Pete Rios wasn’t just there when Democrats split the Senate in 2001-02 and actually controlled the chamber in 1991-92, he was leading the charge. He was the Democratic whip in the former era and president in the latter one. Rios, who served in the Senate from 1983 to 1994, again from 1997 to 2004 and in the House from 2005 to 2008, talked about his years as a lawmaker in a 9-hour interview in 2011 with the Arizona Memory Project, supported by the Arizona State Library, which has a collection of oral histories of former legislators. Below are condensed versions of some of his experiences: Democrats in the majority, a split chamber and when he first heard about a bribery sting that rocked the Legislature. Rios is still in office, just a different one. He has represented District 1 on the Pinal County Board of Supervisors since 2009. He and his daughter, Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, were the first and only father and daughter team to serve in the Arizona Legislature.
Two problems with Legislature
There are two, two bad issues that run hand-in-hand. One of them is term limits. The other one is public financing of legislative elections. Well, if you put the two together – term limits and public financing – you get a crazy Legislature. And I think that’s why we are in the predicament that we are in today with the makeup of the Senate and the House because you have term limits for people that cared about the state, didn’t have their own – some people did – the majority didn’t have their own personal agenda. They’re gone and now you’ve got some new folks that do have a personal agenda that nobody would have given a plug nickel to help them with their campaign had it not been for public financing. And because they got something like seventeen or eighteen thousand dollars for the primary and something like twenty one or twenty two thousand dollars for the general, these people were able to get elected and they really do not represent the masses of the people in their district.
Randall Gnant and split Senate
Let me just start with Randall Gnant because when Randall was president of the Senate we had a fifteen-fifteen split, which was fifteen Democrats, fifteen Republicans, first time it ever happened in the history of the State of Arizona. We knew that either we were going to wind up with some kind of coalition-type leadership where one would be president one day and the other party would have a president the next day and some of us, at least in our Democratic leadership caucus, felt that we would go forward one day then backwards, so we never really advance. So we kind of strategized – and when I say we, myself, Jack Brown, and Chris Commisky – we need to work on bringing in a Republican that we can say and offer him or her the presidency with the understanding that we reach an agreement. We want X number of chairmanships, we want the second-in-line to be a Democrat, we want equal numbers on Appropriations Committee, we would want to meet with the president on a weekly basis to set the agenda for the week – which bills were going to be heard, which ones not. We went through the list of 15 Republican senators, so the two that came to the top was Susan Gerard and Randall Gnant that would appear to be moderate enough for Democrats to work with and then we felt that they would aspire to be president. Our first choice was Randall Gnant. We invited him to dinner, it was him and us three, so we kind of were ganging up on him. We all three spoke and made our pitch. Randall basically stated that his caucus had concluded that nobody would cut any deals. He was basically not in a position to wheel and deal with us. “Well,” he says, “let me think about it because we agreed we wouldn’t cut any deals, so I’ll let you guys know tomorrow.” I said,”Randall, there is no tomorrow.” He said, “What do you mean?” “You got one shot, we’re offering you the presidency, either you can take it or you’re out, and we will talk to one of your other members to see if they want to be president and it seems like to me we got a taker if you don’t want to do it.” He basically said, very unsure that he’s doing the right thing and he says, “Okay, I’ll do it.” I said, “Randall, if you say you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it, and we’re not leaving here until we sign this thing in blood. Once we leave here, you’re going to be president, you’re going to take a lot of heat, your people are going to call you every name in the book like God’s child, so you better be ready.” He said, “I know it, I know it.”
AZSCAM happened in 1991. It was February 6th, I had been president of the Senate about three weeks and I get a call from a reporter from The Arizona Republic, late, I think it was a Sunday night, I don’t remember, and he tells me, “As a courtesy I’m just letting you know we’re running a story tomorrow. We’ve implicated X number of House members and two or three state senators in this gambling casino scam. I’m going, “Dude, give me some information, what are you talking about.” He said, “We have reason to suspect Senator Carolyn Walker was involved and Senator Chuy Higuera was involved,” and he threw out some other names. The reporter told me “Have you heard of this gentleman?” and he said, “ [Anthony] Vincent.” I said, “No clue man, never heard of him.” He said, “Did you ever meet with him?” I said, “How could I meet with somebody I don’t even know?” And he says, “Did you know anything about this?” “I said, “Dude, I don’t know what you’re talking about and now you’re trying to implicate me as well.” At the end, we hung up and my head is still spinning, it was late, probably around 11 o’clock, so I pick up the phone and I call Senator Jaime Gutierrez. He was my chair on Appropriations, but I had also made him chair of the Ethics Committee. I said, “Have you heard of this guy, Anthony Vincent.” …And then I told him what the reporter had told me. I said, “Do you have anything to do with this, do you know anything about this?” He said, “Oh my God, I never heard anything,” so he started asking me questions. “The reason I’m saying that and calling you is because this thing is going to break, you’re the chairman of Ethics, I want you to get to the bottom of this. I don’t care where it leads you, you follow it, you clean it up, and let’s move forward.” I said, “We just took majority of the Senate, dude, now we gotta’ deal with this mess.” He said, “Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow morning, thank you for the call. Now I’m not going to sleep all night.” And neither did I.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for space. Arizona Memory Project interviews will appear on this page each month.s