Home / Capitol Insiders / Cowboy lawmaker Brown rides off after 36 years

Cowboy lawmaker Brown rides off after 36 years

Rep. Jack Brown is retiring from the Legislature after 36 years as a lawmaker. (Photo by Evan Wyloge)

Rep. Jack Brown is retiring from the Legislature after 36 years as a lawmaker. (Photo by Evan Wyloge)

The state is losing an icon and one of the last remaining cowboy legislators. Although Jack Brown’s legacy in Arizona history has been cemented by his 36 years as a legislator, his departure will be bittersweet, as his effort to keep all state parks open fell by the wayside this year.

Brown has spent much of the 2010 legislative session, which will be his last, working to build support for what some say was to be his “legacy bill.” The bill, H2060, would have diverted money to the state parks and away from a voter-approved account dedicated to preserving open spaces.

The bill needed the approval of 45 lawmakers in the House, but supporters failed to pull together that many votes. Although Chandler Republican Warde Nichols sponsored the bill, Brown was the most outspoken advocate of the measure in the Democratic caucus, and he worked diligently to gather votes.

“If we don’t (save the parks system), it’s a heck of a mess to put it back together,” Brown said.
The soft-spoken veteran made a rare floor speech in favor of the bill when the House voted on it April 28.

“I am strongly in support of this bill,” he said, trying in vain to get his colleagues to join him.

But his words fell on deaf ears among fellow Democrats – some of whom he later accused of breaking promises to vote for the bill – and H2060 failed by a 36-23 vote. Every Republican on the floor voted for it, but nearly all Democrats voted against it.

Though the longtime rancher may not ride off into the sunset with a victory on that bill, there is little doubt about the impact Brown had on the Legislature in his career, which began in 1963.

“Jack was always one of my heroes in the Legislature and someone I looked up to very, very much,” said Bob McLendon, a Yuma Democrat who served with Brown in the House in the 1980s and ’90s.

Brown is a role model for all rural lawmakers, said Rusty Bowers, who served with the St. Johns Democrat in both the House and Senate in the 1990s. Brown knows rural issues like very few others and worked tirelessly to protect the interests of his constituents and those in other rural communities, Bower said.

The key to his success was that he didn’t approach rural issues from a partisan standpoint, said Bas Aja, executive director of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association.

“Water and natural resources are not a Democrat or Republican issue, and Jack always worked that way,” Aja said.

Brown’s ability to breach the partisan divide on issues was the cornerstone of his leadership, said Art Hamilton, the longtime former House minority leader. Brown served as assistant leader under Hamilton for two terms.

“You could never talk with Jack and figure out what his registration was,” Hamilton said. “He understood there are 60 members of the House and you couldn’t give any of them away if you hoped to get 31 of them.

“That’s a characteristic that I think most good leaders learn to demonstrate.”

Former Senate President Brenda Burns served with Brown in both chambers, and credited his ability to work across the aisle to his unflinching commitment to honesty.

“He’s quite a fine gentleman. You could always count on him to keep his word,” she said.

Brown says it goes back to his childhood and the example set by his father – a county supervisor in Apache County – and his mother.

“I always figured it was better to work with people than work against them,” he said.

It helps, said his seatmate, Republican Bill Konopnicki, that Brown has an almost charming naïveté that makes it impossible to not like him.

“I think that’s why you won’t hear anything bad about him, because he wouldn’t say anything bad about anybody else,” Konopnicki said. “He thinks everyone’s a good person.”

That manner exemplifies the way the Legislature used to operate, said Ned Creighton, publisher emeritus of Arizona Capitol Times. Brown’s tenure at the Capitol stretches back to 1963, before representation was based on population and the Legislature was controlled by the rural counties.

“Jack Brown really is the last of the Samurai, the last current member whose original service predates the one-man, one-vote election of 1966 that gave legislative control of Arizona to Phoenix. Jack is the last link to a time when rural Arizona had a significant political voice,” Creighton said.

Brown’s rural roots are clear to anyone who spends a few minutes with him. He speaks slowly, with a slight drawl. Colorful, homespun turns of phrase dot his speeches. He doesn’t wear a cowboy hat like some of the state’s rancher lawmakers in the past, but his dress is at times decidedly Western, and he almost always wears denim jeans.

His days of running the ranch are long gone – he turns 81 on May 2 – and his son, Norman, has taken over the daily responsibilities. But Brown said he plans to return to the ranch after the legislative session ends, though he makes it clear that he will work for Norman – at least for the most part.

“He’s going to be my boss, except when I veto him,” Brown said.

Brown got into politics after he and some friends in St. Johns were dissatisfied with the representation of the district. The group decided he would be the best candidate, and they managed to unseat the incumbent.

Soon, he rose to become a Democrat leader. But in 1974, Brown left the Legislature and returned to St. Johns. He has always said he used his 12 years away from the Legislature – from 1975 to 1987 – to focus on his four sons and three daughters. But the truth is that it was an involuntary early retirement.

“The reason I stayed home, really, is that I got beat. They re-apportioned (my district) and included us with the Indians,” he said. A Navajo woman defeated him, and Brown returned to the ranch.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

The fact that he has such a long history at the Capitol gives Brown a perspective that no other lawmaker has. And with term limits, it’s unlikely anyone will serve that long again.

“He has seen and experienced and done everything possible,” said Rep. Matt Heinz, a freshman Democrat from Tucson, who said he has taken every opportunity to pick Brown’s brain. “He is unflappable. Nothing surprises him. He will be sorely missed.”

When he leaves, that institutional memory will go with him. But perhaps what he leaves behind will have an even greater impact on the state’s second 100 years.

Aja, the Cattlemen’s Association leader, said the biggest contribution Brown has made to Arizona is not the legislation he worked on, but his family. His sons David and Douglas are both attorneys – David also serves as an Apache County supervisor – and another son, Michael, is an appellate judge in Phoenix. One of his daughters, Janna Day, is also an attorney and a lobbyist. His other son, Norman, besides running the family ranch, is active in the St. Johns community.

“I think he’s raised a legacy of leadership in Arizona that will transcend his legislative work,” Aja said.

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