Carolyn Allen’s Senate office is adorned with snapshots of memorable moments during her 16 years of public service, but they also illustrate the reasons for her rise and fall within the Republican legislative caucus.
In her outer office, Allen hung a 2006 campaign flyer distributed by a political opponent accusing her of being pals with “America’s leading liberals.” The hit piece shows Allen, along with photos of Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and Al Sharpton.
Another frame, which is displayed inside her office, displays a fish symbol swallowing an elephant. The fish is labeled “the Religious Right.”
The first reflects Allen’s centrist views and the flak she receives from fellow Republicans for holding steady, sometimes in league with Democrats, against conservative measures introduced by her caucus members.
The second frame probably sums up her feelings about her party — that it has moved, to her disappointment, too far to the right on the political spectrum.
Indeed, Allen, who has represented Scottsdale for 16 years, has become the most visible symbol of the moderate wing of the Republican Party.
Her retirement, which comes on the heels of the defeat of moderate lawmakers in the last few election cycles, reinforces the perception that the right wing of the Arizona Republican Party has established a tight grip on the legislative agenda, while the moderate wing has withered.
The former House majority leader doesn’t always toe the party line, both a source of frustration and admiration by colleagues and Capitol observers. Depending on who’s speaking, Allen is either fiercely independent-minded or a “Republican-In-Name-Only.”
“She is beholden to no one but herself,” said Sen. Steve Pierce, who has struck a friendship with Allen even though he defeated one of Allen’s closest allies, former Sen. Tom O’Halleran, in the 2008 primary.
Allen voted against anti-abortion measures — calling them “anti-female” — and balked at proposed tax cuts at a time when Arizona’s finances were shaky. She and a former colleague had stood in the way of their party’s wishes to repeal the state equalization tax.
She was the only Republican in the Arizona Legislature who voted “no” on S1070, which requires state and local law enforcement to investigate any person who presents reasonable suspicion that he or she may be in the country illegally.
Allen rarely buckles to pressure, although she has voted for measures she strongly dislikes. In December, for example, Allen said she was ashamed to say she’s a Republican anymore because of the way her colleagues had crafted the state budget. Yet she still voted for the budget package, saying the alternative proposals were even worse.
Allen’s centrist views have puzzled many GOP colleagues. Some have accused her of spoiling the Republican brand.
“What does it mean to be a Republican? If being Republican means, you know, you’re not pro-life and you’re not pro-family and you’re not pro-marriage and you’re not pro-taxpayer and you’re not pro-Second Amendment Rights — I mean, holy cow!” said Constantin Querard, a Republican consultant who works primarily with conservative politicians. “What makes her sort of the anomaly is that she holds all of the left-leaning views in a single person.”
But Allen, who once held a leadership post in the House, contends the Republican Party has shifted during her time in office. Instead of focusing on economic development and job creation, the party now seems more concerned with enacting new laws to regulate the morality and social behavior of Arizonans.
Many political experts argue that Arizona’s system of publicly funded campaigns and a law that limited the terms of lawmakers have catapulted single-issue candidates into top political positions, and groups that withhold support for all but the most extreme candidates have gained much influence during the past decade.
“My caucus was more mainstream,” Allen said, referring to the late 1990s. “With Clean Elections and term limits, you are getting more single-issue people and those single issues sometimes are very apt to be the ‘social-moral’ issues.”
Allen’s frustration has been obvious for years, especially during the past two legislative sessions when she was often heard complaining about the Republican majority’s priorities and social agenda. As this year’s session was winding down, Allen told a reporter that she would rather step in front of a moving train than serve one more term in a legislature that no longer reflects the values of Arizonans.
Allen often had difficulty containing her aggravation — or she didn’t even try — which was illustrated after a caucus meeting in April when a colleague asked if the Goldwater Institute had “scored” a particular bill yet.
“It just came to me. You know what? We probably ought to throw three more chairs around the caucus in the Senate,” she said while sipping from a can of Diet Coke.
Those chairs, Allen said, would be reserved for Americans for Prosperity, the Goldwater Institute and the Pachyderm Coalition, all of which are considered small government, fiscally conservative groups that have a lot of influence at the Capitol and often help author legislation carried by lawmakers.
“And then, at the head of the table, sitting next to the whip, would be Cathi Herrod, who would be overseeing the caucus,” she said, referring to the president of the Center for Arizona Policy, an evangelical Christian advocacy group that has successfully lobbied for new laws that restrict abortion, ban gay marriage and provide financial assistance to parents who want to send their children to private schools.
Many lawmakers and other political insiders refused to say anything bad about Allen publicly, but they complain privately that Allen has always been more liberal than the rest of the GOP caucus and that she undermined fellow Republicans while serving as a leader in the House. One source said her tendency to speak frankly has been a liability.
Allen knows all about the criticisms leveled against her. She just doesn’t care.
Here’s a classic Allen response about her detractors: “They treat me mostly with respect. What they think and say about me behind my back is of no consequence to me.”
Beyond her political views, Allen is best known for her acerbic wit, poise and feistiness — an incongruent set of traits that compels people to listen when she speaks and to duck when she’s hurling criticism.
Allen once called Sen. John Huppenthal a “dictator.” And she is perhaps the Legislature’s preeminent expert on the use of sarcasm, at one point criticizing a budget-cutting proposal by saying she had adopted the attitude that “this is going to be a two-year running sitcom, which could be a comedy … but I think that the public might not think it’s funny.”
From maid’s daughter to socialite
Allen hails from the most glamorous city in Arizona, is an ardent supporter of the arts and runs with some of the most powerful people in the state. But her early life was disrupted by tragedy and shaped by resilience.
She was born Sept. 8, 1937, in Hannibal, Missouri — Mark Twain’s hometown — to Earl and Lola Wilson. Soon after, a young Carolyn Wilson learned some of life’s ultimate lessons about loss and pain.
Allen’s dad and her brother Lester died within months of each other when she was six, and her mother eked out a living as a maid for the wealthy to supplement the family’s income from Social Security.
She still remembers a time when she was told to sit on the steps of a mansion and wait while her mother cleaned inside. And she remembers watching her mother swallow her pride and go to the welfare office for assistance to tide the family over until Social Security checks began to arrive.
Instead of growing bitter, though, Allen became sympathetic to the plight of hard-working people who struggle to make ends meet. Because she knows what it’s like to receive welfare, she looks at those who ask for government assistance with compassion.
“I’m the daughter of the maid, and I’m proud of her,” Allen said. “I knew that there are people out there like my mother who should not be treated with such disdain.”
Tough times also taught Allen to be a go-getter. She lied about her age when she was 15 to get a job at a hospital because she had wanted to buy new clothes as she was about to enter high school.
After graduating from high school, Allen worked at various jobs and eventually got into the advertising industry in Colorado. She spent 10 years as a single mother, remarried when she was 33 and moved to Arizona in 1980.
In Arizona, she plunged into community and volunteer work. She became very active in the arts community, a passion she took to the Capitol when she was first elected to the House in 1994.
She faced another tragedy recently, when her only son, Tony, died of a heart attack.
To her critics, Allen said: “They don’t travel in my world and they have not lived (nor have) many or most of them overcome the obstacles that I have in my life.”
Allen: the outsider
Allen was chosen by her peers to serve as House majority leader from 2001-2002, but her influence waned in recent years as her ideological allies in the caucus were replaced by more conservative members and as Republicans took more seats from Democrats in the Legislature.
Former Republican Rep. Pete Hershberger from Tucson said there is no doubt that the GOP caucus has moved to the right.
“I think gradually over the last several terms, we’ve seen the purging of the Republican Party of moderates and the Republican Party continues to go to the right,” Hershberger said. “You see it nationally. You see it in Arizona.”
Hershberger, former senator Tom O’Halleran, and Allen had formed a formidable coalition of moderate-minded lawmakers during the time they shared at the Capitol.
Hershberger and O’Halleran, though, both lost their Senate seats to more conservative Republicans in the 2008 primary election, leaving Allen somewhat isolated.
“Do I feel sometimes that I’m the lone stranger at the table? Sure I do. But it’s not in a negative way that makes me sad,” she said. “It just is what it is.”
Whatever clout Allen lacks with Republicans, she makes up for in respect from Democrats.
“If their party doesn’t want people like her, we’ll take her,” House Minority Leader Kyrsten Sinema said, describing Allen as “strong, courageous, smart, funny.”
In the past 16 years, Allen has worked on some of the state’s most significant laws, and in some cases she broke away from the party platform.
In the mid-1990s, Allen worked on what’s been called the most sweeping welfare reform package in Arizona history. The legislation established the Arizona Works program, which provided employment assistance to needy families.
Her voting record on Republican-crafted budgets during the past two sessions is mixed; sometimes she supported them, sometimes not, and sometimes she was absent from the floor. During the past two years, she refused to support massive spending cuts to public schools, and she balked at corporate tax breaks that her colleagues said would help bring more jobs to Arizona.
Scottsdale Republican Rep. Michelle Reagan, who took over Allen’s House seat when Allen joined the Senate, said she learned three things from Allen. The first is to always hold your head up high when voting. The second is that if everyone is happy with you, then you’re not being very effective.
“Finally, this to me is probably the most important and what I think a lot of new people coming in are lacking, is the decorum and how to behave like a lady,” Reagan said.
Indeed, Allen’s demeanor and independent streak appealed to lawmakers who otherwise disagree with her on just about every major issue.
Her friendship with Sen. Ron Gould was probably inevitable; they share the same quarters on the third floor of the Senate building. But the relationship, nonetheless, demonstrates Allen’s ability to transcend political differences, considering Gould is perhaps the most outspoken conservative in the Legislature.
“You had the two extremes of the Republican caucus sharing a suite,” Gould said. “It was kind of funny because apparently Senator Allen’s husband thinks along my philosophy more than Senator Allen’s philosophy,”
Gould and Allen have more in common than office quarters; both of them have a tendency to reject party leadership, although Gould does so because he wants a more conservative agenda, while Allen has pushed for more moderate legislation.
“That’s probably why we get along. It’s because we both have been stumbling blocks to leadership at one time or another,” Gould said.