Coming Summer 2014, following is a brief synopsis of the Burton Barr biography, Burton Barr: Leadership and the Transformation of Arizona Politics.
During the 100 years since gaining statehood, Arizona has had more than its share of nationally prominent politicians, men such as Senators Carl Hayden, Barry Goldwater, and John McCain. But while these leaders focused on national issues, Arizona government and state policy were being shaped by leaders at the state level, and the most important of these was Burton Barr. From the mid1960’s to his defeat in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 1986, Barr wrote the state’s legislative history, helping to transform the structure of government and the content of policies. Through his mastery of the legislative process he pulled Arizona into the modern era.
History in Office
Elected to the Arizona House from central Phoenix in 1964, Barr moved quickly in a leadership role. In 1966 he became the House Majority Leader, and during the next 20 years he broke a tradition of stalemate and party factionalism and led his Republican colleagues into productive collaboration with Democrats. His colleagues in the state legislature named him “Mr. Magic” because of his amazing ability to get things done, and the Arizona Republic called him the most powerful man in the state. Barr’s personal approach to leadership and focus on problem solving proved crucial to the passage of all the major legislation that modernized Arizona government and addressed the serious issues facing the state. His surprising gubernatorial primary loss to Evan Mecham in 1986 was a harbinger of ideological wars that would hamper political decision making in years to come.
Barr’s youth, and especially his war time experiences, shaped his outlook on life, his problem-solving ability and leadership style. Barr served “with great distinction” under General Eisenhower in WW II and left active service in 1946 as a lieutenant colonel. For the next 20 years he served in the Army Reserves, honing his leadership skills and enjoying the camaraderie. He also built a career as a salesman of refrigerated equipment for grocery stores and in 1969 started his own company.
Entry into Politics
Friends talked him into running for the Arizona House of Representatives in 1964, at a key turning point in Arizona politics. Postwar growth was drastically changing the state’s population and economy, but conservative rural Democrats were preventing state government from addressing the problems and concerns that came with growth . When the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that legislatures be apportioned on an equal population basis, Republicans gained a legislative majority, and Barr became the House Majority Leader -- a position to make things happen.
Change did not come easily. Barr struggled to lead his Republican colleagues -- listening and adapting to their concerns while still working cooperatively with Democrats, the Senate and the governor. The results included a modernized state government and enactment of significant legislation. Barr did not achieve results because he was a policy wonk. He did not draft innumerable bills. His strength was his ability to recognize truly important issues, bring key individuals together to negotiate solutions, and persuade his colleagues to support the result. Because of Barr’s insights and leadership, Arizona enacted policies on water, transportation, air quality, taxation, and higher education.
Later Political Years
In 1986 Barr decided to leave the legislature. Having served there for 22 years, his accomplishments were prodigious, but both he and his colleagues were becoming restless. He had previously rejected overtures to run for higher office, but now he succumbed to a direct appeal from President Ronald Reagan to run for governor. Surprised by a primary election challenge from Evan Mecham, a perennial candidate and ultra conservative, Barr refused to dignify Mecham’s barrage of negative personal attacks. His failure to respond, combined with a poorly organized campaign, enabled Mecham’s victory. Barr’s political defeat by a conservative ideologue marked a symbolic and real defeat for pragmatic politics in the state.
Characteristically, Barr recovered quickly from his defeat and began to look for what he would do next. He accepted Phoenix mayor Terry Goddard’s invitation to assist on key city issues and worked as a partner with Alfredo Guterriez on policy and politics. Now in his 70s, Barr remained active but was slowing down. He died in 1997.
This is a study of the right man in the right place at the right time. Barr’s political career spanned an era of rapid change for Arizona – a time when open mindedness, strategic thinking, and the ability to bring people together were essential to modernize state government and create policies that provided workable solutions growing populace. Barr’s pragmatism attracted support from members of both parties to get work done – an example of “from the center” leadership that today’s state legislators may find edifying.