PHOENIX — For years, Cathi Herrod and her Center for Arizona Policy have flexed their political muscles, pushing through legislation representing what she calls “fundamental principles” that often are espoused in the Bible.
Herrod has been able to do this even though her evangelical Christian organization raises no money for political candidates. Nor does it make endorsements.
In fact, set up as a charity, the lobbying group can legally do neither.
And while a firestorm of protest from an ad hoc coalition opposed to SB 1062 and its stated goals of religious freedom kept it from getting signed by the governor, it was the rare exception to several years of Herrod’s legislative success. Leaving aside SB 1062, Herrod got the House just this past week to adopt new inspection rules for abortion clinics and tax breaks for churches that lease their space.
SB 1062, which would have expanded the ability of business owners to use their religion as a shield to avoid having to serve some customers, was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer on Wednesday night.
But any predictions of the Center for Arizona Policy’s demise in the wake of the gubernatorial veto are premature at best, and perhaps wishful thinking by its foes.
Vocal backers who vote
The secret of the organization’s strength lies in its list of politically active voters of similar leanings — Herrod won’t say how many — who take advantage of the fact that most Arizonans don’t bother to turn out for primary elections, where most races are decided. The Center for Arizona Policy then makes sure candidates who get elected know they are being watched.
As state Senate Majority Whip Adam Driggs notes, the center doesn’t have that many active followers out of the more than 3.2 million registered voters in the state, but it has made sure they turn out at the polls.
“We hear from constituents on all issues,” he said. And while Driggs said all calls get attention, they’re not equal. “When we hear from registered voters who never miss an election, they get a little more ear than a person who lives in my district who’s not even registered to vote.”
Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, has seen those efforts pay out when they have been directed against him for not siding with the center. “They portray it that if you don’t do what they think is right, then you’re not right,” Pierce said.
Even with the Center for Arizona Policy precluded from making endorsements, the organization manages to make its views known to its followers. The key is its voter “guides” published before each election.
Those guides essentially ask every candidate where they stand on a laundry list of the center’s issues, ranging from abortion and gay rights to religious displays on public property. Those guides are made available to the center’s faithful before they vote.
“I think a lot of folks pay attention to those guides,” said Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, a frequent ally of the group. And that, he said, translates to votes.
Herrod said those guides are a powerful tool. Ditto the “action alerts” sent out to members during the legislative session, often shortly before votes on key issues, urging them to immediately call a legislator to be sure they vote the right way.
But she insisted it’s not imposing the will of the minority on the majority.
“We support values-based legislation that is supported by a majority of Arizonans,” Herrod said. She said the success of the Center for Arizona Policy agenda is because the “vast majority” of popularly elected legislators share those values.
“They support the sanctity of human life, they support marriage being one man and one woman, they support affirming religious liberty,” Herrod said. “So it’s not that controversial for most of those members.”
Money isn’t everything
Herrod also disputes any contention that Center for Arizona Policy followers are not representative of the majority of Arizonans. Nor does she accept that younger people are more libertarian in their leanings and more willing to accept things her group opposes, like access to abortion, casino gaming, legalized use of marijuana and statutorily protected equal rights for gays, including the ability to wed.
“I think that’s popular media refrain,” she said. “But if they didn’t have the support of the Arizona population, they wouldn’t be being elected.”
Political consultant Chuck Coughlin does not dispute the large number of social and religious conservatives at the Capitol, many elected because of Herrod’s group.
But Coughlin said it would be more accurate to say that the Center for Arizona Policy is successful because it has figured out how to work the political system — and voter apathy — to its advantage.
Some of that, he said, is the effectiveness of having “a well-distributed and well-researched voter guide that appeals to an ideological Christian base.”
A key is that perhaps just five of the state’s 30 legislative districts are politically competitive. That means that, for all intents and purposes, the races are decided in the primary election.
But Coughlin said his own research shows that 825,000 people who voted in the last two general elections have never voted in a primary. That includes lots of registered Republicans, people who could influence the outcome in many districts and could easily oust more conservative elements, he said.
Coughlin, who advises Republicans, including Gov. Jan Brewer, said the only way to change that is to promote civic participation.
Bryan Howard, president of Planned Parenthood Arizona, agreed with that assessment. But Howard, whose organization is in many ways the arch nemesis of Herrod’s, was not hopeful that can be done.
“The reality is, most Arizonans are really busy trying to lead their lives,” he said. And absent a single important issue to rouse them, they’re not politically connected, leaving the playing field to social conservatives.
Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Herrod’s ability to rally supporters and get them to the polls is only part of the reason for her success. Hamer, whose organization has found itself at odds with social conservatives on issues like SB 1062 and even efforts to scrap the state’s new Common Core standards for schools, said much of the Center for Arizona Policy’s ability to elect candidates of its choosing occurs long before election day.
Put simply, Hamer said, the center has figured out something that the business community has not: Money and political donations are not everything.
“A lot of people in the business community are more likely to write a check than to walk door-to-door in 110-degree heat,” he said.
And Hamer said it’s possible that the Legislature has so many social and religious conservatives not because Herrod manages to get them elected but because — like Herrod’s activist supporters — they are more likely to try to influence public policy by running for office.
That means that when Herrod lobbies lawmakers, she is often preaching to the choir.
Herrod’s influence at the Capitol has its limits, even so.
While getting her agenda approved by lawmakers normally is no problem, the Center for Arizona Policy had a significant dry spell while Democrat Janet Napolitano was governor.
Herrod did much better when Brewer took office in 2009. But whatever sway she had in the Governor’s Office appears strained: Brewer canceled a scheduled Wednesday afternoon appointment to give Herrod a chance to make her case for signing SB 1062.
The media “narrative”
That still leaves the question of whether public attitudes are changing — and whether Herrod and her allies are engaged in a sort of goal-line stance to keep the old ways in place, if not by persuasion then by legislation.
Herrod plays on the fears of her base, Planned Parenthood’s Howard said. “The world around them is changing. And Cathi leverages their anxiety about that,” he said.
“Certainly, there are many challenges in our culture today,” Herrod said. But she sees that more as a myth, or as she puts it, a “narrative” being pushed by “the popular media.”
“I guess I’m not convinced that most Arizonans, most Americans buy into the popular narrative,” Herrod said. And Herrod said she can’t just sit by and do nothing and “just go along with that.” “We stand for foundational principles,” she said. “We represent the families out there that are concerned where the culture is going.”
That agenda, Herrod acknowledged, has a basis in the Bible.
“Yes, we are an evangelical Christian organization,” Herrod said. But the positions her group takes are based on “sound public policy arguments,” like why children do best raised in a family with a mother and a father, she said.
And while it may be a rear-guard action, Herrod said she sees signs of success.
She pointed out it has been 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women have a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. But Herrod said groups like hers have kept arguments against abortion in the headlines for years and managed to change some minds and get restrictions enacted, all of which have kept the procedure from becoming accepted as routine.
“So nothing’s inevitable.”