As Reps. Chad Campbell and Vic Williams argued over a bill in a House Appropriations Committee meeting, Chairman John Kavanagh raised his phone to his ear.
“All right members, excuse me one second. The University of Arizona civility tip line is a bit slow to pick up,” the Fountain Hills Republican quipped.
As Kavanagh’s joke at the February hearing indicated, little has changed at the Capitol in the wake of the Jan. 8 shooting rampage that killed six, severely injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and wounded a dozen others.
The shooting, which occurred just two days before the 2011 legislative session began, inspired soul searching among rattled and emotional lawmakers, who pledged a new era of civility across the partisan divide. Others vowed drastic changes to Arizona’s laws on guns and mental health in response to a mass shooting carried out by a man with documented-but-untreated mental health problems.
But while some lawmakers say the lessons of Jan. 8 stayed with them through sine die, most have seen few changes.
“With a number of people there’s always civility. You can get along and speak your mind. And then there’s some people who think they’re being civil and they’ll never get it. I think it’s the same as it ever was,” said Sen. Andy Biggs, a Gilbert Republican.
Kavanagh said little changed in the way lawmakers treated one another, and for the most part, he said the talk of needing more civility was overblown. There are always a few “isolated incidents,” Kavanagh said, but most lawmakers remain cordial, even while bickering across the aisle.
“I don’t count disagreement and debate as incivility,” he said.
Sen. David Schapira, the Senate minority leader, agreed that nothing changed. But the Tempe Democrat said change was definitely needed.
Most Republicans always were civil and remained so in 2011, Schapira said. But some incidents — such as Republican Sen. Ron Gould telling Democrats to “shut up and sit down” during a budget vote or Gould and Senate President Russell Pearce vowing retaliation from the floor against Republicans who opposed their illegal immigration bills — demonstrated the needed for more civil discourse, he said.
“I don’t think it stuck, unfortunately,” Schapira said. “There’s a ton of room for improvement this year.”
Not everyone agreed that there had been no changes. Rep. Steve Farley, a Tucson Democrat, said he made an effort to tone down his rhetoric in 2011. For example, Farley recalled an incident several years ago in which he accused a GOP lawmaker of using a “clever trick” to get a bill through committee. That, he said, is the type of language he refrained from using this year.
“I was very conscious of it,” said Farley, who made an impassioned plea on opening day for colleagues to call him out if he stepped over the line.
Farley said he saw similar changes among some of his Republican colleagues, such as House Speaker Andy Tobin. Others have always been very respectful, Farley said, pointing to GOP Rep. Cecil Ash. There are some who still need to moderate their rhetoric and show more respect on both sides of the aisle, Farley said, but 2011 was a start.
“I’m thinking that there was groundwork. This type of change only happens when you are continually, for a long period of time, modeling how civil discourse is,” he said.
Some of the Legislature’s most prominent bomb-throwers were the ones who said more civility was needed. Gould said things got worse, not better, in 2011.
“I think this session was probably the rudest session that I’ve ever seen. I saw bad behavior from legislators, bad behavior from lobbyists and bad behavior from community activists,” Gould said.
Gould, a Lake Havasu City Republican, was especially bothered by a group of liberal protesters that gathered near the Senate for most of the session waving insulting signs and yelling into bullhorns as they roamed the mall. Many of the protesters were angry about a slate of illegal immigration bills that prompted some Democratic lawmakers to compare their Republican counterparts to Nazis. Democratic Rep. Catherine Miranda, for example, said Arizona is experiencing a “holocaust” after Republicans introduced bills to end birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.
“You had people yelling at us with bullhorns every time we stepped outside of the building. I received a death threat. So as far as the era of civility, it was pretty short lived,” Gould said.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, arguably the Democrats’ most incendiary member, said the Republicans were as inflammatory as ever, including Sen. Lori Klein’s public reading of a letter from a substitute teacher who made controversial comments about Hispanic students.
“That was kind of a group hug within the Legislature that lasted probably a week and a half. And then the group hug was over. It was back to normal business at the state Capitol,” Gallardo said.
The problem with gauging the effect that the Giffords shooting had on civility at the Capitol is that the people who stand out for their rhetoric are always easy to identify, said Board of Regents chairman and longtime Democratic operative Fred DuVal. The ones who suppress their saltier comments are harder to spot.
“What’s hard about this is you don’t know who demonstrated self-restraint, by definition,” DuVal said. “But there’s no question that there were still plenty of examples of the kind of political behavior that our institute is trying to identify as being corrosive to the broader good.”
DuVal is a board member for the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona, which was formed in the wake of the Giffords shooting. The institute, which was the butt of Kavanagh’s well-received joke in committee, is just about the only concrete change to stem from the Jan. 8 rampage.
Numerous legislative changes that were proposed never panned out. Bills banning the type of extended magazine that Tucson shooter Jared Loughner used were never assigned to committee, meeting the same fate as nearly every other gun control measure pushed by Democrats in the GOP-dominated Legislature. In fact, two bills that loosened firearms laws and another creating a state gun passed through the Legislature, despite the protestations of Democrats who said it was in poor taste so soon after the shooting.
And several bills that sought to make it easier to identify, report and treat people with mental problems — Loughner has several disturbing outbursts in a community college class and was kicked out of school, but never received treatment — fell short as well.
Kavanagh said the Democrats’ opposition to the gun bills stemmed more from their consistent opposition to looser gun laws. And some of the other bills, he said, were simply an overreaction.
“There was a lot of talk, but again, I don’t think there was really a need for any of these bills,” he said.
The lone legislative change spurred by the shooting was a bill that restricts protests outside of funerals, passed unanimously on the third day of the session. The bill was passed to prevent the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church from picketing the funerals of the six people killed in the Tucson attack.