Arizona’s freshman governor goes from success to success.
Doug Ducey’s path to the governor’s office in Arizona was unforeseen and unlikely. When he was 18 and fresh out of high school, he left his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, and drove to Arizona. He had never been to Arizona and didn’t know a single person there. But he had little reason to stay in Ohio. His parents were divorced, and his mother had remarried and moved to Nevada.
Ducey loved Arizona. “It has a West Coast vibe and Midwestern values and work ethic,” he says. Ducey worked his way through Arizona State University as the college representative for the local Anheuser-Busch beer distributor. “That was a great company with a great brand and a great culture,” he says. Ducey touted Budweiser as “a beverage of moderation.”
After graduation in 1986—he majored in finance—Ducey worked in sales and marketing for Procter & Gamble. His breakthrough in business came when he joined Cold Stone Creamery, a small ice cream company. In 1996, it began franchising, and by the time he and his partner sold Cold Stone in 2007 it had over 1,400 stores in all 50 states and 10 countries.
All this—from college to Cold Stone—may look like the preface to a second career higher up the business ladder as a CEO, a buyer and seller of companies, or a big-time investor. It wasn’t. Ducey changed course. He went into politics.
He had been a minor player in local Republican politics in Phoenix. But in 2010 he decided to try elective office. In the back of his mind was a possible run for governor some time in the future. He had consulted Mitch Daniels, then governor of Indiana, and Fife Symington, the reform governor of Arizona in the 1990s, among others. He took their advice and decided his expertise in finance but inexperience in politics made running for state treasurer the appropriate first step. He was elected.
Careful, studious, and attentive to detail, Ducey got the most out of that down-ticket office. He learned what assets the state has (especially its land holdings) and what obligations. He was Arizona’s chief banker and investor. His mastery of the job gave him the knowledge and experience to run for governor. Last year, Ducey won a three-way struggle for the GOP nomination, then defeated Democrat Fred DuVal 53 percent to 42 percent.
The race was competitive until breaking open in the last two weeks. “What always struck me about Ducey, he’s a consummate happy warrior,” says Phil Cox, who ran the Republican Governors Association. “He disarms opponents.” The RGA spent $6 million on ads in Ducey’s behalf.
As governor, Ducey, 51, wants to be what Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb calls a “transformational conservative reformer.” He’s for school choice and charter schools. He wants to make government smaller and more efficient. His goal is for the state income tax to be “as close to zero as possible” when he leaves office. He’s determined to lift the achievement level of schools in poor and minority neighborhoods to that of schools in wealthier areas.
It’s an ambitious agenda—for later. At the urging of Daniels, he tackled mundane but necessary matters in his first year. It made for a bumpy start. The Super Bowl was scheduled in Phoenix a month after his inauguration, and Ducey feared a public transportation catastrophe. The head of the Department of Weights and Measures was bent on applying onerous taxi regulations to Uber and Lyft, potentially sidelining them. Ducey blocked the regs, fired the official, and eliminated the department.
Ducey then wiped out a $1 billion deficit without raising taxes, an admirable achievement. In doing so, he cut spending for universities and charter schools, angering their supporters and allies. He assuaged the education community later by negotiating an unexpected deal on school spending.
One of Ducey’s favorite sayings is that government “needs to operate at the speed of business.” He regularly visits state agencies and asks officials to explain their mission and their metrics for gauging success. Robb, by the way, wrote that Ducey’s saying is “a nonsense phrase. Successful businesses don’t try to cram as many decisions into as short a period of time as possible.” Ducey is undeterred. When I interviewed him, the phrase popped up repeatedly.
A week after taking office, Ducey announced a few popular decisions. He shut down the state’s lobbying office in Washington. He ordered a “moratorium on new regulations.” And he proclaimed a government hiring freeze.
These were relatively small things. In October, he pulled off a totally unanticipated compromise on education spending. It was a big thing, and Ducey not only got credit, he deserved every bit of it.
The problem had been twofold. A court order required the state to fund K-12 education with an immediate $336 million to cover inflation and back payments of as much as $1.3 billion. But the Republican-controlled legislature had no intention of spending that amount.
Ducey was not a party in the lawsuit that led to the court order, but he intervened anyway after talks broke down. “As governor you can’t say you’re not a party to [important] things,” Ducey told me. “People want leadership.”
He, senate president Andy Biggs, and house speaker David Gowan, the two most powerful politicians in the state next to Ducey, provided the leadership. The three met privately and came up with a way to settle the lawsuit and satisfy Republican legislators, the education lobby, and nearly everyone else except Democrats.
To fund the deal, Ducey harked back to his years as treasurer, when he was in charge of the state’s land trust. Rather than raise taxes, he proposed to take $2 billion from the trust. The legislature agreed, and he signed the measure on October 30. Voters will render their verdict in a May 17 referendum.
Democrats insisted the cost of inflation in school funding should be paid out of general funds. “This was a big moment,” Robb wrote in his column. “What politicians did during it should be remembered.” When the day of remembrance comes, as it surely will in the next election, Ducey’s triumph won’t be forgotten.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.