Arizona’s last Republican maverick

How Rusty Bowers, a BYU art graduate and father of seven, became one of the most consequential figures in the Republican Party’s civil war in Arizona

It’s unusual for an elected official to also be an accomplished artist.

But Rusty Bowers, Arizona’s Republican speaker of the House, doesn’t seem to mind the unusual.

On a sunny winter’s day in Phoenix, Bowers welcomes me into his enclave within Arizona’s Capitol complex. There are no windows, but his office is not lacking in decor. A smattering of Mexican-inspired textiles and a miniature bronze statue — a Bowers original — line his walls and shelves. There are paintings of wooded landscapes and mountains set against azure Arizona skies — they, too, are Bowers creations. In total, the speaker has roughly two dozen pieces of art displayed throughout the Capitol complex.

But there’s something else Bowers wants to show me.

“I’m going to hand you the proof,” Bowers says, getting up from his seat. After rummaging for half a minute, Bowers calls out to a staff member, “Where’s my proof?” Two others in the room begin rifling through cabinets and peering under sundry items.

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What they’re looking for is an 1-inch stack of transcripts and memos delivered to him by Mark Finchem, a fellow Republican member of the Arizona House. Among the notes is, in Bowers’ words, a “term paper (Finchem) had done for his legal services degree” accompanied by a letter from John Eastman, an attorney who was a key figure in Donald Trump’s drive to overturn the 2020 election results.

Among other things, the men claim some 3,000 Arizonans cast their ballot and then moved (which is not illegal) and that several thousand dead people voted. Bowers responds the same way he has since the fall of 2020.

“Great,” he says. “Give me their names.” He’d also like to know if the dead people voted for Trump or Joe Biden. “Maybe we’ll have to interview them,” he quips.

When Trump lost Arizona by 10,457 votes in 2020, the Grand Canyon State became a hotbed for allegations of election fraud with Bowers in the middle. He’s been wooed by close Trump associates Rudy Giuliani and Boris Epshteyn and has fended off attempts from his party to use the state legislature to remove certified results from the books.

Within this frenzied state of politics, it’s been Bowers — a BYU art graduate and Trump voter — who is the one yelling, “Stop!”

And for that, one of Arizona’s most influential legislators has become the rare political maverick bucking the GOP’s new dividing lines. Whether Bowers survives politically (he’s currently running for a seat in the Arizona Senate) will signal whether the Republican tent is large enough for a deeply conservative politician who isn’t afraid to call out his own party.

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Bowers made national headlines in early February for opposing a measure that would have given the Legislature powers to veto election results. In political parlance, he “killed” the bill.

But what he actually did feels more like rolling out the gallows and giving the bill a public execution.

The legislation, sponsored by Republican Rep. John Fillmore, could have been consigned to a box in a filing cabinet where it would have died a silent death. A handful of the 80 bills about election integrity have met a similar fate this session.

But when someone suggested the bill get sent to the committee on government and elections, Bowers said, “No, send it to all of them.” That is, send it to every single committee.

In practice, this meant for the bill to move forward it would need to pass favorably through a dozen committees. Succeeding in such a legislative gauntlet is harder than guessing Rumpelstiltskin’s name in order to save your baby.

Arizona Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers is photographed in a lounge outside of the Arizona House of Representatives chamber floor at the Capitol in Phoenix on Wednesday March 2, 2022. The painting in the background is one Bowers painted. | Laura Segall, for the Deseret News

“I wanted to send a message that there were certain things I would not put us through,” Bowers said. “We’re not going to take away the sovereign vote of 3.5 million Arizonans.”

What makes Bowers interesting in contemporary Republican politics is he can’t be written off as a passenger on the “never-Trump” train. He fully backed the president’s run in 2020. And when allegations of systemic voter fraud began to surface, Bowers was ready to get to the bottom of it.

He supported a joint audit of Maricopa County voting machines with Republican Senate President Karen Fann. He wasn’t necessarily convinced by the theories coming from the White House or elsewhere, but he saw it as a chance to verify the count and identify any potential weak spots in the system.

Bowers pushed to have an accredited firm conduct the audit, someone like PricewaterhouseCoopers. He was willing to spend millions to do it right. But in the end, as the Arizona Republic reports, Fann took a U-turn and led the push to solicit the help of Florida-based Cyber Ninjas, a company with no prior experience in election reviews. Doug Logan, the company’s head, however, had publicly endorsed notions the election was tainted before the company was ever chosen to lead the audit.

Still, the results of the Cyber Ninjas audit found no evidence of widespread voter fraud. And, in an unexpected twist, the firm concluded that Biden won by a slightly wider margin than previously recorded.

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None of this has stopped the pressure campaign on the speaker of the House. Thus far, eight different protests have cropped up outside of his Mesa home. He’s received thousands upon thousands of profane and threatening messages. One person recently suggested he was responsible for the war in Ukraine.

To a number of Republicans, Bowers has gone from a party leader to a verified RINO — “Republican in Name Only.”

“Why?” he asks. “Because I actually want to conserve things?”

Bowers is, indeed, conservative by just about any definition of the term. He votes that way; he talks that way. His life — marrying his childhood sweetheart and raising seven children — has given him a deep appreciation for family values, faith and conservative constitutional principles.

But he’s caught in a Republican Party increasingly divided against itself.

Our meeting is punctuated every few minutes by the ring of a bell and the muffled voices of House members on the floor defending their votes on a particular issue. The legislative calendar had received a late-notice addition: final readings on more than 100 bills.

Behind me in Bowers’ office is a screen displaying the bill on the floor and how each member votes.

His dutiful communications director keeps his eye on the TV while we talk and then politely interrupts when it’s time for Bowers to slip out the door to his left and give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

It’s here when the conversation shifts to shampoo.

Despite the talent Bowers has for his current job, he explains that his real knack is for the visual arts. It started as a child sitting in church where he would copy illustrations of Breck Shampoo advertisements provided by his mom.

It was “to keep me quiet,” Bowers says, but it helped spawn an interest in the arts that carried him through school and helped win a few art contests along the way.

When his high school art teacher met him for the first time and watched him paint, she told him to stay after class. He hung back when the bell rang thinking he was in trouble. Instead, she looked at him and said, “I’ll make you a deal.” He would never have to come to class, she said, if each week he produced a painting from Ted Kautzky’s “Ways with Watercolor.” His teacher would then offer feedback and improvements.

Those experiences propelled him to Brigham Young University as an art major. He also made the basketball team as a walk-on. “But you probably won’t play,” his coach told him. Accepting that reality and afraid he’d lose his girlfriend back in Arizona, he packed up, went home, kept his girlfriend Donetta (now his wife) and served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico.

Back at school after returning from his mission, Bowers branched out from painting to explore sculpting, which is how he made most of his living. Every sculpture in the Arizona House of Representatives building has Bowers’ name on it, and his work is featured at various Latter-day Saint church history sites across the country.

He got into politics because of “a dare,” he says.

At a crossroads in his art career, someone asked if he ever considered politics. “Um, no” Bowers responded bluntly. The person kept on with the pitch, encouraging Bowers to replace a local representative in the area who was vacating his seat to run for the Senate.

There were only two weeks left to get enough signatures to be on the ballot, but he accepted the challenge.

Thirty years later he now sits atop House leadership having also served in the state Senate. When it comes to his political work, he doesn’t use the word enjoy. “I love the people — it’s just more of a duty to me.”

Perhaps it’s that sense of duty that helps Bowers stay independently minded amid an increasingly fierce partisan battleground.

“In this body right out there,” he says, gesturing to the floor of the House behind his office, “there are people who are very much afraid.”

Intimidation is the new political strength, he tells me, and he’s witnessed how both parties leverage it to achieve their aims. We’ve neglected truth and principle, he muses, pointing to the “stop the steal” effort and the Kafkaesque propagation of unverified allegations.

“It isn’t about proof,” he says before pausing. “It’s about keeping the hate, keeping the doubt, keeping the fear alive.”

During one of the recent demonstrations outside his home, a truck with a digital screen and a megaphone drove around the neighborhood calling Bowers a pedophile. It’s in those moments he looks around and wonders: These people are on my side?

“That thing about the Constitution hanging by a thread,” he muses. “I used to think it was the left that would have it hang by a thread. I’m kind of thinking it’s either.”

“That thing about the Constitution hanging by a thread. I used to think it was the left that would have it hang by a thread. I’m kind of thinking it’s either.”

But it’s not like Bowers is making many friends in the opposition party, either. When I asked one progressive politico in Arizona to offer his thoughts on Bowers, he simply dismissed him out of hand as “an absolute nut case.”

Still, Bowers has allies, and the number may be growing. Despite friendly fire from his own caucus, roughly two-thirds of them still voted for him. And across the nation pockets of prominent Republicans are tacking in a similar direction.

Former Vice President Mike Pence made it clear that it’s unconstitutional to overturn the outcome of an election without evidence that stands up to judicial scrutiny. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell decisively said the riot of Jan. 6 was a “violent insurrection,” and not legitimate political discourse.

“More will be willing to take these stands in the coming weeks and months,” says Keith Allred, executive director at the National Institute for Civil Discourse, a think tank based out of the University of Arizona. Republicans are realizing their love for the country compels them to act on the courage of their convictions, he argues, and that means speaking out against the most extreme demands from factions within the GOP.

But political bravery can come at a cost, and it’s not clear yet if people like Bowers can hold their posts. His Republican contender for the Senate is likely to win Trump’s endorsement, and primary elections tend to attract more politically active voters. This doesn’t bode well for a candidate challenging some party loyalists.

When I asked Bowers about his artistic inspiration, he doesn’t hesitate: Ernst Barlach, a sculptor and patriotic German who fought in World War I and returned a pacifist. His sculpting took an anti-war turn, prompting Hitler’s regime to confiscate his works as “degenerate art.” Barlach’s membership in the German art academies was canceled.

Courage, indeed, comes at a cost.