Sen. Sean Bowie talks about entering politics to focus on helping public education on April 25, 2017, at the Arizona state Capitol in Phoenix. Mark Henle/azcentral.com
He thought he was ready. Sean Bowie expected governing to come naturally, but the two months since his election had been filled with things he wanted and couldn’t have: a second job to pay off his student loans, the portrait of Teddy Roosevelt he asked to hang in his office and more time to figure out how a Democrat gets anything done in Arizona.
And he needed a new suit. Bowie had lost 15 pounds during the campaign, walking door to door in a district that usually elected Republicans. A steady diet of Kit Kat bars wasn’t bringing back the weight, and he spent the last weekend of his private life in search of something to fit a 6-foot-5, 135-pound state senator.
Fifteen suit shops yielded nothing, so on his first day Bowie pulled on the same gray suit he wore on election night and welcomed his guests to the smallest office in the Senate.
“What do you think of the office?” he asked the day’s first visitors, three friends from his time with an education advocacy group.
“You need photos in here,” his friend Joel replied.
“We’re working on it,” Bowie said. He had left a blank patch of wall for the Roosevelt portrait, but learned later the paint wouldn’t survive his office’s conditions. Instead he hung a printed quote from Roosevelt: The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.
Bowie, 33, entered the arena to fix public education. “Education has to be the Number 1 priority,” he said during the campaign, repeating the Democratic articles of faith that Arizona ranks 48th in the country in public education spending, first in college tuition increases and first in cuts to higher education. District 18, in the corner where Tempe, Chandler, Mesa and Ahwatukee Foothills meet, had a voter base that was high income and well educated, and it sent him to the Senate to bring back funding for schools.
He worried about a Republican plan to expand the state’s school voucher program, a measure he intended to oppose. He and his Democratic colleagues knew a standoff with GOP lawmakers loomed.
But Bowie was just one Democrat in a state controlled by Republicans, and the Senate’s only true freshman, with no experience in government. Already the Republicans were plotting to win back the seat he was about to fill. The governor declined his invitations to meet.
“You’ve got to come over here and see this,” he said now, showing his friends his new desk. His was in the back, clustered with most of the Senate’s other Democrats. “So, that’s the Senate floor.”
“Very proud of you, brother,” his friend Jeff said.
“You’ve accomplished the dream.”
“Have I?” Bowie said, and nobody responded.
Following his passion for politics
Five days in, and it still sounded strange. Senator Bowie. Everybody called him that now. Everybody wanted a meeting. Each day Bowie arrived before sunrise to read three newspapers and the day’s schedule, always the first car in the Senate parking lot.
“There’s no regimented way to do this,” he said, and at times he found himself scrambling to catch up. Most legislators start their political careers in the House of Representatives, where each member is given a three-day orientation program to go through mock committee hearings and practice votes. Bowie had skipped straight to the Senate. His orientation lasted two hours.
Bowie knew his place, and kept his goals simple. He asked policy staffers to bring him Democratic bills that had failed in previous sessions, searching for something to revive. He wanted his name on a handful of bills in the session’s first days, supporting simple policies that wouldn’t cause controversy.
If none of that could happen, he wanted to at least be seen trying. He planned to visit every school in his district, so on the session’s first Friday he left the Capitol early and drove to Paragon Science Academy, a charter school in west Chandler.
A handmade sign waited by the front door, its yellow letters outlined in glitter: Welcome to Paragon, Senator Bowie. He paused to take a picture, then stepped into the old office building Paragon used as its campus. Floor-to-ceiling cases of math and science trophies filled the lobby. A thick-bearded student named Youssef shuffled forward and extended his hand, eyes on the floor.
“Senator,” Youssef said, “how are you doing?”
“Thanks for having me. And the sign,” Bowie said, pointing outside, “that’s a first for me.”
Paragon principal Selim Tanyeri showed Bowie around the school and walked him to his white-walled office, where he and four students crammed around a wobbly table. A plate of cookies and cheese slices sat untouched. Bowie crossed his legs as the students reviewed questions for their new senator.
Youssef went first. “For students like me, who really have a burning desire to step into politics…”
“Burning desire, huh?”
“Trust me. It’s a burning desire,” Youssef said. “So what would you recommend we do when we’re in high school?”
“Are you really sure you want to be in politics?” Bowie asked, laughing. Yousseff assured him that he did.
“You know,” Bowie said, “I first started getting interested in politics in college and high school, as well.”
Back then it was a hobby, never a career. His family moved from Southern California to Arizona when he was young, settling in Chandler because of its strong public schools. He joined the theater program at Mountain Pointe High School and read books in his free time, a shy, skinny kid who colored maps of the Electoral College but wanted to be a meteorologist or an architect.
“They make a lot of money,” he explained to his mother when he was still in high school.
“Well, don’t think about money. What’s your passion?”
“Follow your passion,” his mother told him. “Do what you love.”
And so he decided to spend his career in politics. He went to Arizona State University and studied political science, then joined a string of campaigns: John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008, a friend’s Secretary of State campaign in 2010. The next step was to run for office himself, but at just 26 years old he wasn’t interested. He enrolled at Carnegie Mellon and earned a master’s degree in public policy.
“Really focus on what’s best for whatever cause you care about,” he told Youssef. “Not so much your own advancement.”
He knew colleagues who lived for the campaign, for the crowds and the praise and the chance to talk uninterrupted every night. They voted out of fear, he believed, always thinking about the next election. Bowie promised himself he’d do it differently. He was elected to represent District 18, he liked to remind people, not climb a political ladder.
A girl next to Youssef raised her hand. “What is the greatest challenge you have faced so far in your political career?”
“That’s a good one,” Bowie said. “It’s my fifth day as a senator. Day 5.”
He stared at the ceiling. The great challenge of his time in the Senate was to build enough influence to work his ideas through a chamber stacked with opposition. Or it would come in 2018, when he defended his seat in the elections. But those problems were still to come. So far, the hardest part of his job had been winning it.
People told him it was impossible, that no Democrat could win District 18, that he was too young to pull it off. Bowie brushed off their concerns. For 20 months his life was a campaign. He knocked on 13,000 doors in his district and hung onto every new vote. His Republican opponent, Frank Schmuck, assumed it would be an easy victory. He tied himself to Donald Trump and coasted. Bowie raised $111,000 and knocked on more doors.
On Election Night he insisted on being left alone, locking himself in his office to watch the results filter in to his computer. He was certain Hillary Clinton would be elected president, and confident he had done enough to win his own race. The polls closed at 7 p.m. An hour later, the screen flashed a comfortable lead. “It’s not over yet,” he kept saying, even though it was.
He won by almost 3,000 votes, and became the second-youngest member of the Arizona state Senate.
Now the girl at Paragon had one more question. “Is it hard to come up with policies?” she asked. “Like, solutions for the problems you face?”
“I always have solutions,” Bowie replied. “The hard part is getting other people to agree with those solutions.”
How a bill sometimes stays a bill
Another committee meeting, another senator asking how to pronounce his name. Bowie was assigned to two committees, Finance and Commerce, both chaired by Republicans who called him Boo-wee.
“Senator, can we clarify the pronunciation of your last name?” asked Sen. David Farnsworth, pausing his 9 a.m. Finance Committee meeting to address the freshman who kept talking about higher education. “Are we saying it right?”
“Bo-wee,” he replied from his seat near the end of the bench. “Like David Bowie.”
“OK, thank you,” Farnsworth said, and Bowie stayed silent the rest of the meeting.
Back in his office, Bowie fell into the chair behind his desk and opened a Kit Kat. Within seconds, his assistant Adam Jones knocked and brought him a schedule, an updated budget proposal and a highlighter.
“What did you think of the committee hearing?” Bowie asked.
“I thought you did really well,” Jones said.
“They didn’t discuss 1041,” Bowie said, referencing a bill that would prevent schools from deciding which transfer credits to accept. “Which I’m opposed to.”
“Yeah, I think they know that,” Jones said. “Great job on higher education. You’re the only one talking about it.”
“Right.” It was the session’s third week, and talking was all he had done.
He wanted his first bill to pass easily, but Senate Bill 1382 came to his desk first. The bill was simple, designed to alter Arizona’s employment-discrimination law to protect LGBT people. “I don’t know if it will get very far, but I want to at least introduce it,” he said. First he needed colleagues to add their signatures in support, so he tucked the bill into a folder and went to find them.
“Got my first one,” he said, knocking on Sen. Juan Mendez’s door.
“Whoa,” Mendez said. He found a pen on his desk and clicked it open, ready to sign whatever Bowie brought him. They had known each other since college. Now Mendez was the only senator younger than Bowie.
“I have several bills that we’re drafting, but this is the first one,” Bowie said. “This is something I’m hoping would get a couple Republicans on board.”
“That would be crazy,” Mendez said, signing the front cover of Bowie’s bill and handing it back.
Bowie settled into a leather couch and eyed his friend’s desk. Stacks of folders and stapled packets covered almost every inch of wood. “How many do you have?” he asked.
“I think I’ve got 35.”
“I’ve got eight,” Bowie said. “Which I’m proud of.”
Eight bills. If he could pass one, it would be a success. In Arizona, Democratic bills die for no reason other than the name on the cover. If two senators introduced the exact same bill, at the exact same time, the Republican’s would survive.
Gov. Doug Ducey signed 374 bills into law during the Legislature’s last session. Just four of them were introduced by Democrats.
So Democratic leaders tried to keep everybody in formation, working as one to push a few carefully chosen policies. They were a minority, but not as overwhelmed as they had been in past sessions. With 13 senators, the Democrats needed to flip just two Republicans to stop any bill from passing. But their own bills were often pushed away.
All the other Democrats were in meetings, so Bowie walked across the courtyard to find signatures in the House. A security guard waved him in, and Bowie headed straight for Rep. Mitzi Epstein, a fellow freshman Democrat from District 18.
“Is Mitzi in?” he asked Epstein’s assistant.
She shook her head. “She’s in committee,” she said, barely looking up. “Ways and Means.”
“I should’ve known that. Is Kelli?” he asked, looking for Rep. Kelli Butler, a Democrat from District 28.
“No, she just stepped out.”
Bowie rolled his eyes. “Government at work,” he muttered, and he walked back to his office with only one signature on his bill.
It’s not much, but it passed
He called himself a policy wonk, somebody who spent his free time reading presidential biographies and the next week’s legislation. On most weekends he was the only senator in the building, working beneath a banner from Carnegie Mellon that hung on his office wall: My heart is in the work.
But governing didn’t come as instinctively as he expected, and the campaign never ended. Frank Schmuck already planned to run again in 2018. Bowie slipped donation requests into emails to supporters and spent a few hours each week canvassing for votes.
The deadline passed, and Bowie introduced six bills. Four of them, including his LGBT discrimination bill, were sent to committees and never seen again. Only two survived: A resolution recognizing National Speech and Debate Education Day in Arizona, and Senate Bill 1321, which asked the Department of Insurance for a report on surprise medical billing.
“It’s non-controversial,” Bowie said, and at every stop SB 1321 passed without opposition.
It was the only vote scheduled on March 2. That morning, Bowie’s fellow Democrats loaded it with sarcastic criticism. “Definitely don’t vote for that,” they told him. “That bill is a bad, bad bill.”
On the floor the reader sped through the bill’s explanation, and Senate President Steve Yarbrough opened the electronic voting system. The names of all 30 senators appeared on a projection screen.
“The Senate will proceed to vote,” Yarbrough said.
Instantly four names flashed red. Four votes against his bill, three Democrats. And now Farley’s name turned red, and Contreras, too. But that couldn’t be right. Everybody had been in support just a few hours earlier.
Bowie said nothing. The votes stopped coming in. Five seconds passed. Ten.
Sen. Lisa Otondo’s name turned red, then green. Red again. Green again. Slowly the other names on the screen flipped back to green, until 28 Senators had voted for Bowie’s bill. Two chose not to vote.
Around him, Bowie’s colleagues grinned. Senate Democrats liked to scare their freshmen, convincing them for just a moment that their first bill was destined to flop. Bowie’s initiation was complete.
“You have passed Senate Bill 1321,” Yarbrough announced. “Congratulations, Senator Bowie,” and the chamber filled with applause.
The most important vote
He wanted to save his voice for something that mattered, so in the session’s first three months Bowie spoke on the floor only once. “I’ve been saving it for the big things,” he said.
Governing was about practicality. The Democrats’ main objective couldn’t be to pass policies they wanted. They had to become a blockade, and Bowie joined them, voting with a bloc of Democrats to stop bills he called “spiteful and hateful,” keeping silent when veteran colleagues threw accusations and insinuations across the chamber.
Then the voucher expansion Bowie feared arrived on the floor. Introduced by Sen. Debbie Lesko, Senate Bill 1431 would expand Arizona’s school-voucher program and make all public school students eligible by 2020.
Republicans said the bill was about school choice, about allowing parents to send their children to a school that best fit their needs. Democrats called it an experiment, the first step in a process that would rip money from public education. Bowie believed it would start the slow decline of Arizona’s public schools.
So little had been possible in Bowie’s first session. Now was his chance, the day he would finally stand up and release what he had built up for so long.
“This is the day,” he said, reviewing notes in his office. Emails and phone calls demanding he oppose voucher expansion flooded his inboxes. “This is the most important bill all session.”
Democrats began the day with enough votes to block SB 1431 in the Senate. All 13 Democrats were opposed, and two Republicans planned to vote against it. If they held firm, the bill Bowie hated most couldn’t pass.
At 9:03 a.m., less than an hour before the floor session, everything flipped. Working with Lesko and other pro-voucher Republicans, Sen. Bob Worsley introduced a compromise amendment: If the program was limited to 5,000 new students per year, it had his vote.
The hour drew near. Senators and protesters filtered into the chamber. “Help us remember that there will always be differences of opinion,” a pastor said in the opening prayer, and Bowie turned to face his supporters in the gallery. Public-education advocates in bright red T-shirts filled most rows. Bowie scanned the crowd, nodded in solidarity and checked in for roll call.
For the next two hours he watched as the Worsley Amendment was debated, then adopted. A Democratic amendment that required private schools receiving voucher money to follow the same standards as public schools was quickly killed.
“The Senate will proceed to vote,” Yarbrough said again.
The same 30 names appeared on the screen. With a word, Bowie leaned forward and pressed two buttons: The red one to cast his vote, and the yellow one to indicate he had something to say.
“I think it’s the most important bill I will ever vote on,” he started when his turn came. He was a product of those public schools. As a student, a volunteer, a candidate and a lawmaker he visited them, talking with teachers and administrators, pledging to do everything he could to stop the very thing that was happening on the Senate floor. “My heart aches for those schools, for the teachers, the educators, the children, for the superintendents in my district.”
He sat and pressed the red button on his desk again.
“Senator Bowie votes no,” Yarbrough announced.
A few minutes later, the bill passed, 16-13. Every Democrat voted in opposition. Only one Republican did the same.
Bowie trudged to his office in silence, eyes locked on the floor. He collapsed into a chair. Bags of gummy bears and Chex Mix waited on his desk, because they had worked through lunch. On a TV in the corner, members of the House discussed the voucher bill. Bowie clicked it off.
“It’s days like today that make me question whether I want to keep doing this,” he said. Everything had fallen apart in a few hours. Nobody asked what he wanted. Nobody listened.
“If we can’t stop this, then everything else…”
His voice trailed off.
Knocking on a lot of doors … again
Later that night, Gov. Ducey signed the voucher expansion into law. “I’m sorry we let you down,” Bowie wrote in an email to supporters, then he tried to distract himself. He saw a play at his old elementary school in Tempe and considered taking a vacation day.
But politics demanded constant attention. Bowie went into the office the next day, and the day after that, and by Sunday afternoon he was back in his district, campaigning for a job he wasn’t sure was worth it anymore.
A campaign volunteer named Kathy drove to him an upscale neighborhood in south Tempe, down streets lined with lemon trees and oversize homes. Bowie planned the day’s targets on his phone. A campaign app sorted through public voting records and filled a street map with independents and moderate Republicans. In the time it took to walk up a driveway, Bowie could see the resident’s name, voting frequency and whether they had met before.
Kathy parked just off Brentrup Drive, and Bowie climbed out. He had a handful of campaign brochures and a stack of pre-written notes that shouted, Sorry I missed you! On a good day, 30 percent of people answered the door.
Bowie walked up the day’s first driveway and rang the doorbell. Nobody came to the door. He left a note and walked across the street. Ding. More silence. Sorry I missed you!
“Got to keep moving forward,” he said. Just three months into his first term, and already he doubted if he wanted another. He campaigned on restoring education funding and bringing bipartisanship back to the Capitol. Neither happened. Most of his bills died without explanation. The ones he snuck through made no real change. Gov. Ducey signed legislation on surprise medical billing, but not Bowie’s. A bill from Sen. Lesko became law instead.
The only policy he was truly desperate to stop became law anyway. All that was left was negotiating the state budget, a process Republicans handled on their own. He still wanted to save public education, but nothing said he had to do it all from inside the Capitol.
Six houses down, and still no doors had opened. Bowie rang his seventh doorbell of the afternoon and took a step back, expecting to leave another brochure under the doormat. But a man peered through the screen door.
“Hi, my name is Sean Bowie,” he said, stepping forward with a startle. “I’m your state senator at the Capitol.”
The man inside pulled the door open a little wider. “You are?”
“I’m trying to remember if I voted for you,” he said, stepping onto the porch. He fell silent for a few seconds, then remembered. He did. “I’m technically a Republican, but I’ll vote for whoever I think is a better candidate.”
“Any questions for me?” Bowie asked, making no mention of the questions he spent the weekend asking himself. The next election was 19 months away. It was certain to be a closer campaign than the last. Could he win again? Did he even want to?
He still had $50,000 in student loan debt and no second income lined up. He worked seven days a week and couldn’t name the last thing he did for his own enjoyment. He still hadn’t found a new suit, so he ordered one online.
Splotches of sweat darkened his pink polo shirt. The houses all started to look the same. A Lexus in the driveway, two delivery slips on the front porch. A house with “Happy Easter” scrawled across the garage door. One with Chinese characters engraved on the porch. The home of a close friend from college.
Ding. Ding. Ding. No answers. Sorry I missed you!
“Where is everybody?” he asked himself, swiping open the map on his phone. A nearby street sign told him he was back on Brentrup. All around him were houses he needed to visit, people who needed to know his name, voters he needed to sway. The sun would set in an hour, but for now he stood frozen in the center of the street, right back where he started, unsure where to go next.
Read or Share this story: http://azc.cc/2pE7vRy