Longform

LAND OF THE FREE-FOR-ALL

U.S. Senator Larry Craig, a conservative Republican from Idaho, came to Phoenix a couple of weeks ago to lunch at the Arizona Biltmore and stump for GOP Senate hopeful Jon Kyl.

Kyl's opponent, Democrat Sam Coppersmith, celebrated the Idaho senator's visit by faxing around a newspaper clipping that quotes Craig telling a New York chamber of commerce gathering that "free white human beings" will soon be an endangered species in the business world because of affirmative action.

It's fitting, then, that Craig, a mild, middle-aged white man in a plain, gray suit and rimless glasses, stuck around for an hour after lunch to talk about his favorite constitutional right--indeed, the cause cläbre of many free white human beings--private-property rights. Craig is to the private-property-rights movement what Howard Stern is to shock radio. The senator stood in an alcove and told about a dozen admirers about his activities as the founder of the U.S. Senate's Private Property Caucus. The bipartisan caucus is designed to push guidelines and legislation, at the federal level, to protect Americans' constitutional rights to private property. But on this day, Craig was more interested in what's happening in Arizona, where the nation's first statewide vote on a piece of private-property-rights legislation will take place November 8, in the form of a ballot referendum titled Proposition 300.

The law was passed and signed in 1992, but foes of the legislation rounded up more than 70,000 signatures to place it on the ballot. Simply put, the law calls for the state attorney general to initiate an assessment process in cases in which state government is instituting a new regulation that may be construed as a "taking" of private property not covered by eminent domain.

Craig explains that Mark Killian, the speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives and author of the legislation, has traveled to Washington, D.C., to update him on the referendum's progress. Craig is confident that Arizonans will approve Proposition 300.

A win in Arizona, he tells the group, is "absolutely key, I think, to the overall success of property rights in this country," and an "important signal to Congress," where Craig has tried to get similar legislation passed for years.

"Thank you for leading the way," he tells his rapt Arizona supporters.

Larry Craig isn't the only interloper who's taken note of Proposition 300. GOP heavyweights such as Senator Phil Gramm of Texas and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas both made a point of endorsing the referendum during recent trips to Arizona to campaign for GOP candidates. The Wall Street Journal has been on the phone with Proposition 300 opponents while Jon Margolis, a seasoned Chicago Tribune reporter, came to Phoenix to cover a Proposition 300 debate.

Arizona's politics have become a bellwether for national conservative causes. Perhaps "laboratory" is a more fitting description.

The last time national conservatives looked hungrily at Arizona, school vouchers were the issue. There are clear parallels between the voucher campaign and Proposition 300.

Just last spring, the national spotlight nearly blinded Arizona legislators as they struggled to reform the state's education system. With Governor J. Fife Symington III as their willing host, national leaders of the movement to privatize public education bombarded lawmakers with visits and phone calls. Symington's pilot voucher program would have been the first of its kind in this country, and a huge victory for school-choice leaders such as William Bennett and Lamar Alexander, both former U.S. education secretaries under Republican presidents. The voucher incursion failed at the hand of moderate Republican state Representative Sue Gerard and her merry band of seven naysayers. (Clench-toothed right-wingers in the Arizona State Legislature have dubbed the group the "Sue Nation.")

Although Symington lost his precious vouchers, he basked in the glow of interest from national conservatives who hailed his efforts. It's no accident that a voucher proposal found its way to Arizona's legislature. A battle once waged at the federal level--under approving Republican administrations--has been repackaged by out-of-work school-choice advocates like Bennett and Alexander and sent to states like Arizona, where Republican governors carry on the cause. The same is true for those who champion private-property rights, a concept--like vouchers--that has gotten nowhere in Congress and has been shunned by the Clinton administration. And while Symington was late to sign up as an ardent supporter of property rights, these days there is no stronger backer than the Arizona governor, who comes from a long line of private-property owners. (Ironically, because of his efforts to prevent federal Resolution Trust Corporation lawyers from a "taking" of his assets, Symington, a developer gone bust, no longer has any real estate recorded in his own name.)

In the school-choice debate, the National Education Association is the enemy. In the private-property-rights debate, Killian says, it's "professional environmentalists" from organizations like the Sierra Club.

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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.