Steve Voeller, a political consultant with the Summit Consulting Group, has bounced back and forth between Washington, D.C. and Arizona for over two decades. Name a prominent Arizona congressman, and Voeller’s probably worked for him. After his most high-profile client, U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, announced he won’t seek re-election in 2018, Voeller reflected on his time with Flake and his own experiences from working in the nation’s capital.
You’ve bounced around between D.C. and Arizona quite a bit. How did that get started?
I started in Arizona, with Jon Kyl in Arizona, did the campaign — he was a congressman at the time, he ran for Senate. He won in ’94, Matt Salmon won, John Shadegg, J.D. Hayworth, like the Republicans took over the House and the Senate. And I went to work in D.C. for my first real time in D.C. for Matt Salmon, freshman congressman at the time. Lived there for about a year and a few months when he asked if I wanted to come back to Arizona, work in the local office and run his re-election. So I did Salmon for six years total, most of it in Arizona, and then Flake in 2000.
Why’d you decide to come back?
I’m a native Arizonan. Grew up here. My wife is from Arizona. We went to high school together, went to ASU. When Flake won in 2000 and asked me to be his chief of staff, I agreed as long as I could be based here and commute. So in the House, I commuted maybe a week, every three — go to D.C. for that week, and then work out of the local (Arizona) office for a couple weeks, two or three weeks, then go back. In the Senate, I was a full-fledged commuter, Monday through Friday.
What keeps pulling you back to Arizona after these opportunities in Washington?
Great place to work (Washingon), just not the place I wanted to raise my family. I have three kids, and just wasn’t that interested in that kind of lifestyle. I enjoy the work a lot. It’s the greatest job I probably will ever have, being a chief of staff in both the House and the Senate. It’s just not the lifestyle I wanted. So I really had the best of both worlds: remain in Arizona, be an Arizonan, be home on the weekends in Arizona, coach Little League, coach flag football, but still then go to work and work. It was really the best of both worlds.
What made the work in D.C. so rewarding for you?
If you like politics and you like public policy, it’s the place to work. Anyone who gets a chance to do it if they’re interested should do it. I started off on a campaign, but I gradually became more and more interested in the policy side of it. I started the (Arizona) Free Enterprise Club, which is almost largely, almost entirely policy driven. And being able to work, the quality of people who I worked for — Kyl, Salmon, Flake — and to be in that element in the nation’s capital, was really just a rewarding experience.
What was your first reaction when Flake announced he won’t run again in 2018?
It’s tough. If there’s anybody who deserves to be in the Senate, in my view, it’s a guy like Jeff Flake, who I believe is there for the right reasons. Very thoughtful, very policy oriented, ran for the right reasons, served for the right reasons. But I also am part of his life not just as a friend, but as a political adviser. The decision at the very end of course was very difficult for him and sad for a lot of us, but it also was — you could see sort of this, not the fact that he might say he’s not going to do it, but you could see the challenges coming for a while. Of course, it’s like anything else. At the moment it happens, it’s tough.
Flake’s talked a lot about how much he loves the work, but hates the way conversations in D.C. are happening. Can you elaborate on that?
Nothing I have is more insightful than what he’s written about and spoken about very loudly and forcefully. Jeff is a policy-first member. For example, he didn’t agree with President Obama on much policy-wise. But I think what really started to tip the scales with respect to the president was that no one was saying anything about kind of the behavior that really ruffled Jeff’s feathers the wrong way, and that somebody needed to stand up and say something. Somebody needed to not be afraid politically to stand up and say something. Because he’s not just the leader of the country he’s the leader of the party, too. And Senator Flake felt that it really reflected poorly on the party. And if no one’s going to say anything, it also reflected poorly on the folks who were in a position to say something about it.
Is that something that’s unique to the past few years?
I think I saw it a lot during my time. Everyone talks about negative campaigning and all the mud-slinging and whatever — that’s been going on forever, and everyone’s used to that and it’s kind of baked in the cake. It’s just part of the deal. But it’s certainly been heightened during the last presidential campaign. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like it: the nominee of one of the two major parties in that mode almost all the time. Jeff talked about, we all talked about a pivot that was coming, a pivot towards something that’s more normal presidential discourse, and it hadn’t happened yet. So that’s I think the most striking thing to not just me, but to anyone who’s been involved in politics for a while.
Have you seen a similar change in dialogue happening in Arizona?
No. There’s lawmakers here and there who are more comfortable with colorful discourse than others, but that’s been going on for a long time as well. I think a lot of the behavior that we all know exists usually happens behind closed doors. You hear about people who might talk like a sailor or whatever, but it’s usually not so public. This is almost every day, whether it’s Twitter or a press conference, so I think it’s just more public than it used to be.
What’s next now that you don’t have a U.S. Senate race to work on?
Still affiliated with Flake, and we’ve talked about — you know, he’s still going to be a senator for the next 14 months, and what does he want to do after that, we’ll be a part of that one way or another. The firm at Summitt, we have clients, everything from lobbying clients so you’ll see us at the Capitol, to campaigns we may be involved in, to candidate campaigns and issue campaigns, and just general government affairs work.