Steve Pierce: Keeping GOP out of the news was biggest challenge

Luige del Puerto//May 25, 2012

Steve Pierce: Keeping GOP out of the news was biggest challenge

Luige del Puerto//May 25, 2012

Senate President Steve Pierce. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Extraordinary events put Steve Pierce at the helm of the Arizona Senate — and those same events made the job of leading the chamber, which is already difficult by itself, even more challenging.

The Prescott rancher was elected as Senate president following the ouster of Russell Pearce, who lost a November recall election to a rival Republican. While some of Pearce’s colleagues had no love lost for the former senator, others remained loyal to him.

Pierce had to manage a caucus that not only fractured on these emotional grounds, but one that was also sometimes split on philosophical issues.

He had to establish a working relationship with House Speaker Andy Tobin, who was also new to the leadership position.

And finally, both leaders had to deal with Gov. Jan Brewer, who can be quite adamant in her positions and carries a bigger stick.

In an interview May 17, Pierce talked about the challenges of what he describes as “herding cats.”

You said earlier that one of your goals is to try and keep the state away from the news. Can you explain that?

I tried to keep us out of controversial topics and keep us out of the news. I think we have been in the news a lot both nationally and statewide, and I think one of the goals is just to let things calm down and do the work of the people, concentrating on jobs and the economy of the state.

Is that the reason why none of the controversial immigration bills that were offered the year before went anywhere this year?

Which bills?

I’m referring to, for example, Senator Steve Smith’s bills that dealt with hospitals and schools.

Part of the reason is yes, exactly. You know, I thought it was time to let things heal and move on to the economy and there’s also, you have to realize, he was doing vote counting and he didn’t have the support that he needed to go forward.

You have a supermajority, a big caucus that sometimes fractured on several issues. How did you keep them together, let us say, for example, on the budget?

It was difficult, but we did it, and that was one of the things I’m proud of. We did finish it. We got the votes we needed. The supermajority — we never got to use that in the House or the Senate. But I don’t think it’s ever been used. For an override, to use a supermajority, you would step on the toes of the governor, and I think it would be damaging in the long run when we’re all in the same boat together and supposed to be working on the economy of the state and jobs for people.

You have two wings in your caucus. One is more Tea Party-like, if you will. The other is conservative. Did you feel like your job was to act as arbiter, the guy with the cool head?

I think so, and that’s part of what we were talking about — trying to keep us out of the news — is just to make sure everybody works together and we keep everybody in the same boat. And yeah, it was difficult at times, but we did it and we got a lot of good things accomplished.

When Senator Andy Biggs and Representative Steve Court reached out to the Democrats to explore a budget compromise, did it have your sanction?

Sure, absolutely. I knew they were doing it, and I think it was a proper thing to do. I told the Democrats that we had an open-door policy and we would hear them. They did have bills that we heard and passed out of the Senate. I think, yes, I approved of that.

What was the impetus for that? Was it because you were in talks with the governor?

Oh, we’ve (had) talks with the governor since February. The impetus was to hear what they had to say and include them. They had put out a budget in the House that the Senate Democrats didn’t agree with, and we wanted to explore that and just see what all they had, what all they wanted. I think some of the specific issues that they had raised concerns (about) — we included some of those in the budget.

Wasn’t the reason, though, that the talks with the governor were not really going anywhere, and at some point, they might have stalled?

We looked at everything all the time, anyway. No, I don’t think that’s quite the case.

What do you make of the last-minute push to reimburse Russell Pearce for his campaign expenses last year?

There were members who wanted to do that. There was no support for it, and it didn’t happen.

Personally, what was your take?

I thought it would have been a bad precedent. You know, it would have done the institution a disservice. It is in the Constitution. There’s something there, and it needs to be clarified, but you know, when we have not funded things as much as we would have liked to have funded them, and then turn around and do that, I think it would have been wrong. And where do you stop? Do you go back and say, well, (former Gov.) Fife Symington should have been reimbursed, too?

When you criticized the governor early in the session and said maybe she did not understand fully how conservative your caucus is …

That was a fact. I don’t think anybody realized because they hadn’t been into our closed-caucus meetings or into our small groups and I think, generally speaking, people had no idea how conservative it was. As you were just asking earlier about how did I keep it all together? Well, people didn’t realize how really difficult that was. I got a bottle of wine from Linda Gray at the end of the session, on the last day, and it was called “Herding Cats.” And she said: “Here, I found this bottle of wine. I know you like white wine and it’s ‘Herding Cats’ and I thought that was very appropriate for what you’ve done here.”

I’m assuming you still want to keep your position as Senate president next year?

Sure, I do. But I need to get re-elected first.

You know, Russell Pearce wants to go back to the Senate. He was Senate president before you were. You actually squared off before. You both ran for Senate president before. And I wonder what you make of the possibility that you’d be running again (against him) — assuming he wins.

I guess we would be back in the same boat. Hopefully, (the outcome) would be a little bit different than it was.