Master of the House

Jeff Groscost as "brilliant" tactician, schoolyard bully

There's a rumor going around that Jeff Groscost is brilliant.
Yes, that Jeff Groscost--Speaker of the House of Representatives, King of the Mouth Breathers. The guy who was once stripped of his leadership role because he couldn't be bothered to file his campaign-finance reports on time, the one who wanted to put a $500 bounty on the head of the endangered Mexican wolf.

Brilliant.
For months now, I've been hearing the word--from lobbyists, legislative staff, members, former members, pundits. From Republicans and Democrats, from Groscost's best friends and worst enemies. The speaker, they say, is a master of the rules, a political strategist extraordinaire--he brokered electric deregulation, finessed Students First, passed reforms of the long-term health care system. They say he's the best vote-counter, the best arm-twister, the best manipulator of the process to walk the halls of the Arizona Legislature since Burton Barr.

And these superlatives aren't simply the gushings of brown-nosers sucking up to the guy in charge. You don't hear such accolades about Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza or Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio or Groscost's Senate counterpart, Brenda Burns. Only about Groscost.

But does the title of Consummate Deal Maker make one eligible for Mensa?
Phoenix Republican Representative Sue Gerard--the matriarch of the moderates, an unlikely Groscost ally but an ally nonetheless, a pro-choicer who teamed up with the pro-life speaker this week to pass an abortion-clinic regulation bill out of committee--sums it up best.

"All things are relative," she says with a harrumph.
In other words, consider Groscost in context with the current crop of IQ chart toppers in residence at the Capitol.

"You know," Gerard says, "it's like when people tell me how wonderful I am. I tell them I'm swimming in a very shallow pool."

Curious, I set out, looking for examples of Jeff Groscost's relative brilliance. In the end, I've found that, yeah, he's smart, but perhaps a more fitting title for the speaker is Mr. Smarty Pants.

Invariably, when you hear Groscost, a Republican, described as brilliant, it is closely followed by the term "bully." And although Jeff Groscost is certainly a grown-up--pushing 40, with a wife and four kids--he's consistently ascribed with little-boy tendencies.

"I've always described him as little Dennis the Menace," says Representative Kathi Foster, a Glendale Democrat. "You love him to death, but you want to put him in Time Out all the time. I think he's brilliant and I think he's the master of the game and, frankly, I think he would play the game until eternity and would never care if he finished."

And that from a woman Groscost has, by her own admission, reduced to tears, hives and vomiting, during last year's Students First school-finance battle.

So how does Mr. Smarty Pants do it? Groscost has hired savvy staffers, something his predecessor, Don Aldridge, didn't do. On their off time, with campaign funds, Groscost's staff maintains the speaker's own personal Web site--often a better place to catch up on legislative goings-on than the state-sponsored site. (Groscost posted committee assignments there before the state got them online.) He traversed the state last year, working to get Republicans elected to the House--and got his two-thirds majority of 40. Groscost is generous with the carrots; almost every returning GOP House member got a committee chairmanship, increasing the number of committees and giving Groscost more opportunity to kill bills by assigning them to four or five committees. It's difficult to shepherd a bill through two committees. Four? Five? Forget it.

Jeff Groscost is an odd hybrid, a conservative who readily admits he likes to make deals. Tenacious yet charming. Well-versed in the rules, but not afraid to break them when it suits his purposes. And above all, willing to bargain away whatever it takes to get his way.

"Our joke down here is Casino Jeff is always open, twenty-four, seven. Walk in. If you're willing to put your vote or your influence or whatever you've got on the table, you can play," says one longtime player. "Whadda you got? Whadda you got? Let's make a deal."

Kathi Foster learned that lesson firsthand during the drafting of Students First. When Groscost asked her what she wanted in exchange for her vote, she requested the chair of the Education Committee--unbelievable huevos, for a Democrat.

"He didn't even skip a beat. He went, 'Okay,'" Foster recalls. "And of course I'm thinking in the back of my mind, 'Yeah, and later on, when I'm chair of the Education Committee for 15 seconds, he'll say, "Well, I didn't say for how long."'"

Groscost didn't have to deliver at all. Foster voted for the original bill but refused to support it when it came back from the Senate with changes. No chairmanship, Groscost said as he stripped the bill of other perks Foster had won.

But that wasn't the end of the Groscost-Foster alliance. "I can ask for anything and get it, right now," she says. Groscost handed Foster a plum assignment to a national education commission last year, and this year agreed to let her create a bipartisan women's caucus in the Arizona Legislature. Only for you, Foster says the speaker told her.

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