DESCENT OF A WOMAN
"I think I was like a little girl at Christmas," Karan English says.
With the McDowell Mountains behind her and a dozen rapt faces before her, English is sitting in the library of north Scottsdale's Mountainside Middle School, telling the student council about her first year as Arizona's first congresswoman in almost six decades.
Appropriately enough, the student council is composed entirely of girls.
English tells them, on this sunny day in November, about NAFTA. And about her committee assignments, and about how she is nearly moved to tears each time she walks out of her Washington, D.C., apartment and gazes in awe at the Capitol dome. The girls are enchanted. The librarian, the principal--even the district superintendent--look on, all smiles.
The congresswoman wears a slate-blue suit that matches the hue of her eyes, the skirt reaching just below the knee, and a long, double strand of pearls. Flat, black loafers. When she smiles, which is often, deep grooves settle around her mouth. English scarcely looks her 44 years--except, perhaps, for her freckled, wrinkled hands.
English is warming up; she's broached the subject of women in Congress, and this is fertile ground. The number of women elected to serve in the House of Representatives doubled last year, she tells the girls, which was quite a shock to Washington! And it was she, English adds, who was selected by Life magazine as the "typical new woman" in Congress. Life followed her around for six whole weeks, she says. "Boy, was it a pain!" But "there were some really nice parts, too." She clearly is pleased with the results, with the notoriety, and she promises to send the students a copy of the story. As a car carries her away from the middle school, it's mentioned to English that some Washington types are suggesting that she's actually started to believe that story in Life magazine. "Oh, man!" she says, mouth gaping. "Who said that? Oh, man. You know what? It is a different person. The Life magazine and what the press has made out of me is not me. It is a different person. And you know what? I see it as a different person. It's very weird. It's, like, how can anybody believe all that stuff?"
Karan English is one of the U.S. House's most famous freshmen--and one of its most confused.
She basks in the limelight, then complains of sunburn. Blazes trails as an environmentalist, then veers from the path when she sees the yellow brick road to reelection. Speaks poetically of making America a better place for all children, then tells her staff that she took this job--member of Congress--for the salary, so she can send her own kids to college.
She has been portrayed as the quintessential New Woman in Congress, but it looks more every day as if she'll be a one-termer.
@body:For its April 1993 edition, Life snapped shots of English giggling with the president and running a vacuum cleaner in her office. The reporter painted a romantic word picture of English's journey from neighborhood activist to the Coconino County Board of Supervisors to the Arizona State Legislature and, finally, to Congress.
Only passing reference is made to the "tight schedules and arcane rules" of Capitol Hill. Instead, the reader is treated to an update of the congresswoman's marital status and the plaintive line, "It's hard not to feel empathy for her as she takes her place in the nation's capital . . . leaving her loved ones behind."
Life failed to report that, long before its April issue had gone to press, English had alienated herself from Senator Dennis DeConcini, the Arizona Democrats' deal maker on Capitol Hill. Or that she had yet to retire an $88,000 campaign debt. Or that her staff, uncertain how to proceed, wound up decorating empty bookshelves in English's Washington office with legal tomes rummaged from garbage bins.
Shortly after the Life story hit the stands, Karan English would bungle her first floor amendment, fire her first chief of staff and infuriate her constituents with votes she swears came from the heart--but which others view as concessions to the House Democratic leadership and to President Bill Clinton.
News of her disorganized staff and disenchanted voters has been mentioned briefly in the local press, but more space has been devoted to the congresswoman's awestruck musings about Washington, via a periodic "journal" she wrote for the Arizona Republic. Nationally, English has made headlines mainly for nonlegislative matters, such as her quest to use the all-male congressional gym without phoning ahead. In its August 1993 issue, Vogue magazine illustrated a feature, "Women on the Hill," with a full-page photograph of Representative English reclining between votes on a government-issue leather couch, resting tired, pantyhosed feet.
English insists that she hasn't invited the attention of the national media; in fact, her office has been refusing requests, which at one point piled up to 30 per week. Contrary to appearances, she contends that she's gotten plenty of bad ink--more than her share.
Leaving Mountainside Middle School, English climbs into the passenger side of an aide's gray Honda, fastens her seat belt and ponders her first year in office. She thinks she has it figured out. "People are scrutinizing what I'm doing," she says, frustration tinging her normally cheery tone, "and I think it's for a couple of reasons. I think I've been targeted [by the Republicans]--so any opportunity that my opposition . . . will have to blow up or expand on something, they're gonna take. I also think I'm quite high-profile because I am a woman, and so the things I do are going to be looked at very closely." @rule:
@body:It's ironic. The thing that catapulted English to relative fame--her gender--had little at all to do with her victory in 1992. Save for the thousands of dollars that EMILY's List (a pro-choice, Democratic national fund-raising group for women candidates) and other women's organizations poured into her coffers, English didn't capitalize on the media's "Year of the Woman" campaign. She's far better known as an environmentalist than a feminist. Politicos say the outcome of that race was more of a mark against Republican Doug Wead's extremism than an affirmation of the English agenda. A last-minute English endorsement from fellow pro-choicer Barry Goldwater didn't hurt, either.
Wead, a newcomer to Arizona, had pimped everything from George Bush-the-candidate to Amway-the-product, but the evangelical Christian couldn't sell himself to the voters of District 6--even though he outspent English by two-to-one. She won by a hefty 12 percent.
English has never lost an election, though she's had her share of close calls. The first time she ran for the state legislature, officials ordered a recount; English squeaked by with 150-some votes. The 1994 race stands to be her toughest yet. Democrats barely outnumber Republicans in District 6, according to figures released in October. But the lineup of possible GOP challengers--from conservative state House Majority Whip David Schweikert to local sportscaster J.D. Hayworth to former John McCain aide Ramona Ortega Liston--should give English cause for concern. So should her performance in Congress, according to some Washington insiders. Even under the best of circumstances, it's difficult to cover a district as big as the state of Tennessee and about as diverse as any in the country. By supporting the Clinton budget (fellow freshman Representative Sam Coppersmith voted against it) and issues such as mining reform and grazing fees, English may have compounded her headaches.
And observers on Capitol Hill say that the congresswoman lacks focus, that she hasn't seized the few opportunities a freshman gets to make a name for herself among her colleagues. Washington political analyst Charles E. Cook put English on his list of the Top 10 most vulnerable freshmen, commenting, "Karan English came to Washington as somewhat of a media darling, but her star has fallen a bit since she actually got down to work."
He's referring, of course, to that little incident on the House floor.
@body:It's the kind of amendment introduced and passed without fanfare all the time in Congress. It's Congresswoman Karan English's first amendment, a small matter of taking $1.6 million in unspent legislative funds from bygone fiscal years and dumping it in the U.S. Treasury. ". . . I hope this is but one step toward further rescissions of unused funds," she tells the C-SPAN camera, a slight waver to her voice, as she introduces the measure for herself and freshman colleague Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan.
Similar versions of the amendment have been introduced in years past, with success. Who, in these times of trillion-dollar deficits, can argue with the elimination of slush funds? But on this June day, the Republicans are still smarting from President Clinton's budget victory. They're annoyed by what they see as an attempt by the Democratic leadership to spoon-feed two freshmen a prepackaged headline: "English and Stupak Sponsor Deficit-Reducing Measure."
So the Republicans plan an attack. English, all smiles behind the podium, is the unsuspecting quarry.
The hunter: California Republican Bill Thomas, a puffy creature in gray pinstripes. He's been in Congress since 1978. Thomas requests a colloquy; English graciously accepts, with the caveat: "I will attempt, and if I don't have the answers, I will ask for some assistance."
Her first mistake. Thomas harrumphs, then asks a simple question: How did the money in your amendment come to be left over in the first place?
English tries first to refer the question to Representative Vic Fazio, a Democrat from California who chairs the subcommittee on legislative appropriations. Thomas interrupts, yelling at English, "Since your name is on the bill, I would appreciate your telling me what is in your amendment." She defers to co-sponsor Stupak, who stumbles around for a bit, then sits down. Thomas harrumphs some more. English stumbles some more. A quorum call is ordered, and bells ring to signal a vote. The amendment passed by a vote of 415 to 2, and English got some press--but not the kind she might have hoped for.
When asked about the debacle, English tries some spin control, claiming that Thomas stole pages from the original transcript of the Congressional Record and failed to return them on time, thus altering the permanent record. (According to House rules, members have the opportunity to "scrub" the record, cleaning up their grammar without changing the meaning of what they have said. Thomas' press secretary, Bill Pierce, admits that there was a screw-up when his office took the pages that included the English-Thomas exchange. Pierce says one page of the record was inadvertently left in a copy machine in his office. Whether the victim of fate or conspiracy, English's office did not have a chance to review the record before the final version was printed. But that fact is of little consequence, considering English didn't even attempt to answer Thomas' question. A review of the exchange via C-SPAN archives shows no substantive change between the written record and what actually transpired on the House floor.) As for Thomas himself? "Never even met him," English says. "I have been targeted, you know, and that is just the way that it is. . . . You will see things like that happen all the time to discredit me."
The part that irks her the most, she adds--fire rising in those slate-blue eyes--is that "what they were trying to do is show that we were bribed to vote for the budget bill. Let me tell you something. A million dollars taken out of the budget doesn't even come close to the price I paid voting for that budget bill. I mean, it doesn't even come close."
@body:In any event, English made it painfully clear that June day that she didn't understand her own legislation. And while the episode barely registered a blip on the radar screen back in her district, word spread quickly among Hill intelligentsia--staffers who keep their desktop television sets tuned to C-SPAN--that the congresswoman from Arizona was weak.
English is the first to admit she makes mistakes, though she'd rather talk about the time this year when she referred to cows as "steers" on a radio show--in Flagstaff, where we should know better," she says, chuckling. The station replayed the error for three or four days, English adds. "They made a huge deal out of it. That was a pretty funny mistake, I think."
Her candor is endearing, but only to a point. It's not a "funny mistake" when a congresswoman from a district rife with unemployment--18 percent in Tuba City--accidentally votes against the extension of jobless benefits. In mid-October, English was one of just 15 Democrats (Arizonans Sam Coppersmith and Ed Pastor were not among them) to vote against legislation that offered up to 13 weeks of additional payments to people who exhaust the basic six months of jobless benefits.
Acting press secretary Mark Grisham (English fired her press secretary, K.P. Pelleran, in June) calls the vote "an anomaly," explaining that English cast her vote "based on some erroneous information she was given by some other members on the floor as she went over to vote. ". . . I don't know who it was, but someone gave her incorrect information that the jobless benefits are cut off in a state where the unemployment level falls below 5 percent, and they said Arizona was about to do that," he adds. "She didn't know off the top of her head, and so she ended up voting no, and then we kind of sorted it out later and figured out what was going on, and she has voted to extend the benefits several times since then . . . at later steps in the legislative process."
@body:And then there are the votes in which she does know what she's doing. These are the ones that could cost English her job. From NAFTA to mining reform to grazing fees, she has found herself caught between the environmentalists who have always called her their friend and labor-business interests who are wary of her "green" ties.
When the largely conservative population of District 6 rejected Doug Wead, what it got was a representative who has spent much of the last 12 years establishing herself as a single-issue politician. That issue is environmentalism. Now, to keep her job, it seems that English must shed those trappings.
"Karan has had to go out there and try to convince people that she's not a green-eyed monster. That she has the ability to be moderate and be flexible and to forge compromise," says a congressional staffer who requested anonymity. And, yes, the staffer says, "the environmentalists have been getting annoyed." Jane Hale is a fourth-generation Arizona rancher from Miami. She also works as an accountant for a copper company, and serves as president of the Globe-Miami chapter of People for the West, a nonpartisan group dedicated to protecting "multiple use"--most notably mining and grazing--of land.
With her concern for the rights of rural businesspeople and her wariness about environmentalists, Hale is representative of a large hunk of English's constituency.
"We aren't sure she [English] appreciates how much her constituency has changed . . . from what it was when she was an Arizona state legislator. We hope to help her understand that she was elected to represent all the people in the Sixth District, including her rural constituents and not just the interests of the environmental extremists in Flagstaff," Hale says. Not everyone is so diplomatic. "I can't tell you," English says, "how many people call up and threaten me to vote a particular way. And I'm not talking about the White House or my colleagues. I'm talking about constituents. And I get reminded daily. Lot of threats. Lot of threats."
The congressional staffer laughs, saying, "Sometimes, we sit around here and we say, 'Hey, everybody's mad at us. Maybe we're gonna be okay.'" "You know what?" English adds. "I'm here for two years, for sure, and it's my responsibility to do the best I can in those two years. It's not my responsibility to pave my way for the next two years. I believe if I do a good job, I will be reelected." To some, that statement might sound corny--the kind of thing you'd read in Life magazine. But folks from both sides of the aisle say she means it.
"You know she feels the way she feels, and that's the way she votes," says Lisa Graham, a Republican state representative from north Scottsdale. Graham even defends English on the topic of the Thomas debacle. But Graham shakes her head when the conversation turns to English's office operations. "We have a hell of a time working with her staff," Graham mutters under her breath.
Many congressional offices have trouble out of the starting blocks. English has had her share of unavoidable challenges. Because of the size of her district, she opened two offices, in Mesa and in Flagstaff. But when the Mesa office still wasn't open weeks after English had been sworn in, East Valley constituents began to moan that English only cared about Flagstaff voters. Since District 6 was created in 1992, the office didn't inherit computer equipment--an additional burden.
Beyond hardware, observers say English has had trouble focusing on her priorities and leading her staff. English admits that the first few months were rough. She missed her family and had trouble acclimating to Washington. She dismisses the turnover in her D.C. office as "pretty darn normal," but the string of firings (just one of the staff members who has left--a legislative assistant in the D.C. office--did so by choice) illustrates just how rough things have been.
Pelleran--English's first press secretary, who is now executive director of Arizonans for a Healthy Future, a coalition fighting for health-care reform--declined to comment, other than to say that she and English "weren't a good fit." English also fired a caseworker in the Flagstaff office. Late last month, English's legislative director quit after she was told that she was being demoted to legislative assistant.
Most significant was the move to get rid of chief of staff Vicky Hicks, a highly regarded Hill veteran who had spent six years as a senior staff member for Democratic Senator Quentin Burdick of North Dakota. Hicks, who has a reputation as a strong manager, was viewed by many observers as English's guide through the land mines in Congress. After English fired her in late June, Hicks landed a job in the Clinton administration as assistant deputy administrator for commodity operations at the Department of Agriculture. Hicks declined to be interviewed.
Hicks was replaced by Shannon Davis, who had been working in English's Mesa office as an executive assistant. Before that, she had worked for the Pima County Board of Supervisors. Davis and English have known each other for years. Her task, Davis says, is to help English stay focused and to establish a "comfort zone" for her. Some have speculated that Hicks was English's scapegoat after the nightmare on the House floor, but English insists that the two just didn't see eye to eye. English didn't want to work with--or to become--a "Washington insider," she says. Her definition of "Washington insider"?
"I guess there's more of an attitude--you're in with the buzz, and you keep up with the rumors. You always find out what [the party] leadership wants, and you're seen with the right people and you go to all the receptions. . . . It's the old way of doing things. And, frankly, there are a lot of people in Washington who are stuck in the old way of doing things. And I don't want those people on my staff," English says.
Those sound like the words of a renegade. But to survive in Congress--hardly a pliable institution--renegades must be wily legislators. If you're going to buck the status quo, you'd better be good.
@body:The press has labeled English's fellow Arizona freshman classmate, Sam Coppersmith, a maverick because of his anti-Clinton votes. But English is more the maverick, for she has pooh-poohed what is arguably the most powerful machine--certainly the most powerful fund-raising machine--in Arizona Democratic politics: the DeConcini operation.
He may be a lame duck, but DeConcini still has plenty of power in certain circles, and he is not above maiming a few unlucky ducks on his way out. (When he announced his intention to retire, DeConcini blasted his would-be opponent, Arizona Secretary of State Dick Mahoney, and it is an open secret in Arizona political circles that DeConcini faithful are working to undermine a Mahoney Senate candidacy. Mahoney turned on DeConcini, a longtime supporter, by announcing his desire to run for the Senate months before DeConcini indicated that he would not run.)
Unlike Coppersmith and Democratic Representative Ed Pastor, English has not aligned herself with DeConcini. In a duty he inherited from Mo Udall, DeConcini plays Mother Superior to the less experienced Arizona Democrats, offering advice and suggestions on staff hires. Firing Vicky Hicks, a favorite of the DeConcini camp, certainly didn't improve relations.
Both the senator and the congresswoman claim that their offices work well together. (In fact, last month English hired DeConcini staffer Matt Stout as her new press secretary, beginning in January.)
It's on the personal level--the campaign level--that relations have been strained.
And it's easy to see why. English refused to sign a card pledging her support for DeConcini in the 1994 election, in exchange for the senator's fund-raising efforts.
Claire Sargent has made much of her own refusal to sign a pledge--all but blaming DeConcini for her defeat in her 1992 quest to unseat Senator John McCain. But English was mum on the topic til asked.
"Yes," she says, DeConcini asked her to pledge her support in writing. And, no, she says, "I didn't sign." DeConcini acknowledges the request. "She did not sign the pledge," he says. "She told me she'd support me. . . . I supported her, anyway. I gave her money, and I raised her some money." A $1,000 personal contribution, plus whatever other money DeConcini raised for English in 1992, is nowhere near the hundreds of thousands the senator and his crack team of fund raisers are capable of amassing.
"I'd say we had a parting of ways," English says, adding, "I'm real uncomfortable talking about it, because I don't want to badmouth Dennis at all. . . . That [signing a pledge] just isn't my style. There's nothing illegal, there's nothing unethical, but it is the good-old-boy style. And that just isn't my style." Her style, as English has to constantly remind herself, is not what's important. "I was elected to develop policy, and the policy is important. And I can't ever forget that," she says, her face still flushed by the suggestion that she might really believe that Life magazine story. "Unfortunately, that is not the mentality of most people in Washington. You get red-carpet treatment, and everybody starts their sentence out with 'I' or 'Me.' . . . And so it is very difficult to not get caught up in that. And that's one of the reasons why it's so important for me to come home all the time. It's just really important for me to keep touch with reality. And so hard to do it in the Washington arena. So hard to do it.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Critics Try to Shut Down Arizona's Hickman's Eggs Plant with EPA Complaint
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 17, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 24, 6:30pm
Mon., Oct. 26, 2:15pm
- Maricopa County to Investigate Death of Salt River Wild Horse as Animal Cruelty
- Another Major Anti-Islam Rally Planned for Phoenix This Weekend