Kirk Adams paid homage to the courage and determination of Arizona’s pioneers moments after he was sworn in Monday as speaker of the House of Representatives.
They came to a harsh and unsettled land amid dire warnings that they could never succeed, he said. The tribute to their quiet toughness was a deliberate message to Arizona lawmakers who were sworn in to a new term in which they must close a budget deficit of roughly $1.6 billion for the current fiscal year.
The times ahead will be tough, said Adams, a Mesa Republican. But the difficulties will be overcome, he said.
“I have been told that there is no way we will succeed,” Adams said of the lean budget times that will dominate the upcoming legislative session. “I just reject that out of hand. That’s why I wanted to speak a little bit about the Arizona heritage that we have.
Can you imagine the pioneers, the miners, the ranchers that came to this arid desert and out of that territory they fashioned this upstart state? I think that sense of can-do is very much an Arizona trait and it’s one that we need now more than ever.”
Adams showed that same quiet determination as he assumed the role as one of the most powerful men in Arizona in what rank as some of the state’s most dire times.
The Tribune followed Adams throughout his first day in the job. Whether he was playing host to family and friends as he waited in his office for the formal session to convene, or being grilled during a news conference about how to close the state’s deficit, Adams’ calm, even demeanor did not change.
“I hide it well,” he said of dealing with the pressure his job will bring.
His wife, JaNae, said his low-key manner is his way of dealing with tough times.
“He’s got a very balanced approached to problem-solving,” she said. “That’s just his personality. He’s very even.”
JaNae knows her husband is in a tough job at a tough time, and that he will have to weather criticism over the difficult decisions he will make.
“I’ve had plenty of kind people remind me to not take it too personally,” she said of the rough-and-tumble politics that are ahead for Adams. “I know he’ll be able to do that a lot better than me. I don’t want anybody to say anything bad about him. But you can’t be a leader and make everyone happy. It’s the leader’s role to make decisions that are necessary.”
Adams’ rise to the speakership was itself marked with adversity. A month before he was appointed to the House to fill a vacancy in 2006, his 11-month-old son, John, died in an accident at their home. Despite his short tenure in elected office, Adams was able to unseat an entrenched incumbent in the battle for the speakership that took place two days after the election in November.
Adams was not reveling in the trappings of his office Monday morning as he waited for the session to formally convene.
On the wall beside his desk is a bookshelf covered with family photos. The opposite wall is decorated with three simple picture frames. In one is a portrait of John Adams, the second president of the United States and Kirk Adams’ political inspiration. A quotation from Adams, the president, is in the second frame. In the third is a picture of John Adams, the speaker’s son.
About an hour before he formally took over as speaker, Adams chatted in his office with the man who got him involved in politics, Chuck Daggs, and his wife Louise about the itinerary for the day. The one power-play that Adams did make was to arrange for the choir from his alma mater, Mesa’ Mountain View High School, to sing at the opening ceremonies.
“I decided since I was in charge of the program, I’d pick my alma mater,” Adams said.
A short time later, JaNae arrived with four of their children, Glade, 11; Dallin, 10; Emma, 9 and Ben, 6.
Their youngest, Parker, was ill at home.
“He’s throwing up,” Emma announced.
Soon the crowd got bigger as Adams’ parents and in-laws arrived, and a few politicians trickled in. Adams moved through the crowd like the host at a family get-together, directing his guests to the sandwiches and sodas in the next room.
His parents, Dave and Linda, said politics was always a topic of discussion in their home, and that Adams proved himself an adept politician early on.
“Whenever he was given a job, it was always negotiable,” Linda Adams said. “We always did think he’d get involved in politics because he was always interested.”
Adams breezed past to check on arriving guests.
“You’re not supposed to be writing this down,” he joked.
At one point the discussion turned to former Gov. Evan Mecham, who was removed from office through impeachment in 1988.
“Can the speaker be impeached?” Dallin asks his father.
“You don’t have to worry about it,” Adams replies with a chuckle.
The House convened at noon, with Rep. Jack Brown, D-St. Johns, presiding as the most senior member of the body. After the swearing-in ceremony, Adams was nominated as the Republican majority’s selection as speaker, an appointment that must be approved by the full 60-member House. In years past, the Democrats would nominate one of their own as a show of unity. But that ritual was bypassed and Adams was elected speaker by unanimous affirmation.
“So far he seems to have some give to him,” Brown said of Adams. “He seems to want to work together.”
The main event was the State of the State speech by outgoing Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who has been picked by President-elect Barack Obama to be the nation’s new homeland security secretary. Secretary of State Jan Brewer, Napolitano’s successor, entered the chamber and was greeted with a standing ovation.
After Napolitano’s speech, legislators and others on the floor of the House chamber crowded around Brewer to chat or have their pictures taken with the governor-in-waiting. Adams did not elbow his way in, but rather chatted at the side of the dais with House staff.
During a news conference of House and Senate leaders that followed the governor’s speech, Adams was respectful of Napolitano even as he dismissed her speech as irrelevant in the upcoming session.
“Out of respect to the office of governor, it was relevant,” Adams said.
Adams insisted that the budget fixes that legislators ultimately pass will be aired in open hearings, a departure from past practices in which legislative leadership cooked up spending plans behind closed doors. He said the choices ahead will be tough ones.
“If we don’t make those hard choices, there’s nobody else to make them,” Adams said. “It’s not a matter of ideology. It’s just a matter of mathematics.”
Adams returned to his office with his wife and children for one final interview of the day. The tough budgetary times the state is facing provide an opportunity to restructure the state’s economy so that it comes out of the recession stronger and more diverse than it was going in, Adams said.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity in Arizona to really discuss the nature of Arizona’s economy,” Adams said. “If we can’t talk about restructuring the Arizona economy in this time of crisis, I’m not sure we ever will.”
And while it might have been easier to become speaker in flush times, Adams said he is glad to be the one taking over when things are bleak.
“I think we can do some things and set things on a course that you simply can’t do unless you are in crisis,” Adams said. “And we are certainly in crisis right now. It does at times feel like a big burden. But generally I think it’s an incredible opportunity.”