PHOENIX — Politics is a lot like ranching. It's just the art of herding people instead of cattle.
Throughout its 94-year history, Arizona has had so many rancher politicians (more than 120 in all) that, at one point, critics took to calling the state's government the "Cowboy Legislature."
But like so much of the state's rural roots, that era is coming to an end.
Sen. Jake Flake and his lifelong friend Rep. Jack Brown, with a combined 22 years in elected office, are the last active ranchers in the Arizona Legislature.
"These guys are a symbol of the Old West that many of us want to hold on to," Arizona historian Jack August said. "They represent a way of life that all of us want to keep in our hopes and dreams. A part of our intellectual warehouse as Arizonans includes a guy on a horse rounding up cattle in the fall."
Much of Arizona's political zeitgeist, from a bare-bones state government and local control of schools to fierce protection of private property, water and gun rights, is rooted in its cowboy past.
Ranchers have served in the Arizona Legislature in every session since statehood. They were at the peak of their power in the 1960s, when at least a dozen were serving, along with others with farming ties.
And in the early days, ranchers who also served in the Legislature, were among those who wrote the Arizona Constitution. They created a populist, Jacksonian government that included short terms in office and a strong voice for the common man through initiative, referendum and recall.
They also set up a part-time Legislature with a goal to finish the yearly sessions in 100 days so rural members could return home in the summer to tend to their land and herds.
But when the Legislature reconvenes today, the only lawmakers who will actually head back in from the range will be a pair of old cowboys from the scrub country of Eastern Arizona.
Brown has been serving, off and on, since the Kennedy administration, first winning office in 1963. Flake won his first legislative seat in 1996, a year when there were five other ranchers in office.
Flake, 72, is a Republican. Brown, 78, is a Democrat.
But professionally, ideologically and spiritually, Flake and Brown practically share a heart.
Both are Arizona natives, born to pioneer ranching families about 30 miles apart on the high desert plateaus of Eastern Arizona. Both are members of the Mormon Church. And both are profoundly worried that they might be the last of Arizona's cowboy lawmakers.
"There's darn few cattlemen anymore," Brown said. "We're sorta hanging on by our fingernails."
Flake and Brown may be holdovers from a bygone era, but both retain more than their share of political muscle.
Flake rose to become speaker of the House from 2002 to 2004 before crossing over to the Senate to switch seats with Brown to avoid term limits. Flake is chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Rural Affairs Committee, exerting control over all bills concerning grazing, water rights and agriculture.
Brown was part of a ruling centrist coalition during his first stint in the Legislature and was the minority leader in his last term in the Senate before running for the House in 2004. After the November election, he was elected assistant minority leader.
As their numbers have dwindled, cowboy lawmakers have held on to power not just by fighting for purely rural interests but by supporting powerful lobbying forces like home builders and real estate agents.
Brown was part of a ruling center-right coalition in the 1960s dominated by rural lawmakers who set policies designed to benefit Arizona's major industries: farms, ranches and mines. The Legislature at that time was primarily concerned with the price of commodities and cheap labor.
The system was more than a little unfair, even to a fellow Democrat like the late Gov. Sam Goddard. There was little public input and no reflection of the growth and burgeoning diversity of Arizona's population.
It worked like this: A county like Greenlee in the rugged mountains of Eastern Arizona was home to about as many bears as people in the early 1960s. Even today, only 8,605 people live there. And yet Greenlee County had two state senators. The same as Maricopa County, home to more than half of Arizona's population.
That system, which had ruled the state for 50 years, cracked when a rabble-rousing University of Arizona law student named Gary Peter Klahr filed suit in 1964. It came crashing down two years later, when he won.
The death knell sounded for the era of the "Cowboy Legislature" in 1966. An Arizona Supreme Court decision installing the concept of "one man, one vote" took legislative districts that were defined by county borders and redrew them according to population.
"I was hung in effigy by the Cowboy Legislature, right in the Senate lobby," Klahr said, recalling an incident in February 1966. "I put a lot of people out of work down there."
"The fact is, urban people had no rights in those days," Klahr said. "It really was a Cowboy Legislature. Rural people would not do anything about pollution. They did not care about education."
Even after the court ruling, there were often up to a half-dozen ranchers elected from rural districts at any one time. The power shift, however, was immediate. The House went from 80 members to 60. Arizona would thereafter have 30 legislative districts, with equal population, each with two representatives and a senator. Maricopa and Pima counties immediately gained more than three-fourths of the state's legislative power.
More significantly, Republicans seized control of the House and have not relinquished it. They have pretty much held on to the Senate as well, with Democrats gaining control only intermittently since 1967, most recently from 1990 to 1992.
Brown does not argue that some changes were justified, but he would have kept sending senators from each county to the Legislature.
"A lot of other states still do it that way," Brown said. "It took power away from rural Arizona and really made it tough for us."
"These guys are a symbol of the Old West that many of us want to hold on to. They represent a way of life that all of us want to keep in our hopes. …"
Jack August, Arizona historian