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?

A fourth-generation Arizonan, Bowers, 44, speaks reverently of his father, Wesley Raymond Bowers, a "tremendously gifted" athlete who played football with Jackie Robinson at Pasadena Junior College before attending Brigham Young University on an athletic scholarship.

Bowers has the college yearbook in which Robinson penned a note to his father.

After serving in World War II, Wesley Bowers returned to Mesa and married Nathele King. When Rusty, the fourth of seven children, was 2, Wesley took his family to live in the Chino Valley near Prescott, where he raised sheep.

Four years later, the family returned to the Valley, where the elder Bowers took a job as a high school football coach in Scottsdale.

Athleticism ran in the family. Rusty's older brother Dan won a football scholarship to Brigham Young University, and went on to play several years in the National Football League.

At Mesa High School, Rusty also excelled at sports. In football, he played both offensive and defensive end until blowing out his knee during his sophomore year. After that, he stuck to basketball, which he played throughout high school. Still trim and light on his feet, Bowers looks like he could hold his own in a pickup game.

But Bowers wasn't the typical jock.
He had a knack for drawing, and for singing. He attributes his artistic traits to his mother, a talented singer who also encouraged him to draw as "a way to stay busy and stay out of trouble." He sang in Mesa High's a cappella choir, which was pronounced the best choir in the state during his junior year.

"Probably some kind of a fluke," Bowers says.
Bowers also had an early interest in government, which he attributes to his father, a Democrat who turned Republican after World War II.

"He was always talking about politics, always reading the paper, always asking questions," Bowers says.

Bowers' grandmother, Lottie Crandell, was a stalwart supporter of Arizona's first governor, George W.P. Hunt; she sang at one of Hunt's numerous inaugurals.

"We were an old family, but never a moving and shaking kind of family," Bowers says.

In the seventh grade, Bowers was elected president of Scottsdale's Navajo School, but he transferred to Mesa and was never able to serve his term.

In high school, he lost the race for class president his junior year. Bowers also attended Boy's State, a leadership conference for high schoolers, where he ran for president. He lost by nine votes.

"That was a bummer," he reflects, "but a good experience, in its own way."
After graduating from high school, Bowers headed to BYU on a fine-arts scholarship, making the university basketball team as a walk-on.

"The coach said, 'Bowers, you made the team, but you'll probably never play much,'" he remembers.

After just one semester at BYU, Bowers returned home to be with his high school sweetheart, Donetta Russell, whom he married four years later.

It was around this time that Bowers began making occasional sojourns to Mexico (he speaks fluent Spanish), where he served his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Bowers says he's made about 60 trips since then south of the state of Chihuahua to visit the Tarahumara Indians, frequent subjects of his paintings.

Bowers attended Mesa Community College on a music scholarship and worked construction for a while before returning to BYU in 1978, which he attended off and on until graduating in 1982 with a bachelor's degree in fine arts.

He returned to the Valley and began construction on the house where he still lives. It's an idyllic place, set in the shadow of the low bluffs of nearby Usery Mountain Park. Neighbors--what few there are--can barely be seen, let alone heard.

In 1990, that solitude was threatened when Maricopa County agreed to lease nearly 400 nearby acres to a rod-and-gun club, which hoped to expand by adding 16 trap-and-skeet ranges.

Bowers was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. The suit, which sought to stop the construction, claimed that the ranges, which could have accommodated eight shooters each, would have transformed the quiet patch of desert into Beirut.

"They [the county] never checked with us, they never held public hearings . . . the level of arrogance was extraordinary. It was like, 'We're the government. We don't have to check with you,'" Bowers remembers, "and it made me mad."

Bowers, who says he has gone shooting at the range himself, also caught grief from the club's proprietors and clients, who branded him an antigunner.

"I said, 'Look, I've probably got more guns than all you guys. But this isn't about guns. There are other amendments besides the Second Amendment. This is about justice.'"

After a two-month legal showdown, the county backed off, but not until much of the land had been bladed under--a fact that Bowers still laments.

Bowers describes the battle over the shooting range as the opening salvo in his public life. Two years later, when longtime District 21 representative Stan Barnes stepped down, Bowers ran for the seat, beating five other contenders.

Bowers' political ascent has been swift. At the beginning of his second term in 1994, Bowers was named chairman of the House Environment Committee. In 1996, he sought and won his district's Senate seat.

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