Five years ago, then-Gov. Jan Brewer appointed Carolyn Allen to the Biomedical Research Commission.
But it soon became clear in the following year that the former legislator wasn’t going to get her nomination heard in the same chamber where she had served for eight years.
“The governor’s office asked me if I could just withdraw my nomination. I’m not going to do that,” she quipped in a phone call to the Senate. Instead, she wanted to know her options.
“Because I’m not going quietly into that good night. You know me better than that,” Allen said.
Allen died on Saturday due to complications arising from her decades-long bout with rheumatoid arthritis, consultant Bert Coleman, who ran her legislative campaigns, confirmed. She was 78.
That phone call about her appointment was classic Allen – feisty, classy, to the point.
“She was a tough, feisty, lovable old gal,” said lobbyist Barry Aarons. “She believed in certain things, and she made no bones about what her stance was on issues.”
Allen served 16 years as a legislator, first in the House, where she was a majority leader, and later in the Senate, where she became the only Republican to vote against SB1070, the law that came to symbolize the state’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
Coleman said that was her proudest vote, something she still talked about years after her retirement.
The fact that her appointment to the Biomedical Research Commission never got a confirmation in the Senate illustrated her testy relationship with her party.
Allen didn’t always toe the party line, both a source of frustration and admiration by former colleagues and Capitol observers alike. Depending on who’s speaking, Allen was either fiercely independent-minded or a “Republican-In-Name-Only.”
“She is beholden to no one but herself,” Sen. Steve Pierce said in an interview in 2010. The two had struck a friendship even though Pierce had defeated one of Allen’s closest allies, former Sen. Tom O’Halleran, in the 2008 primary. O’Halleran is now running as a Democrat in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District.
Allen often voted against anti-abortion measures — calling them “anti-female” — and balked at proposed tax cuts at a time when Arizona’s finances were shaky. At one point, she walked out of the Senate, telling a reporter that she’d had enough with voting on abortion bills.
“She walked out a lot, [particularly] on budget votes,” Senate chief of staff Wendy Baldo recalled with a laugh. Close friends, they sometimes had lunch at Allen’s home, where Baldo would bring chocolate- covered pretzels.
Allen rarely buckled to pressure, although she had voted for measures she strongly disliked. At one time, Allen said she was ashamed to say she was a Republican anymore because of the way her colleagues had crafted the state budget. Yet she still voted for it, saying the alternative proposals were even worse.
Some had accused her of spoiling the Republican brand.
“What does it mean to be a Republican? If being Republican means, you know, you’re not pro-life and you’re not pro-family and you’re not pro-marriage and you’re not pro-taxpayer and you’re not pro-Second Amendment Rights — I mean, holy cow!” the consultant Constantin Querard said six years ago.
But Allen always argued that it was her party that drifted rightward, becoming more obsessed with enacting new laws to regulate morality and social behavior instead of focusing on economic development and job creation.
Allen’s frustrations with her party grew over the years. In 2010, her last year in office, she said she would rather step in front of a moving train than serve one more term in a Legislature that no longer reflected the values of Arizonans.
Allen didn’t hide her aggravation.
“It just came to me. You know what? We probably ought to throw three more chairs around the caucus in the Senate,” she said while sipping from a can of Diet Coke at one caucus meeting several years ago.
Those chairs, she said, would be reserved for Americans for Prosperity, the Goldwater Institute and the (now-defunct) Pachyderm Coalition, all of which are considered small government, fiscally conservative groups that wielded a lot of influence at the Capitol.
“And then, at the head of the table, sitting next to the whip, would be Cathi Herrod, who would be overseeing the caucus,” she said, referring to the president of the evangelical Christian lobby Center for Arizona Policy.
Privately, many of her former colleagues and other political insiders complained that Allen had always been more liberal than the rest of the GOP caucus, and that she undermined fellow Republicans while serving as a leader in the House. One source said her tendency to speak frankly became a liability.
Allen knew all about the criticisms leveled against her. She just didn’t care.
“They treat me mostly with respect. What they think and say about me behind my back is of no consequence to me,” she said.
Allen is best known for her acerbic wit, poise and feistiness, which compelled people to listen when she spoke and to duck when she was hurling criticism.
Allen once called ex-Sen. John Huppenthal, who later became the state superintendent of public instruction, a “dictator.”
Allen, who represented Scottsdale, the most glamorous city in Arizona, was an ardent supporter of the arts, and ran with some of the most powerful people in the state. But her early life was disrupted by tragedy and shaped by resilience.
Allen was born Sept. 8, 1937, in Hannibal, Missouri — Mark Twain’s hometown — to Earl and Lola Wilson.
Soon after, a young Carolyn Wilson learned some of life’s ultimate lessons about loss and pain.
Allen’s dad and her brother Lester died within months of each other when she was six, and her mother eked out a living as a maid for the wealthy to supplement the family’s income from Social Security.
She remembered a time when she was told to sit on the steps of a mansion and to wait while her mother cleaned inside. And she remembered watching her mother swallow her pride and go to the welfare office for assistance to tide the family over until Social Security checks began to arrive.
Instead of growing bitter, though, Allen became sympathetic to the plight of hard-working people who struggle to make ends meet. Because she knew what it was like to receive welfare, she looked at those who ask for government assistance with compassion.
“I’m the daughter of the maid, and I’m proud of her,” Allen said. “I knew that there are people out there like my mother who should not be treated with such disdain.”
Tough times also taught Allen to be a go-getter. She lied about her age when she was 15 to get a job at a hospital because she had wanted to buy new clothes. She was about to enter high school.
After graduating from high school, Allen worked at various jobs and eventually got into the advertising industry in Colorado. She spent 10 years as a single mother, remarried when she was 33 and moved to Arizona in 1980.
In Arizona, she plunged into community and volunteer work. She became very active in the arts community, a passion she took to the Capitol when she was first elected to the House in 1994.
Commissioner Bob Burns was Senate President in their last year in office.
“We tangled more than once. We had a mutual respect for each other,” Burns said. “We had a budget meeting one day and she always had this thing about the arts, and I guess the voice level started to rise, and she said, ‘Don’t you talk so loud to me.’ And so, I stopped talking so loud.”
She faced another tragedy a few years ago, when her only son, Tony, died of a heart attack.
To her critics, Allen once said: “They don’t travel in my world and they have not lived (nor have) many or most of them overcome the obstacles that I have in my life.”