The political discourse in Arizona has always been a little wild, but at the end of the day our elected officials would typically go from being at each other’s throats on the floor of the Legislature to breaking bread together or sharing a drink at the nearest watering hole. They knew how to put aside the rancor of party and policy and get on with their lives.
Somehow, it’s hard to imagine that happening in today’s political climate. With Republicans firmly in charge, and things looking to stay that way for the foreseeable future, Democrats hardly have a hope of even getting their ideas heard at the state Legislature. In many cases they don’t even have a seat at the table in the most vital of discussions, such as immigration — or their voice gets drowned out in the attention-grabbing hysteria.
Nowhere is this lack of civility more plain, of course, than in the races for several of Arizona’s highest statewide offices. Almost daily, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry Goddard uses social media to call his Republican opponent, incumbent Gov. Jan Brewer, “no plan Jan,” also frequently poking fun at her grammatical flubs and refusal to take part in any more debates beyond the one required for Clean Elections funding. The candidates for state attorney general, Republican Tom Horne and Democrat Felecia Rotellini, are using these channels to take dirty, dubious swipes at each other that make one question whether either of them would be acceptable as Arizona’s top law enforcement official.
Many of the politicians who shaped the Arizona we love would hang their heads in shame.
There was a time when influence at the Capitol came not from ideological intractability, but from knowing when to bend and reach across the aisle. That’s how some of Arizona’s greatest accomplishments were made.
Perhaps no one exemplified this more than one of the most powerful politicians to ever serve Arizona, Burton Barr — after whom the main Phoenix Public Library facility on Central Avenue is named. During his impressive reign as Republican House majority leader, many of the things Arizonans now take for granted were established: freeways, vehicle inspection, health care for the poor, groundwater management and more.
Sure, Republicans and Democrats of the time (the late ’60s to the mid-’80s) were still Republicans and Democrats — but it was, without question, a more cooperative time. Barr once said: “We operated on a thesis that we wanted to do things.”
He was known as a great compromiser — not for betraying his values, but for being willing to see the minority as more than just a thorn in his side. He knew the Democrats were an important part of Arizona’s makeup, representing large swaths of the state with values of their own that needed to be upheld.
Even Democrat Janet Napolitano, who was governor until she left last year to lead President Barack Obama’s Homeland Security Department, once had the respect of some of Arizona’s loudest conservative voices: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio backed her 2002 run for governor based on her time as state attorney general and, before that, U.S. attorney for Arizona. In other words, based on hard-earned respect and cooperation getting things done.
After 22 years of service in the state House of Representatives, during which he both relished debating and shared a mutual respect with Minority Leader Art Hamilton, Barr unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for governor (it went to Evan Mecham, who won the office) but he continued to serve the public, helping to bring major league sports teams to Arizona and arbitrating disputes between the governor’s office and Indian tribes over casino gaming. Barr’s role in a unified Arizona was summed up in a House resolution passed to recognize his legacy when he died in 1997: “This highly energetic and witty lawmaker is praised by political figures from both parties. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a Democratic Governor during Barr’s reign in the House, stated that Representative Burton Barr’s passing ‘is truly a passing of an era’.
“Burton Barr’s legacy lies in his uncompromising dedication to the best principle of democracy — the good of the people.”
Barr sought the office of governor but never attained it, yet he still went on to give of himself to do great things for Arizona. When a candidate for that office won’t even debate opponents past the bare minimum, and the others seize on this for political advantage, the “good of the people” couldn’t be farther from their minds.