Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.
Nothing told me when I met Stephanie Grisham in 2010 that she’d someday be striding the halls of the White House as one of its important players.
But now that I think back to the subsequent years, it makes sense Grisham, who lived briefly in Tucson and built her career in Arizona, would become spokeswoman for President Trump.
For better or worse, she has what it takes.
Trump announced Tuesday he’s hired Grisham as press secretary and as communications director. That makes Grisham, who also is the former wife of KOLD Channel 13 anchorman Dan Marries, a pretty powerful person.
When I met her, she was running interference for the Arizona Charter Schools Association. I was working on an expose about the connections between the local Sonoran Science Academy charter schools and the Gulen Movement from Turkey. On behalf of the charter schools group, Grisham put up what I would call symbolic resistance. I had the goods, so there wasn’t much use fighting, and we got along fine thereafter.
Soon after leaving the charter-school group, Grisham’s career took a harder turn, and she made a career out of flacking for scandal-plagued Arizona politicos, getting into a little trouble herself along the way. Good training, I see now, for Trump’s White House.
Grisham became spokeswoman for Tom Horne at a time when the Arizona attorney general was in all sorts of trouble, and eventually she became part of it. Grisham first started appearing in the news representing the AG in 2013, when Horne’s mistress was being forced out of a staff position that he had apparently put her in.
Then in 2014, an employee of Horne’s office filed a complaint accusing Horne of using his staff in the AG’s office as campaign workers. Grisham knew of it, apparently, noting in an email the absence of any actual volunteers on the campaign. And the Arizona Clean Elections Commission eventually concluded that Horne had essentially asked his top office staff to perform simultaneously as campaign staff.
The commission concluded “the evidence shows that Mr. Horne and his employees freely used the Executive Office suite as the base of operations for these campaign activities during regular work hours.”
After Horne lost the Republican primary in 2014, to current AG Mark Brnovich, Grisham landed in the state capitol. She was spokeswoman for the House Republicans, which functionally made her an employee of then-House Speaker David Gowan, from Sierra Vista.
Gowan was the first Southern Arizona resident to become House speaker in 23 years, and I pitched to Grisham the idea of letting me tag along with him for a day. She made it happen, even though by this time I was known as a left-leaning columnist who had been critical of the GOP legislative leadership.
The first column I wrote based on the day with Gowan made Grisham’s decision seem like a smart dare. I portrayed Gowan as a deceptively skilled politico with the potential to bring home benefits to Southern Arizona.
In the long run, my friendly visit with Gowan turned into a negative, in part because I happened to be in the room when Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of Theranos, dazzled Gowan and others with bull. Also, Gowan turned out to be a bad speaker, more interested in the perks of the job than in helping Southern Arizona, and Grisham got tied up in it.
Hank Stephenson, then a reporter at the Arizona Capitol Times, revealed in January 2016 that beginning under Gowan’s speakership, Gowan and other leaders had been using state cars for dubious purposes. Gowan was driven around in a state car to campaign functions in his run for U.S. House. Gowan ended up paying back $12,000 and avoiding criminal indictment.
But he didn’t forget Hank. Later in that session, Grisham tried to impose new rules that would have required any reporter allowed on the House floor to go through a background check and be excluded for any misdemeanors. Stephenson had a misdemeanor conviction. Gowan and Grisham knew that.
The ham-handed attempt to punish Stephenson for revealing Gowan’s misdeeds led to a revolt by the press corps and was eventually reversed.
This was 2016, and soon Grisham was touring the country with Trump’s campaign, organizing events and coordinating the press contingent. When Trump won, this put Grisham into the halls of power as the First Lady’s spokeswoman — and led to the revelation of an abuse benefiting Grisham herself. Stephenson put it best in his April 25, 2017 story:
Stephanie Grisham, a staffer on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, was supposed to resume her full-time job as a spokeswoman at the Arizona House of Representatives less than a week after he won the election.
There’s no evidence she did. She still got paid.
Arizona taxpayers paid Grisham roughly $19,000 over an eight-week period, although she rarely set foot in the state, never showed up for work at the House, and did little to nothing to earn the money, records show.
Grisham threatened to sue Stephenson over the story, he told me. Of course it didn’t happen — empty threats being another Trumpian grace note.
But here’s the funny thing: Stephenson, who later worked as a Star reporter and now edits the Yellow Sheet Report, still likes Grisham.
So, Grisham’s practice at protecting dirty politicians, her willingness to punish critical reporters and her inclination to indulge in some taxpayer-funded perks will make her a good fit in the Trump White House. Her ability to stay friendly with reporters even after they’ve fought death battles could give her staying power.