Postcard from Arizona

Thomas Wolfe wrote that a guy can’t go home. I, however, left Arizona for Asheville, NC in 1995, and have returned eight to ten times a year on business. It is the state itself that proves the rule: In 1986, Arizona abandoned its center-right roots for a home in far-right politics and has never looked back.

The political center of the state now rests not in the tradition of Goldwater and Udall, but in an angry brand of conservatism that worships guns and hates liberals, officially embraces racial profiling, and deals with budget issues by eliminating health care for poor children and slashing Medicaid eligibility (both of which might be restored owing to the prospect of losing federal subsidies).

It was not always like this.  When I came to Arizona in 1978 as part of Governor Bruce Babbitt’s cabinet, it was a state that did politics the way politics ought to be done. This was a time in which a progressive governor and a conservative (moderately so by today’s standards) legislature combined to work through a myriad of difficult issues.

Arizona’s elected leaders, business leaders and social advocates grappled together for eight years to find solutions for unprecedented prison expansion, the implementation of Arizona’s own model of Medicaid, tough tax and budget issues, and rapid population growth that affected the state’s physical, transportation, environmental and water infrastructures.

While there were often sharp differences of opinion, there was always a sense that we were on the same page… that we were working together to find the best long-term solution for the state. My colleagues and I spent hours with business leaders and with legislative Democrats and Republicans in search of consensus solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Our shared goal was to ensure Arizona’s future as a vibrant, compassionate and prosperous state.  We had a mutual respect for one another that kept our disagreements civil.

Then Arizona’s political ground shifted abruptly with the election of Evan Mecham in 1986. His own party eventually impeached him, but the newly-elected Governor Fife Symington continued the rightward sprint… and he was eventually forced to resign from office when convicted of multiple felonies (and later pardoned by President Clinton). Since those days, the political atmosphere of Arizona has been and continues to be poisonous.

The state is the home of border vigilantes; of Sheriff Joe Arpaio (who brought back chain gangs for men and woman prisoners, moved prisoners into tents, commissioned retired people to patrol the streets looking for prostitutes, and accused members of the County Board of Supervisors who disagreed with him of crimes); of low rankings in almost every social indicator; of a law that allows a person to carry a gun without a permit and without training; and now of a law that makes it a state crime to be in the United States without proper documentation, and orders local law enforcement to demand documentation of legality from anyone an officer “suspects” might be in the country illegally. The subtitle of this law ought to be “If you’re brown, you go down…”

John McCain, Arizona’s senior senator, has fallen victim to this atmosphere. He abandoned even a façade of reasonableness by repudiating his previous commitments to campaign finance reform and a comprehensive immigration policy. He has even denied the core of his self-proclaimed identity— that of a maverick— as he desperately tries to cling to his seat in a primary contest with J.D. Hayworth. Hayworth is a former Congressman who doesn’t believe that Barrack Obama is a U.S. citizen, and who proclaimed that gay marriage would lead to a man marrying a horse. Only in Arizona!

The prevalence of anger, fear and irrational self-defeating behavior is the reason I left Arizona 15 years ago… and not just because I deplored what the state was becoming. I also deplored what I was becoming: Too much like them. I traded angry liberal words for angry conservative words, playing my role in the diminishing of thoughtful dialogue. I needed a sabbatical, a chance to renew my vision and to moderate my tone. Little did I know that folks like Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and a minion of arch-conservative Republicans would take Arizona’s model of public conversation to the national level.

Arizona is a beautiful state, filled with the wonders of high deserts and grand canyons, and an ethnically diverse population. But politically it has become a state in constant flux. Since the election of Raul Castro in 1974 and his subsequent resignation to become the United States Ambassador to Argentina, Arizona had a constant turnover in the governor’s office. Only Bruce Babbitt and Jane Hull left the office after completing their terms. Three were elevated to the position when a sitting governor (Mecham) was impeached, forced to resign (Symington), or departed for another job during her second term (Janet Napolitano).

Think about that: from Castro to today’s former Secretary of State-become-Governor Jan Brewer, Arizona has had nine leaders in 35 years… an average of less than one four-year term each. No large organization— whether business or government— can function well and consistently with that kind of turnover in the executive office.

My heart hurts for the people of Arizona. Most of them are thoughtful conservatives who care deeply about the future of the state, and  whose values are not reflected in the policies of their elected leaders. For example, when Governor Mecham made Arizona the first state in the union to repeal a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the citizens rose up and made Arizona the only state to establish the holiday through a vote of the people.

When, year after year, Arizona Governors and legislators refused to provide quality, early childhood education, a vote of the people established the program and a funding source through a citizens’ initiative (which the current legislature is trying to repeal). Rapid transit was built in Phoenix through a vote of the people, and the voters used an initiative to establish public funding of candidates for election.

From the days of Congressman Udall and Senator Goldwater, to Governor Babbitt the politics of Arizona were civil and conservative-progressive. I believe that the civil, conservative-progressive ethic still prevails in the hearts of the people of Arizona— particularly its business leaders— but elected leaders are betraying rather than upholding those values. There seems to be no sign that they are willing to return to the more moderate political home of an earlier day, and maybe that means it is finally time for me to admit that I can’t go home, either.

Who Are These People?

When did it become OK to shout out rude, racist and hate-filled epithets in America’s public square? How does a rational person respond to people so filled with fear and anger that they accept distortions and flat-out lies as absolute truth? How can a nation survive when one set of leaders demonizes its opposition with personal and vitriolic attacks on those with whom they disagree? Continue reading “Who Are These People?”

President Obama’s Afghanistan Policy

My heart and my brain were in conflict as I listened to President Obama’s plans for Afghanistan. On the one hand, I am war weary. This nation has been involved in shooting and bombing conflicts throughout my 66 years of life: World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Viet Nam, Bosnia, Grenada, Panama, Gulf War I and II, Afghanistan, and clandestine skirmishes in various parts of the world. I have serious doubts about the ability of the United States to serve as the world’s great protector, and I question our   moral authority to do so. Continue reading “President Obama’s Afghanistan Policy”

Progressives: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize!

Don’t waver, brother and sister progressives. Remain firm in your commitment to the hopes and ideals that we campaigned for in 2008. But remember: not wavering and standing firm does not mean ignoring the political reality that there must be compromises along the way to transformation. It does mean staying united in the face of unprincipled opposition. Continue reading “Progressives: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize!”