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Talking and listening at the same time: Majority Leader Burton Barr

Arizona State Capitol

Arizona State Capitol

Burton Barr had a hand in virtually every major piece of legislation that passed through the Arizona House of Representatives during the 20 years he held sway as the indomitable, tireless majority leader.

Barr hated to lose – and rarely did. He welcomed challenges and even sought them as the Arizona political scene evolved from a rural-dominated state into one that saw two burgeoning metropolitan areas – particularly Maricopa County – seize control. U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 1964 that required reapportionment of congressional and legislative districts based on the one-person, one-vote principle  opened the way for someone like  Barr. He was the mover and shaker behind, and often in front of, such issues as health care for indigents (Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System), air pollution, school funding, taxes, prison reform, child care, groundwater management and today’s still-spreading freeway system.

Philip VanderMeer, an associate professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, draws on numerous news clippings from the 1970s and 1980s and subsequent interviews to paint a picture of the dynamic lawmaker in, “Burton Barr: Political Leadership and the Transformation of Arizona.” A long-time colleague of Barr’s once said of him: “He’s the only man I ever met who can talk and listen at the same time.”

In the first 86 pages, VanderMeer mostly delves into Arizona’s political history, Barr’s family background going back to before he was born to his early years in Portland, Oregon, heroic experiences during World War II, his life as a businessman and his devotion to family. But, if you really want to know about the Burton Barr who mesmerized political foes as he flapped his bushy eyebrows a la Grouch Marx and moved pet projects through the legislative process, that starts on Page 87 under the heading, “Barr Enters the Legislature.”

His legislative career began in 1965, and two years later he became House majority leader when metropolitan area Republicans found themselves in control. Indeed, Barr was a true leader. VanderMeer wrote: “Barr’s character and personality – his sensitivity and interest in people, his humor and storytelling talent, his generosity and honesty, his intelligence and energy – served him well in politics.” But, because Barr worked well with Democrats much of the time to achieve legislative goals, Republicans on the far right resented his bipartisanship. They either grudgingly gave him support or mounted opposition to whatever bill he was pushing at the time.

During Barr’s reign as majority leader, he actually usurped the power normally reserved or the speaker of the House.  He was the deal-maker. Democratic leaders of that era, Alfredo Gutierrez in the Senate and Art Hamilton in the House, had positive things to say about Barr.  Gutierrez said he worked closely with Barr, whom he considered his mentor. Hamilton recalled that Barr told him early on, “Kid, let me give you some advice. If you want to be helpful, and you want to be part of solving problems … I’ll help you.”

Known by some as “Mr. Magic” and “Captain Chaos,” Barr regularly dominated governors until Democrat Bruce Babbitt took office. An aide recalled that Babbitt was probably the first governor Barr had known who could finesse the Legislature. They tangled frequently, but VanderMeer accurately notes: “Despite their disputes and differences, however, they shared a mutual respect, a sincere regard for the other’s political skills, ability, and vision for the state.” Babbitt is quoted as saying, “Four governors of Arizona served under Burton Barr. I’m proud to be one of them.” The author notes that Babbitt often showed up at Barr’s home with the morning newspaper to discuss the latest issues.

Though Barr seldom lost a battle, his loss to Evan Mecham in the 1986 Republican primary for governor was devastating.  Yet Barr rebounded, helping then-Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard on various projects. He died on Jan. 13, 1997. Gutierrez later said Barr had made a deal with the Lord to have one more day so he could see a football game on television. Burton Barr died the next day.

I covered the Arizona House of Representatives for The Arizona Republic during several years of Burton Barr’s reign, starting in 1977. Below are a few of my favorite Barr anecdotes.

In the book, the retelling of Barr’s response to a question about a temporary tax that was subsequently extended omitted the best part. Barr flapped his bushy eyebrows, kind of like Groucho Marx, giggled a little, and said, “I lied.” Evan Mecham, who would eventually defeat Barr in the Republican primary for governor later that year (1986), used Barr’s attempt  at humor and asked whether voters wanted a governor who admitted he had lied about a tax increase.

Barr once explained to me his strategy on lining up votes for tough-to-pass bills. He would get a firm commitment for the 31st vote – the one needed for passage and often the toughest one to get – and proceed to work backward, getting commitments for the 30th, 29th, and so on. Apparently it worked.

After Barr had worked the House floor during a torrid debate on a bill, moving from desk to desk, successfully lining up vote after vote, the very pleased majority leader headed toward his office. He paused at the press table and I told him he would have done well in the Chicago City Council. The next day he emerged from his office, marched toward his desk, suddenly whirled around and leaned on the press table. Looking at me, a Chicago native, eyeball to eyeball, Barr said, “Chicago City Council, hmmm?”

At the end of a typically busy day, a cluster of reporters caught Barr as he was about to leave his office. He was anxious to get to one of his kids’ sports events, but he always made time for the media. As the Q&A session went on, Barr’s secretary called his attention to a phone call. “It’s the governor,” she whispered, referring to Bruce Babbitt. Barr paused, and in an exasperated tone told the reporters, “It’s the kid.” Then he told his secretary, “Tell him I’ll call him back later.”

In explaining to a reporter what a key piece of legislation would do, Barr could virtually shape the structure of the article that would appear in the next day’s newspaper. His explanation would go something like this: “It does, A, then B, then C, and under C it does, 1, then 2, then 3. Any questions?”

Though he lost few key votes, a bill he was pushing failed in a committee. Asked as he hurriedly left the hearing room if he was upset, Barr said, “I’m like the Kennedys. I don’t get mad, I get even.”

One comment

  1. Don missed a key piece of the story. The research for the book was originally started by Jack Pfister, and through his work more than 30 interviews of key leaders were conducted, including an interview with Burton Barr himself. Many of these interviews and more background information is available on

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