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On Art Hamilton's first day in the Arizona House of Representatives, as he tells the story, the speaker of the House, Stan Akers, looked straight at him, leaned to his microphone, and started whistling "Dixie" over the House sound system.
Hamilton was watching from the gallery, not from the floor. He was elected to office in November 1972, but when the session began in January 1973, he was nine days too young to serve, nine days short of the required 25 years, and so his seat was declared vacant by the House credential committee. On his 25th birthday, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors appointed him to fill his own vacancy. He has been there since.
In Eastern or Midwestern cities, people would have taken to the streets in outrage over the affront, given the blatantly ethnic makeup of politics there.
In an Eastern or a Midwestern state, Art Hamilton might have been governor by now or congressman, given his intelligence and eloquence, his innate understanding of which buttons to push and which egos to stroke, his knowledge of issues and process, his map to where the bodies are buried, and his inordinate talent for maintaining churchly good manners throughout.
He likes to quote poetry--Rudyard Kipling--and Scripture, and sometimes it's hard to tell when he's reciting and when he's ad-libbing.
"On the days I have my best triumphs, I see my clay feet," he says. "On the days my clay feet are just kind of bulging out there, I see some majesty in what I am allowed to do for a living. I become philosophical."
In another state, Art Hamilton might have been expected to be an African-American advocate, first and foremost. Even here, early in his political career, he was accused of not being black enough.
"I am incredibly cognizant of my own ethnicity, of the need to push the program forward, raise the banner," he says. "But I'm also--I hope--smart enough to know where I live and how you get things done."
Oh yes, he's smart enough.
He emerged immediately as a leader in the House of Representatives and after eight years was elected minority leader, a post he still holds. He is nationally known as a past president of the National Conference of State Legislators.
He memorized the House rules of order and is notorious for being able to stop a bill dead in its tracks on procedural grounds.
"He is as conversant on deregulation of electricity and groundwater law and the funding formula for education as he is on inner-city or African-American issues," says former state senator Alfredo Gutierrez, who began his political career the same year as Hamilton. "He long ago transcended anyone's opinion of him.
"If you go back to the end of every session since 1986, you will find a Legislature that has come to a complete halt, in which neither side will speak to each other. They can't get the budget resolved, they can't get the university funded. And you'll find that it's Art Hamilton who brings the body together," Gutierrez says.
He stepped forward in the impeachment of Evan Mecham, in the fight for Martin Luther King Day. And he was a target in 1991's AzScam sting operation in which the Phoenix Police Department and Maricopa County Attorney's Office dangled money in front of legislators to see who could be bought. Hamilton did not take the bait. And last spring, in the heat and passion of the school finance debate, the temper that he usually keeps locked up in old-fashioned manners burst loose and he shoved a House aide. When Hamilton was dragged before an ethics hearing, his accusers came off looking like fools, and even conservative Republican news columnists admitted that he was a model of "dignity, eloquence and, most relevant, consistent respect for the rules and traditions of the institution."
He is both loved and feared for his quick tongue. He can be a verbal Cuisinart that without ever resorting to profanity can slice and dice and, says his House ally and close friend Robert McLendon, "carve whoever is questioning him into tiny pieces and leave them in a pile on the floor of the House."
Even those on the other side of the aisle respect his good humor.
Chuck Coughlin, a former Symington aide who is now a lobbyist, recalls approaching Hamilton for Democratic votes in favor of the Rio Salado football stadium. Hamilton replied that he had not yet heard any Democrats express any interest in the project, and Coughlin offered to change that situation. He had Eddie Basha call Hamilton.
The next day, as Coughlin watched from the House gallery, Hamilton rose to speak during discussion of the issue and turned toward Coughlin.
"I promised Chuck Coughlin that I would support this bill if I got a call from a Democrat, and I made that promise knowing that Chuck doesn't know any Democrats," he said. "Lo and behold, I got a call from Eddie Basha today, so I encourage everybody in the Democratic caucus to support this bill just to support the fact that Chuck knows a Democrat."
Hamilton's inability to return phone calls is legendary. He suffers from diabetes, and his son worries that he doesn't watch his health as diligently as he should. He has wrestled with his personal life: He has married and divorced five times, and neither he nor his family can or will say why.