Arizona's Governor Babbitt likes his 'bully pulpit'
Phoenix — Bruce Babbitt, invoking the wisdom of Teddy Roosevelt, says governors own a "bully pulpit." The Democratic Governor of Arizona, a young and aggressive leader who attraced national attention through his seat on the presidential commission that investigated the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, Pa., admits that "the governor can't pass laws and doesn't even vote on them." But, he adds, "what he does have is access to the public, a chance to speak and to stir things up. It's an enormously important part of the job and one that I've not hesitated to use."
Despite an unassuming style and carefully chosen political positions, Mr. Babbitt is not afraid to flex some muscle. He is known both as a "mellowing influence," in the words of one Arizona legislator, and as a mover and shaker. He examines the facts, makes up his mind, and then acts -- no flinching allowed.
"It's the most effective way of getting things done, and I think it's what I was elected to do," he says. "The public loses confidence in your ability to make ratonal decisions unless you stand up there and says, 'Here's my advice, and let me explain why.'"
Governor Babbitt has had to offer his share of explanations. He fought to uncover the source of alfatoxin, a hazardous cotton seed mold, when potentially dangerous amounts began showing up in retail food. He swifly shut down the American Atomics Corporation in Tucson last summer, amid bitter controversy, after high levels of radioactive tritium in the neighborhood were traced to sloppy practices at the plant. He moderated a tough argument over the safety of some residents in Globe, Ariz., who lived near an old asbestos plant. Most recently he reassembled squabbling parties in the groundwater dispute, a crucial state battle, after everyone had left the bargaining table.
All these issues were well-played in the state media, with Governor Babbitt cast in the pivotal position, depicted as authoritative, but compassionate and stern.
"He presents a posture of being a dynamic leader," says Burton Barr (R) of Phoenix, the Arizona House majority leader. "He is bright and politically astute. He is something new for Arizona. We are used to governors who are less adventurous."
As the loyal opposition, however, Mr. Barr isn't too overwhelmed. "He reacts too quickly," adds Mr. Barr. "He trips over his own ambition. He tends to say and do things that will come back to haunt him. He has lost some of this lustre."
Specifically, Mr. Barr says, the Governor promised support to business during the campaign but has vetoed too many pro-business bills for industry to retain any faith in that pledge.
Mr. Babbit denies it. "I get along okay with business; they've gotten their share of the bacon," he says, citing new laws to stimulate construction and ease unemployment insurance regulatons as proof of his commitment to the private sector.
What irks critics, who suggest he is all things to all people, says Mr. Babbitt, is that his record is not easily labeled. "Where I stand on most issues is very clear. I think there is frustration over the stands I've taken on the whole spectrum of issues because its difficult for them to pigeonhole me."
Young Bruce Babbitt left Arizona in 1950s thinking he might never return. He studied geology at Notre Dame University (graduating magna cum laude), geophysics at the University of Newcastle in England, and later earned a law degree from Harvard University. He has taken expeditions in South America, marched in civil rights demonstrations in alabama, and worked in the VISTA program.
"I slowly realized that Arizona was the most attractive place I knew," he says. Elected state attorney general in 1974, he became governor, by law, when Gov. Wesley Bolin passed on in 1978. He was later elected to a full term.