He's Been Mean for 14 Years!

The King of Mean
As the senior member of the House of Representatives, Don Aldridge has had more time than any of his colleagues--14 years, to be exact--to earn his reputation as a petty, vindictive, ignorant legislator. Aldridge once filibustered a bill that designated nonsmoking areas in government buildings. He's doomed several bills that would have required that most radical and useless of safety innovations--car seat belts. In the late 1980s, Aldridge led a band of conservative lawmakers so virulently ideological, so opposed to the most modest of compromises, that they were nicknamed the Mean 13. He's the meanest of them all--and now he's the Speaker of the House.

Is that ketchup on my burrito?
Raena Honan, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, has worked informally for years on health-related issues at the Legislature. "Many, many years ago," she recalls, "when I wanted to get a bill to keep [paroled] murderers and rapists from working in group homes with people with disabilities, and I asked him [Aldridge] to sign on, he asked me where they were going to work when they got out of prison.

"I said, 'Well, maybe at Taco Bell, but not with people who can't defend themselves.'"

Can't sheep transmit AIDS?
Aldridge has diabetes and had a kidney transplant in 1995, largely funded by his state health insurance. But Aldridge has been unwilling to support legislation to help people with pre-existing medical conditions get health insurance. And he voted against an AIDS education measure in 1991, explaining to the daily press, "Nobody seems to have any [AIDS] in rural Arizona, and the majority of school districts are in rural Arizona."

Rule #1: Rules are against the rules
To get out of the House of Representatives, a bill must go through the Rules Committee. The committee is supposed to ensure that bills are constitutional. Under Aldridge, the committee axed bills just because he disliked them. Phoenix Democratic Representative Kathi Foster learned this novel approach to Rules when she tried to get a bill passed that would require minors to wear bicycle helmets.

The bill was heard in the Health Committee; Aldridge left before a vote was taken. The bill passed the committee, and Aldridge was angry that a vote would be taken outside his august presence.

"He came to me," Foster recalls, "and said, 'I like you personally, Kathi, but as long as I have breath in my body, and I am the chairman of Rules, you will never get a bill out of the Rules Committee.'"

Pineapple upside-down flake
Although the floor of the state House of Representatives is austere by design, some members spruce up their desks. For years, Don Aldridge had decorated his desk with a defused hand grenade.

"On the corner of the desk, like you'd put a flowerpot," says a longtime legislative observer, who recalls one of Governor Symington's State of the State addresses, given--as is customary--on the floor of the House.

"DPS--they do a sweep, obviously, of the room. And they confiscated the grenade. And he [Aldridge] threw a fit! And I know that it got nasty. It [the grenade] was eventually returned, but it was a very difficult situation."

He's Mean Right Now!

He likes something anyway
In his first weeks as speaker-elect, Don Aldridge remained true to form, berating those who got in his way and threatening to lower the salaries of already lowly staff members. One legislative player, his voice lowered, puts it this way: "There hasn't been one word of policy talked about in this building since he became speaker-elect. I'm not kidding you. It is all focused on how to screw members and staff."

Remember February 5, 1988? You're fired!
Aldridge began his tenure as speaker-elect by firing Speaker Mark Killian's chief of staff, Jeff Grant; public affairs adviser Jack Lavelle; and research staff director Bob Lockwood, a 22-year House veteran. Other key staffers--assistant chief of staff Cindy Kapler and appropriations analyst Reed Spangler, among others--quit, leaving the House with virtually no institutional memory.

Lockwood's dismissal is the most noteworthy. He had survived many Speaker administrations, and was widely considered a legislative asset. But like the Republican party mascot, Don Aldridge never forgets.

Word has it that Aldridge fired Lockwood over a perceived slight that occurred eight years ago. Aldridge had asked an analyst to do some research for a speech Aldridge planned to give in support of soon-to-be-impeached governor Ev Mecham. Legislative analysts are not supposed to perform such political tasks; they work on policy, and usually for committees, not individual members. The analyst mentioned the request to Lockwood, who squelched Aldridge's plan.

And now Aldridge has squelched Lockwood.

3-fer: mean, sleazy and stupid
In a letter printed on House stationery, Aldridge invited Republican winners of September's legislative primary elections to a luncheon at The Stockyards Restaurant in Phoenix. "I am running for Speaker of the House of Representatives and would like to get everybody's ideas on what issues should be a priority for the Forty-third Legislature," he wrote.

An addendum to the letter promised more than steak and beans:
"Several lobbyists have requested to meet with the primary winners, if you would so desire. They will be in an adjacent room about 1:30 p.m. so that anybody who wants to talk to them about help with your campaign, signs, financing, mailers, etc. can discuss all of the above with them at that time."

It worked. He won.

Key appointments
When it came time to award committee chairmanships, Aldridge helped those who supported him, hurt those who didn't--and made absolutely no attempt to hide either his vindictiveness or his favoritism.

Representative John Verkamp got the Snickers Bar of assignments: He'll chair the Judiciary Committee. Representative Tom Smith, who had the audacity to run against Aldridge for Speaker, lost the top post at Judiciary and instead gets a box of stale pumpkin seeds: the Public Institutions and Universities Committee.

Representative Joe Hart, who also challenged Aldridge for Speaker, didn't get a committee at all.

Representative Jean McGrath, a saucy, up-and-coming second-term Republican, was considered a shoo-in for something, if only a vice chairwomanship. She got nothing, too.

She and Aldridge have a contentious relationship and recently engaged in a heated discussion in a recent Republican caucus meeting over Aldridge's possession of a master key to all representatives' offices.

He'll Probably Be Mean for Years to Come!

A moderate speaks: Part I
Republican Representative Susan Gerard, a moderate and therefore definitely not on the same ideological wavelength as Aldridge, doesn't mince words when it comes to the new Speaker.

"I think he's [Aldridge] very unprofessional, and I think he's going to be a disaster as Speaker."

A moderate speaks: Part II
"On a one-on-one basis, I don't have any trouble working with him," Representative Sue Gerard says. "One thing the guy seems to respect in people is that if he perceives them in any way to be smart or knowledgeable in a subject. And he truly believes that I'm really smart, and that nobody knows more about health-care issues than I do. So he respects that."

So, is Aldridge himself smart?
"I don't think so."

Everyone else whispers
Don Aldridge is so mean that most people won't go on the record to tell you how mean he is, because they're afraid he'll be even meaner in the future.

One House member begs that his/her name not be connected to any Aldridge-related writings. "Someone else might not retaliate against me if I said these things, but I don't know what he'd do."

"You won't get me to talk about it," says a lobbyist who can almost always be relied on for a good quote. And no, this male or female lobbyist says, no one else is going to talk about it, either.

"We can't talk because we're still in the process," the genderless, absolutely unidentified lobbyist says. "And you don't want your claim to fame to be, 'Oh, by the way, the Speaker doesn't like me. And since the New Times [printed my comments], he really doesn't like me.'

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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.