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Big Red's Back

The official word is that Governor Jane Dee Hull was hospitalized for a week in March with a kidney infection, but I think I've learned the truth.

The doctors were really implanting a backbone.
How else to explain the governor's personality change? She went into the hospital as Granny Hull, the meek little old lady who's gingerly led our state for 18 months, and emerged (theme music, please) as her alter ego, Big Red--putting lawmakers in their places with a single press release, able to wield her veto pen like a sword.

After months of waiting and hoping and yawning, it was refreshing to see her restored. But the pesky question remains: Are Big Red's newfound powers too little, too late?

Consider: Just days after her release from the hospital, Hull showed up unannounced at the monthly luncheon meeting of the County Supervisors Association. County supervisors and staff from all over the state were eating lasagna when Hull staffers Francie Noyes and Scott Celley, along with the governor's security detail, appeared in the doorway. The gathering was told that Governor Hull had something to say.

The topic was the lawsuit the counties have filed against the state, looking for what they say is their rightful share of the tens of millions of dollars that will soon come to Arizona, thanks to the multistate tobacco litigation settlement.

"She comes flying in. It was awesome," recalls one observer who talked on condition of anonymity. "She launches, right off the bat--'I want to talk to you about tobacco, and I don't want to mince words.'

"She wasn't yelling, but she was very firm. She had the authoritative tone in her voice. This was not going to be a question-and-answer session. This was definitely a lecture. They all sat there quietly, respectfully. . . . At the end, she just said, 'My old friend Burton Barr once told me, "You don't get mad, you get even."' And she sort of pointed her finger, and then she swept out of the room. It was fabulous.

"It was the full exercise of the weight and power and ceremony of her office. She did the whole thing; it was totally orchestrated. She was completely aware of who she was, the power she wields, the respect people have in general."

This observer obviously is a big fan of Big Red. While he travels in county government circles, he says he's noticed that Hull's powers have increased at the Capitol, too.

"The old girl's got her groove back. They're afraid of her now," he says of legislators. "They pissed and moaned about her a lot, if you'll remember. Nobody says shit now."

He pauses. "Of course," he concludes, regarding his own turf and the tobacco lawsuit, "we're still suing."

Hull and her staff did indeed talk tough in the final weeks of the legislative session. Big Red's back, no question about that--but to what end?

To be fair, some good did come out of this legislative session, and a share of the credit should go to Hull and her staff. There's the much-heralded extra $20 million in the budget for education; Hull helped lead the charge for that.

When legislators whined that they couldn't put a stadium deal together, Hull laid down the law and said she'd veto any bill that excluded any of the interested parties. Lawmakers forged a compromise.

She showed up in the House gallery during a debate over funding to preserve Spur Cross Ranch. The bill immediately passed.

Hull pushed hard for the extension of vehicle-emissions testing.
"She found my phone number--that was nice," Senator Chris Cummiskey, a Phoenix Democrat, says with a chuckle. "It was an important message for people to get, that there's actually an occupant on the ninth floor."

And there were smaller--but no less important--battles that you never heard about. Sandy Bahr, lobbyist for the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club and one of Hull's harshest critics, grudgingly admits that she was impressed when the governor's staff stood up to business lobbyists, refusing to support a bill that would have weakened water-protection standards. Hull also pushed for--and got--a $4.4 million boost for mental health services.

But the session had its failures, and I can't help but wonder: What would have happened if Big Red had shown up sooner?

HMO reform was narrowly defeated.
The Legislature failed to define where the tobacco settlement cash--the first check, for $177 million, could arrive as early as this fall--will go. That leaves it vulnerable to raids.

And, critics observe, that $20 million for education had to fall in line behind more "important" spending, like millions in tax cuts for the mining industry.

As of press time, the governor's deadline for signing or vetoing bills hadn't passed. The expectation is that because she didn't show a lot of muscle earlier in the session, Hull will veto many bills she possibly could have killed earlier in the process or worked to make more palatable.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.