What's Wrong With This Picture?

Let's say you're an environmentalist--and not just the kind tooling around in some gas guzzler with one of those cute license plates. You're the real thing. Maybe you've chained yourself to an old-growth tree, or plopped down before a bulldozer.

One morning, you scan your newspaper to see what Arizona's antienvironment Legislature is up to. It could be a story about relaxing penalties for big industrial polluters. Or about legislators shaking their fists at federal clean-air mandates.

You snap. You squint at the photo of a particularly offensive lawmaker, studying his face. You hatch a plan to confront this man, whose very name has become anathema to you: Russell "Rusty" Bowers. State senator. District 21. Exploiter of the West.

You lay in wait, and when Bowers leaves the Capitol parking lot in his dinged-up Toyota Camry, you follow him--all the way to the outskirts of Apache Junction. You watch the Toyota disappear behind desert scrub as it travels up a long dirt driveway leading to a five-acre lot.

You park your car, steeling yourself for what is to come. You conjure up an image of the Bowers homestead--a Superfund site surrounded by a moat of sludge; a trophy room adorned with stuffed spotted owls and Mexican gray wolves; a wasteland of toppled saguaros pocked by repeated shotgun blasts.

What you find is a salmon-colored Southwestern home set amid largely undisturbed desert.

A pleasant-looking middle-aged woman with blond hair answers the door. You ask for Rusty.

"He's out back," she says, then leads you around the side of the house. Along the way, you pass a little redheaded boy bouncing happily on a trampoline. He waves. You wave back. The woman points you toward a building constructed of unfinished gray concrete blocks.

"He's working . . . in there," she says.
You thank her and edge toward the building. What kind of work could he possibly be doing in there? Nothing good, that's for sure. Probably has his own Freon distillery.

Or worse.
Nothing you have ever read or heard about Bowers could possibly prepare you for what you are about to see. You've caught him in the act.


In Arizona, it's hard to imagine a more paradoxical figure than Rusty Bowers, who during five years in the Legislature has become one of the state's most powerful lawmakers.

Bowers is a proud conservative known for his stubbornness on environmental and family issues. On environmental issues, especially, he is the darling of industry.

He is also known for his charisma and self-deprecating wit. But he has a reputation, at least among those with whom he disagrees, for running his committees with far less decorum.

His career as a sculptor and painter provides for him, his wife and their seven children. Bowers speaks of his work passionately and at length, and he's clearly a proficient artist--his sculpture is realist, his paintings tend toward impressionism. (Of late, many of his commissions have come from individuals and institutions who have ample reason to curry favor with someone like Bowers. See accompanying story.)

Bowers, a devout Mormon, says his religion is the "filter" through which he processes all issues that come before him, especially family issues.

He's not the first Arizonan with a creative bent to make his way into state government. In 1990, Arizonans elected Democrat Richard Mahoney, a published poet, as secretary of state.

Mahoney met Bowers, then a newly elected state representative, for the first time in 1992. The two hit it off. A few days later, Mahoney got a call.

"It was Rusty, and he asked me if I'd be interested in reading some of his short stories, and I was surprised, you know, 'cause that's not the usual kind of currency people trade in around here," Mahoney remembers. "So I said, 'Sure,' and I read them. And they were quite good."

Mahoney calls Bowers "a free spirit," a man "who really doesn't march to anyone's tune at all."

There are others who will swear that Bowers hears a tune, and it's played by big business and extractive industries.

Raena Honan, a Sierra Club lobbyist who has sparred with Bowers on many environmental issues, is one such person.

"He's such a conflicted character," she says. "Sure, he's warm and funny, he's artistic, but then he can be this annoying ideologue . . . he's like a renaissance man, but from the dark side."

Rusty Bowers' sensibilities and his politics truly are strange bedfellows. His gifts as a sculptor and painter and musician and athlete and bilingual missionary do not seem to comport with his politics.

Longtime detractors are often baffled by Bowers once they get to know him personally. How can a guy this sensitive and, seemingly, enlightened be such a brutal reactionary?

Bowers, who is keenly competitive, surely revels in his mystique, although he betrays no evidence of caring a whit.

"So I'm misunderstood," he says. "I can live with that."
Rusty Bowers makes an immediate impression, starting with his handshake.
Most lawmakers' hands suffer little more than the occasional paper cut. Bowers' have been toughened by years of work.

He's six-foot-three, and possesses the kind of rawboned face that would look right at home in a Grant Wood painting. His voice seldom rises above a mellow rumble.

A fourth-generation Arizonan, Bowers, 44, speaks reverently of his father, Wesley Raymond Bowers, a "tremendously gifted" athlete who played football with Jackie Robinson at Pasadena Junior College before attending Brigham Young University on an athletic scholarship.

Bowers has the college yearbook in which Robinson penned a note to his father.

After serving in World War II, Wesley Bowers returned to Mesa and married Nathele King. When Rusty, the fourth of seven children, was 2, Wesley took his family to live in the Chino Valley near Prescott, where he raised sheep.

Four years later, the family returned to the Valley, where the elder Bowers took a job as a high school football coach in Scottsdale.

Athleticism ran in the family. Rusty's older brother Dan won a football scholarship to Brigham Young University, and went on to play several years in the National Football League.

At Mesa High School, Rusty also excelled at sports. In football, he played both offensive and defensive end until blowing out his knee during his sophomore year. After that, he stuck to basketball, which he played throughout high school. Still trim and light on his feet, Bowers looks like he could hold his own in a pickup game.

But Bowers wasn't the typical jock.
He had a knack for drawing, and for singing. He attributes his artistic traits to his mother, a talented singer who also encouraged him to draw as "a way to stay busy and stay out of trouble." He sang in Mesa High's a cappella choir, which was pronounced the best choir in the state during his junior year.

"Probably some kind of a fluke," Bowers says.
Bowers also had an early interest in government, which he attributes to his father, a Democrat who turned Republican after World War II.

"He was always talking about politics, always reading the paper, always asking questions," Bowers says.

Bowers' grandmother, Lottie Crandell, was a stalwart supporter of Arizona's first governor, George W.P. Hunt; she sang at one of Hunt's numerous inaugurals.

"We were an old family, but never a moving and shaking kind of family," Bowers says.

In the seventh grade, Bowers was elected president of Scottsdale's Navajo School, but he transferred to Mesa and was never able to serve his term.

In high school, he lost the race for class president his junior year. Bowers also attended Boy's State, a leadership conference for high schoolers, where he ran for president. He lost by nine votes.

"That was a bummer," he reflects, "but a good experience, in its own way."
After graduating from high school, Bowers headed to BYU on a fine-arts scholarship, making the university basketball team as a walk-on.

"The coach said, 'Bowers, you made the team, but you'll probably never play much,'" he remembers.

After just one semester at BYU, Bowers returned home to be with his high school sweetheart, Donetta Russell, whom he married four years later.

It was around this time that Bowers began making occasional sojourns to Mexico (he speaks fluent Spanish), where he served his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Bowers says he's made about 60 trips since then south of the state of Chihuahua to visit the Tarahumara Indians, frequent subjects of his paintings.

Bowers attended Mesa Community College on a music scholarship and worked construction for a while before returning to BYU in 1978, which he attended off and on until graduating in 1982 with a bachelor's degree in fine arts.

He returned to the Valley and began construction on the house where he still lives. It's an idyllic place, set in the shadow of the low bluffs of nearby Usery Mountain Park. Neighbors--what few there are--can barely be seen, let alone heard.

In 1990, that solitude was threatened when Maricopa County agreed to lease nearly 400 nearby acres to a rod-and-gun club, which hoped to expand by adding 16 trap-and-skeet ranges.

Bowers was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. The suit, which sought to stop the construction, claimed that the ranges, which could have accommodated eight shooters each, would have transformed the quiet patch of desert into Beirut.

"They [the county] never checked with us, they never held public hearings . . . the level of arrogance was extraordinary. It was like, 'We're the government. We don't have to check with you,'" Bowers remembers, "and it made me mad."

Bowers, who says he has gone shooting at the range himself, also caught grief from the club's proprietors and clients, who branded him an antigunner.

"I said, 'Look, I've probably got more guns than all you guys. But this isn't about guns. There are other amendments besides the Second Amendment. This is about justice.'"

After a two-month legal showdown, the county backed off, but not until much of the land had been bladed under--a fact that Bowers still laments.

Bowers describes the battle over the shooting range as the opening salvo in his public life. Two years later, when longtime District 21 representative Stan Barnes stepped down, Bowers ran for the seat, beating five other contenders.

Bowers' political ascent has been swift. At the beginning of his second term in 1994, Bowers was named chairman of the House Environment Committee. In 1996, he sought and won his district's Senate seat.

The freshman senator was chosen by conservative Republican legislative leaders and Governor J. Fife Symington III to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, a plum position that gives him the power to decide how much money each state agency gets, making him a man of tremendous influence.

There are those who find irony in Bowers' complaint of arrogance on the part of Maricopa County officials who were willing to let the shooting range sprawl to within a mile of his home. Or in his lamentation of destruction of the desert near his home.

Those are the attitudes of a NIMBY, not a deregulating capitalist.
One of those is Jeff Bouma, an environmental attorney who found himself speaking before the House Environment Subcommittee, which Bowers chaired, several years ago.

The committee was considering a Bowers bill to eliminate a state law allowing ordinary citizens to bring legal action if the state Department of Environmental Quality, which has a reputation for acting with glacial speed, had ignored an environmental problem for more than 60 days.

At the time, Bowers pushed for the law's dismantling because it allowed for there to be "four million DEQ directors running around."

But the law had been invoked a grand total of four times, all over groundwater contamination. The law's air-pollution provision was never used.

While it allowed for the awarding of attorney's fees, it did not allow citizens to collect damages; it merely compelled polluters to comply with the law and pay penalties to the state--a situation similar to Bowers' 1990 suit against Maricopa County.

Bouma, who filed three of those four citizens' antipolluter lawsuits, spoke before Bowers' committee and urged that the provision be saved.

He told of a case settled in 1991, in which a resort's wastewater-treatment plant was dumping pollution into Oak Creek near Sedona, one of the state's most beautiful and popular tourist destinations. DEQ hadn't enforced the law, so Bouma sued, forcing the resort to stop polluting and pay $200,000 into the state general fund.

Bouma pointed out to Bowers' committee that the lawsuit represented free legal work for the state, and added that he hadn't taken a dime for his efforts.

After Bouma finished speaking, the committee had no follow-up questions for him, and voted to scrap the measure. Bowers' bill became law.

Bouma recalls the reception he received in the committee.
"I was standing up there for quite a while, and the whole time I spoke, all these industry lobbyists are sitting there behind me," he says. "Well, I can tell you that they never had to get up and address the committee.

"It was obvious that the decision [to scrap the measure] had already been made behind closed doors."

Today, without the guarantee of reimbursement for legal costs that the old law promised, Bouma says there is "no way" he would take on another case like the one that helped clean up Oak Creek.

Bouma says he has "nothing good" to say about Bowers.
"The guy's basically owned by industry," Bouma says. "He talks about the little guy who's burdened by environmental regulation, then turns a blind eye to the little guy who gets hurt by the pollution."

A glimpse at Bowers' campaign-finance reports highlights his close ties with industry. According to his 1996 filings, Bowers accepted:

* $200 from lobbyist Kristen Boilini, who represents landfill giant Browning-Ferris Industries, and $270 from BFI's own political action committee.

* $100 from lobbyist Charlie Stevens, who represents gas-station owners.
* $270 from TRW, which manufactures air-bag propellants at its Mesa plant.
While in the House, Bowers lent his weight to other notorious bills as well, most notably the "Polluter-Protection Act," which he co-sponsored with another archconservative, then-senator Jim Buster, who chaired the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee.

The bill would have allowed companies that pollute to disclose the extent of their violations to DEQ and win immunity from prosecution as long as they cleaned up the mess. The records of such disclosures would be kept secret. The bill even contained a provision for a $10,000 penalty for whistle-blowers who disclosed the secrets.

Industry lobbyists backed the bill, saying it would have encouraged companies to monitor themselves and clean up pollution without fear of penalties. Environmentalists lambasted the measure, saying it would have protected industry from prosecution and kept the public in the dark about pollution hazards.

Faced with the real possibility that environmentalists would have launched a petition drive to refer the measure to the ballot, Governor Fife Symington vetoed the act.

Bowers' last major push while in the House involved changes in the state Superfund (also known as the Water Quality Assurance Revolving Fund) that would make it easier for polluters to get low-dollar settlements with the state. His legislation also imposed a moratorium--July 1996 to July 1997--forbidding state regulators from suing polluters.

And last session, Bowers introduced legislation that would have allowed a large multistate dry-cleaning company to pay only $250,000 of the $10.6 million state officials say it will cost to clean up a massive underground plume of toxins that has been traced to a plant it once operated on West Buchanan Street.

According to his 1996 campaign-finance reports, Bowers took $670 from 14 separate dry-cleaning operations, and $100 from attorney Jim Vieregg, who represents the American Linen and Supply Company.

Bowers later dropped the legislation, which specifically named ALSCO, saying he only wanted to draw attention to a gross abuse of power by state regulators.

When asked what possible benefit such measures could have for the people of Arizona, Bowers summons up the image of the mythical Everyman caught in a regulatory juggernaut.

"I trust people," he says. "I believe most people want to do the right thing. But we can't continue to try to motivate people by fear."

Honan, the Sierra Club lobbyist, disagrees.
"Rusty's really big on incentives," she says. "What he doesn't understand is you need the hammer, too."

Sandy Bahr, a lobbyist for the Audubon Society, says she sees a "disconnect" between what Bowers does in his life outside the Legislature and his life inside it.

"One example: Look at his position on public lands," she says. "Rusty has said over and over again that too much land is publicly held. But some of his favorite places in the world are on public land."

Bowers, an avid outdoorsman who has hiked extensively and led numerous Boy Scout expeditions through the Sierra Anchas near Roosevelt Lake, says his position on public lands is entirely consistent with his love of the outdoors.

"I don't see any conflict at all," he says. "Eighty-seven percent of the land in this state is owned by some government. And look at who Robin Silver [a Phoenix environmentalist] sues: He sues the feds over the way they manage lands. Well, I trust people. I think most of the people who own private land are the best stewards we have."

Jeff Bouma says Bowers' views remain consistent with those of People for the West!, an often rabidly conservative organization which advocates the "wise use" of public lands, and in which Bowers once was active.

"He'll find one or two people who've been raped by the kangaroo rat, and base all of his decisions on that," Bouma says. "If that means big industry gets away with polluting, well, that's just too bad."

Still, there have been occasions in which Bowers has gone against his own caucus--indeed, against the entire Legislature.

While in the House, he cast the sole dissenting vote against a bill that would have required police to notify neighbors and schools when a convicted sex offender moved into the area, and which would have allowed the state to commit such offenders to mental institutions after serving their prison sentences.

Bowers says he based his opposition on the experiences of a friend convicted of child molestation--a friend whom he was convinced was innocent.

"It ruined his life," Bowers remembers. "The guy was going through a messy divorce, the kid was a year and a half old, and his attorney was saying, 'Look, you've gotta take the plea--there's no way you're gonna win.' Think about that. This is his public defender--the guy who's supposed to be protecting him!

"Well, the case went to trial, and they put his wife on the stand, and he wound up getting 15 years."

Bowers says he sees himself as an independent, and a consensus builder, and says he "doesn't care" if he's misunderstood by his detractors.

Neither Bahr nor Honan sees Bowers as a consensus builder.
"I really believe that he [Bowers] likes to mess with people," Bahr says. "I saw the way he used to run Environment [committee]. He'd always be doing things to keep people off-balance, like introduce an amendment at the last minute that no one knew about or had agreed upon."

She says that Bowers' complaints about Maricopa County's "arrogance" are breathtaking, considering his habit of postponing hearings over contentious issues until people whose testimony he wouldn't welcome had gone home for the day.

As for the few instances where he and environmentalists have found common ground, Honan says:

"You can tell it makes him antsy when he does something that we agree with him on," Honan says. "But that's a problem we have with the entire Legislature--not just him."

For his part, Bowers seems as mystified by his critics as they are of him.
"Most of the time, I have no idea what she [Honan] is talking about," Bowers says. "But if that's what she wants to say, fine."

The Capitol and its intrigues seem far away as Bowers works the clay one recent evening. He's toiling on his latest commission: a life-size sculpture of developer Cecil Robson's two young daughters, which will be cast in bronze.

Bowers' studio, which stands behind his house, is as much a work in progress as the sculpture. It has a roof, but not much else at this point. Someday, Bowers says, he plans to finish off the space and to stucco the exterior of the concrete block walls.

But on this evening, with the temperature still hovering in the mid-80s, it's a refuge.

As the sun slips toward the horizon, Bowers works in the center of the room, where the light from skylights is best. Light rock drifts from a small radio in the back of the space. All around him are the tools of his trade: brushes, an unfinished canvas (another commission), clay.

"I love ripping clay," says Bowers, dressed in a work shirt, scuffed boots and jeans.

"The clay--it has a texture, and when you rip a piece off," he says, demonstrating, "you can feel it."

Though he has been a working artist for almost 20 years, Bowers still considers himself a novice. And he acknowledges that his style tends toward the conservative.

"I don't profess to have any abstract tendencies," he says. Still, he says he considers his art honest, and is critical of others who have opted for quantity over quality.

He calls his art his "salvation," especially when the Legislature is in session, and says he regrets that his other responsibilities often take precedence over it.

So why does he continue to run for office?
"I like it when we win," he says. "I like it when we get to look out for the underdog, for the little guy who's facing the possibility of losing everything--everything--because of some overzealous bureaucrat whose only interest is in holding on to his fiefdom."

Bowers is circumspect about how far he would like to go in politics, or how much longer he will remain active.

"Every year, I ask myself why I keep coming back," he says. "These should be my most productive years, artistically, but whenever we're in session, my art has to wait. It's frustrating."

Don't expect Rusty Bowers to confine himself to his studio anytime soon, though.

By political standards, he's still a young man. And there is ample indication that he enjoys his public life, and the collegiality it brings.

Bowers is well-known among his colleagues for the quick sketches he whips up during committee meetings. Often, they lampoon his fellow Republicans, or himself.

"They're uncanny," says Gary Richardson, a fellow Republican who sits with Bowers on Appropriations. "And I think everyone sort of secretly hopes that he thinks enough of them to do one."

Bowers is also one of Arizona's four "Singing Senators"--along with fellow Republicans Richardson, Tom Patterson and David Petersen--who have been known to spring up, guitars in hand, in an attempt to bring a little levity to the proceedings.

But don't mistake his antics for a lack of seriousness--or ambition, says Elaine Richardson, a Democrat from Tucson who served on the House Environment Committee with Bowers, and who also moved over to the Senate last session.

"I remember how stressed out he was at the beginning of last session, trying to get a handle on Appropriations," she recalls.

Then, Richardson remembers, Bowers went out of his way to sponsor a bill that sought to relax regulations on day-care providers. One of the bill's beneficiaries was fellow Republican and Mormon Representative Jeff Groscost, whose wife had come under fire for operating what was essentially an unlicensed day-care center in the couple's home.

The bill was eventually voted down by the Senate.
"He took that fight when he was so busy with Appropriations," Richardson says. "Do you think he would have done that if he wasn't ambitious?

"Rusty Bowers has always liked to keep his fingers in a lot of pots--and that means only one thing: control.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Phoenix.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Phoenix.