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115 years in the Arizona political arena

Barry Goldwater, Sandra Day O’Connor, Bruce Babbit, Evan Mecham, Wesley Bolin, Janet Napalitano, Betsy Bayless, Lisa Graham Keegan, Carol Springer, Jane Hull, Burton Barr, Don Bolles

Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., and Supreme Court nominee, Judge Sandra Day O’Connor, chat prior to the start of her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Sept. 9, 1981.  (AP Photo)

Successes and scandals that generated memorable headlines – a lot has happened in the Arizona political scene during the past 115 years that the Arizona Capitol Times and its predecessor publications under different names have existed.  

Arizona News Service, which publishes the Arizona Capitol Times, Yellow Sheet Report and Arizona Legislative Report, was launched the Creighton family. It is currently owned by BridgeTower Media. Ned Creighton, former publisher of Arizona News Service and grandson of the founder, said neither he nor his father nor grandfather ever considered running for a political position and were content to observe and report on the day’s events and activities at the Arizona Capitol. 

In a 2011 interview, Creighton, comparing the political scene then with years past and how the mood had changed at the Capitol, said: “Everybody who looks back –all us old geezers who used to be something or do something, look back and see a smoother, calmer time, when people were working together.” 

It has been an ever-changing political landscape, from the Wild West days of yore through periods of cooperation and collaboration to today’s confrontational and mean-spirited era. Through it all, Arizona has produced an array of respected political figures and attracted its share of unwanted notoriety. 

For example, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981 – Sandra Day O’Connor, began her law practice in Phoenix in 1957. She later served in the Arizona Legislature, rising to Senate majority leader in 1973, also a first for a woman.  

Then there was Arizona’s Fab Five. On January 4, 1999, four Republicans and a Democrat – all women – were sworn into office, another first. Heading the quintessential quintet was Gov. Jane Dee Hull, Secretary of State Betsey Bayless, Attorney General Janet Napolitano, Treasurer Carol Springer and Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan. Napolitano, the lone Democrat, was elected governor in 2002, r-elected in 2008, and in 2009 resigned to join the Obama administration as secretary of Homeland Security. 

When it comes to longevity, no one tops Carl Hayden. He served in the U.S. Senate for more than 40 years, from 1927 to 1969. Hayden, who died in 1972 at the age of 94, had played a major role in establishing the Central Arizona Project and in creating the funding formula for the federal highway system. 

Bruce Babbitt has the distinction of having served the longest as Arizona governor – two full four-year terms and nearly a year of his predecessor’s – Wes Bolin, who died in March 1978. Both were Democrats, and Bolin had a longevity record of his own – 29 years as Arizona secretary of state. Babbitt ran for president in 1988, but dropped out after two primaries. He also served as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of the Interior from 1993 to 2001. 

Babbitt was a member of a pioneer Arizona family, which was active in ranching and operated Indian trading posts dating back to the 1880s. But because Babbitt was born in California while his mother was visiting there, for political purposes he could not claim to be an Arizona native.  

Babbitt’s tenure as governor was a time of cooperation, at least compared to what goes on at the Capitol these days. His collaborator was Burton Barr, who was elected to the Arizona House in 1964 and served as majority leader for 20 years. It was believed that Barr, a Republican, would quietly visit Babbitt, a Democrat, at the governor’s home on weekends to plot strategies. 

Barr, a pragmatist who once suggested that if he couldn’t get 31 votes for a bill then it probably wasn’t a very good bill, was instrumental in creating the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid program that attracts federal funding. 

But Barr didn’t always win. After a GOP-dominated House committee killed a bill he was pushing, he left the hearing room looking disgusted. Asked if he was mad, he replied. “I’m like the Kennedys. I don’t get mad. I get even.” 

However, his biggest loss occurred in 1986, when he decided to run for the Republican nomination for governor. He was considered a sure winner. The event to announce his candidacy and launch his campaign was like a victory celebration, complete with balloons and a band. 

Former Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham angrily points his finger at a prosecution lawyer during testimony in his Senate impeachment trial in Phoenix in this March 17,1988 file photo. (AP Photo/Jeff Robbins/Pool)

And then, along came Evan Mecham – again, a Glendale car dealer and former state senator who had run  unsuccessfully  for governor in 1964, 1974, 1978, and 1982. His loss to Babbitt in 1978 by about 41,000 votes was a lot closer than most observers expected. Barr was advised to ignore Mecham’s verbal attacks, but it didn’t work.  

Mecham defeated Barr in the GOP primary and went on to win a three-way race for governor, collecting just 40% of the vote. Not long after Mecham took the oath of office, rumors began circulating about a possible impeachment. As Mecham’s miscues piled up, so did support for removing him from office. In one instance, he referred to Black children as “pickaninnies,” a term he described as one of endearment. He was labeled a racist. 

Barely a year after Mecham took office, he was facing six felony charges and a recall movement. That’s when the GOP-controlled House voted 46-14 to impeach him, and on April 4, 1988, the Republican Senate voted 21-9 to convict and remove him from office. 

There were other events that cast a dark cloud over the Arizona political scene. For example, Arizona Republic political reporter Don Bolles was killed by a car bomb in 1976; massive land fraud deals in the 1960s and 1970s that Bolles had investigated damaged Arizona’s image; seven members of the Legislature were indicted in 1991 for accepting bribes in what was called Azscam; and the 2011 Fiesta Bowl was embroiled in scandal involving political contributions and questionable spending. 

Two significant events occurred even before Arizona became a state in 1912. Barry Goldwater, an Arizona icon, was born in 1909, and Arizona News Services began chronicling a potpourri of political happenings. Goldwater served five terms in the U.S. Senate, was one of a handful of GOP leaders who privately told President Richard Nixon he had to resign in 1974 or face certain impeachment in the Watergate scandal, and was trounced in 1964 in his unsuccessful run against President Lyndon Johnson. 

Sometime after his not necessarily unexpected loss to Johnson a year after President John Kennedy was assassinated, Goldwater joked that if all the people who told him they had voted for him actually did, he would have won. 

Goldwater, a retired major general in the Air Force and a World War II pilot, was nevertheless cautious about flying in bad weather. He had a plaque in his office that said: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”  

Don Harris is a copy editor for the Arizona Capitol Times.  

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