Longform

Good Housekeeping

There's an obvious problem when you're known as "the iron lady." Everyone wants to see if you're really as tough as you seem. Or if the title is more about bluster than guts.

So far, the first woman speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives has shown she doesn't blink very often in face-to-face political combat. Jane Dee Hull clearly loves the job, even though she spends as much time holding together her badly fractured Republican majority as she does battling Democrats. She's shown she's in charge and isn't shy about using all the powers of her office. But she's stumbled badly in trying to outwit Democrats and still faces the final crucial days of the session when leading her Republican troops will demand both bluster and guts.

She had to fight to get the job in the first place.

Hull should have been the logical candidate for speaker when the Republicans found their leadership decimated last fall. Speaker Joe Lane was defeated for re-election; Majority Leader Jim Ratliff died. And that left Jane Dee Hull, who held the No. 3 spot as majority whip. But moving up was far from automatic.

First, she had to do some fancy maneuvering. A Goldwater conservative, she aligned herself with the moderates who survived the fall election by forging an alliance with former foe Chris Herstam--the guy she'd beat two years earlier for the whip job. Meanwhile, the more conservative branch of the family tree had coalesced around Jim Meredith, who thought he'd make a better speaker, even though he'd never held a leadership position. Hull knew Meredith didn't have the votes, but she couldn't just stomp him without risking ideological war with his supporters. With Republicans holding the thinnest majority in two decades, Hull wanted as little family fighting as possible.

So she cut a new deal to give everyone something: Meredith would have the No. 2 job of majority leader and Herstam would settle for her old job as whip.

A group of women lobbyists, ecstatic that someone finally beat the good ol' boys at their game in their own playground, marked her formal swearing-in January 9 by giving her a special gavel as the symbol of her new power.

But controlling the gavel and presiding over House sessions is just the public part of her duties. Hull's real power rules in her office behind the House chambers where the deals are cut. As speaker, Hull also controls committee assignments, handing out political plums to the faithful and stacking each panel any way she wants. She even determines which bills go to which committees, allowing her to send unfavored legislation where she knows no sun could shine.

Her attempts to use that power have not always been successful.

Early this session she went toe-to-toe with the Democrats over a funding measure. But the more seasoned leader of the minority party simply outwitted and outwaited her and eventually she had to back down.

Hull has chosen some strange battles to fight. She has set herself up against virtually the entire House by blocking an insurance bill most want to approve, and her favorite "going home" bill--as in, "you aren't going home unless I get this"--has already been killed once.

But Hull's also shown she knows how to win. One committee chairman who refused to go along with her game plan found himself slapped down. Both Republicans and Democrats admired her forcefulness in handling the situation, and the finesse she used that allowed the rebuked chairman to save face.

As a result, even those who may secretly wish to see her fail have nothing but accolades for the woman many thought lacked the demeanor to do the job.

Senate Majority Leader John Mawhinney wasn't sure Hull would focus on the business at hand. He recalls that several years ago he needed two-thirds approval for an emergency clause on a bill so it would become law immediately on the governor's signature. But he lost by a hair--or, more specifically, some red hair. "I wound up one vote short because Jane was getting her hair done," Mawhinney recalls.

Many had feared Hull's sharp tongue. A few years ago, she shocked everyone by suggesting the state could stop spending so much on prisons if it just turned off the air conditioning system and let inmates suffocate.

They also worried about her progress-at-any-cost attitude. Last year, she became impatient when Scottsdale Republican Jim Skelly insisted on asking questions during a caucus meeting about a bill ready to go to the floor for a vote. She kept banging the gavel, over and over, demanding that Skelly keep quiet. Skelly, unwilling to be silenced just to suit Hull's desire to keep the caucus moving, told her to stick the gavel in her ear.

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Howard Fischer