St. Johns resident and perennial lawmaker Jack Brown turned 80 this year, making him the oldest legislator in the state. Brown was a freshman lawmaker in 1963, the year the Beatles released their first album and “Dr. No” kicked off decades of James Bond movies.
Now, Brown, a rancher and real estate agent by trade, is in the middle of his 35th session at the Legislature. The self-proclaimed moderate Democrat recently sat down with the Arizona Capitol Times to talk about partisanship, the budget, the value of keeping quiet and withstanding pressure.
You have more than 30 legislative sessions under your belt. Were you or are you surprised by the Legislature’s handling of this budget deficit?
I sure am. I have never seen a majority that could not work together as poorly as this one has and has refused to acknowledge that and not admit they have to work with Democrats to make it work.
Nearly always you have to get together one way or the other to get the job done. You just have to decide, “OK, let’s do this part of the job together.” This time they started out and worked together with the Democrats and they got fairly close, but they had enough conservative conservatives that they just divorced themselves from the Democrats.
They never came back and wanted to meet with us, but right now I’ve had some feelers come to see if there is any way I can support the plan they’ve got. But the answer is no, there is no way I can support that plan that leaves a great big pothole with nothing to fill it. I ain’t going there.
Now there is an incredible shortage of money, there’s Prop. 105 (Voter Protection Act), and the Legislature could cut every government agency and still not have enough money. How would you cover this?
That’s a good statement. We flat-out just don’t have enough money. In my business – I am a cattle rancher who dabbles in real estate, too – sometimes I have to go borrow money to operate. Sometimes that calf crop isn’t that good and the price has gone down. You have to do what you have to do to get the finances so you can run and operate next year. We’re in the same position as that right here.
My big problem with the plan they have right now is they want to go and separate those things and have the people vote on them. I supported the 1-cent tax increase. I was one of the few Democrats that stood up and said that, but I wanted it to go through the Legislature to pass it now. Don’t send it to a vote of the people. Pass it. I agreed with the governor and some of the Democrats didn’t like that.
Now, what if we go to the vote with those two proposals and we lose?
We are $3 billion in the hole then. They’ve given nearly a billion dollars away in tax cuts, and it takes nearly all of the 1-cent sales tax increase just to offset that and you’d still be short. It’s a poor way to run a business.
So you think the referendums would lose?
Yeah. I think people are so disgusted with us down here that they can’t think what in the world is all the Mickey-Mousing is about and why we can’t just get together in a room. My idea from the very start was to get two guys from each of the four groups and get the governor.
You’re referring to the House majority and minority and Senate majority and minority?
Yeah. Or whoever they might want to choose. They might want to choose someone like me, ’cause I’ve been there a dozen times.
When (Janet) Napolitano became governor she thought I was way too moderate; too conservative. But she learned that I wasn’t. I was a middle-of-the-road kind of guy and she used me a lot, and all of the time on the budgets, and I worked long and hard. If I were our leadership, I’d put a guy like me who can work on both sides of the aisle.
It doesn’t have to be with leadership, because leadership in the Senate is awful. I’ve never seen them kick out leadership positions like that and change them two or three times. Pick moderate, reasonable people and agree that when that group agrees there is a solution, take it. Work together. We’re all down here to make our government go, and it seems there are people here who don’t want it to go.
Does this session compare to anything you have seen in the past?
I’ve never seen one like this. I’ve seen some where we fought pretty hard, but we compromised and there was something I didn’t like too well and you didn’t like too well, but you arrive at that solution and you go with it.
Many people say the Legislature has grown increasingly partisan and bitter over the years. Do you agree, and if so, what do you attribute this to?
Yeah. We have so many people now that are ultra, ultra-conservatives who have signed a pledge for no new tax – something like 30 of them who are dumb enough to get hoodwinked into voting for no new taxes, not a penny.
That makes it darned hard to get some of the reasonable people. It sounded good. They wanted me to sign one of those papers and I thought it sounded good. I didn’t want to increase taxes, but wait a minute.
Any kind of increase on anything? I’m not in favor of that.
You don’t know what the economy will do. I think it is a bad mistake to sign and pledge something while you do not know what you will have to do.
What about election law changes? You’ve seen everything; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Clean Elections Act, term limits. What do you think the overall impacts of those are?
I think we have kind of boxed ourselves in. I think we made a mistake on term limits and we already have the best term limits there are: when they get tired of you, they let you out.
If people didn’t like Jack Brown in that district – and they know me pretty well – and if they want to send me back, let them send me back.
Some people say it never was meant so you could go from one house to the other, but Jake Flake and I traded back and forth, and we were going by the law people passed. That’s the way we were elected, and I thought it was good to have Jake Flake come back and to have me come back.
The knowledge we have of what has happened before, I think, is important to the state. I think it makes better government; people who have been there, done that.
What do you think about Clean Elections?
I wish we’d just wipe the whole thing out. I ran Clean Elections this last time and I got quite a lot of money and thought it was pretty nice to have that much money, but I just didn’t feel good about taking it.
You spoke of Jake Flake, who died last year. What sort of impact do you think he would have on the Senate if he were here today?
I think that Jake would have been a senator who would have had better judgment in holding them (Republicans) together. I don’t know if he would have been leadership or not. But he was a stiff old Republican and he and I always worked well together, but we differed on a lot of things. He was a Republican and I am a Democrat, but when the chips were down we worked pretty well together and we could figure something out. Jake would have held those conservatives under toe better.
You have spoken about the conservative conservatives, but on the other hand, do you think some of the partisanship coming out of your party could have been tempered a little?
Sure. I think sometimes they get carried away, and when I first came down here they thought they were sent a Republican in Democrat clothing. It’s not true. I have always been a Democrat, but I’m a pretty moderate Democrat. I’ve had a lot of times where my own group got mad at me because I voted for something that Republicans have sponsored because I think it’s a good idea.
Overall, we have a liberal element in the Democrat Party that I just don’t agree with. But I work with them because that’s the group I am in with. And sometimes I vote for something I normally wouldn’t, except I feel that I need to stay with my group the best I can.
Your district seems to have an interesting dynamic. They keep sending you here, and they vote for Bill Konopnicki, who most would say is a moderate Republican, and Sylvia Allen, who is, as you say, a conservative conservative. For you, is it harder to face the pressures from your district or from your party; let’s say pressure you might feel from someone hands-on like Napolitano?
You just have to set your standards by what you can live by, and they all have to learn that. I have voted pro-life all the way through.
That never changed. I know that Napolitano cringed, but she knew how I was and what I was and she knew she could work with me in spite of that. There are quite a few things like that, like a lot of the spending.
But when you represent a district as big as mine, and you’ve been around as long as I have, and people know you pretty well, they know where you stand. They know where I stand and where they differ with me. You have basic principles and you stay with them, and if they don’t like that they can send somebody else. But as long as they feel like you’re fair and square and most of the time your on the same page, they’ll say, ‘Let’s send him down, he’s representing us pretty well.’
Who are your favorite young legislators to work with?
I think those two boys from Tempe are pretty good. (David) Schapira and (Edward) Ableser. They’re pretty liberal. They’re more liberal than I am, but, by golly, they’re both pretty capable, and they can both get up and give a speech without hogging the floor.
I say sometimes that guys can talk so long that you quit listening before they get through talking. But they’re both pretty good and pretty young, and I think they’ll develop into pretty darned strong little legislators.
You turned 80 this year. Do you feel that the newer legislators come to you for your opinion and listen to what you say?
Yeah. They do. I have a pretty good reputation for not talking too much. I learn more when I’m listening than when I’m talking. People, normally, when I talk, listen. They say, ‘I wonder what this old fogey is going to say now.’ But at least they listen to you and think you might have some pretty good ideas.
While you have served several lengthy spans in the Legislature, you are still not termed out. Will you be running for office again?
I’m not announcing I’m running yet. You still have another year, year and a half, before you have to put your name on the ticket. I’ll take that time and visit with my wife and take our time and decide what we want to do.
What keeps dragging you back?
The fact that I like it and I feel I’m a pretty good person to have around, and I think I make our government run a little better.
UpCloser with Rep. Jack Brown
What was your favorite session?
One year (2001-2002), the Senate had a 15-15 split with (Randall) Gnant leading Republicans (NOTE: Brown led the Democrats). He and I got along well. That was one of the best terms I ever served. He couldn’t do a darned thing without me, and I couldn’t do a darned thing without him.
I like sports. Basketball. And I like to keep up with football.
If you weren’t a rancher what would you have become?
A full-time real estate guy. I have a real estate license. You have to have a few ways to make more money if you’re a rancher.
Do you have a favorite restaurant?
I hate to mention any of those restaurants my wife keeps dragging me to, so I’d have to say Bob’s Big Boy is as good as any of them.
Where do ranchers go on vacation?
I don’t go on vacation a lot. Once in a while we go back to West Virginia to visit my wife’s folks.
Who is the governor you have found most enjoyable to work with?
I’d say Wes Bolin. He was a guy you could talk to and sit down and visit with. You could add Rose Mofford to that list.