As Rep. Debbie McCune Davis enters her 26th year of service as a lawmaker, she reveals how losing a Corporation Commission race helped her career and the issues that keep her coming back to the Legislature, even when she’s at odds with how it’s functioning.
McCune Davis recalls that when she was first elected to the Legislature in 1978, the idea of women in politics was “novel,” but that perception was changing. “I think it was just change, and change doesn’t come fast or easy,” says the Phoenix Democrat, who has the most cumulative years served of any woman currently in the Legislature. “It’s really because of Arizona’s independent spirit that women were able to step into office.”
After 16 straight years in the House working on consumer and education issues and serving as minority whip for 12 years beginning in 1982, the early 1990s found McCune Davis considering life outside the Legislature. She decided she needed to beef up her professional resume, so she did not run for re-election.
That plan, however, didn’t last very long. Like many other legislators, she was convinced to seek office again by her constituents and friends. Although what resulted was an unsuccessful run in 1994 for the Arizona Corporation Commission, she credits that campaign for changing her perspective on issues lawmakers face.
“Before that race, I had never really been out in the other communities and learning what their needs were. That was a real benefit for me,” she says. “My perspective on legislation this time is now I do both. I look at the impact on the state as a whole, not just my own community.”
Still out of the Legislature, in 1996, McCune Davis was hired to manage The Arizona Partnership for Immunization, which seeks to ensure children get immunized from common childhood disease by age 2.
Reapportionment in the early 2000s brought McCune Davis a friendly looking Legislative District 14, and she decided to once again run for the House in 2003. She was victorious, but says the Legislature she returned to had changed during her time away.
“In those early years I think people were more accepting of each other and less locked in philosophy,” she says. “That’s probably the biggest change. Now you have to get past philosophical differences before you can find common ground. I think some of those barriers are pretty substantial.”
In addition to the change in legislative decorum, she also says lawmakers now are too focused on uprooting the state’s foundations and history in favor of development and the next new thing.
“I served with the likes of Polly Rosenbaum, who was totally involved in safeguarding Arizona’s history. I see that element lost here,” she says. “It’s all about structuring it and recreating it and making it friendly for business. There needs to be some balance.”
Another issue that every long-serving legislator must consider is term limits. In her current stint, which began in 2011 after four years in the Senate,McCune Davis will be forced to the leave the House in 2018. She thinks term limits push lawmakers into a hurry-up mode as soon as they are elected, which doesn’t serve the process well.
“Term limits have not worked well for Arizona,” she says. “With term limits, members are in a bigger hurry to get into a position of responsibility, but they aren’t taking time to learn the process. That gives even more influence to the lobbyists.”
In her view, a good legislator can effectively communicate their own district’s needs while also listening and giving consideration to what others have to say.
She is most proud of her achievements in getting appropriate responses from agencies for victims of domestic violence and ending payday lending. “I think we can draw the line at opportunities that benefit our citizens, rather than exploits them,” she says.
When she does put down the legislative mantle for good, she wants to be remembered for her service to the community and efforts to affect the future in a positive way.
“I would like people to think of me as someone who is knowledgeable, willing to work to get to good outcomes and willing to speak up when an issue is going to have serious consequences for my community,” she says.
McCune Davis reiterates several times that she has a vested interest in influencing the direction the state is going that stretches far beyond herself. “This is my home, my family is here, my children are educated in Arizona schools, and I want to make sure those opportunities continue for others that come after,” she says.
In reality, being a Democrat in Arizona can be a frustrating exercise, but McCune Davis keeps going because there’s always another issue to champion.
“There are many days that I leave this building and swear I’m not coming back,” she says. “Every day is a different day, so it doesn’t take very long to shift gears and find another battle to fight or another cause to adopt and promote.”