Breakfast and a side of bipartisanship: Lawmakers revive get-together

Arizona lawmakers meet for a monthly breakfast meeting, a recently revived tradition. From left, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and GOP Reps. Debbie Lesko of Peoria and David Schweikert of Fountain Hills. (Photo by Wissam Melhem/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had just announced a formal impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump and the White House whistleblower report was about to drop when Arizona Democrats and Republicans met on a recent morning.

Not to fight. But to chat over doughnuts and coffee.

It was the latest of what has become a monthly ritual for members of the state’s congressional delegation, who meet over breakfast in one of their Capitol Hill offices to discuss state issues.

“It’s important for the entire Arizona delegation, both Republicans and Democrats, to get together to talk about issues that are important to Arizona so we can identify where we can work together for the benefit of the Arizona constituents,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who hosted September’s breakfast.

Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, said he just enjoys the time together with his colleagues – but agrees that it’s vital for the state’s lawmakers to find a way to work together, even if he is often the only Democrat there.

“Our delegation is fairly inexperienced compared to some of the other delegations around the country so the only way we’re going to be successful on issues that affect Arizona is by working together as teammates,” he said after the breakfast of coffee and pastries in Lesko’s office.

The delegation breakfast used to be a regular thing but it fell by the wayside – no one’s quite sure why. Former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, who served from 1985 to 2007, said he attended them regularly, and that they were well-attended.

“It was an opportunity for everyone to exchange what they’re working on, what they’re doing and exchange views about things going on back in the state,” said Kolbe, who remembers the breakfasts starting in the 1990s. “And mostly on legislation that we try to have a coordinated delegation response to.”

Arizona is not the only state to have regular delegation get-togethers – though some do it differently. Jay Cost, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said he wished “every state did this” because it can help break through the partisanship of Washington.

“Partisanship is ideally built around principled disagreements, but it is easy for that to spill into petty disputes,” Cost said. “We have seen a lot of that – a kind of political manichaeism, whereby our side is good and your side is evil.”

He also thinks it would help lawmakers focus less on national politics and more on statewide issues.

“The national media is focused relentlessly on a handful of subjects, but it is important to remember that Congress has power over almost everything – including many, many things that affect Arizonans that never make it onto the national news,” he said.

Lesko said she had not heard of the tradition of a delegation breakfast until she had a conversation last year with Arizona businesswoman Barbara Barrett, who mentioned it. She decided to revive it this year.

Cronkite News video by Harrison Mantas

“I told my staff we should get all the delegation together,” Lesko said. “We started when Jon Kyl was still here serving as a U.S. senator and he said that they used to do this all the time.”

Besides her and Stanton, the most recent meeting included three Republicans: Sen. Martha McSally and Reps. David Schweikert of Fountain Hills and Paul Gosar of Prescott. The group made sure to grab a cup of coffee before sitting together and diving into policy, mostly discussing bills they have sponsored, in hopes of getting support from fellow state lawmakers.

Discussion drifted from statewide issues over the military, infrastructure and water before settling on the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement, with Lesko urging Stanton to pressure his Democratic colleagues to come out in support of the deal.

“The Republican congressmen and women are supportive of that and so is Senator McSally,” Lesko said, before singling out Stanton for his support of the proposal among the state’s Democrats.

That wasn’t the only way Stanton was singled out: Lesko said all delegation members are invited to the breakfasts, but that Sen. Krysten Sinema and Tucson Reps. Raul Grijalva and Ann Kirkpatrick, all Democrats, have yet to make an appearance.

Grijalva confirmed that he had not attended any of the breakfasts this year, before jokingly asking if he’s “missing something pretty cool” there.

But Stanton noted that Arizona lost a lot of influence last year with the death of Sen. John McCain and the retirement of Sen. Jeff Flake. That left the state with a fairly new delegation, another reason he believes the delegation breakfasts are important.

“This is an institution based on seniority,” Stanton said. “We don’t have a lot of seniority, so the way we have influence really is not by working as individuals but by working as a team.”

Kolbe, a Republican, said the delegation was fairly fresh back when he started going to them. He urged current delegation members to put their differences aside and start showing up for the breakfasts.

“I think it’s absolutely vital that the delegation works together on issues that affect Arizona … it’s very, very important,” Kolbe said.

Cost just thinks breaking bread can help each side change their perspective on the other.

“Getting the two sides talking to one another is not simply a great way to find common ground, but also to keep them mindful that neither side is evil,” he said.

Politics Reporter, Washington, D.C.