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Former lawmaker Jack Brown: Driven by the needs of rural Arizona

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If the light rail line through the sleepy eastern Arizona town of St. Johns ever does get built, its riders will have Jack Brown to thank for it.

Brown spent one legislative session gently poking fun at his urban colleagues for fighting over the fate of a transportation funding ballot measure for Maricopa County. Much of the contention surrounded a light rail line in central Phoenix, but Brown wanted his fellow lawmakers to understand that there was a great big state beyond Maricopa County, and it had no shortage of transportation projects that needed funding, too.

Day after day, he would rise on the Senate floor and give a short “status update” about the fictional project in his hometown, explaining to senators how the rail line would run from Leandro’s bar at one end of town to the St. Johns Theater on the other end. However, the project was beset by problems. One time, there was a shortage of rail holding up construction. Another time, the town couldn’t locate deed holders to buy the land needed.

“There’s still not a shovel of dirt that’s ever been turned, and there never will be,” he joked to the Arizona Capitol Times in 2010, when he retired from the Legislature after 36 years as a representative and senator.

Brown died Oct. 28 in St. Johns at the age of 86.

He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1962 and served until 1974. He returned to the House in 1987, then moved to the Senate in 1997, then back to the House in 2005. His two stints as Democratic leader came decades apart – first from 1969 to 1972 in the House, then from 1997 to 2004 in the Senate – and he served in the Legislature over parts of five decades.

Brown’s commitment to the rural parts of the state drove him, said Art Hamilton, the longtime former House minority leader. Brown served as assistant leader under Hamilton for two terms.

“He was absolutely fierce that we know that the sun didn’t rise at the eastern side of Maricopa County and set on the western side,” Hamilton said. “He and Polly Rosenbaum are probably the best embodiment of… fighting for the needs of greater Arizona.”

Brown was widely known by his desire to work with people to solve the state’s problems instead of getting mired in political or personal squabbles.

“Jack Brown carried around a hammer and nails, he didn’t carry around matches and gasoline. He was a bridge-builder,” said Bas Aja, executive director of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association.

Lobbyist Chris Herstam said that attitude was evident when he served alongside Brown in 1987. Herstam sponsored a bill to create a flat income tax and end all tax deductions. When the measure went up for a vote, Brown was the only person to vote against it. Herstam said he asked Brown why, and Brown said it was because he didn’t want to eliminate the deduction for religious contributions because tithing was such an essential part of his Mormon faith.

Herstam said he asked Brown why he never mentioned that before the vote.

“Jack said, ‘That’s because it’s a darn good bill, and you worked your tail off and I didn’t want to do anything to deny your effort.’ That’s the kind of guy he was,” Herstam said. “When I think of Jack Brown, I get a smile on my face.”

Aja said Brown was one of those “extremely unique individuals” who transcended party politics through civility: Republicans sought him out to win Democrats’ support, and Democrats did the same when they needed GOP backing.

“Politics has gotten so tribal, it makes it hard for anyone to do what Jack did. If you do, people say you left the tribe and shoot arrows into you,” he said.

Lobbyist Kevin DeMenna said Brown understood results were more important than glory.

“Jack did not need to be in the big office to get done what needed to be done, and he knew that,” he said.

Brown’s wife, Beverly, called her husband an eternal optimist.

“He didn’t care about party, color or religion. Even if people were questionable, he always saw the good in people,” she said.

Brown is survived by eight children, 36 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren.

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