Democrats Bruce Babbitt and Wes Bolin represent the long and short of Arizona’s gubernatorial reigns.
Bolin, born Harvey Wesley Bolin in 1908, set a longevity record as Arizona secretary of state, serving almost 29 years, from 1949 to 1977. And when Raul Castro resigned as governor on Oct. 20, 1977, to become U.S. ambassador to Argentina, Bolin moved up to the Governor’s Office.
But Bolin’s term as the state’s chief executive ended quite unexpectedly on March 4, 1978, less than five months after being sworn in when he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 69. Bolin, a tall, dignified, popular political figure who was an avid horseman, thus holds the record for the shortest tenure as Arizona’s governor.
Bolin’s death opened the way for Babbitt, who had been elected attorney general in 1974. Because the secretary of state at the time, Rose Mofford, had been appointed, not elected, Babbitt as attorney general was next in line of succession.
Babbitt, born Bruce Edward Babbitt in 1938, served the rest of Bolin’s term and was elected to four-year terms in 1978 and 1982, putting together nearly nine consecutive years as governor. That’s a record for longevity that doesn’t figure to be broken, because voters approved a two-term limit for state elected officials in 1992.
Babbitt was born in California while his mother was visiting there, thus for political purposes he could not claim to be an Arizona native. But he was a member of a pioneer Arizona family, which was active in ranching and operated Indian trading posts dating back to the 1880s.
Babbitt grew up in Flagstaff and early on became an outdoor enthusiast. He majored in geology at the University of Notre Dame, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, and in 1962 he completed his master’s in geophysics from the University of Newcastle in England. But his interests shifted to public service and politics, and in 1965 he received a law degree from Harvard University.
That same year Babbitt joined civil rights marches in Selma, Ala., then worked in a federal anti-poverty program as a civil rights lawyer, and eventually landed a job with a Phoenix law firm. In 1974, at the age of 36, he was elected attorney general. As Arizona’s chief law enforcement officer, he targeted land fraud and fought for consumer protection. And then fate stepped in with Bolin’s untimely death.
A moderate, Babbitt worked well with a Republican-controlled Legislature and had a particularly good relationship with powerful House Majority Leader Burton Barr. Babbitt led the charge for a historic groundwater management act, actually chairing an ad hoc committee that developed language for new law. Together, Babbitt and Barr put together Arizona’s breakthrough version of Medicaid — the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
In 1979, Babbitt as governor was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve on a commission to investigate an accident at Three Mile Island, a commercial nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.
During his second term as governor, Babbitt focused on public education and children’s issues. Though he was eligible to seek re-election to a third full term in 1986, Babbitt had set his sights on running for president. While still governor, Babbitt announced his candidacy for the 1988 Democratic nomination for president, and generated a ton of national media attention in the summer of 1986 when he and his wife Hattie participated in RAGBRAI — the (Des Moines) Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
He was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, along with future President Bill Clinton. A moderate-leaning organization, the council focused on the party’s programs and strategies. Babbitt also served a term as chairman of the Democratic Governors’ Association.
As a presidential hopeful, Babbitt campaigned on such issues as increasing taxes to trim the national budget deficit, creating tax incentives for business, establishing day care programs, expanding health care coverage, reforming federal welfare programs, and promoting environmental protection laws. Babbitt did poorly in the 1988 New Hampshire presidential primary and dropped out of the race almost as soon as the results were in.
While trolling for last-minute votes on the New Hampshire primary Election Day, Babbitt staged a media-savvy stunt by popping in on the campaign headquarters of another Democratic candidate, U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Stunned staff members greeted Babbitt warmly.
Babbitt renewed his law practice in Phoenix, and continued to champion conservation issues. His political relationship with Clinton paid dividends in 1993, when then-President Clinton appointed Babbitt to be the nation’s 47th secretary of the Department of the Interior. Several months later, Babbitt was rumored to be a possible Clinton choice for the U.S. Supreme Court, but environmentalists campaigned to keep Babbitt as Interior secretary. He served as Interior secretary in the Clinton administration for eight years to 2001.
As head of Interior, Babbitt worked to protect scenic and historic areas of America’s federal public lands. In 2000, he created the National Landscape Conservation System, a collection of 15 national monuments and 14 national conservation areas to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
A decade after he left office, Babbitt remains active in environmental affairs. He is a fellow at the Charlottesville, Va.-based Blue Moon Fund, which focuses on the environment and a changing global climate. Last June, in a speech to the National Press Club in Washington D.C., the former Interior secretary criticized the Obama White House for failing to stand up to what he warned is an all-out congressional assault on public lands.
Babbitt’s younger brother, Paul, also was active in politics, but not nearly at the level Bruce attained. He had been a Coconino County supervisor starting in 1986, and previously served as a Flagstaff mayor and councilman. In 2004, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District, losing to Republican Rick Renzi.
Babbitt & Bolin
• Wes Bolin: Born July 1, 1908, died March 4, 1978, served as governor, Oct. 20, 1977, to March 4, 1978.
• Bruce Babbitt: Born June 27, 1938, served as governor, March 4, 1978, to Jan. 5, 1987.