What's Wrong With This Picture?

State Senator Russell Bowers is best known for his archconservatism, his assault on environmental regulations and . . . his fine art?

Let's say you're an environmentalist--and not just the kind tooling around in some gas guzzler with one of those cute license plates. You're the real thing. Maybe you've chained yourself to an old-growth tree, or plopped down before a bulldozer.

One morning, you scan your newspaper to see what Arizona's antienvironment Legislature is up to. It could be a story about relaxing penalties for big industrial polluters. Or about legislators shaking their fists at federal clean-air mandates.

You snap. You squint at the photo of a particularly offensive lawmaker, studying his face. You hatch a plan to confront this man, whose very name has become anathema to you: Russell "Rusty" Bowers. State senator. District 21. Exploiter of the West.

You lay in wait, and when Bowers leaves the Capitol parking lot in his dinged-up Toyota Camry, you follow him--all the way to the outskirts of Apache Junction. You watch the Toyota disappear behind desert scrub as it travels up a long dirt driveway leading to a five-acre lot.

You park your car, steeling yourself for what is to come. You conjure up an image of the Bowers homestead--a Superfund site surrounded by a moat of sludge; a trophy room adorned with stuffed spotted owls and Mexican gray wolves; a wasteland of toppled saguaros pocked by repeated shotgun blasts.

What you find is a salmon-colored Southwestern home set amid largely undisturbed desert.

A pleasant-looking middle-aged woman with blond hair answers the door. You ask for Rusty.

"He's out back," she says, then leads you around the side of the house. Along the way, you pass a little redheaded boy bouncing happily on a trampoline. He waves. You wave back. The woman points you toward a building constructed of unfinished gray concrete blocks.

"He's working . . . in there," she says.
You thank her and edge toward the building. What kind of work could he possibly be doing in there? Nothing good, that's for sure. Probably has his own Freon distillery.

Or worse.
Nothing you have ever read or heard about Bowers could possibly prepare you for what you are about to see. You've caught him in the act.

Sculpting.

In Arizona, it's hard to imagine a more paradoxical figure than Rusty Bowers, who during five years in the Legislature has become one of the state's most powerful lawmakers.

Bowers is a proud conservative known for his stubbornness on environmental and family issues. On environmental issues, especially, he is the darling of industry.

He is also known for his charisma and self-deprecating wit. But he has a reputation, at least among those with whom he disagrees, for running his committees with far less decorum.

His career as a sculptor and painter provides for him, his wife and their seven children. Bowers speaks of his work passionately and at length, and he's clearly a proficient artist--his sculpture is realist, his paintings tend toward impressionism. (Of late, many of his commissions have come from individuals and institutions who have ample reason to curry favor with someone like Bowers. See accompanying story.)

Bowers, a devout Mormon, says his religion is the "filter" through which he processes all issues that come before him, especially family issues.

He's not the first Arizonan with a creative bent to make his way into state government. In 1990, Arizonans elected Democrat Richard Mahoney, a published poet, as secretary of state.

Mahoney met Bowers, then a newly elected state representative, for the first time in 1992. The two hit it off. A few days later, Mahoney got a call.

"It was Rusty, and he asked me if I'd be interested in reading some of his short stories, and I was surprised, you know, 'cause that's not the usual kind of currency people trade in around here," Mahoney remembers. "So I said, 'Sure,' and I read them. And they were quite good."

Mahoney calls Bowers "a free spirit," a man "who really doesn't march to anyone's tune at all."

There are others who will swear that Bowers hears a tune, and it's played by big business and extractive industries.

Raena Honan, a Sierra Club lobbyist who has sparred with Bowers on many environmental issues, is one such person.

"He's such a conflicted character," she says. "Sure, he's warm and funny, he's artistic, but then he can be this annoying ideologue . . . he's like a renaissance man, but from the dark side."

Rusty Bowers' sensibilities and his politics truly are strange bedfellows. His gifts as a sculptor and painter and musician and athlete and bilingual missionary do not seem to comport with his politics.

Longtime detractors are often baffled by Bowers once they get to know him personally. How can a guy this sensitive and, seemingly, enlightened be such a brutal reactionary?

Bowers, who is keenly competitive, surely revels in his mystique, although he betrays no evidence of caring a whit.

"So I'm misunderstood," he says. "I can live with that."
Rusty Bowers makes an immediate impression, starting with his handshake.
Most lawmakers' hands suffer little more than the occasional paper cut. Bowers' have been toughened by years of work.

He's six-foot-three, and possesses the kind of rawboned face that would look right at home in a Grant Wood painting. His voice seldom rises above a mellow rumble.

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