AZ State Senator Don Shooter: The Heart behind the Character

July 28, 2015 by Jennifer Woods
It may not come as a surprise that some political conversations can run a little on the dry end of the spectrum. But I recently had the pleasure to sit down and talk with Arizona State Senator Don Shooter, who kept me on my toes – and in stitches.

Q. Where did you grow up?

A. I haven’t yet! But, if I did, I lived in the South and the Midwest most of my life, until my family moved to California and finally Arizona. So I have lived all around the country. My Dad was in manufacturing, so he would set up manufacturing plants in different states. I like to stay one step ahead of the Sheriff! That’s a joke!

What brought you to Arizona?

A car. (laughter). No really, it was farming. Yuma is a world class farming area – they are as good as it gets as far as productivity and everything else. My cousin and I started a farming company and that is what I did for 20-30 years. Then, as you can see, I ended up here.

Did you always have an idea that you wanted to get involved in politics?

I was always swearing at what Phoenix and Washington DC were doing to us. My neighbors talked me into running. Phil Townsend, the Republican Yuma County Chairman at the time, called me up and asked what I was doing for the next two years. He said that I should run for the state senate. But I knew that the deadline to file candidacy papers had passed. Phil said – “No it hasn’t, not for write-in candidates.” So I asked when that deadline was and he said, “tomorrow.” I called my wife, Susan, hoping she would get me out of running and she said that she thought I would be a good fit for such a role. So, now there was no honorable way out. I decided to go ahead and I filed as a write-in candidate. I needed 256 votes and I got 3,000 votes in the primary – 800 of which were Democrats. As far as I know, I am the first person to be elected to the state senate as a write-in candidate.

So, how did so many people know you to vote for you? Were you involved in local politics at the time?

I was a farmer. And well, I was president and co-founder of the Yuma Tea Party, which probably helped quite a bit.

And you had Democrats support you?

I did! There are some good Democrats out there. (laughter) We have some good Democrats hidden in Yuma County – the last 800 voted for me.

You have worked with a variety of legislators over the past five years. What’s the most important quality that sets the best ones apart? 

To be a good legislator, you need empathy or compassion for the community. People on both sides of the aisle have that – the difference is the approach or the solution they propose. But, I think you have to be a good person before you can be a good legislator. And there are good people here. But, don’t out me! As soon as they find out I have a heart, it’s all over! (laughter)

You are involved in many important funding decisions affecting the state’s technology systems with your role as senate appropriations chairman, JLBC chairman and a member of ITAC. What is at the top of your list of IT priorities?

Yes, I have three shots at every IT project that gets proposed. Frankly, I’d like to see a continuation of what we have been working on – making government more efficient as far as the utilization of hardware and software. We need standardization across all of the 137 agencies, boards and commissions. Right now, they all have their own computer systems. It would be so much more efficient if we could consolidate the technology. The former state CIO, Aaron Sandeen, was working on that before he left. My hope is that whoever steps into those shoes will continue that effort.

Another priority is to consider moving the state to the cloud. But, we need all of our back-up data in a state-owned, secure location so the most we could ever lose is 12 hours or whatever the case may be. While I think the private sector can do things more efficiently and is more advanced than the state, I still think we still need to have physical possession of the data. That is just my opinion. We just need to do it. Everyone wants its own little piece of turf, so that is the battle we have to fight. But, I think the agencies are beginning to get it. It certainly changed over the past five years that I have been here. I have been a big advocate of technology.

The Utah Education Network is also a big deal. It is statewide high-speed Internet. There are three states that have it: Wisconsin, Nebraska and Utah. I like Nebraska’s funding model, but Utah is a physical model that we need to emulate because they are similar to us in population distribution. We are leaving so much money on the table in eRate funds. It drives me nuts. Maybe a couple of Arizona school districts are taking advantage of eRate funding, but we are leaving $30M on the table. I can’t do it all. But, I sure would like to work on this because this is money we are paying in taxes that is just going away. Sure would be nice to have our kids benefiting from it.

There are systems still running on COBOL. It’s crazy. I asked how it got this bad and no one could tell me. I came to my own conclusion – it’s because computers don’t vote! So they don’t have a big advocacy group.

So there are a number of other things that I would like to see. I have tried to do what I can do. We have had many successes and we are moving forward, which is what’s most important.

What are your priorities for next session?

I’ll be doing the same thing – pushing the rock up the hill. I am a big picture guy. We need to continue to move IT forward. The biggest challenge we have right now is getting the right state CIO. I met with the president of NASCIO a couple of weeks ago and spoke to him about our situation. He referred some people, so I am trying to do what I can.

Do you have any favorite expressions?

Yes, but you can’t print them! I am well known for not being G-rated!

Where would we find you on a weekend?

Hopefully you won’t! (laughter)

Come on, what about golf? Could we find you on a golf course?

Let me tell you about my golf game. My best friends in Yuma are scratch golfers. I am not. I am the world’s worst golfer without question. There is no comparison. But, I’m good at the beer cart. So, my friends told me to take lessons and that anyone can get better. So I took lessons for three months and I was getting the ball to go kind of in the direction I needed, as opposed to going back over my head. But then my birthday came around, and my golf pro gave me a tennis racket. So that was the end of my golf career. True story.

No, but what do I do? I have too much fun! You haven’t heard about me? Most of the stories are true – 95 percent of what I tell you is true, give or take 90 percent. (laughter). Sorry. I’m part truth and part fiction. I just let people guess. You could say I know how to have fun. I don’t have to wait until the weekends for it either!

What would you tell someone thinking about a career in public service?

Run. Public service goes back to needing good people, now more than ever perhaps. I think we are close to the same political climate that we had before the Civil War. I think there is a big cultural war happening and the sides will never reconcile. It’s going to come down to blows, in my opinion. I’m a student of history, economics and politics. The lesson of history is that no country has done to its currency what we have done and survived. None. So, that is what is going to kill us. And if that doesn’t, then it is the deterioration of the social fabric. I’m doing what I can do to re-stitch it as soon as it tears. I want to look my kids or grandkids in the eyes and say I did what I could.

So you are a student of history. I have to ask, do you have a favorite president?

I have two – Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan. Jefferson had an incredible mind. President Kennedy had his wiz kids and they were eating in the White House dining room and one said I bet this is the most brain power that has ever been in this room at one time. And Kennedy responded, “yes, except for when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. “ True story. Jefferson had his foibles, but he was brilliant and a good, good man. I kind of identify with that. Ronald Reagan was just Ronald Reagan. I met him a couple of times and he was sincerely a good guy. He was always fun and nice. I’m sure he had his moments, but he brought back what America is about. We can do it again. After all, we have done it before. I hear people say that we can’t do this or that and I say, “do you want to know why I know we can? Because we did it before.”

You have several more years before you are termed out, but what’s the future for you? Are we going to the national stage? Washington D.C.?

No! I don’t know. I got conned into this deal. We will see what the good Lord brings. There are people who, when I first arrived five years ago, were plotting to take certain positions. And they spent the whole time doing it and they did it. That’s great – they’re happy, I guess. But, I’m a Kentucky hillbilly. I have never suffered from ambition! That’s my answer! Seriously, if my country and my kids need me, I will continue to serve.

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