Sam Polito loved to cook for his friends, and his dinners for legislators and lobbyists were his calling card during his more than 30 years as a lobbyist at the Capitol. Attendees had only to abide by a single rule: no politics.
“He would always say, ‘We’re not talking politics tonight. We’re being friends,’” said Chuck Essigs, the longtime lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials who attended several of Polito’s dinners.
Instead of politics, Polito sought to get his guests – always a mix of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals – to talk about their families, their hobbies and their interests. After all, if they understood each other as people and not as political foes, they would be better able to set aside their ideological differences and find solutions for important education public policy issues.
Of course, Essigs said, legislators are by nature political creatures, and they “could only do that for about 10 minutes” before the talk at the dinner table turned to politics. Polito would admonish them and the conversation would shift to other topics, but it would inevitably drift back to the political.
“By the end of the night, everyone was talking politics anyway,” Essigs said.
But that didn’t mean the dinners were a failure.
“People were more polite and respectful to each other,” Essigs said, and it led to better working relations at the Capitol.
Polito, a Tucson native who died July 3 at the age of 80, began his education career shortly after becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college. He started as an elementary school teacher in the Tucson Unified School District, but began working his way up through the ranks. He became a principal, then the finance director for the district, then an assistant superintendent and, finally, the district’s chief lobbyist.
When he landed at the Capitol in the early 1980s, he set about forging the reputation that veteran lobbyists and lawmakers universally praised, even in recent years when his health was failing and he was no longer a frequent sight in legislative hallways.
“He was a prince. I don’t care who you talk to, everybody will say he was a prince,” said lobbyist Barry Aarons. “He made a deal on a handshake, and it stuck. You never had to worry about it, because he said so.”
Rep. Bob Robson, a Chandler Republican who was first elected to the Legislature in 2000, said Polito was revered for going the extra distance to promote civility in the legislative process.
“What comes to your mind right away was that he was a true gentleman,” Robson said.
Essigs, who began working with Polito in the late 1970s as the state embarked on an overhaul of the school finance system that was ultimately passed in 1980, said Polito “demonstrated that you didn’t have to be partisan” to get things done at the Capitol.
“He didn’t try to make one party an evil force and the other a good force,” Essigs said. “He treated everybody, whether you were the president of the Senate or a freshman in the minority party, he treated you the same. People appreciated that.”
Polito was also known for his jokes, of which Essigs said he had “thousands” that he could deploy at just the right moment to ease tension.
“Some of them were good, but some were bad. And some were so bad they were funny,” Essigs said. “But they made you laugh either way. And you probably laughed harder at the bad ones.”
Aarons said the loss of Polito’s conviviality, selflessness and integrity will leave a void at the Capitol.
“The system will miss him. It’s going to leave a big void in the aura of the Arizona political scene, and specifically a the Arizona Legislature,” Aarons said. “You don’t have a lot of those folks around anymore. There’s too much self-interest now.”