Big Red is MIA.
We last glimpsed our superheroine--Governor Jane Dee Hull's tough-talking, get-the-job-done alter ego--in early January, when she gave her State of the State address. Dressed in her favorite color, with every fiery strand of hair sprayed into submission, Big Red vowed to fight for public education, at-risk families, underpaid state workers, the mentally ill and the preservation of a hunk of pristine Sonoran Desert near Cave Creek called Spur Cross Ranch. And she had the budget proposal to prove it.
At last, I thought, Arizona has a governor with both compassion and conviction, a leader who would use her power to make our state a better place. I felt myself humming "The Star-Spangled Banner." I got the urge to bake an apple pie.
But before I could get to the produce aisle, Arizona politics got ugly again. Hull's Republican colleagues in the Legislature--the mouth-breathers perched on the farthest edge of the right wing, the ones who make Newt Gingrich look like a liberal and Forrest Gump look like a brain surgeon--started calling our governor the dirtiest name they could think of:
Zap! Boom! Pow! More potent than kryptonite, more dangerous than thong underwear, that one word seemingly incapacitated our heroine. Big Red hasn't been heard from since.
Which begs the question: Does Jane Hull believe in her agenda, or was her State of the State just a feel-good mantra concocted by her staff to keep the governor's public opinion ratings high?
If Hull does believe in her agenda, and the budget that would bolster it, she'd better start acting like it. Now. The progressive speech infuriated the right, but the left is mad at her, too, because Hull's not backing up her rhetoric. She's not stumping for her programs.
It's reminiscent of what happened last year, when Hull panicked and punted KidsCare. That scenario: Hull proposes a wonderful plan. The mouth-breathers hate it. They scare her by threatening to run Matt Salmon against her for governor. In the end, she supports a watered-down version of what originally was a visionary program that could have been passed. Nobody is happy.
To avoid a repeat, Big Red needs to head down to the Legislature and gather a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats who support her programs. To hell with the mouth-breathers. Where's the Sue Nation, the famed coalition of moderate Republicans led by Representative Sue Gerard, that teamed up with Dems to squash vouchers and other wing-nut proposals in the early Nineties?
There is no real coalition-building going on. Right now all we have is what I'll delicately call the Poo Nation, a group of House members led by Representative Karen Johnson, who talk about "gay bowel disease" and other hateful nonsense. Others at the Capitol call them the Grape Kool-Aid Club.
Without strong leadership from the Ninth Floor, Karen Johnson & Co. will continue to waste time while Jane Hull's budget, and her desired programs, are ignored.
This year, it's twice as important. For the first time in the state's history, the Arizona Legislature has switched to a two-year budget process, rather than a single-year plan. This doubles the ante; if Hull screws up this year, we're screwed for the next two.
And time's a-wastin'.
"From the State of the State to the time we put the budget on her desk, it's two months," says Democratic Senator Chris Cummiskey. "And to my knowledge, she's squandered the first half by not having a strong engagement campaign down here."
Cummiskey and his colleagues from both sides of the aisle are asking, "Where's Jane?"
"I hear this from everyone, it's not just from our perspective," says Sandy Bahr, lobbyist for the Sierra Club. "Where is the governor, why isn't she asserting herself? She knows this process, she knows the Legislature, so why is she not injecting herself into it? Frankly, I think it would be helpful if she herself showed up to a few things, like maybe a budget hearing or something."
Bob Scott, reporter for KTAR radio and the dean of the Capitol press corps, recently asked a lobbyist, "Who's in charge of this state, anyhow?"
I am! Hull insists, from her ninth-floor office.
"Just say we're up here," she says, when told that legislative players are asking for her. "We're very aware. My people are down there, I think continually, because they're certainly not here."
Hull says she told the Republican leadership she won't get involved in the budget battle until the House and Senate agree upon a budget proposal. She has no intention of coalition-building. "I think that would be a very bad position for me to put the Republican leadership into. . . . I've been down there, and I don't think that's appropriate. I would like to work with--and they all know it--60 legislators in the House and 30 senators. And as I say, we're just not there yet," she says.
You can do it, Big Red. You've got the power. Just like Wonder Woman, you've got a beltful of tools at your disposal. If Lynda Carter can move mountains, you can use your lobbying skills, your lofty public approval ratings and your veto to get House Speaker Jeff Groscost, Senate President Brenda Burns and the rest of the mouth-breathers to submit to your wishes.
It's now or never. Bow to their pressure, and you're Granny Hull--Big Red's caretaking, cookie-baking mortal self--for the next four years.
"This is the session where we're going to determine what kind of mettle this governor really has," says one veteran legislator. "This is her litmus test."
Along with coalition-building, Big Red needs to do three things to get her job done. She needs to beef up the schmooze factor on her staff. She needs to take her agenda on the road. And she needs to consider the power of the veto.
First: The staff.
Most of the legislative players I spoke with complained that they haven't seen any Hull staff presence at the Legislature. When Hullites do show up at committee hearings, they're invariably cowed. The legislators, smelling blood, are teasing their prey.
Last month, House Appropriations chairman Bob Burns actually refused to let a Hull staffer testify before his committee on the governor's pet issue, revenue bonding for school funding. Senate Appropriations chairman Russell Gnant has been tough on Hull staffers in committee, too, cutting them off repeatedly during hearings.
Big Red wouldn't take that crap. Granny Hull is.
The problem, observers say, is in the personalities. Deputy chief of staff Ted Ferris gets high points for his knowledge of the issues and process, but that's not what it takes to get the job done. Many legislative players say they actually wish the governor would hire Barry Aarons, the Symington lobbyist who twisted arms and actually kept a bullwhip and handcuffs on display in his office; they say Aarons was better than Ferris & Co. at getting his boss's agenda through.
"The effort that they're putting forth is not enough," says the veteran legislator. "And it's a problem of not having a good chemistry. Barry Aarons, for all of his problems, did have a good chemistry mix with the Republicans he had to lobby.
"Ted Ferris is the consummate rational man, which would work a helluva lot better in a research laboratory."
Hull needs someone who's more "member friendly," says Cummiskey, someone like George Weisz, her criminal justice adviser, who once served in the Legislature and can work the crowds.
"Kind of what Clinton did with Dale Bumpers in the U.S. Senate," Cummiskey says. "Somebody that can speak the language, knows the personalities, has kind of got that folksy thing going, can cajole."
Another option: Go tough, à la Symington henchmen Jay Heiler, Chuck Coughlin, Wes Gullett--and Aarons. Hull may have already thought of that; Scott Celley, former press secretary to U.S. Senator John McCain, is working for Hull as a county and federal relations lobbyist. He's been spotted at the Legislature recently, though, and with his reputation as a head-knocker, could be just what Hull needs.
Hull has yet to wield her public-approval-powered stun gun. A poll conducted last month by the Behavior Research Center put Hull's "excellent" and "good" ratings at 65 percent. Compare that to the Legislature's ratings in the same category: almost half that, at 37 percent (though that's the highest the Legislature has been rated this decade).
Word has it that Hull is making the rounds to the business community, asking for support. But that's not enough.
It's time for Big Red to don her cape and hit the road, to take her initiatives to the people. She should carp about legislators giving her a hard time, balking at funding for education and health care, trying to starve the universities and bulldoze Spur Cross Ranch. She should tell them to call their legislators.
And finally, there's the veto: the legislative weapon of mass destruction. If the Legislature's self-imposed budget deadline of March 16 rolls around, and Big Red's still in hiding, she can still pull out her veto pen and write off the Legislature's budget, sending lawmakers back to their desks with the thought of a 100-day session out the window. But Hull has to be careful with the veto, or even a threat of a veto. If she uses it, it could come back at her.
Take the example of former governor Rose Mofford. Mofford didn't like the budget the Legislature sent her during her first year in office, in 1989. But instead of line-iteming parts she didn't like, she took the bold approach (a rare move for Rosie) and vetoed the whole thing.
The legislators were so peeved, they held the budget until June 28, two days before the start of the next fiscal year, then sent the exact same budget back to Mofford. She had no choice but to sign it, or risk being the woman who shut down Arizona government.
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Jane Hull remembers that scenario all too well. She was Speaker of the House at the time.
But Rose Mofford was no Jane Hull, and Jane Hull--that is, Big Red--is capable of passing initiatives for Arizonans and making wayward legislators behave, all in a single bound and without mussing that 'do.
She just needs to get to it.