Three years ago, Randall Gnant founded what he called the "Mushroom Coalition," a group of moderate Republicans in the Arizona Senate who thought their leadership kept them in the dark and covered with bull droppings. Now Gnant himself is the Senate president. He says his first order of business will be "embarking on a new course" of making the legislative process more open.
Gnant's prescription may be welcome medicine for a legislature that has seen public respect dwindle as a result of last-minute legislation passed in 2000 that will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The bill, designed to promote purchases of cars that run on alternative fuels, had the effect of subsidizing expensive SUVs and other vehicles that may actually use regular gasoline. It was promoted by Republican Speaker Jeff Groscost, a close associate of the state's leading alternative-fuel car dealer.
On November 7, in the wake of the fuels fiasco, Groscost lost a bid for what had been a safe Republican Senate seat, wiping out the GOP's narrow majority and replacing it with a 15-15 partisan tie. Enter Gnant. A couple of months before the election, anticipating the tie, Gnant began meeting across the aisle with Democratic leaders, putting together a deal that gives him charge of the chamber but make Democrats chairmen of the Appropriations and Finance committees.
As Appropriations chairman in the most recent session, Gnant enjoyed unusually good relations with Democrats, and even his harshest critics grant him high marks for his committee work. "He brought an openness and fairness to that wrangling that hadn't been part of the process for a really long time," says Chris Cummiskey, the assistant Democratic leader.
Gnant, whose name is pronounced guh-NANT, is universally described as smart but considered by some to be a little on the arrogant side. A business consultant by profession, he came to elective politics in 1994, at the age of 49, claiming that he was "fed up with the Republican Party," and insisting that he could do a better job than professional politicians. After he won his state Senate seat that year, he took it upon himself to learn the legislative process by writing about it. His manual is now posted on the legislature's Web site, itself an early Gnant project.
"He wrote a book that's now considered a bible," says attorney John Green, who was president of the Senate when Gnant came in. "You don't find that many legislators who come into office that are that hungry to learn about the process."
Gnant has a long way to go to win acceptance among his party's right wing. His campaign for the Senate presidency succeeded only because of Democratic support; it attracted just two Republican votes. The other GOP candidate for the job, conservative Tom Smith, made a point of saying that Gnant "has not been a leader within the Republican caucus in any shape or form." The new president may eventually be able to win over most of his party caucus, but only by putting together a kaleidoscope of separate coalitions one issue at a time.
On the other hand, Gnant should be able to get along well with Republican Governor Jane Dee Hull, whose efforts at increased spending on schools and mental health have had his support in the past. Hull expects Gnant and his nascent bipartisan coalition to be easier to work with than the previous, more ideological Republican majority.
"A lot of people have said that we might as well give this a chance," Gnant argues, "because the worst that can happen is we go back to how it was." He presents no bold change in policy direction for the next two years, promising to focus instead on his desire to bring the two parties together and reduce the level of tension in the institution as a whole.
It will be a tough balancing act. If it succeeds, he may have to rewrite his book about the way the legislature works.