Speakers’ Corner: Russell “Rusty” Bowers

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This is a place where free speech and public debate are welcomed and encouraged. The Speakers’ Corner originated in the mid-19th century at London’s Hyde Park. The concept spread worldwide both physically and now virtually. Here at the Arizona Progress & Gazette, we are presenting this platform in the form of question-and-answer style interviews with people who have had a meaningful impact on the community.  Today’s Speakers’ Corner guest is former Arizona House Speaker Russell Bowers.

Bowers was first elected to the Arizona State Legislature in 1993. He has also spent decades as a professional artist.

Bowers was elected House Speaker in 2019. In 2022, Bowers ran for the Arizona Senate in the 10th district. He lost to Dave Farnsworth in the Republican primary.

A lifelong conservative, his decision to affirm the results of the 2020 presidential election and defend those actions before the U.S. Congress earned him a John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award in 2022.

Your decision to stand up to Donald Trump was a defining moment in a long political career. How do you think that decision has defined you?

Courage is what you show when there is a risk, a fearful outcome, a pressure, a threat against you of whatever kind it may be. We all show courage at one time or another…and when you face fear – depression, loss, burdens of life, our own weakness…whenever we take the decision to face that fear down. Yes, I specifically remember in one conversation, thinking…where is this going, what are they asking? In retrospect, all the times that I had to show some level of courage in decision making prior to that prepared me for that. Will I always be courageous in every instance? Whenever I am less than my best – no. But driving hope is that I can be more courageous in the decisions that matter to my soul, my family, my faith, my country. It was the definition of who I was that prepared me for that moment, when I was asked to follow a course that would have the electors of the future President removed and the electors of that past President installed, when the proposal was being spoken to me my conscience was building in me – you cannot do that. Say it! That decision, with its very public outcome, may seem to define me, but I have made enough bad decisions to know that most courage is displayed in the soul, not in the microphone.

Members of the media that were traditionally critical of conservatives such as yourself, lined up to praise you following your decision to stand up to Trump. Likewise, conservative media that once praised you went on the attack. Do you feel the media has become substantially more biased compared to when you first entered Arizona politics in 1993?

Yes I do. But all of politics has changed, public discourse has changed, the acceptance of disrespect, verbal abuse, cheating to win, lying, character assassination – all have increased through the political arena and beyond. Those that cover politics have led or followed but they are all right in the scrum, pushing down into the mud.  It also is compelling to consider what “conservative” means. God fearing not just in the heart but the outward man. Someone trying to conserve principles of honor and country, fidelity, compassion, forgiveness. Virtues that hold society together and unite. Those were things to conserve!! And those that try to do that I think are conservative. So maybe the definition has changed, and I wasn’t listening.

What motivated you to get into politics more than 30 years ago?

I was in need of employment. ASU had turned down my portfolio for admission into the master’s program in art, and so a job opportunity disappeared. A legislative district leader asked me to consider running as a precinct committeeman, and by the end of the conversation she dared me to run for Stan Barnes seat…and unfortunately for the world, I accepted the dare and two weeks later had signatures to run and was subsequently elected.

As a professional artist, you brought a unique perspective to politics. How did being an artist influence how you governed?

I made it a point to try to stay out of the boxes people wanted to stick me in. I knew the rules of good art, and I tried to learn and follow the rules of good politics. Try to find the good in policy and people, look for opportunity to work together for good things, listen to others’ opinions and don’t be quick to judge, learn from mistakes and admit it when you are wrong, keep moving forward. Remember, every other person in the legislature was elected just like me.

What is your take on the current state of the Arizona Legislature? Has the divisiveness that has engulfed national politics consumed state level politics?

There are good people serving in our legislature. But electeds reflect the acceptable deportment of those that elect them. The coarseness of our politics is a reflection of our level of societal coarseness and demeanor. It doesn’t have to, but it’s easier to follow the crowd rather than lead it. Real leadership is demanding of the virtue of the leader, and the outcome is more a reflection of the virtue the leader most values in the depths of the soul.

What advice would you give to the current GOP leadership at the legislature, especially in working with a Democratic Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State?

Every position you mentioned was elected. A one vote majority is not a mandate. You have to work with the other party to find a common path forward. Yes, be principled, but be sure you know what they really are.

“Fame is a vapor, popularity is an accident, riches take wings, those who cheer today may curse tomorrow and only one thing endures – character.” ― Harry Truman