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A man with a plan: David Gowan defies the odds to become speaker of the House

Speaker of the House David Gowan (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Speaker of the House David Gowan (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

There were many long nights back in their first months as Arizona lawmakers when two ambitious southern Arizona Republicans – seatmates who were first sent to the Capitol in 2008 – would share their grandest hopes and dreams in the modest setting of their rented Scottsdale trailer.

Frank Antenori, a brusque ex-special forces officer who stormed onto the political scene two years earlier with a failed run for the U.S. House, dreamed of going to Congress.

David Gowan, a quiet magazine distributor and karate teacher who ran three campaigns before winning a seat in the Legislature, wanted to be speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives.

Antenori didn’t make it to Congress. But earlier this month, House Republicans selected Gowan as their new speaker.

For the 45-year-old from Sierra Vista, it was an opportunity of a lifetime, a dream come true – the result of a methodical plan executed with calculated political skill.

“From the day he got elected, he was setting up the groundwork to become speaker,” Antenori said of his longtime friend. “And I gotta hand it to him, he did it. Back in 2008 and 2009, people never would have thought that Dave Gowan would be speaker of the House. But I did. When we talked those nights, he was serious and he had a plan… Let that be a lesson to anyone who would underestimate him.”

Gowan and Antenori didn’t start as friends. The two were technically competing for a seat in the House when, one day, they happened to be putting up campaign signs along the same road. Gowan motioned Antenori over and they got to talking about polls. Antenori had seen some polling putting him in last place for the four-way race for two House seats, while Gowan’s polls put Antenori in a close third.

The two decided to team up, and Gowan gave Antenori the boost of confidence he needed to campaign hard to the very end.

On election night, Gowan had a strong lead over the rest of the pack, while Antenori was trailing in third place for two open seats. The two talked on the phone for hours that night, and Gowan even convinced Antenori, a “not very devout Catholic,” into praying with him that he would win the race.

“He was there with me the whole time even though he had won with a slam dunk. He never left my side all night, he stayed on the phone with me, telling me not to lose hope and that this thing would turn around. And it did. It was a miracle. Gowan will tell you that his prayer worked,” Antenori said.

The episode sums up Gowan’s leadership style, as far as Antenori is concerned. Even though he had no personal stake in Antenori’s race, Gowan urged him on and stuck with him to the end.

Gowan is a somewhat improbable speaker.

He hails from Cochise County, not the state’s Republican power base of the East or West Valley, making him the first speaker from southern Arizona in nearly three decades.

His own bills tend to focus on local government issues, public safety and special interest priorities. He has mostly shied away from sponsoring controversial legislation, although he is a frequent co-sponsor of other lawmakers’ high-profile bills.

He avoids the media spotlight and rarely offers his opinions on the issues of the day. Even in his current role as House majority leader, Gowan is rarely quoted in the press.

He’s an easy-going joker whose humor sometimes falls flat due to his tendency to mumble. His biggest fans admit he’s not the most eloquent speaker, while his critics paint him as a slow-witted, rural cowpoke.

But his election to speaker of the House, made possible by a coalition of some of the most conservative and liberal members of the deeply divided Republican caucus, proved Gowan’s skill as a politician, negotiator and long-term tactical planner.

Since he first ran for office 10 years ago, Gowan has been forming strategic alliances and flying below potential enemies’ radar, while humbly coaching other conservatives along and waiting for his chance at the speakership with the patience and discipline of a ninth degree black belt in Karate.

Which, believe it or not, he is.

Gowan’s success as a lawmaker and legislative leader, according to Constantin Querard, a Republican campaign consultant who has run all six of Gowan’s campaigns, is in his ability to build a base and work with those who he disagrees with toward a common goal.

“It all goes back to the Liberty Caucus. From the beginning, he’s been bringing people together and building consensus,” Querard said.

When he first took office in 2009, Gowan and other Republican lawmakers were tasked with re-writing the state budget in the first few weeks of the legislative session to bring spending in line with rapidly declining revenue projections. Finally free of Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano on the Ninth Floor, conservative Republicans were ready to make deep cuts to core budget priorities.

But to the chagrin of many freshmen Republicans, then-Speaker Kirk Adams had already drafted the budget proposal. Within hours of showing the spending plan to the rank and file Republicans, he expected them to vote with the majority on the budget package. That didn’t sit well with many of the new Republicans, Gowan included, who had made promises to their constituents on the campaign trail that they would read the entire budget before voting on it.

So Antenori, Gowan and several other newly-elected conservative Republicans decided to get together to each read parts of the budget, and at least compare notes before voting.

The way Antenori remembers it, then-Rep. Sam Crump walked by the group of freshmen lawmakers as they were reading, and began to complain about $35 million in “pork” hidden in the budget bills. Crump rallied the crew of new conservatives to oppose the bill unless the pork was cut out.

When the group of about nine Republicans refused to vote for the budget unless it included more cuts, Adams balked. He attempted strong-arm tactics and threatened to kill their bills or revoke committee assignments. But members of the group held strong in their demands.

Eventually, Adams realized he didn’t have the votes to pass a budget without them, and acquiesced to deeper cuts.

Other members of the GOP labeled the group troublemakers, but the label they gave themselves was the Liberty Caucus.

The informal group of conservative Republicans continues to this day, with Gowan as the unofficial leader.

It’s no small feat for the leader of a group called the Liberty Caucus to emerge as the favored candidate of moderate Republicans. But that’s exactly where Gowan found himself after the primary, when news broke that he and a handful of “establishment” Republicans had struck a deal to support him as the next House speaker.

Gowan faced off against Republican Reps. J.D. Mesnard of Chandler and Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert for the powerful position of speaker. But Gowan emerged as an early favorite when he secured support from his fellow Liberty Caucus members, and forged an unlikely alliance with the caucus’ moderate wing – the same moderates who had teamed up with Democrats to roll the GOP leadership a year earlier during the fight over Gov. Jan Brewer’s Medicaid expansion plan.

The Medicaid proposal left deep divides within the Republican caucus. Gowan had been one of the strongest forces working for the ouster of Republican Rep. Bob Robson from the powerful Rules Committee for Robson’s role in pushing Medicaid expansion.

But to secure the speakership, Gowan had to bring the moderates back into the tent.

To that end, he offered to place Robson as his speaker pro tem, an honorary leadership position chosen by the speaker to fill in for him when he is away. He also promised to forgive and forget the moderates’ break with the caucus, and ensure that the returning moderate Republicans would keep their committee chairmanships.

In the end, all returning Republicans – including the two who challenged him for the speaker’s post, and all of the moderates who supported Medicaid expansion – were offered a committee chairmanship. Gowan’s supporters point to that as testament to his all-inclusive leadership style and desire to heal caucus divides.

Moderate Republican Rep. Heather Carter said she threw her support behind Gowan for speaker because “he stood the best chance of bringing the largest number of Republicans together,” and healing the wounds from the Medicaid fight.

Carter sat behind Gowan on the House floor in 2011 and 2012, during her first term at the Legislature. And although they had serious philosophical differences mirrored in the party divides, the two found they had similar interests in education and veterans’ issues – and immediately got along.

But it was during the 2014 session that she really became impressed with Gowan’s ability to lead – not just the Liberty Caucus, who she was often at odds with, but the entire chamber. During budget negotiations, she was originally hesitant to sit down with Gowan, fearing he would be against her budget priorities. But eventually he tracked her down and heard her out, leaving her feeling like he would actually work to help get at least some of her priorities into the budget.

She knows that her decision to support Gowan shocked some, but she genuinely believes he’s the best guy for the job.

“These are the things that people don’t see from outside looking in,” she said.

Longtime Capitol lobbyist Barry Aarons has seen a lot in his 30 years walking the halls of the House and Senate, but even he was surprised by the coalition supporting Gowan.

Aarons said Gowan’s quiet, humble behind-the-scenes approach to leadership and constant ability to put others first, gives lawmakers and the Capitol community at large confidence in his ability to get the job done.

“It’s the old cliché about politics making strange bedfellows… You obviously had some people who were very interested in making sure they retained their chairmanships, and some people who were interested in making sure they had a modicum of influence with the new leadership, and it just clicked. You never can predict some of these things,” Aarons said.

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