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Jack Pfister: A voice from the past speaks to Arizona’s future

Gov. Jack Pfister? It seemed quite possible in 1987, as Gov. Evan Mecham faced a potential recall and Arizonans tossed around the names of possible candidates to replace him.

But Jack repeatedly shook off the idea. He didn’t have political ambitions. And no wonder, quipped a few observers, when he already had the kind of influence and power that come with being governor.

For more than three decades, Jack stacked up a broad record of public service that few Arizonans have matched.

He shaped vital power, water and flood-control decisions as the top executive of Salt River Project from 1976 to 1991.

He left his mark on higher education during his time on the Arizona Board of Regents, Arizona State University staff and the Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation. 

He was the go-to person for the state’s toughest problems, serving on countless boards, commissions and committees. He knew how to bring people together, set ideologies aside and focus on practical results.

He was a driving force in everything from water quality to growth management to getting voter approval for the Martin Luther King Day holiday after a storm of controversy.

Jack left an enormous gap in state leadership when he died four years ago at the age of 75. But he also left an example of nonpartisanship and cooperation that is more relevant than ever today.

Too many of our politicians wear ideological strait jackets and spend their time on fringe issues instead of urgent ones like job growth or improving Arizona’s woeful ranking in child welfare and education. 

Meaningful debate has just about disappeared. Instead, we have such nasty partisan sniping that a Maricopa County GOP leader branded fellow Republican Gov. Jan Brewer a “Judas” for supporting Medicaid expansion.

Jack was a voracious reader and a perpetual student of management practices — he called himself a “management theory junkie.” If he had drawn up “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Arizonans,” the list might have looked like this:

Break out of partisan politics. Jack was a lifelong Republican, but he never thought the party had a monopoly on good policies. He was on the transition teams for Gov. Jane Dee Hull, a Republican, and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, a Democrat.

Become a diplomat. For thorny issues, from the environment to labor, Jack used what he called “private diplomacy,” a mix of listening, civility, finding common ground and looking for win-win solutions. (Not to be confused with being a pushover — Jack seldom came out of negotiations a loser.) Get involved. From the Girl Scouts to the Phoenix Library Foundation to Arizona Town Hall, Jack didn’t watch life from the sidelines.

Stop looking for a single great leader. Arizona used to be run by a few elite movers-and-shakers, including Jack. But he saw the power structure become diffused and he welcomed the change. He called for “a large number of people who are willing to take risks and assume leadership roles.”

Take care of Arizona. In a column written for New Year’s 1991, Jack laid out the state’s challenges. It could almost have been written today. His to-do list included putting adequate resources into education, stabilizing state finances, promoting economic development that raises real-per capita wages and repairing a patchwork environmental framework. 

Value diversity. Jack put a high priority on reaching across religious, racial and ethnic lines. When he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Arizona, he said one of the biggest pleasures was to see the mix of students at graduation, a change he had pushed for as a regent. “States that are internationally competitive,” Jack observed, “will be those that provide cordial environments for diverse populations and draw strength from their multi-cultural society.”

Be a mentor. Jack’s files are filled with thank-you notes from those who got his guidance, advice and sympathetic ear. The best route to success, he believed, is helping others become successful, too.

Kathleen Ingley, former editorial writer, The Arizona Republic, is writing a biography of Jack Pfister. For more information about Jack and to share memories, go to jackpfister.com.

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