, which does TNR, and is willing to take another look at the ordinance and perhaps make changes, provided she can get Council’s support. Her cat, Stanley, she pointed out came from a litter where the mother was a “feral TNR.”

 Peterson’s path to the top-elected position in town began in 1996 while volunteering at her daughter’s elementary campus in Gilbert Public Schools. 

 A year later she attended the town’s first Congress of Neighborhoods meeting, sharing a table with Kathy Tilque, then the CEO/president of the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce and now one of Town Council’s newer members.

Right after that meeting, Peterson signed up to volunteer for the town and even though no one called her back, she continued to attend. 

She also became involved with the HOA board in her Wind Drift neighborhood and participated in the Chamber’s Gilbert Leadership program, which is designed to help develop Gilbert’s current and future leaders. She later served on the program’s board and chaired it from 2017-18.

  At the Leadership classes, Peterson met a member of the town’s Planning Commission, who suggested she join.

Peterson recalled telling the person that she had no idea what the commission did but was told, “You know Gilbert.”

“I think one thing that stuck with me when I was on the Congress of Neighborhoods, becoming its co-chair, I heard was Gilbert had a growth problem,” said Peterson, who had been a Gilbert resident by then for five years and a town volunteer for three. 

“I didn’t want to be part of the problem. I wanted to be part of the solution.”

Residents at the time were complaining that Gilbert was growing too fast, she recalled.

When Peterson moved to Gilbert in 1995, the population was around 55,000. Today, it’s approximately 260,000 with another decade or so to go before reaching build-out with an estimated 330,000 residents.

Peterson applied and was appointed in 2000 as the town’s first alternate to fill in when there was an absence on the seven-member Planning Commission. She served as an alternate for nine months until she was appointed to fill the remaining term of Linda Edwards, who stepped down to become the town’s planning manager.

Peterson quickly gained working knowledge of her role and ended up volunteering for 14 years, helping direct the town’s development.

“I think we done a great job managing the growth in Gilbert,” she said. “I would love to explain to residents that we are still growing. 

“Many move here and want Gilbert to stop. We can’t do that. We need to realize we love it; other people will love it and people will continue to move here – ‘no more growth’ is not going to happen.”

Peterson said she had no intention of running for elected office until she sat in on a discussion with then-Councilman Victor Petersen, who, she said, wanted to close down Freestone Recreation Center because the town was subsidizing its operations by 20 percent. He didn’t feel that was the proper role for government.

 That spurred Peterson to successfully run for a seat on Council in 2014. 

She was mid-way into her second, four-year term as a councilwoman when she decided to run for mayor after Jenn Daniels early last year announced she would not seek re-election.

Peterson, who had to resign from the Council to run, said she felt the town needed someone who had a long history in town and knew how municipal government worked and could do the job from Day One without any training, especially during a pandemic. 

She jumped into race with the full support of her husband. The hardest part for him was witnessing the “mean” mailers that targeted her, Peterson said.

“He’s very proud of me,” she said of her win. 

She ran against two well-funded political newcomers – Lynne King Smith and Matt Nielsen in the August Primary.

 King Smith and Nielsen each raised over $100,000, nearly double Peterson’s campaign war chest.

Peterson came in second in the Primary, trailing Nielsen by 166 votes, forcing the two into a showdown in the General Election.

 Although, she had the endorsements that included Daniels and other past mayors and the name recognition, Peterson said she left nothing to chance.

“I was very confident but I didn’t want to assume anything,” she said.

Unlike in her two past elections – when both times she was one of seven candidates vying for four seats and the odds were much better for winning a place on Council – only one person could be mayor, Peterson said, adding, “This time it was winner take all.”

Peterson, as she did in her prior races, adeptly took to social media for her campaigning, a vital tool even more so with the virus that hampered gatherings. She ended up with 70,426 votes to Nielsen’s 53,121.

Nielsen, a businessman with a master’s degree, tried to paint Peterson as lacking the professional and educational background needed to be mayor. He ran as a fiscal conservative – no new taxes and limited government.

Peterson earned a diploma from Hudson Catholic High School and worked 10 years as a senior technical proposal typist for Raytheon Technologies in Massachusetts before she moved to Arizona.  

She met her husband, Mark, at Raytheon and the two probably would have remained in the Northeast had Peterson not been sent to Honolulu, Hawaii, for five weeks on a business trip.

That trip, taken in the middle of a New England winter, was all the impetus needed to motivate Peterson to move to some place warm.

  She began contacting the chambers of commerce in Arizona, Nevada and Texas for information packets. The couple finally chose Arizona, having been to the state a couple of times to visit Mark’s son in Prescott, Peterson said.

She added her husband was open to a change and applied to be laid off at Raytheon so the family could make the move to a new life in the Southwest.

Mark left first, arriving to the East Valley with no job, no leads and no friends but within five months, he was hired by Motorola in Chandler, according to Peterson. He now works for General Dynamics in Scottsdale.

 The young family settled in Gilbert, first living in an apartment and then moving into the Wind Drift neighborhood, where they were the fifth family to buy into the master-planned community, Peterson said.  She still lives in the same house, which was remodeled in 2017.

In 2001, Peterson began working part time as an administrative assistant at Banner Health in Mesa for nearly eight years. It was her last paid job in the private sector. 

As a councilwoman, she earned an annual salary of $21,012 and as mayor she will take home a yearly paycheck of $43,631.

Peterson said she will keep her campaign promise to be a full-time mayor and expects to be at Town Hall most work days – which will be easy she said because she and her husband are empty nesters. Daughter Jenn married two years ago and now lives in Surprise, where she works for its local government.  

Peterson also will continue with the work load she carried as a councilwoman.

 “I think because I took on so much, it best prepared me,” she said.

During the election, she touted her top priorities if elected included transportation and working with local businesses to ensure economic recovery.

Peterson recently said she also planned to focus on domestic-violence issues and work on inclusion in town. 

For months before the November election, the town was a weekly staging ground for police and Trump backers squaring off against Black Lives Matter supporters at Gilbert and Warner roads.

That Peterson has embraced her adopted town is evident with her mementos of Gilbert – such as a metal replica of the iconic water tower downtown and locally crafted signs with the town’s name on them displayed in her home.

Peterson explained that after her second election, she began collecting the custom signs as a treat for herself. She has one on order that will hang in her new office at Town Hall.

“She loves Gilbert tremendously,” said former Councilman Eddie Cook, now County Assessor who served alongside Peterson when she was on Council. “She is a big cheerleader for Gilbert, which is wonderful.”

Cook still stays in contact with Peterson as she and her husband belong to the same informal off-road jeep club that meets for monthly jaunts exploring Arizona. 

Cook formed the club years ago as part of the town’s wellness program and as a way for employees to come together over a shared activity.

Peterson noted during one of her four-wheeling runs in nature with her husband, she picked up a new hobby, digital photography.

The club is open to both current and former town employees and their families. Mark, a big monster truck fan, now co-runs the club with Cook.

Cook also called Peterson “very kind, very considerate,” and has attributes that will serve her well in office.

“What Brigette brings is that she served many years on the Planning and Zoning Commission and that institutional knowledge is absolutely a key part being on the Council,” Cook said. 

“Many agenda items are related to that,” he continued. “With all the growth Gilbert has experienced over the last decade or so, Brigette was part of lot of those planning and zoning meetings.”

Another big plus is Peterson’s connection with the Gilbert Chamber and its Gilbert Leadership program, he said.

“That is a really valuable asset because we continually want to support all of our small businesses in Gilbert,” said Cook. 

“Small businesses generate jobs and profit-revenue streams through sales tax so I think she has a good network of folks and small businesses being part of that,” Cook said. “These are two very key attributes for her background, which would be valuable as a mayor.”

Former Councilman Jordan Ray, who has known Peterson for a decade, said she’s a hard worker.

“She spent a tremendous amount of time on town events, spending time with the community, with employees, with public safety,” said Ray, who left the Council in April for a justice of the peace job. “She really cares about the community and she is willing to put the time in required to be mayor.”

Ray said Peterson’s forte is that she is a people-person who truly likes getting involved and “loves anything Gilbert-related.”

 “I’ve served with other council members, who are good, but they don’t love being in the community,” Ray said. “Brigette loves being in the community.”

Even her detractors give Peterson kudos for her community engagement.

 “She’s definitely is in the community,” said Councilman Jared Taylor, who backed Nielsen in the election and is leaving office after the first Council meeting in January. 

“There is no question about that strength of hers,” Taylor said. “She is available at lots of events. She’s met lots of people with regard to the chamber, the schools (and) the town staff. That’s a big deal to be the face of the town, you need to be out and available and she does that and is willing to make that commitment to her credit.”

Taylor, however, had doubts if Peterson will truly represent her constituents.

“She is more interested in doing what the staff wants her to do than what the people want to do,” he said. “Her voting record shows that. There’s maybe one or two she didn’t vote with staff recommendation.”

The most glaring example is Peterson voting with the majority to place a $65.3 million bond on the 2018 ballot to help pay for the soon-to-open $85-million public safety training facility, according to Taylor.

He opposes the facility, contending it is much higher in cost than comparable buildings and that the town misled voters by saying there would be no tax rate increase if the bond passed. 

Town officials have said there would be no increase and that’s because old debt is paid down and the new debt would take its place.

“I wanted someone that represented the people and I didn’t see that as strong in Brigette as I saw in Matt,” Taylor said. “I guess time will tell. I wish her the best.”

  However, those who voted for Peterson feel they would have a better shot at representation than with her opponent.

“Gilbert needs a reasonable voice and one that listens and speaks for all its people,” wrote a woman on social media.

And another said, “As an ally and mother of LGBTQAI+ children I feel good in my vote for Brigette and I believe that she will be willing to listen."