Former Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers was honored with 11 others by President Joe Biden on Friday for their “contributions to democracy” during and after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Bowers, a Republican, received the Presidential Citizens Medal on the second anniversary of the insurrection along with police who defended the Capitol, election workers, and state and local officials who faced threats from election deniers.
Bowers was thrust into the spotlight with his June testimony to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. He described his steadfast refusal to tamper with Arizona’s 2020 election results, which went for Biden, despite pressure by then-President Donald Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others.
After his testimony, Bowers faced threats and protests at his home, and he was censured last year by the Arizona Republican Party as “unfit to serve.” He ultimately lost a bid for a state Senate seat in last fall’s primary elections to conservative GOP challenger David Farnsworth.
Biden on Friday called Bowers an “example of what integrity is about.”
“Rusty we may not agree on all things, we agree on what this country is about though,” Biden said. “We agree public service is not about what you’re willing to do to win, it’s about what you’re willing to lose over.”
Biden, a Democrat, jokingly said he told Bowers that “I hope I’m not hurting your reputation.” Political observers said it is not likely the award changed opinions in Arizona about Bowers – one way or the other.
“There’s always going to be a hardcore segment that believes that he (Bowers) did something wrong and that he should have just played along with President Trump,” said Arizona political consultant Jason Rose.
But Rose and others agreed that the award was well-deserved. Chuck Coughlin, president of the political consulting firm Highground Inc., said he was not surprised that Bowers would risk his political future to protect the election. He has worked closely with Bowers for 30 years and called him a man of the highest integrity.
“It’s what happens in life: You’re confronted with situations and you’re tested. And you find out what kind of person people are,” Coughlin said. “And I’ve always known him to be that kind of guy. I wouldn’t ever expect him to do anything other than what he did.”
Stacy Pearson, a political consultant for Lumen Strategies, said Bowers earned the award for helping “defend democracy at a time that it was hanging on by a thread.” She noted that Bowers stood his ground under pressure from the president while coping with the loss of his daughter, who died of cancer in January 2021.
“I can’t even wrap my brain around getting pressure from the president of the United States to break laws while you’re simultaneously suffering the worst loss a parent could imagine,” Pearson said.
The Presidential Citizens Medal was first awarded in 1969, to recognize U.S. citizens who “perform exemplary deeds of service for their country.” Friday was the first time Biden has awarded the medal, but it was not the first award Bowers has received for his response to 2020 election deniers: Last year, he got a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award for his defiance of Trump.
Coughlin said Bowers’ actions showed that he “represents everybody and not just people (who) voted for him.” Pearson said she believes the latest award will signal to the nation that Arizona is “done with extremists.”
Rodd McLeod, with the progressive political consulting firm Radar Strategies, said Bowers was one of several Republican office holders – along with the Maricopa County supervisors and Georgia election officials – who “showed real bravery and real patriotism” by bucking their president and party.
“Rusty Bowers did the patriotic thing when he supported Arizona’s elections. And it’s hard sometimes to tell your political party, ‘No, I’m not going to do what’s good for me, I’m going to do what’s good for the country,’” McLeod said. “That’s what patriotism is – putting the needs of your country above your own selfish interests. And that’s what Rusty Bowers did.”
McLeod said Bowers will be remembered as “one of the people who did the patriotic thing and stood up for his country under a lot of pressure” if our democracy survives. And if it doesn’t, he will be remembered as one “who went down with the ship and stood up and did the right thing, even though it failed.”
Rose said he thinks “history is going to treat him (Bowers) very, very well.”
“Maybe at some point in the future, he comes back into the public arena, but he exits the public arena now as a beautiful, accomplished public servant in the independent mode of other Arizona pioneers that came before him.”