Arizona Capitol Times: Up Close with Chuck Coughlin

Chuck Coughlin is a man defined by the battles he’s fought.

In his quarter century in Arizona, Coughlin has either worked for or butted heads with nearly every big name in the state’s pantheon of political heavyweights. His reputation preceeds him at the Capitol, but even the fierce political infighter was once a novice.

The first time he went to the Legislature to lobby for a bill, Coughlin didn’t even know who then-Senate President Carl Kunasek was. But he learned quickly and it wasn’t long before he earned a reputation for stepping on people’s toes.

As one of Gov. Jan Brewer’s closest allies and advisers — he has helped Brewer build the framework of both her administration and her campaign — Coughlin is still building on the reputaton he’s earned during the past 25 years. He sat down with the Arizona Capitol Times to discuss his first big win at the Capitol, his heart-to-heart with state Treasurer Dean Martin and what Michigan Wolverines football taught him about politics.

You were voted in the Arizona Capitol Times’ Best of the Capitol awards as the political operative you’d least like to have as an opponent. How did you earn that reputation?

The first time I won that award I laughed. Really it goes back to … I grew up in a town where every Saturday you were expected to win, and you were expected to do whatever’s necessary to do that. I grew up in Ann Arbor when Bo Schembechler was the (University of Michigan football) coach back there, brand new coach. That ethic sort of bled into me.

I guess I’m pretty competitive, highly competitive about what I do. And I want to do it well. I’ve been blessed in my life to work with a bunch of really good people who taught me a lot. I’ve been able to sort of meld that competitiveness with, I think, experience. And you get experience from losing. We’ve certainly lost our fair share. But we know how to win, and I think that’s where that comes from. I’m a very competitive person.

 So is that aggressive reputation deserved?

Yeah, it is. It’s well deserved. I think it also comes to knowing what you believe and holding onto the bat and sticking. I learned a lot from working for people like (John) McCain and working for people like Fife (Symington) or Grant (Woods), who didn’t always believe what I believed.

How did you get your start in politics in Arizona?

I met John McCain in 1984 on the first campaign I ever worked on, in Ohio. I picked him up, drove him around. I’d read all his literature. He was then a congressman. I went to a VFW convention in downtown Cleveland where there wasn’t a guy in the hall whose name didn’t end in a vowel. It was a tough crowd. It was working class, blue collar. It was 1984, the middle of the economic recession. Tough crowd.

We brought McCain in there and McCain got up, told his now-patented jokes about, I feel bad for all you Marines on Mother’s Day, still looking around for who your mom is. Then he went on to tell that story … about the gentleman who had the flag inside his pajamas and the Vietnamese found out, beat the crap out of him, left him for two hours in the mud. They thought he was going to die. McCain remembered waking up in the middle of the night and looking up and seeing this guy sewing his flag back in. They said the pledge of allegiance to that flag every night.

Just what that meant — I knew right then that I’d found a guy who was really special, who had a special history, a special notion of public service. And I just wanted to be a part of that, so I offered to come out here and work on his first Senate campaign, doing all his fundraising in ’84 and ’85. He allowed me to do that and I was grateful for the opportunity. I met a ton of people. Pissed off a lot of people too.

I decided then and there that, whether I worked for McCain or not, I was going to stay in Arizona. What appealed to me about Arizona was the notion that you could come out here … you felt like the opportunity was limitless. You could see as far as the horizon could go and you could be whatever you wanted to be.

 But you didn’t work for McCain after he was elected to the Senate?

No. As I said, I pissed off a lot of people. I went from there to the Mesa Chamber of Commerce as their director of government affairs.

I worked there for about a year-and-a-half. I privatized all of the commercial garbage business in the city of Mesa. … I was a kid. I was 25, 26. I looked at all the rates and Mesa was charging a lot more than all of its sister cities.

I went over to City Hall, and I made my presentation and they patted me on the head and said, “You’re just a special interest. But what you don’t understand is we use this revenue to support non-revenue-producing services in the city. We don’t have a property tax in Mesa. This is how we support our city.”

I said, “You ought to allow for competition,” and they were like, “You’re a good little boy. Go home now.” A guy came over to my office, one of the lobbyists for the industry. He goes, “You should go down and talk to some people at the state Senate about that.” I’d never been to the Senate. I didn’t know anything about the state Senate. And I went down and they told me I should call this guy named Carl Kunasek.

 He liked the idea. I went home and — this is not a joke — five weeks later the bill is on (Gov. Rose) Mofford’s desk, because you could do strikers in those days on the Senate floor. So he did a striker on the Senate floor, saying if you were a city of 150,000 or more you had to permit up to seven haulers to haul commercial waste. It goes on to Mofford’s desk and she signs the thing. And I was like, “I can make some [expletive] happen.”

That next day I get called over the (city manager) Chuck Luster’s office. … He and (then-Mayor Peggy Rubach) just ripped me up one side and down the other. That bill literally cost the city of Mesa $3 million overnight.

You got to the Capitol not long after Jan Brewer. Have you known her since then?

We both have discussed that. We tried to remember when we first really met. We think we met — I’m fairly confident — when I worked for Grant and she was in the House. I was Grant’s lobbyist, because I left Bob’s (Bob Robb) firm and I went to work for Grant as his director of public affairs in ’91, after his election.

Where we really got to know each other well was years later when she was Senate majority whip and I was Fife’s chief lobbyist in ’95.

She was the chief vote-counter in the Senate, and it was our job to get the governor’s agenda through, so I got to know her pretty well. Fife’s team had a fairly aggressive, robust reputation. She’ll say to this day, “I was scared of you guys,” that we’d come in and threaten her or something like that. I don’t recall that.

She called me after I left Fife’s employ in ‘96 and started a firm called Coughlin Communications. We changed that to HighGround about four months later when Wes (Gullett) joined me. She came to me after that session and told me she wanted to run for county supervisor.

We’ve run all her campaigns ever since.

A lot of people view you as one of the chief decision-makers for the Brewer administration, and you’ve become a lightning rod for anyone who’s unhappy about what Brewer’s doing. Is that deserved?

I understand it. It’s not. The truth is, somewhere in between those who say I’m the de facto governor — which is just baloney — and somewhere else. Do I have an opportunity to be heard? Yes, which I’m grateful for. But I also respect that it’s her decision. It’s her name. It’s her administration. She has a whole team of people around who are super talented, who deserve all kinds of credit for the good things that are happening for her right now. I’m part of a team.

So how did you come to be the person everyone blames when they’re mad at the governor?

Someone’s got to have that role, because people are really reluctant to take shots at the governor, although some people have. It’s just natural that somebody is going to find somebody outside the administration to say, “That’s the problem.” I think that’s an age-old political tradition.

Brewer got off to a pretty rocky start. How did things get so bad?

It was bad. I look back at most first-year gubernatorial administrations — Fife’s, Hull’s, Napolitano’s, the ones I’ve been familiar with. First years are always shakeouts.

Even somebody like the governor, who’d been in office 26 years at the time she became governor, thinks that you know what that’s about. You think, “I’ve done this.” No. You don’t know until you do it. You don’t know until you’re up there.

What’s different about her first-year shakeout? She wasn’t elected and inherited the worst fiscal situation the state had ever faced. So did it surprise me that the first year was miserable? No.

Dean Martin said you tried to talk him out of running for governor last year. What happened in that meeting?

First, let me say I have a lot of respect for Dean and the challenges he had faced in his life. He was going through an incomprehensible challenge.

My reach out to him was, regardless of what you believe about the governor — and I got into what I believe — I don’t think you’re in a position, as your friend, to be taking on this challenge. I don’t think you’re set. It’s just incomprehensible to me that any human being would be set to be able to do this. And I said I was concerned about him.

And then I proceeded to tell him what I believed would happen for governor between that point and February. I said, “Why don’t you just wait? Why don’t you just wait and see what happens? And if you’re still not satisfied by the time these next few months expire, then you can still run and still go do what you’re going to do.”

But I told him I was fairly confident the governor was going to get a budget done in a record amount of time. I told him I was fairly confident that the governor would get a referral to the ballot (for her temporary sales tax hike), and I was fairly confident that the referral would succeed — all based on polling data, all based on intuition, all based on what I knew the Governor’s Office was doing to make those things happen.

 Who are the most interesting people you’ve known at the Capitol?

Sue Gerard. I loved getting in fights with Sue Gerard down there. That was always fun. She was just combative as all hell, and that was just great.

I’ve had some blowup experiences. Jane Hull threw me out of the Legislature, banned me from the Legislature one year when I was working for Grant because I got into a confrontation with Patty Nolan on a hate-crimes bill. I became the stealth lobbyist because I would sneak onto the third floor of each building and try to talk to people.

What’s changed the most about the Capitol since you got there?

I think the combination of term limits, which creates a need for legislators to feel like they need to grab headlines very quickly. They need to become known. They need to get an accomplishment. They need to make a name for themselves instead of learning, because they’re term limited.

The second biggest effect was Clean Elections. It used to be there was a market test imposed by the business community on one side, education establishment, social service networks, people who have a vested interest in good government in one way or another would have to go through an interview process with all these people.

There was a vetting. Most of the time that vetting process produced a more thoughtful candidate, at least somebody who had a real grasp of the issues. You wouldn’t get a Buz Mills running for governor who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Has no idea about what his budget plan is. He’s just espousing ideological fantasies and magic tricks.

And then the third thing that really changed is the rapidity with which things happened, or at least perceived to be happening. The 24-hour news cycle, e-mails, the Yellow Sheet. And how every single day people feel like there’s something. It’s become sort of like a high school class — Bobby said this about Sally, and Sally said this about him. And that proceeds down a whole different trail of bad behaviors a lot of the time because people feel in the age of the Internet that you have to be much more aggressive in responding, and you lose track of really what you’re down there to do.

What’s something people don’t know about you that would detract from your reputation?

I’m a fierce fighter, but I’m also just a big softie when it comes to being compassionate for people. I get emotional at movies. I love “Hoosiers,” those kinds of stories.

I love human success stories. I love people overcoming a challenge. I just love that. I love the idea that you just battle all the time, and every once in a while you can get a win and do something great. You can relish in that for a brief moment before something else takes it away.

How often do you go back to Ann Arbor for Michigan football games?

I usually go back for an early season game, and then if the (Ohio State) Buckeyes are (in Ann Arbor against Michigan) I’ll go back for that.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

Arrogance and ingratitude. Gratefulness is a key virtue. You have to be grateful for those opportunities that you’re given.

 What’s the last book you read?

I just read “Master and Commander,” which is the first book in that seafaring series about Samuel (Jack) Aubrey. It’s a very nautically intense book.

How do you relax in your spare time?

Read. Every year we go on Fife’s boat down in the Sea of Cortez. I take two books. Guys will take jet skis out and go fishing and do all kinds of [expletive]. But I’ll just sit there and I just like to read.

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