Activist Cathi Herrod a political force behind the scenes
By Alia Beard Rau The Republic | azcentral.com Sat Mar 1, 2014 11:41 PM
Amid the uproar over Senate Bill 1062, many of the bill’s critics directed their anger at an influential political figure most Arizonans had never heard of before last week: Cathi Herrod.
Without winning a vote, Herrod has for two decades powered the state’s social-conservative movement, pushing her agenda in the halls of the Capitol, at the ballot box, and always away from the spotlight.
That was until last week, when Arizonans outside the political realm took notice of the woman whom admirers and foes alike refer to as Arizona’s 31st senator.
As president of the Center for Arizona Policy, Herrod leads the conservative Christian organization that wrote the bill that rained down criticism on the state as a place hostile to gays and lesbians and drew threats of an economic backlash from corporations, pro-sports leagues and conventions.
Herrod quickly became the public face of SB 1062.
Democratic leaders called her out in news releases denouncing the bill. Protests were directed at her, a distinction typically reserved for controversial public figures such as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Gov. Jan Brewer.
Herrod’s Twitter feed filled with vitriol as people called her a bigot, an idiot, hateful. Supporters remained focused on the issue, praising Herrod’s work.
Brewer vetoed SB 1062, saying it “could divide Arizona in ways we cannot even imagine and no one would ever want.” The bill would have offered a legal defense for individuals and businesses facing discrimination lawsuits if they could have proved they acted upon a “sincerely held religious belief.”
Even as Herrod’s notoriety was growing, political insiders predicted the influence she has wielded so effectively at the Capitol was starting to wane.
“Cathi Herrod has jumped the shark,” said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson. “All that’s left is the ugly decline.”
Growth for center
The Center for Arizona Policy over the past 20 years has grown from a small organization to one that collected $1.7 million in donations in 2011, according to the latest available tax documents.
The group began as part of the family policy council network under the national evangelical organization Focus on the Family but is now a separate entity. While the center is no longer financially or legally tied to Focus on the Family, according to Herrod, the groups work together on issues.
Cathi Herrod is president of the Center for Arizona Policy, the conservative Christian organization that wrote Senate Bill 1062.
The Center for Arizona Policy’s stated goal is to defend “conservative, pro-family views.”
It does that mostly through legislation, claiming credit for more than 100 laws, including measures to keep same-sex couples from marrying, restrict abortions and allow the use of public money to pay for private education.
Herrod, who is paid more than $170,000 a year, has been at the center of those efforts. The attorney, mother of two grown children and wife to an Arizona judge isn’t a slick politician or a snappy sound bite. She often leaves media interviews to her staff.
She prefers to focus on legislative tactics. She can be found most days at the Legislature, meeting with lawmakers, organizing votes and sitting in the House or Senate galleries in her signature red blazer watching her plans unfold.
“I’ve been a political junkie most of my life,” she said in an interview with The Arizona Republic last week. “I’m one of those people who enjoys the legislative process. My mind thinks strategically.”
The sign on the window of her royal-blue-walled office in an unassuming Phoenix office complex reads “Don’t mess with Texas women,” revealing the source of her faint drawl and reflecting her iron will. She grew up in La Porte, Texas, a small town outside Houston.
In college at the University of Texas at Austin she was a typical “liberal feminist.” Then motherhood and a growing faith in evangelical Christianity changed that.
The battle over abortion drew her into politics and continues to be her passion.
At the Legislature, Herrod’s strategic fingerprints are all over the Center for Arizona Policy’s bills from their inception. The center’s staff often writes legislation, takes it directly to lawmakers who chair the committees where it will be heard, and then lines up experts to testify on behalf of it.
Instead of holding public rallies and delivering religiously based arguments, Herrod crafts a message based on data and delivered in technical language. “We work hard, and we back up our policy positions with facts and data,” she said. “We do our homework.”
She is also tactical about the timing in her legislative strategy. She pushes sympathetic lawmakers to pass bills quickly, before the opposition can organize. That was the case with SB 1062, which was introduced as both a House and a Senate bill to rush it through both chambers simultaneously, instead of the more traditional and slower route of through one chamber and then the other.
In other cases, the center’s bills have been introduced at the last minute and voted on quietly amid the end-of-session chaos.
“They are extremely effective at pursuing policy that advances their socially conservative agenda and convincing lawmakers to prioritize those issues above everything else,” said ACLU of Arizona Executive Director Alessandra Soler, who has faced off against Herrod on several issues. “They’ve focused many resources on their lobbying efforts.”
Trends toward change
Herrod and the center have grown in influence over the past six years as several trends have aligned in their favor.
Voters elected a slate of more socially conservative lawmakers. A Republican governor, Brewer, replaced a Democrat. And public debate of social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage have become key state issues.
Added to those factors is a shift nationally toward pushing social change in state legislatures instead of in Congress. With a gridlocked Congress, organizations like the Center for Arizona Policy have had more success getting their agenda put into law by working together to push similar bills through legislatures at once.
In the case of SB 1062, legislatures in Hawaii, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Ohio have seen similar bills this year. In several cases, groups like the center with connections to Focus on the Family were behind them.
Herrod also cites “an increasing awareness that what happens in public policy does affect families in negative ways.”
“When CAP started, we were one of the few voices at the Legislature for social values,” Herrod said. “It took a while to build, but the focus on social issues has grown.”
Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert and a supporter of the center’s bills, agreed.
“Evangelicals traditionally were kind of passive on political issues, they didn’t see the value,” he said. “They are now much more politically in tune.”
The Center for Arizona Policy’s successes haven’t demanded big spending on lobbying and campaigns. In 2011, the center spent $17,983 on lobbying efforts, according to tax documents. Herrod in 2013 spent $9,878 on lobbying, according to state lobbying documents. That included paying $2,411 each for Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, the sponsor of SB 1062, and Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, who has sponsored a number of the center’s abortion-restriction bills, to attend a center conference.
The center also covered ticket costs for lawmakers and state officials to attend its annual fundraising dinner. Among those who received tickets were Biggs; House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden; state Treasurer Doug Ducey; Secretary of State Ken Bennett; Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and Superintendent of Public Education John Huppenthal.
The source of the center’s real power is its supporters, according to both allies and opponents. Borrowing a strategy that has worked for the National Rifle Association, the Center for Arizona Policy ensures its voters understand who supports their agenda and who doesn’t.
The center releases a voter guide each election year in which candidates state their positions on issues like abortion and school choice. It also releases a voting record showing how lawmakers have voted on center bills.
Sen. Adam Driggs, R-Phoenix, voted for SB 1062 and then later asked Brewer to veto it. He said over the years he’s supported some of Herrod’s bills and opposed others. But he has no misconceptions about the center’s influence.
“Any pressure we feel to support CAP legislation isn’t from the center itself, but from the center’s base, which is very broad,” he said. “And the people who actively participate in their causes are high-efficacy voters.”
Farley, the Tucson Democratic senator, said Herrod’s influence comes into play in Republican primaries statewide. “If you don’t vote with them, you will get primaried,” he said.
Soler of the ACLU of Arizona added, “They are very good at turning voters out.”
Senate Minority Leader Anna Tovar, D-Tolleson, said Herrod uses those voters to instill fear in lawmakers.
“They force (legislative) votes by threats and intimidating, by threatening lawmakers with ‘tea party’ opponents.”
Herrod denies using the center’s voter base to threaten lawmakers into supporting her legislation. The center does not endorse candidates, she said. Lawmakers support her legislation because their personal beliefs align with the center’s agenda, she said. The center just provides the tools to put those beliefs into law.
“Most every legislator who stands with us believes in the issues,” she said.
According to campaign-contribution records, Herrod has not personally donated to state legislative candidates during recent elections.
She is a member of Republican state Treasurer Ducey’s gubernatorial campaign team. (Ducey said last week that he would have vetoed SB 1062 were he governor.)
Barto has been the primary sponsor of a number of Herrod’s bills to restrict abortions. She said Herrod’s influence is not undue.
“We wouldn’t be here if our constituents didn’t support these issues,” she said.
Bill sails through
Even those familiar with Herrod’s influence at the Legislature were shocked at the speed with which SB 1062 sailed through.
The state’s child-welfare agency “is in crisis mode, there are questions about how we are going to fund Common Core and the Legislature rammed through this bill in a matter of hours, even before discussing and voting on the budget,” Soler said. “That’s because this was CAP’s Number 1 issue of the session.”
Herrod said she learned of the case in New Mexico in which a photographer was sued for refusing to photograph a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony.
Jose "Beto" Soto, of Citizens for a Better Arizona, speaks during a protest outside the Center for Arizona Policy. Herrod's CAP has long-wielded power and influence at the Arizona Legislature, but few outside the state knew much about her or her organization before Senate Bill 1062.
“There was a flaw in New Mexico law,” she said. “I wondered, does the Arizona law have the same flaw? Let’s promote fixing the Arizona law.”
Herrod maintains the bill proposed a minor change to existing law that would not have had the impact opponents claimed. Critics said it would allow businesses to refuse service to gays, lesbians and any other group or minority they disliked.
“We heard scenario after scenario of absolutely outrageous claims that simply would not happen,” she said. “There is no question our opponents are trying to use this to discredit CAP and would like nothing more than for CAP to lose support.”
Opponents acknowledged that part of their strategy was to expose the center’s agenda. House Minority Leader Chad Campbell blamed Herrod personally for SB 1062.
“It is time to put a stop to the control that these unelected extremists have in the Legislature,” he said in a news release. “We will not be held hostage by their right-wing, extremist agenda.”
Farley said Herrod has gotten so much of her agenda enacted that she is running out of ideas and needed SB 1062 to energize the center’s financial supporters.
“This bill was all about one woman wanting to fundraise because she ran out of issues and a whole bunch of people who followed along because they were afraid. That’s the story of SB 1062.”
Effect on influence
Herrod has faced a string of losses recently. In addition to Brewer’s veto of SB 1062, she has found herself at odds with the governor on other key issues, most notably last year’s Medicaid expansion.
The center has also lost several legal rounds. Arizona taxpayers have funded the defense of several center laws that the courts have deemed unconstitutional, including a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and a law to withdraw funding from medical providers that perform abortions.
Against that backdrop came the personal attacks against Herrod over SB 1062.
“The last week has been the most vitriol I have ever experienced or witnessed,” she said.
At the Legislature last week, Herrod had personal security guards and appeared flustered by the attention.
Tovar said the firestorm over SB 1062 will damage Herrod’s influence in the long term.
She said Republicans were used by Herrod, who didn’t accurately explain the implications of SB 1062, and the potential for a public outcry.
“(SB 1062) is the bill that went too far,” Tovar said. “People have had enough.”
Rebecca Wininger, president of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Arizona, said Arizonans now know who Herrod is and aren’t interested in what she’s selling.
“Congratulations, you’ve awakened the sleeping Arizona voter,” she said. “They found their voice, and guess what? They like their voice. ... I think you’re going to see some changes come November.”
Herrod said neither she nor the center plans to stop their work. She still has 10 more bills to shepherd through this legislative session.
“We are not going anywhere,” she said. “I keep doing this because our work matters for our children and the future of our state and country. It’s tough. It’s not fun, but I take security precautions. I’m not going to let threats stop me from what I feel I’m called to do.”