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Kirk Adams: Longtime chief of staff loves complexity of role

Cap Times Q&A

He was the Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives as the state muddled through the worst parts of the Great Recession. He ran for Congress unsuccessfully, then worked for some dark money groups (but he doesn’t like that term). Now, he’s Gov. Doug Ducey’s chief of staff.

But there are quite a few things about Adams that you may not know. For one, he lived in Tonga (google it), where he hopped from island to island as a Mormon missionary having “real Robinson Crusoe adventures.”

“When I got back, I wanted to go join the Peace Corps and go back. My parents freaked out,” Adams said.

The former speaker and Ducey’s right-hand man spoke to the Capitol Times about how his past work has affected his new job, his future plans and his involvement in a few Capitol traditions, like #startyourownrumor and appointing Andy Tobin to everything.


(Photos by Ellen O’Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)

Has anything you did as speaker come back to haunt you as chief of staff?

Oh, where to begin? I found it very ironic that I was at the table negotiating the education settlement when it was our budget, when I was speaker, that we had passed during the height of the Great Recession, or the depths of the Great Recession, that produced the lawsuit that eventually I was sitting at the table negotiating the settlement for. … There were many times at the table when I thought, I’m here because I did this. I was part of those decisions that produced a lawsuit. … It’s something else to have to live with your own decisions.

The Ducey administration is known for working back-channels instead of publicly airing grievances or talking to the media about any of those grievances. Why is that? What’s the strategy there?

Look, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. And I think that there is a respect that is due to a separate branch like the legislature. They’re a separate but equal branch. Obviously I personally have respect for the legislature. Whenever we can solve conflicts through conversation that’s not so much in the fishbowl, I think it’s a more productive way to reach an end. For us, I think we’re very goal-oriented.

One frequent criticism of the Ducey administration calls the governor a Koch shill. You were a part of the Koch network at one point, you worked with some dark money groups, or freedom cash, however you want to call it. What do you make of criticisms like that?

I think the criticism toward the governor in that regard is oftentimes unfounded and is more used as a political talking point without a lot of substance behind it. I chalk it up almost completely to, that’s politics as usual.

Any plans to run for elected office again? Your name gets thrown around frequently. With Sen. McCain being ill, you’ve been floated as a replacement if he were to resign. Do you have any interest in serving in elected office again?

Sen. McCain is not resigning, and I have no plans.

What will you do when you eventually leave the Ninth Floor?

I wish I knew. I’ll tell you, this role has reenergized my interest and sort of love for the business operations side of things. I’ve enjoyed the complexity of a role like this. I think the chief of staff to a governor is the best job in the country. My biggest worry post-this job is, will the next job be as fulfilling and as exciting and as engaging as this one is? I can answer very honestly, I don’t know what’s next after this. I will say, it’s been a little bit weird, because I’m now one of the longest-serving chiefs of staff in the country. The average length of stay for a chief, according to the (National Governors Association), is 16 months. I’m almost hitting three years, and there’s only one other guy who’s been around longer, the chief of staff, my good friend, Keith Gardner in New Mexico. He’s been around 7 years, bless his heart.

adams-middle-webThe president frequently feuds with both of our U.S. senators. What do you think of them? Do they serve Arizona well?

I think these are incredibly difficult political times. Certainly the public is going to have a chance to have their say in this next election cycle. I’ll tell you, from a personal standpoint, I consider Jeff Flake a friend, and I have immense respect for Sen. John McCain. I think he’s a senator for the ages. He’ll go down in history as one of the most influential United States senators ever to serve in that institution. The fact he’s from Arizona is a point of pride for our state and has elevated Arizona nationally in a way that I don’t think would have happened without him and without what he’s done.

Will you be supporting Sen. Flake next year?

In my role, I don’t get to make those decisions. I have my personal vote, I’ll exercise my personal vote. But because I am part of this administration and speak for the governor, it’s not something that I’ll share publicly.

Why does Andy Tobin get so many appointments?

He’s like the Swiss army knife, right? He has high capabilities. The guy, when you give him a job to do, he finds a way to get it done. And I don’t care whatever organization you’re in, if it’s a small business, if it’s a school or a state government, you need more people like that. You know, he’s done a good job every place he’s been. … Literally, whatever it is, I hear ‘you’re going to appoint Andy Tobin.’ He’s the favorite rumor.

Dark money or freedom cash? What’s your preference?

You know, I’ve given up on how people refer to this issue. And I’m going to speak totally personally right now, not speaking for the governor, but I really believe that the First Amendment means what it says and that people have a right to exercise their free speech. The courts have ruled that their money is an extension of their free speech rights. I also will note that I do think it’s interesting we are having these intense debates in our country right now about free speech and what type of speech is appropriate, and that we have some groups that have taken to using violence as a means to try to stop speech, even deplorable speech. I don’t think it’s that far from trying to prohibit how people can spend their money to that kind of activity. And I hope that the country as a whole finds faith again in the First Amendment because ultimately it’s the First Amendment for a reason. The founders felt very strongly that political speech must be protected.

How did you become the overseer of the Capitol’s most confusing tradition, #startyourownrumor? I’ve heard my esteemed former colleague Jim Small tell the story, but I’d like to get your version of events.

In April 2011, I was seriously considering leaving the speakership and running for congress, which I eventually did. We also had been criticized the previous two sessions very strongly for going over 100 days. … When we started the 2011 session, I was determined that we were going to finish in under 100 days, and we did. And the rumor that popped up right around sine die was that I was going to finish the session that week because I had a fundraiser for my Congressional race in D.C. And I had just had it. I had no fundraiser in D.C., I had nothing going on with a fundraiser here. I had a goal to finish this in 100 days because of all the criticism we received. And I was laying in bed that night, sine die was the next day, and I said, these people, they’re always starting these rumors and they’re not true, I’m going to start my own rumors. So the next morning, I came to the Capitol, and I started making stuff up and tweeting it out under the hashtag #startyourownrumor as a protest. And it just caught on. … I think it’s a nice sort of pressure valve release after a long session. We take ourselves way too seriously down here, and I think it’s fun to make fun of each other a little bit.

Let’s discuss the term “Netflix and chill.” (Adams tweeted about the Ninth Floor’s relaxed attitude during budget negotiations at the legislature, saying “It’s been nothing but Netflix and chill up here all year.”) How did you get the definition wrong? And who had to tell you what it meant?

Everybody told me! Man, that was embarrassing. I thought to myself, I have teenagers, how do I not know this? The first indication was, somebody tweeted, “I don’t think you know what that means.” But you know what’s so interesting is, I’ve had several people come to me and say, hey I didn’t know what that meant either. … I’m glad it wasn’t something even worse.

adams-bottom-webWhat’s one little-known fact about the governor that would surprise me?

He’s the governor and he consumes more information than even I can keep up with. He reads everything. … He’s a voracious reader and consumer of news. He’s also a voracious reader, he reads a lot of books. He oftentimes will hand me a book to read.

Is he a Hunger Games fan? Anything fiction?

I’ve never seen a fiction book. … He and I, when we travel, we end up on the same flights, and he’s not one of us who sits down and watches a movie for the flight. The guy is reading the entire time. He’s also a note-taker in his books. He writes, he dog-ears, he underlines. He’s one of those guys.

You have a lot of children, and you work a high-powered job. Can men really have it all?

(laughs) That’s a loaded question. The truth is that there’s always trade-offs, there’s always sacrifices. The interesting thing about my family is, my kids were sort of in their formative years when I was speaker of the House. A long time ago, I took some advice Sen. Kyl gave me, and it’s really good advice and it’s worked out well. He said, invite your kids to everything, but don’t make them go to anything. So they always know they’re included, but they don’t have the resentment of having to go. And I think that has been maybe one of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten on how to manage the public and the personal side. My kids have also become acclimated to dad’s schedule and dad’s jobs, but the truth is, I could never do this without my equal partner, JaNae. It just would not be possible. I wouldn’t even attempt it. She’s amazing and we make a good team.

Where’d you go on your LDS mission?

Tonga. Do you know where that is? Most people don’t. Little-known fact about me, I speak Tongan. Most people don’t know that either.

Does it ever come up that you need to speak it?

There is a small Tongan community here in Arizona. And whenever I run into them, I usually surprise them by speaking to them in Tongan. I still do some reading in Tongan. I’m much rustier than I would like to admit these days. I used to be incredibly good at it. … When I got back, I wanted to go join the Peace Corps and go back. My parents freaked out.

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