Home / Centennial Profiles / Barr & Giss: Practicing the fine art of legislative legerdemain

Barr & Giss: Practicing the fine art of legislative legerdemain

Burton Barr, who was memorialized when his name was given to the Phoenix Central Library, wrote the book on political wheeling and dealing in the Arizona Legislature.

But, even before Barr burst onto the Capitol scene in 1964, Harold Giss was pulling the legislative strings. Both were pragmatic practitioners of lawmaking. Barr, a Republican from Phoenix, served in the Arizona House of Representatives for 22 years — 20 as majority leader, and Giss, a Democrat from Yuma whose tenure as a legislator began in 1949, served for 25 years, including 12 as Senate majority leader and seven as minority leader.

Their careers ended in starkly different ways. Barr chose to run for governor in 1986, and to the surprise of many was defeated in the GOP primary by Evan Mecham. Giss died of a massive heart attack in 1973 at the age of 67 while still in office.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote ruling in 1964 that state legislative districts had to be roughly equal in population, in effect shifted control of the Arizona Legislature from rural Democrats to Phoenix area Republicans. Enter Burton Barr.

Barr had a hand in virtually every major piece of legislation that was passed during his reign as majority leader, including vehicle inspections, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System for indigents, school aid, the tax code, prison reform, child care, groundwater management and freeway funding.

If Barr couldn’t corral enough votes to pass a particular bill, he would shrug and say, “I’m like the Kennedys. I don’t get mad, I get even.”

Often Barr would flit from desk to desk on the House floor making sure fellow legislators were with him on a piece of legislation. Barr was able to exert seemingly enormous influence over his colleagues, in part, because he controlled a healthy amount of campaign contributions. That was before campaign finance laws were tightened, and Barr was able to distribute funds to Republican lawmakers theoretically in return for their vote. Or, as majority leader he was in a position to make sure bills sponsored by undecided lawmakers would pass.

Some colleagues referred to him as “Mr. Magic.” Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle would agree that he was an expert at legislative legerdemain who was willing to compromise if that’s what it took. He worked equally well with conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, and had an especially strong relationship with Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a moderate Democrat.

Barr was enthusiastic, energetic and witty. To ease tension in a situation, Barr would offer a solution, then flap his bushy eyebrows and giggle. At the end of a busy day as Barr was about the leave to attend one of his children’s soccer games, Babbitt phoned Barr’s office. The majority leader paused for a moment and told his secretary, “Tell the kid (Babbitt) I’ll call him later.” It was that kind of a relationship.

Going into the 1986 election, Barr and mainstream Republicans were overconfident that Barr was destined to be Arizona’s next governor, succeeding Babbitt. Barr’s official announcement that he was a candidate for governor was staged like a huge victory celebration, complete with balloons, banners and a Dixieland band.

Barr figured to carry populous Maricopa County — his power base, but he was not as well known around the state, and he chose not to respond to criticisms leveled at him by Mecham.

For example, at a Republican gathering someone in the audience asked Barr about a temporary gasoline sales tax increase that was supposed to expire, but didn’t. Barr flapped his familiar eyebrows, giggled, and said, “I lied.”

Mecham repeatedly used that flippant comment against Barr, asking voters if they were going to vote for someone who admitted lying about taxes.

When the results were in, Mecham had ended Barr’s stellar political career, capturing the Republican nomination by a vote of 121,614 to 104,602. He even outpolled Barr in Maricopa County, 80,513 to 72,177. Barr led by slim margins in only four counties: Apache, Coconino, Greenlee and Santa Cruz.

A World War II hero, Barr was born in Portland, Ore., in 1917. He served in the Army from 1940 until being discharged in 1946. He was awarded two silver stars for heroism in battle in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. He moved to Arizona in 1951, and remained in the Army Reserves until 1964, attaining the rank of colonel.

After his stunning loss to Mecham, Barr continued to be active in public affairs, often behind the scenes. He died in 1997 at the age of 79.

Giss, who served in the House from 1949 until 1950, and in the Senate from 1951 until 1973, was a lot like Barr — dedicated, influential, productive and accessible. He served at a time when Arizona was beginning to experience explosive growth. As the population grew, so did state government.

Considered a parliamentary expert, Giss used his skill to successfully move major pieces of legislation in such fields as reclamation, agriculture, industry, the judiciary and public education.

But as time went on, he paid more attention to his legislature responsibilities and less attention to managing a general store he operated in Yuma.  The store eventually went out of business, causing Giss considerable embarrassment.

Giss was born in Minneapolis in 1906, and moved to Arizona in 1937. He was visiting an Indian village at the Yuma County Fair with his wife Goldie and son, Jerry, when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1973.

Because the synagogue in Yuma was fairly small and the family wanted the funeral held in Giss’ hometown, Catholic officials agreed to permit the use of the much larger nearby Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. Reports say more than 1,300 filled the church, and 200 more waited outside.

Rabbi Albert Plotkin of Phoenix, who officiated at the funeral, said it was historic for a Jew to be given the final rights of his faith in a Catholic church. “It was fitting,” Plotkin said, “in the case of Harold Giss, who drew no religious lines or religious distinctions.”

Burton Barr

• Born, Portland, Ore., 1917.
• Elected to the Arizona House, 1965.
• Served as House majority leader, 1966 to 1986.
• Ran for governor in 1986.
• Died, 1997.

Harold Giss

• Born, Minneapolis, 1906.
• Elected to the Arizona House in 1949.
• Elected to the Arizona Senate in 1951.
• Served 12 years as Senate majority leader.
• Served 7 years as Senate minority leader.
• Died, 1973.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


Scroll To Top