The conservative rhetoric gripping America has popular appeal. It is the fruit of a decades-old master plan that was cleverly packaged and marketed to a nation aching for a functioning government. The plan, championed by Newt Gingrich and other fire-breathing right wingers, caught the imagination of Republican leaders. The long-term legacy remains a politics of meanness that has spread from a core group into the entire body of American politics. Prior to that, liberals and conservatives would battle each other on an array of issues, but their disagreements were most often civil. Except for those on the left and right fringes, they did not demonize their opponents. Legislative leaders of both parties compromised and passed with bipartisan votes programs such as the Voting Rights Act, Food Stamps, Medicare, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
These italicized words paraphrase part of my response in a 1995 interview with Phoenix Magazine. That interview came to mind recently when I read an article that quoted Sarah, a young woman from Generation Z (1997-2012). Sara said that she had no interest in politics––that all politicians were in it for themselves and didn’t care about the future she and her cohorts would inherit. That, she said, has always been the case and will always be the case. So, she wondered, why bother to put in the effort?
I understand and sympathize with Sarah’s frustration. If I could talk with her, I would tell her that she is right about politics in the USA today. But I would say that she is wrong in suggesting that it was always like that. Certainly, there have long been sharp differences between the parties; certainly, both parties have always had their share of self-serving retrogrades. But there was a time that policy making was led by a committed group of statespersons from both sides of the aisle, men and women who were more interested in governing and serving than in party building.
To illustrate my point, I’d share with her my experience of working with Stan Turley. Stan, who died in 1994, was a giant of a man, both in physical size and as a public leader. His words and actions were always the products of clear thinking and impeccable integrity. During my six years as a cabinet officer in Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt’s administration, Stan was the living example of a “statesman.” When one of my programs would hit a rocky stretch, he would reach out with advice and support. Stan Turley was a Republican and the President of the Arizona State Senate.
During Babbitt’s two terms as Governor and Turley’s time in the House and Senate, Arizona faced difficult issues that were mired in political stalemates: among them, inadequate transportation systems, an over-burdened and outdated prison system, the implementation of Arizona’s novel Medicaid plan, and the need to establish a workable groundwater management policy. Each of the issues was effectively addressed and bills were passed through a Republican dominated legislature.
The issue I was most involved in was Medicaid. It was particularly contentious because Arizona was the only state in the nation without a Medicaid plan and many Republicans wore that as a badge of honor. But Stan teamed with Governor Babbitt, House Majority Leader Burton Barr and Democratic leaders in both houses to remedy the fact that more than one million Arizonans lacked needed health coverage. Legislation to establish a program would require that compromise become a goal rather than a dirty word.
In the end, thanks to those leaders, a Medicaid plan (The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System) was passed in 1982, then revised in 1984 and continues to this day. In 1984, when the program was on the brink of failing, I was deeply involved in leading the rescue effort. Some Republicans saw the situation as an opportunity to damage the Democratic Governor. But I can still hear Stan Turley’s words: “It must not fail. It will require our best effort but we cannot let if fail.” Stan was a statesman in every sense of the word. And despite his power, he was humble. In a 1983 Senate speech he cautioned the body about their sense of self-importance: “Take a glass of water, stick your finger in it, then withdraw it. You will note it really made little difference except for a small drip on your finger.”
Unfortunately, Arizona was eventually swept up in the conservative revolution. But despite this rightward movement, the legacy of Stan Turley, Bruce Babbitt, Burton Barr, and Democrats Alfredo Gutierrez in the Senate and Arthur Hamilton in the House is experienced every day by the two million people who are today enrolled in the state’s AHCCCS.
So, I say to Sarah and her Gen-Z cohorts: You are right. This nation’s politics are a mess. Much of the responsibility for that rests on those of us in the Silent and Baby Boom generations. There were giants among us who led the nation to amazing gains, but somewhere along the line our focus on the common good was lost. But all is not lost if you can find the Stan Turleys and Bruce Babbitts of your generation.
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.