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?

Bowers later dropped the legislation, which specifically named ALSCO, saying he only wanted to draw attention to a gross abuse of power by state regulators.

When asked what possible benefit such measures could have for the people of Arizona, Bowers summons up the image of the mythical Everyman caught in a regulatory juggernaut.

"I trust people," he says. "I believe most people want to do the right thing. But we can't continue to try to motivate people by fear."

Honan, the Sierra Club lobbyist, disagrees.
"Rusty's really big on incentives," she says. "What he doesn't understand is you need the hammer, too."

Sandy Bahr, a lobbyist for the Audubon Society, says she sees a "disconnect" between what Bowers does in his life outside the Legislature and his life inside it.

"One example: Look at his position on public lands," she says. "Rusty has said over and over again that too much land is publicly held. But some of his favorite places in the world are on public land."

Bowers, an avid outdoorsman who has hiked extensively and led numerous Boy Scout expeditions through the Sierra Anchas near Roosevelt Lake, says his position on public lands is entirely consistent with his love of the outdoors.

"I don't see any conflict at all," he says. "Eighty-seven percent of the land in this state is owned by some government. And look at who Robin Silver [a Phoenix environmentalist] sues: He sues the feds over the way they manage lands. Well, I trust people. I think most of the people who own private land are the best stewards we have."

Jeff Bouma says Bowers' views remain consistent with those of People for the West!, an often rabidly conservative organization which advocates the "wise use" of public lands, and in which Bowers once was active.

"He'll find one or two people who've been raped by the kangaroo rat, and base all of his decisions on that," Bouma says. "If that means big industry gets away with polluting, well, that's just too bad."

Still, there have been occasions in which Bowers has gone against his own caucus--indeed, against the entire Legislature.

While in the House, he cast the sole dissenting vote against a bill that would have required police to notify neighbors and schools when a convicted sex offender moved into the area, and which would have allowed the state to commit such offenders to mental institutions after serving their prison sentences.

Bowers says he based his opposition on the experiences of a friend convicted of child molestation--a friend whom he was convinced was innocent.

"It ruined his life," Bowers remembers. "The guy was going through a messy divorce, the kid was a year and a half old, and his attorney was saying, 'Look, you've gotta take the plea--there's no way you're gonna win.' Think about that. This is his public defender--the guy who's supposed to be protecting him!

"Well, the case went to trial, and they put his wife on the stand, and he wound up getting 15 years."

Bowers says he sees himself as an independent, and a consensus builder, and says he "doesn't care" if he's misunderstood by his detractors.

Neither Bahr nor Honan sees Bowers as a consensus builder.
"I really believe that he [Bowers] likes to mess with people," Bahr says. "I saw the way he used to run Environment [committee]. He'd always be doing things to keep people off-balance, like introduce an amendment at the last minute that no one knew about or had agreed upon."

She says that Bowers' complaints about Maricopa County's "arrogance" are breathtaking, considering his habit of postponing hearings over contentious issues until people whose testimony he wouldn't welcome had gone home for the day.

As for the few instances where he and environmentalists have found common ground, Honan says:

"You can tell it makes him antsy when he does something that we agree with him on," Honan says. "But that's a problem we have with the entire Legislature--not just him."

For his part, Bowers seems as mystified by his critics as they are of him.
"Most of the time, I have no idea what she [Honan] is talking about," Bowers says. "But if that's what she wants to say, fine."

The Capitol and its intrigues seem far away as Bowers works the clay one recent evening. He's toiling on his latest commission: a life-size sculpture of developer Cecil Robson's two young daughters, which will be cast in bronze.

Bowers' studio, which stands behind his house, is as much a work in progress as the sculpture. It has a roof, but not much else at this point. Someday, Bowers says, he plans to finish off the space and to stucco the exterior of the concrete block walls.

But on this evening, with the temperature still hovering in the mid-80s, it's a refuge.

As the sun slips toward the horizon, Bowers works in the center of the room, where the light from skylights is best. Light rock drifts from a small radio in the back of the space. All around him are the tools of his trade: brushes, an unfinished canvas (another commission), clay.

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