Jay Heiler: Doing civic work without being in government

Jay Heiler

Jay Heiler could be caught in the middle of a contentious U.S. Senate race right now. Instead, he joined boutique law firm Beus Gilbert PLLC.

A member of the Arizona Board of Regents, a charter school entrepreneur and former chief of staff to Gov. Fife Symington, Heiler contemplated challenging U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake for his seat last fall. But that was before Flake announced his retirement.

Now Heiler, 58, is perfectly content to cheer on Republican nominee Martha McSally from the sidelines as he starts a new chapter in his life. Heiler joined Beus Gilbert in July, carrying over his consulting work to the firm that specializes in real estate law and commercial litigation.

Cap Times Q&AWhat will you be doing at Beus Gilbert?

I’m going to be practicing law across several different fields with both sides of the practice, which is commercial litigation on one hand and real estate and entitlement law on the other. Then, I’m also bringing my own practice into the firm of government affairs and government relations, which really overlaps both to some degree. It just seemed like a really good fit and really great people to work with.

Where do your passions lie in the legal world?

The highest and best use of the law is to right wrongs, to advance justice, and in the public sector, to improve the life of the community and the lives of individuals in the community. St. Thomas Aquinas said the law is an ordinance for the common good made by those who have care over the community. That’s always seemed like a pretty good definition to me.

You came from a solo practice, correct?

I was just doing consulting work, but I went and activated my law license and I’m now back at it. I was an assistant attorney general when I got out of school. I was a prosecutor originally. I was in journalism as an undergraduate, then went to law school, worked as a prosecutor, then I went back into journalism and wrote editorials at the newspaper in Richmond, Virginia, The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

All those years when I was practicing on my own, I never really wanted to create a firm because I didn’t want everything that came along with that. I really just wanted to operate as long as I could as a lone wolf and keep my time free and my schedule flexible to build Great Hearts, which is a charter school organization. I’ve been at that for about 16 years now.

Why was now the right time to join a firm?

The fact is that this particular firm is very appealing because of the human elements involved and the practice fields the firm is best of class in. It’s also that phase of my professional journey where I just want to interact more with other leading professionals and build a great institution.

Speaking of Great Hearts, what do you make of the recent calls for increased transparency in the charter school system?

Lying at the bottom of all that conversation, which can be a productive conversation, is really a lot of tension over for-profit educational models in K-12. Great Hearts is not a for-profit educational model. Great Hearts is a nonprofit. But it is unlike the other, larger growth charter organizations in Arizona in that way. The construct of for-profit education is well known and has been around for many decades in higher education and it has a varied history. But the idea is still relatively new of for-profit presence at least as the operator of the school in K-12 education. I think everybody’s processing that now and having a discussion about it, which is good. It’s a discussion that should be held.

How did you start Great Hearts?

The idea came from understanding that charter schools were a market concept and the idea behind them was the introduction of some for market competition into K-12 as a means of lifting it. But as I considered doing that, I realized the way markets work is with scale and brands. There are always leaders in markets that make the most impact and achieve the most in a given sector. So the idea was to bring to the Phoenix community a scalable education model that would not only be better than public schools on offer, it would in fact, be better than private schools on offer.

You used to work for Symington. Do you ever miss working in the public sector?

Part of the reason I wanted to start Great Hearts was because I missed that. I wanted to create a valuable civic work that one could do without working in government and that’s how I’ve always thought of Great Hearts. It has always been in my nature that when I looked ahead to when I was old or near the end of my life, I wanted to have done something that mattered.

How did you meet Symington?

We were introduced by the then-editor of the editorial pages of The Republic, who was a guy named Bill Cheshire. Fife was having a tough first year in office at that point so we met and we just immediately hit it off.

What do you make of the news that Symington may run for the U.S. Senate?

I think he’s still got it in his system, too. But I think there’s still lots of turns in that road, starting with what happens in this Senate race and what happens with Senator Kyl. But if Fife decides to run for the Senate, that’ll be worth watching.

You recently considered running for the U.S. Senate, why?

I was asked to consider that at that time because it appeared many Republican voters were going to be looking for an alternative. So it wasn’t something that I had been planning, but I didn’t say no. And once you don’t say no, the process starts. It was something that I was very seriously considering, but when Senator Flake withdrew as early as he did, that left plenty of time for other candidates to also enter the picture. I truly believe that Martha [McSally] was an outstanding candidate and in many regards, a better candidate than I would be.