Sen. Al Melvin, a Republican from Tucson, can be a baffling figure if you try to affix stereotypes to politicians.
For instance, he is an immigration hawk who favors a guest-worker program that would allow non-citizens to work temporarily in the U.S. On top of that, he was painted as an extreme right-winger during the 2008 elections, but then went on to introduce what his critics call “nanny-state” measures that give government more control over the daily lives of Arizonans.
Melvin said the labels he’s been given illustrate the pitfalls of philosophical purity. He said some Republican lawmakers were ranked as more conservative than he, even though they are pro-choice and weak on both border security and gun-rights issues.
While Melvin has remained solid on the core GOP agenda, he was rated lower on the conservative scale by the Pachyderm Coalition mostly because he sponsored bills that would have banned texting while driving, smoking in cars while children are inside and riding in the back of a pickup.
When he settled in at the Capitol, he joined a chamber that was paralyzed over ideological and strategic differences — even within the Republican majority.
In this April 27 interview, Melvin talked about the inescapable subject of immigration, his battle with cancer and his love for animals.
You won a battle with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. What was that experience like?
I was diagnosed about six months ago and the last I’ve heard is — I had a PET scan — it was clean. These things, they can pick up even like one cancer cell, and that was totally clean.
My doctor says it really looks good, so I couldn’t ask for anything more. The wonderful thing about it is I’ve had no nausea or ill-effects from it, and I thought that was just because the medicine is so good these days. But the doctor says the key is a positive attitude.
You can give the same medicine to three or four people, and one or two will respond well and it doesn’t work for the others. And a lot of it is attitude. But it really hasn’t slowed me down.
What was the biggest struggle for you when you were undergoing treatment?
I didn’t have any negative aspects, except the loss of the hair. That’s a little different, but it’s growing back and that’s a good thing.
So I understand that you’ve spent time outside the U.S.
I’ve lived all over the world. As a child, my dad was a career Army officer, so I lived in Korea actually before the Korean War. We lived there in the late 1940s.
Then we lived in Austria and France. And later, as a businessman, I lived in Korea for two years, Japan for eight and Pakistan for two.
What did you learn from all of that?
Well, you know, I’m glad you asked because it applies to S1070. And I tried to tell people — and I meant it with all sincerity — as an American businessman in Asia for 12 years, I carried two documents with me 365 days a year for 12 years. One was a legal alien registration card and one was my passport.
That was the requirement to live and work in these foreign countries. I didn’t look at it as an imposition on me or anything. That was what was required, and I did it.
That wasn’t such a big deal, is that what you’re saying?
That’s not a big deal. And the other point, real quick, is the press and other entities sometimes have a problem with the word “alien.” I don’t. I see nothing wrong with it.
I was called a legal alien. That didn’t bother me in the least, and it shouldn’t bother anybody else.
But isn’t that precisely what we want to avoid in the United States — the fact that you have to carry papers with you the whole time?
You have to have minimum standards anywhere in society. I don’t care where you are on the face of the Earth. Most people have two things with them. One is their credit card. Not many people leave home without a credit card, and the second is a driver’s license.
If you want to get on an airplane, if you want to drive yourself and rent a car in a foreign country — I mean, I just don’t see that that’s an imposition on anyone.
I have given a lot of thought to SB1070, and I attended a thing that they called the Border Legislative Conference. It is made up of legislators from the four American border states and the six Mexican border states, and this was just the week before last right here in Phoenix. And one of the people pointed out 700 people died on the Mexican-American border last year. Nobody should be dying on this border, and in my view this bill is a life-saving bill.
— Let me finish real quick.
That it will prevent deaths in the desert. We do need guest workers, and they should be coming here on air-conditioned buses. They should not be dying in the desert, and that’s what this bill is all about.
But going back to the idea of America being a free place: Isn’t that precisely what we want to avoid, where we become just another country where it’s imperative that you carry papers with you wherever you go?
No, I would hope that you as a reporter at the Arizona Legislature would not fall into the trap into what the press is doing now at the national level.
But if you read the bill, you can see that it must be ‘probable cause’ and it goes out of its way — I just read it again today — to say that the color of one’s skin, nationality, cannot be a reason for a policeman stopping someone. It’s weaving between lanes of traffic, a burned-out tail light …
And by the way, real quick, I have total confidence in our law enforcement officers. And, again, we started off this conversation (about how) I have lived all over the world. I have lived in very law-abiding countries in North Asia, like Japan. I’ve lived in some countries where it’s not necessarily that way, but our law enforcement officers — we have come a long way in the education of them and in the training of them. I have total confidence in them. I really do.
The point I’m raising was actually one of the points raised by people with a libertarian bent, and it’s not precisely to this particular bill. But if you recall, the arguments against Real ID go along the same lines as this one. The libertarians’ argument is that they don’t want to be in a country where you’re being required to carry papers with you all the time to travel or to go anywhere.
Well, I’m glad you bring it up because I, for one — and I’m a conservative Reagan Republican — have no problem with a national ID. I don’t.
In my wallet right now, I have my retired military ID card. I need it to get on the base here at Luke. I have my driver’s license. I have my passport, actually, in my briefcase.
Moving along, it was interesting to see you talk about the division in your caucus a few months ago. You were quite candid and frank about what you saw.
Regarding? You mean over texting while driving?
I think you mentioned the right wing and the left wing of your caucus.
Of the 18 Republicans in the majority caucus, I would say that the vast majority including me are Reagan-conservative Republicans. And then we’ve got one or so on the right and one or so on the left. But if all goes well, that still leaves us with 16 to take care of business.
What was that problem you encountered with that kind of dynamic in your caucus?
Well, I will tell you frankly, and I hope you put this in your article. To me the political process is a cleansing process, and it happens through the election cycles.
And frankly speaking, in my district I replaced two rather liberal Republicans, one by the name of Toni Hellon and the other by the name of (Pete) Hershberger, and that happened in primaries in my district. If either one of them was here instead of me the dynamics would be quite different, as well as Steve Pierce from Prescott replacing Tom O’Halleran.
So it’s a continuing cleansing process, and from what I can see in November, we are going to have a bigger and more conservative majority in the Senate and in the House.
At one point it was a problem to see bills through, because if enough people on the left or enough people on the right of the caucus couldn’t agree then you wouldn’t have the votes.
Yeah, but, you know, I think we are doing pretty good now. I really do. We are taking care of business.
You were portrayed as a right-wing, ultra-conservative politician when you ran for the Senate two years ago. However, your actions in the Legislature show otherwise. You introduced measures that —
— Animal welfare bills, no-texting while driving.
I tell you one of my biggest concerns now is the issue of inmate labor and, in fact, I just mentioned it in the Natural Resources Committee, a real success story that I want to export all over Arizona. And it involves the Pima County animal care facility where we have 10 female inmates, 14 hours a day, seven days a week working at the facility.
To those who would say, “Well, Senator Melvin said he’s a conservative but he has introduced ‘nanny-state’ bills,” what do you say to them?
Well, you know, I am really passionate about the proper treatment of animals, and I think part of that probably comes from living overseas.
The more undeveloped a country is, the worse they treat their animals. We’re all a product of our environment, and that happens to be an issue that’s important to me and my wife. I’m the go-to guy in the Senate. I tell animal welfare people, you want to get something done in the Senate, come to me.
So you’re not bothered at all by labels?
No, I love it. The Pachyderm Coalition labeled me a RINO (Republican in name only). I take it as a badge of courage. I’ve got it framed on my wall right there. You can take a look at it on the way out. I’ll show it to you.
Do you speak any foreign languages?
I have no language ability whatsoever. (Laughs). I struggle with English.
What was your favorite dish when you were abroad?
My wife is Japanese. I love sushi.
Pick one: Cat or dog?
Batman or Superman?
Dry or wet?
Dry. You know, the Navy has an expression: Feet-wet or feet-dry. If you’re feet are wet, you’re over water. If you’re feet are dry, (you’re over land).