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UpClose with Kevin DeMenna

By Jim Small -

Published: January 22, 2010 at 7:35 am

When a major project is being pitched to lawmakers, Kevin DeMenna and his lobbying firm usually are involved in some capacity.

DeMenna is regarded by many as one of Arizonaís most successful lobbyists, which he says is due to his knowledge of state politics and the legislative process. In his 30 years at the Capitol, DeMenna has helped convince lawmakers to support financing the Phoenix Civic Plaza expansion and create the financing mechanism to build a rock-and-roll theme park in Eloy.

He started out in 1980 as an intern on the Senate staff, and he eventually became chief of staff for Republican Senate President Robert Usdane.

DeMenna spoke with Arizona Capitol Times on Jan. 18 about his experiences, his fleeting aspirations to run for Congress and his Civil War swords.

You toyed with running for Congress to replace John Shadegg in Arizonaís 3rd Congressional District for a good 48 hours - maybe 72 hours.
Only 16 to 24. Then I toyed with how to extricate myself from the situation for the rest.

OK, so why are you not going to run?
Because I love what I do. This is all I have ever done, either as legislative staff or as a lobbyist. I have a family. I get to work with my oldest son every day. I really, really love what I do. I love seeing my wife, seeing my children.

Secondly, we have some really good candidates: (Sen. Jim) Waring, (former Shadegg chief of staff) Sean Noble. The other names I hear are, I donít want to say of equal quality to those two, but theyíre of a level that makes me look like a pauper.

You mentioned your time on the legislative staff. Youíve been at the Capitol since the early 1980s, right?
I stepped on to the Capitol in July of 1980 for a special-project internship in the Senate. I had three (Senate) internships, at which point the job of Finance Committee analyst opened up. I got married, and it was just great. I was Senate economist after that, which was really the job I enjoyed most, and then Senate staff director - chief of staff is what everybody refers to it as now.

Real estate was terrible at the time.

During the S&L scandal?
Yes. We had to help draft one of the largest tax increases in the history of the state, which was close to $300 million. I saw the writing on the wall and said, ďIíve had an office in the basement. I donít want to go that route again.Ē So, I joined a (lobbying) firm that Bob Robb was heading up. I quickly became a partner. I still get mail for Robb & DeMenna.

You left right before Democrat Pete Rios became Senate president, right?
My resignation was actually effective on the day of the primary election. I could say that was symbolic, but it was actually serendipity. It was evident.

We Republicans continue to use the same playbook from about 1943, which is the far right maintains a position that they consider principled, leaving not enough votes in the Republican caucus to put something together, and the Democrats leverage that. So, what went from being a rather modest tax increase became a rather large one.

The end result of that principled stand was to go and get Democrats.

It was 11 Democrats and five Republicans - two retired, the other three were defeated. It was like a bullet fired from miles away that you could see coming.

Itís sad, because Republicans continue to do that to themselves. But how else do you organize a caucus?

What is the biggest change youíve seen in the Legislature in the 30 years youíve been down here?
The arrival of computers. The arrival of automation. Technology. The process has sped up to the point where information arrives at a pace that is almost impossible for (lawmakers) to keep up with.

Technology has driven us to take what used to be a shelf-and-a-half of statutes to virtually three full shelves.

How has the Internet changed the way the Legislature operates?
It allows them to consume information at a pace that they set.

Information used to arrive when the fact sheet did. When I was Finance Committee analyst, we drafted bills and amendments with lots of photocopies and Scotch tape and legal-pad writing. Some of them looked like fourth grade collages.

Now, you not only can download statutes from other states, but members can Google everything.
The ability to access information, I think, has created a baseline of truth. You darn well better have your facts straight, because if you donít think you can be contradicted, youíre wrong.

It has also, except for the Senate caucuses, made the Legislature far more accessible. You can watch hearings online. Iíve been in hearings where the chairman has asked me a question based on an e-mail.

How have things changed politically since 1980?
The single most governing principle is the Voter Rights Act. So long as the minority populations in Arizona remain synonymous with the Democratic Party, we will be compelled by the Department of Justice to pack districts, which means youíve taken Democrats that you could otherwise spread throughout the state and packed them into districts to guarantee Democratic seats.

Weíve not found a way to redistrict around that. You canít. You end up with maybe three or five competitive districts. Itís guaranteed Republican governance of the Legislature. It came to be after the redistricting of 1980, and was the most significant development since One Man, One Vote.

Thereís always talk about how the respect has gone out of the legislative process. Have you seen that?
Not really. I think itís always been roughly the same. Term limits has changed the ability for long-term relationships to develop. There will never be another Burton Barr.

The relationships and the respect still exists, but it has become a function more of the staff and the lobbyists. I will be here well past the eight-year terms of most legislators.

What do you think about term limits? Do they promote good governance?
Itís the single most detrimental change that has been made over the course of my tenure down here. Imagine your business, where a reporter becomes top of his game, but his eight years is up and he has to be fired.

Itís also created this bizarre connection to the elected officialsí retirement system. You hit your limit in one chamber, hit it in the other. That leaves you with virtually nothing under the retirement system, so you run for justice of the peace and make $70,000 or $80,000 a year, and thatís how you top out. Itís perverse.

Iím not even sure we should have an elected officialsí retirement system. With term limits, weíre supposed to be turning them out. A retirement system incentivizes them to stay in politics. The founding fathers expected people to leave their plows behind, make some laws - about farming - and then return.

Term limits makes the difference between good lobbyists and bad lobbyists important, and it makes it harder to learn the process because youíre in a sprint.

What drew you to lobbying?
Itís so well designed for those with short attention spans. This year, Iím doing bills on film studios. Two years ago, I did a rock-and-roll theme park. Two years before that, we got the Legislature to pony up for 50 percent of the Phoenix Convention Center expansion. Just today, Iíve gone from meeting with subcontractors to the T. Boone Pickens company to talk about natural gas, later Iíll go to work on rental car issues. Itís stimulating.

The other thing I like about it is it gives me choice. Weíve been blessed to be able to choose our clients. I donít represent a single bar, I donít represent tobacco companies. We get, for whatever opportunity, to be a part of the bigger projects. I enjoy developing the strategy, developing the tactics and seeing what works and what doesnít.

But I still havenít figured out what I want to do when I grow up. When I do, youíll hear about it.

Whatís the most significant thing youíve been a part of in your 30 years at the Capitol?
That would be persuading the Legislature to pay for half of the Civic Plaza expansion - $300 million in a time when revenues were turning down.

We found the candle maker in Sedona.

Let me explain: This is all we do. We donít do divorces in the off- season. We do grassroots. For the Civic Plaza, what happens when a convention ends on a Thursday or Friday? People fly home? Then why do all these hotels have racks with (brochures) on Sedona and the Grand Canyon?

We sent our staff out to collect those, then we contacted the businesses. They said, ďDouble the size of the conventions? Where do I sign?Ē

A friend of mine was in Sedona, at Tlaquepaque, and she brought me back the card of a candle maker, and he got engaged in the process. We were able to demonstrate that the economics of how it worked all the way around.

What advice would you give to a new lobbyist?
If they havenít been on legislative staff, get a job on staff to determine how the process works. I read every bill. I hate it. But how else do you know?

DeMenna on Civil War swords:
I collect presentation swords. Iím allowed about one a year.
Tiffany & Co. was one of the larger retailers of the swords, but you typically had to be an officer to get one. I just brought this one in, because itís far and away the pinnacle of my collection. This sword belonged to the captain of Shermanís guard. Itís inscribed, and you can see it was presented July 1864. The war was ending by then. Today you get plaques - back then, it was presentation swords.

The interesting thing about this is the (certificate of presentment) is signed by Stanton, who was the Secretary of War. In the ink that remains, it was signed by Andrew Johnson, because Lincoln had been shot.

I represent one company that does behavioral health, so I get psychiatrists through here all the time. They give me all sorts of observations about this collection.

DeMenna on lobbyists:
Because of the Internet and shorter terms, people work much harder to weed out the truth. Theyíre very interested in having their own channels to find facts.

It is becoming more diverse ethnically. On gender, itís still dominated by males, but itís only a matter of time. People have become more sophisticated about it.

DeMenna on Mormon faith and politics:
There is no ďMormon mafia.Ē The notion of such a thing is that you have a group thatís just more homogenous. Weíre just much more strict about the principles that we follow. People, therefore, think there must be some collusion. If only it were so.

DeMenna on Decades, the rock and roll theme park:
I never thought the thing would work. I figured weíd get Kansas to lend their name. But getting Aerosmith? Maybe. Fender took an interest, and we represent them, though they need virtually nothing.

DeMenna on the failed 1990 MLK Day ballot campaign he managed:
We got Tagliabued, which was, if you donít do it, youíre not getting a Super Bowl. (Editorís note: The NFL commissioner at the time was Paul Tagliabue. When the ballot measure failed, the 1993 Super Bowl was moved from Phoenix to Pasadena.) Whatís interesting is that Iím not sure it entirely accounted for the loss when we did the follow-up polling, which would have left ethnic issues as the second choice.

DeMenna on pro-business lawmakers:
Among the most pro-business legislators we have right now are Democrats. I donít know if Russell Pearce is considered pro-business.

Thatís a subjective thing.

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