Up Close with John McComish

Luige del Puerto//July 23, 2010

Up Close with John McComish

Luige del Puerto//July 23, 2010

John McComish (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)
John McComish (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Rep. John McComish is on the short list of incumbents who won’t face an election challenge this year. McComish has neither a primary nor a general election opponent, which means he’ll join the Senate next year without having to go through the wringer.

But McComish, who is serving as House majority leader, has his eyes set on a higher goal. McComish wants to be Senate president, though he will have competition for that position. Three other lawmakers also have indicated they want the top spot in the Senate.

McComish says he’s the best candidate since he’s the only one with solid leadership experience, having also served as majority whip in the House.

McComish was born in Youngstown, Ohio, a steel town. He joined the business world and spent two decades climbing the corporate ladder. Then he had a mid-life crisis, which eventually led him to Arizona in 1989.

In this June 28 interview, he talked about growing up in Ohio, the mid-life crisis, and what it’s like to run unopposed.

You were successful in the corporate world, why did you leave?

I had a mid-life crisis. (Laughs).

OK, tell me about it.

We were in New Jersey and I was with my third corporation in 24 years, and I was vice president of sales for a company.

I traveled a lot. As vice president of sales, you travel around the country and I just tire of that. We had enough money in the bank. We had two children — we still have two children — and both were in college. And we had enough money in the bank to pay for their college. And so we decided to do something different. And so that was my mid-life crisis.

The corporate grind had ground me down.

We had looked at Arizona and the Phoenix area as an eventual place where we wanted to be. So we were looking for something else to do and I found a bookstore opportunity and I was always fascinated by bookstores. I’m a reader. I like to read.

We’ve never heard of Ahwatukee. But we thought, well, maybe everything’s coming together. It was in 1989 when we moved. What I’m saying is I had a mid-life crisis — I jumped off the corporate ladder and moved to Arizona and ran a bookstore.

It seems like you had a pretty good private life. What made you decide to go in politics?

When you’re traveling a lot you can’t get involved much in local politics. I nibbled around the edges a little bit. A friend of mine was on the town council and I helped her a little bit. A college fraternity brother of mine ran for governor of New Jersey. He got the Republican nomination but he did not win in the general and I worked on his campaign a little bit, but nothing serious other than that.

And when we moved here, after seven years we closed the bookstore. Barnes and Noble was getting ready to open. Borders was getting ready to open in our neighborhood and we figured that was the time for us to get ready to close.

(The) chamber of commerce in Ahwatukee, which was about a year old and it was all volunteer and it was quite small, were to the point that they wanted to hire somebody as an executive director and I wasn’t doing anything, and by (our) business we’ve been a member of the chamber. It was a part-time position. I said, yeah, I’ll do that until I figured out what it is that I wanted to do. And as it turned out, we grew in 10 years, with the chamber, from 64 members to over 600. So from a part-time job it became a full-time job and then some, with a number of staff people.

And the nature of that job is that you get involved in public policy. You know, I had been down here in the Legislature and testified on bills. I had been to the Governor’s Office and talked about issues. I’d been to the city hall a number of times. I got involved with the city of Phoenix. I was on the city of Phoenix Planning Commission. In fact, I was chair of the Ahwatukee planning committee for several years. So I got involved in public policy issues there, which was kind of my interest in the first place.

And then the redistricting came in 2002. Prior to that, Ahwatukee was divided. Part of Ahwatukee was in one district and part of it was in another and then after the redistricting in 2002, Ahwatukee was a whole and I thought that was a good base. So maybe it was a good opportunity for me to run. People in District 20 didn’t think so. We had a slight difference of opinion. (Laughs).

Did you lose your first race?

Yeah, I’d like to say I came in a respectable third out a four-person race.

What year was this?

2002. And then in 2004 John Huppenthal decided to run for the Senate. And so there was a vacancy. I would not have run again, but when it was a vacancy, I decided to run in 2004 and then I won.

How big of a blow was it when you lost the election (in 2002)?

It was competitive. It was a blow but it wasn’t something that I couldn’t recover from because I was new. It was my first time at anything like that so I learned a lot and enjoyed the process. I didn’t enjoy losing. And the worst thing about losing is that after the primary, when it was still 100 degrees, you have to go take down all your signs. (Laughs)

What is it like running unopposed this time?

Well, it’s very nice. The conventional wisdom and the advice that I get are that you still run a campaign, but it’s a more modest campaign and it certainly is without any pressure. So it’s kind of nice.

You’re a plaintiff in the Clean Elections case. What were your expectations when the case started?

My expectations were — well, I’m not a constitutional lawyer and I’m not any kind of a lawyer. What’s the joke? I don’t play one on TV — logically, the matching funds system as it exists didn’t make sense to me. It just wasn’t fair.

It was supposed to make it fair for the participating candidates but actually what it did was make it unfair for the traditional candidates and I experienced that, personally, in the 2008 elections.

So I thought if that’s the case, then reason and logic, if ever involved in this, then we should win.

Were you ever called to testify?

Not live testimony, but I did have quite a lengthy deposition.

As you know, your name would be etched in history either way the Supreme Court rules — the fact that it has gone all the way to the Supreme Court and it’s going to be known as McComish versus Bennett. What do you make out of that?

You’ve heard the term people have had an Edifice Complex. You know, they’d like to see their name on the wall. I never thought I had an Edifice Complex. But I do believe it’s pretty cool that my name will be in a major decision of the Supreme Court.

How are your votes lining up for the Senate presidency?

Really very good. There are four people running — and it’s a little too early to tell because the primaries potentially could make a big difference — but of those members who are favored to (win), if you will, I believe that I have more votes than any of the others. But I don’t have a majority. You know, I don’t have enough because there are four people running. So the votes are all split up.

Whoever wins in the primaries could change the dynamics of it.

Would it be correct to say that many of your votes come from House members who may be going to the Senate?

Yes, many but not all.

Now you’ve got history working against you… I don’t believe there has ever been a freshman senator elected to the Senate presidency.

Of the four people, you could say that there’s not history that fits anyone of them because Steve Yarbrough and I would be new in the Senate, so that’s two. Russell Pearce has never been in leadership and that’s seldom that somebody’s elected who’s never been in leadership. And Steve Pierce is a freshman so all would be historically — I don’t know that it would be a first — but it would be an unusual situation.

And actually, in terms of being a freshman senator, I don’t think that makes much sense. My answer to that is so what? Who has the most experience? The bodies have the same mission and almost the same rules and they do the same things in the same way. It’s not like one has some other mission.

So if you have leadership experience in one, that’s very translatable to leadership in the other. And part of the history is that now the results of terms limits are in full bloom, and one of the results of term limits is you don’t have a lot of the people staying in any body for very long. So, the circumstances are different today than they were historically. So we’re in a different era.

One of the things that was left undone last year because the House and the Senate couldn’t agree on it was the jobs bill. What are the chances of such legislation under your leadership, assuming you do win the Senate presidency?

Yeah, I think there’s a very good chance. I think that the mistake that we made in the House was not involving the individual senators early enough and having them understand that we’re flexible on the issues and willing to compromise and giving them some ownership in it.

It was a difficult year. Emotions ran high on a number of issues. It was tough. Maybe we wouldn’t have gotten it out even with that, but I think that would have given us a much better chance.

No matter who the speaker of the House is — whether Mr. Weiers is returned or Mr. Adams stays — I’ve worked with both of them. It’s important that whoever (sits) at the Senate can work well with the House and can work well with the Governor’s Office, and I think I can do both of those.

I was just going to ask you about that. If a former House member, such as yourself, gets elected as Senate president, do you think that would result in less friction between the Senate and the House?

Yes — you didn’t ask a question I thought you were going to ask. Yes, I think there would be less friction because I have a number of friends in the House. I know the leadership in the House, no matter who it would be. And, you know, Andy Tobin would probably be in that mix somewhere. I would guess as majority leader, and he and I work very well together.

Go ahead and tell me what (the question) is.

I’ll tell you what it is. It is about friction within the Senate, with House members coming over and I think it’s very important to avoid that. Because I hear these comments: “Well, House members say they are going to come over and take over the Senate.”

Somebody may have said it. I certainly didn’t say it. But that’s not how it works, and it would be very important to me that (there won’t) be any us-and-them kind of thing. There would need to be just us.

We have enough problems and enemies outside the caucus. So that would be a real important issue to me — to make sure that there weren’t us and them and that everybody was treated fairly.