UpClose with Barry Aarons

Luige del Puerto//April 1, 2010

UpClose with Barry Aarons

Luige del Puerto//April 1, 2010

Barry Aarons’ bow tie and signature mustache makes him one of the most recognizable lobbyists in the Capitol.

He is also one of the most articulate, which he says is because he spends so much time studying the issues. Quoting U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, he said the best lobbyists are those that can eloquently express both sides of an argument.

This year, Aarons is celebrating his 40th year in the business. He traces his interest in politics to his dad, an anti-trust lawyer who was always curious about public policy.

As a child, he had asthma and was sent to Arizona from New York to attend college. Soon, he found himself working in political campaigns.

After college, he went to work as a page in the Legislature.

Aarons also used to lobby for Mountain Bell, now Qwest. He worked for the Arizona Corporation Commission. He also served in Gov. Fife Symington’s administration.

Are you originally from Arizona?
No, I grew up in New York City. I grew up in the Bronx.

In the middle of high school, I got sick. My asthma kicked up really bad, so I had to drop out of school for about six months and wound up going to a private school so that I could kind of catch up to my class, so to speak.

While I was in private school my folks – my dad, having learned during the Depression that if you’ve got a respiratory ailment, you go to Arizona – sent me out to Arizona State to go to college. So there I was – a 16 year-old college student. And it was culture shock for the first six months or so.

In what sense?
You got to remember Phoenix was a city of about 400,000 people back in 1967. I mean there was a lot of growth going on, but it still had a lot of the characteristics of earlier times, and so there was this blend. There were these growing pains. But I had grown up in New York, which was a very fast, cosmopolitan community, and now I came out to a very, very different world.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I was interested in government politics. We used to have interesting discussions. My dad was not active in politics, but he was very interested in public affairs. He was an anti-trust lawyer, who practiced before the U.S. Supreme Court on several occasions and was a very well-educated man. And, therefore, we always were instructed on politics and religion and so on.

What was the best lesson you learned from dad?
To be a disciplined human being. My dad was a very disciplined human being, and much of Judaism is about discipline.

I was always very disciplined while he was around because he was the enforcer, you know. He was the sheriff. My concern for myself – I was already in my 40s when he passed away – was am I going to be able to do this myself? And I did. I was very proud of the fact that he had trained me well enough so that I had established my own sense of discipline.

You said he was the enforcer. Was he pretty strict?
He was strict. We used to joke about the fact there were two ways of doing things. There was his way and the wrong way. He was a very loving father and a very caring man. I’m sure when I was growing up that the strictness bothered me, and I can remember some instances where we got into it, as teenage boys will get into it with their fathers and so on. But that was a valuable lesson, and I took some things from him that I didn’t do with my kids. They seemed to have turned out OK.

I’ll tell you a funny story. You know how your parents always say, “I’m doing this for your own good,” and that was one of the things I used to do with my own kids. I have a granddaughter, and when I was visiting them, my son, I think, was trying to get my granddaughter to take some medicine, and she was resistant. She was probably only about 2 years old at the time. And all of the sudden, he looked at her, and she was crying, and he said, “I’m doing this for your own good” and I burst into hysterics. And he said, “What are you laughing about?” And I said “When you were about 11 years old I said that to you, and you swore to me that you would never say that to a child of yours.”

We often hear how term limits have drastically changed things, and how the limits have made lobbyists and staffers more powerful. Do you share that assessment?
Powerful, I don’t know. Certainly, somebody like me or some of my colleagues who have been there as long as I have, guys like Don Isaacson, we certainly have the institutional memory. I mean when you sit around and talk about how we got from point A to point B, there’s very few of us who can say, “Yeah, well, I remember how that started back in such and such a year when we did this.”

In terms of power, that’s a relative term. I don’t consider that I’ve got power. I consider I have influence, and I think my influence comes from my desire to learn everything I can about the issue.
One thing that Jon Kyl – he and I were in Young Republicans together back in the early 1970s – told me when he got to Congress was the best lobbyists he found were the guys who could articulate their side of the story and the other side of the story with equal ability. He said you really can’t say what the other side is doing isn’t right unless you know what it is and you can understand it.

So that’s kind of where I wanted to be. I want to know everything about the issue. I want to be as conversant about Einstein’s basic theory of relativity as I am about Clive Cussler’s latest novel because I wanted to make sure that I can articulate best. And I also wanted to understand how the legislative process works from a technical aspect. I’ve always prided myself in the fact that you may have a better issue than I do, you may be able to convince more people than I can, you may beat me on that, but you’ll never beat me on a technicality. And no one will ever say that I didn’t have my issues correct.

What is the key to surviving, to staying on top of the game for so long?
Well, you got to be humble in this business. You are a supplicant.

You’re asking the Legislature to do something that you want them to do. You got to be humble about it.

Let’s delve into theory just a little bit. From your perspective, is the system working? Is the process producing the right policies? Do only the best ideas prevail in this bargain center, if you will?
I will tell you I think that the legislative process is the most creative thing you can do with public policy, and I really do mean that. And there are some days when I say, “Boy, if I could retire I’d do it.” But for the most part, it is a very effective process.

I will also tell you that Arizona’s legislative process is one of the most transparent processes in the country. I have lobbied in a couple of other states on projects. I have lobbied in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia on a couple of things that a national client asked me to kind of parachute in and help with the process.

Ours is very open. It is very tough to slip something by somebody and do something in the dark, and it really doesn’t happen. Yeah, granted there are lot things that go on where some of the decisions are made behind closed doors. But you always know what happens before (the vote). Whether you can influence it or not, that’s another thing. I think this past budget is a good example of that, where it’s probably the most quietly crafted and privately created document that I have ever seen.

You said ‘privately created’ documents?
That’s a fancy way of saying behind closed doors. You know, but this process still is a very, very workable process. Now you say: Are the best ideas always enacted? Well, that’s a judgment call. When my clients’ bill gets passed, you bet the best idea (gets passed). But the most successful lobbyists are the ones who understand that incremental gain is the most effective way of achieving results.

If I go into a legislator’s office and I say, “Here is an issue and there are six components to this issue,” and the legislator says, “The guys on the other side don’t like your bill. What am I going to tell them? How many of these six things can you live with?” I mean that’s a very, very simplistic way of saying it, but that’s really what it is.

So incremental gains, changing things little by little … I think that accomplishes more than these Armageddon-level battles where major forces are pounding each other relentlessly through the entire session. I don’t believe that this legislative process is a win- lose process. I think it’s a win-win process.

Everybody has got to walk out of the process feeling that they accomplished something, enough to promote their issue to move forward whether it is, “Well, at least, you know, we got the bill heard this year. We got it out of one house. And we know now where the opposition is…” Because if it is win-lose, you’ve created enemies, and permanent enemies aren’t a good thing in this business.

Incremental changes often entail many contending forces, not necessarily clashing, but pushing and pulling and trying to find some sort of a compromise. To your mind is it not healthy then whenever one party becomes overwhelmingly dominant and gets everything it wants?

In my opinion that rarely happens anymore, and I don’t know if it ever did. Look, there are certain interest groups in this state that have disproportionate influence. No question about it. And that’s good for the ones that I agree with and bad for the ones that I don’t agree with.

Two things: What is one of the worst mistakes you’ve seen the Legislature make, and what’s one of the best policies that you’ve seen come out of this Legislature that has really helped the state.
Wow. Boy, what’s kind of running through my mind is 40 years of this stuff. It’s really kind of tough to say what the worst mistake is that they’ve made. Let me put it more on a generic basis. The Legislature frequently refers things to the ballot, and in many cases they are controversial things, anywhere from gay marriage to repealing First Things First.

And I think one of the mistakes that they frequently make is where there are people on one side who are saying, “You really got to do this. You really got to put it on the ballot,” they don’t (require) people who are supporters (and say) “Are you going to come up with the money to be able to run the campaign? Because if you are not, we are losing a lot of political capital to put this on the ballot for you just so you can fail.”

What are the best polices they have done? I wasn’t part of it, but as an observer, it was probably the groundwater law that they did, I think, in the early 1980s. And I will give Bruce Babbitt, who wasn’t my favorite governor, (credit). I mean Babbitt brought together all the disparate interests, and they worked on that thing. I remember that whenever the leadership of the state has … brought in multiple interests to try to carve out a solution for something, those usually tend to be the best results.

In one word, tell me why the Legislature should reject extension of the payday industry.
In one word? Bad.

Who chooses your bow ties for you?
I do.

Who is your favorite author?
I have such a diverse enjoyment of books. What’s my favorite book? I think “Catcher in the Rye.” I’m one of those people influenced by J.D. Salinger.

What do you like more – sunrise or sunset?
I am a morning person. I get up and go to synagogue most mornings. We have a brief morning service, Sunday through Friday.

I like the quiet time of the morning, and my wife’s almost always still asleep, I like the peace of getting ready.

Pick one: James Bond or Bruce Lee?
Oh, James Bond.

Penguins or turtles?
Oh, I think penguins. I prefer tuxedos to jeans.