In the spirit of Independence Day, I thought my interview with our state Representative David Stevens would be perfect timing.
Not only is Representative Stevens a very nice person, but he also is a true patriot. During our interview, David talked with me about his time in the Army, what brought him to his position at the legislature and his heart for public service.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I’m from a little town called Oregon, Illinois with a population of 3,000 on the Rock River in Ogle County. Only an hour away is Tampico, Illinois, which happens to be the birthplace of Ronald Reagan – and also my father.
What did your family do in such a small town?
My grandfather was in the railroad business. My father served in the U.S. Air Force and, after retiring from the military, he became the hospital administrator in Morrison Illinois, the place where I was born. In 1965, we moved to Oregon where he became an accountant with the Illinois Farm Bureau. I lived in Oregon until I joined the U.S. Army. My wife, though, was a U.S. Air Force brat. She went to three high schools in four years. I had a very different experience.
When did you join the Army and what motivated you to enlist?
I joined the Army in 1979 at 17 years old. My mother had to sign me in – delayed entry. My eighteenth birthday was in basic training, and they let me eat first that day. That was fun! Usually I was number 240 because we went alphabetically, so I generally ate last. My father served in the military and my three brothers were all active duty too – the Air Force, the Army and the Coast Guard. It was the path we knew we would take. On the wall in my office, there’s the newspaper article of my father, my brothers and I when all five of us joined the American Legion.
After the Army, did you go to college? And what did you study?
I did. I have about nine schools on my transcript. When you are in the military, you take classes wherever you are stationed, so I took classes in Germany, Fort Huachuca, Northern Illinois University and eventually graduated from SUNY. I took all computer classes. I made $6.36 an hour at my first job as a computer operator. That was big money at the time!
Tell me a little about your career in technology.
I have been working with computers my entire career. I was a defense contractor for twenty years. I worked in the private sector for a couple of years taking a COBOL company through Y2K. That was a lot of fun! I enjoy COBOL. No one teaches it anymore – it’s not sexy like HTML or C.
You have served as a state representative since 2009. What made you want to get involved in politics?
I wanted to be part of the process. I got tired of yelling at the television! Originally, I wanted to run for Congress. My wife kind of brought me back to reality – no one knew me and I had no money. So I looked into the State House of Representatives. I was in a district that was a double-digit Democrat district – I’m a Republican. I lost in 2002. I also lost in 2004. I didn’t run in 2006. Instead, I served as the Cochise County Chair for the Republican Party. I filed again in 2008, but a month or so after I filed, a position came up in Kuwait. I took the job and figured you don’t have to do anything to lose a third time. You don’t even need to show up! But, with the help of Speaker of the House David Gowan and Senator Gail Griffin, my two seatmates, I was elected. I won by 949 votes. It shocked everyone!
So wait, you won the election while you were working in Kuwait? You weren’t even in Arizona?
Yes. I was in my apartment by myself in Kuwait. I had a Cuban cigar, a fake pepperoni pizza and a non-alcoholic beer. I kept thinking – this is not the way it is supposed to be! No rally, no campaign signs. I flew back for my two-day training at the Legislature and no one knew who I was. I don’t even remember my training because of the jetlag. I had to go back to Kuwait to finish the assignment and came back five days before session started. Everything has been downhill since. I’ve gotten more and more votes with each reelection, and I now have a Republican district, which is nice.
You are termed out in 2016. What’s next?
Cochise County Recorder. I’ve always had an interest in the position. There is a lot of potential to make the Recorder’s Office more technologically friendly. Since I started running for office, I have had issues getting the voter registration lists. It takes weeks. If you want to get a voter list in Cochise County, you have to drive to Bisbee, get the disc, pay the fee and go home. In Pima County, you can pay online, get a login and download the files. You never have to leave the house. That is what I want to fix in Cochise County. My goal was always to serve eight years in the State Legislature.
You are known as a technology champion in the State Legislature. Tell me more about how you got that label.
I never wanted to be the “IT guy” at the Legislature. When I got elected, the issues were education, infrastructure and transportation – what government is supposed be involved in. It didn’t take long – maybe nine months to a year – for me to realize that the state was in big trouble technology-wise. For instance, we just modernized the Legislature’s Request to Speak system. When I arrived in 2009, it was horrible! The buttons were off-center, you had a smiley face icon to vote yes and a dynamite plunger icon to vote no. What we have now is a direct result of me complaining. We are still trying to make the system better, but where it stands now is an accomplishment. The Legislature also has free WI-FI. It was wide open in 2009. You could be watching anything on your computer in our lobby. You can’t do that now. The more I looked, the worse it got.
Can you describe a little more about your technology initiatives.
Years ago, Speaker Adams gave me an interim committee (the Agency IT Committee) and we initially examined waste, fraud and abuse of our agencies. But, then we started learning that we have systems at ADOT that are 40 years old. They are secure because nothing can talk to them! It’s a hodge-podge of what we can fix. The Arizona Auditor General just came out with an audit of the Department of Revenue that says the agency has no IT leadership. They have 40 ongoing technology projects and no one seems to know how the projects interact with everything else. And there is a very specific certification in this field called a PMP. Some people are PMPs and they do a fairly good job, but there is not a statewide approach. ADOT is pretty well fixed with some minor issues. The efficiencies that we can glean from the new systems will help. But, getting a new computer at the Department of Weights and Measures isn’t going to fix any of their problems. They don’t have the resources.
Tell me about your bill, HB2647, to establish a separate statutory title to govern IT in state and local governments?
My bill from last session that created a new Title 18, HB2647, only addressed the technology issues that I know about. I didn’t go to other issues to prevent future concerns. HB2647 was held up because people had concerns primarily about the software development piece. The bill required agencies to first attempt a COTS solution. If a COTS solution doesn’t exist, an agency should hire a third party contractor. It’s only when you can’t find a contractor that an agency should do in-house development. In-house development is where the problems start. Just look at STAR PLUS with the Corporation Commission or BRITS with Department of Revenue – those are your problems. They are big money-sucking holes. We need to stop. I have a list of rules from the governor that I am reviewing right now. They are good, but there is no enforcement mechanism. So, what happens if an agency does not do what you tell them? And, rules are easily changed compared to statute.
How would you like to see the state approach technology projects?
There are new methods of development, like the agile methodology. I am a certified scrum master. Both processes are so superior to how we used to develop. You might waste three weeks in an agile deployment versus three years. I spent two years at Fort Huachuca to develop a custom project management software system. When the contract was over, the feds went to Microsoft Project and scrapped my system. I was on them the entire time. Why are we doing this? We didn’t have the user buy-in. There was no enforcement and there was already a Microsoft COTS solution for which you could buy an enterprise license.
What do you want to be remembered for as a state legislator?
I tell people all the time – I don’t want to be remembered. It’s not about me being here. I don’t care who gets credit, as long as there is good policy. There are people in politics who want their names attached to policy. Last year, I stopped signing onto bills except for my district bills or leadership bills, as a way of showing I’m not in it for the credit. I’ve taken some heat on this by other legislators.
What are some lessons you have learned through serving in the State Legislature?
Get a comfortable car! I have the ability to never be home – there is something always happening. My district covers over 10,000 square miles. Do you remember Senator Jim Waring? When he served in the State Legislature, his district was the smallest in the state at five square miles. He would brag that he knocked on every door – well he could! (laughter). Graham County is in my district. It takes me two hours each way to get there. When I have a morning and evening event, I go to the local McDonalds and sit for four hours because they have free WIFI. There is no glamour!
Do you have any favorite expressions?
There are a couple of quotes that I like, but don’t use that often. One is, “If you argue for your limitations, they will become yours.” I don’t know where I heard it, but it’s just one of those life lessons that stuck with me. If you sit back and tell yourself you can’t do something, you won’t be able to do something. There are exceptions of course. I’ll never be a fighter pilot because I’d have to hit height and weight requirements and I have poor vision and am color blind, but I always liked flying. So some limitations you just can’t navigate around. My father had a few quotes, one of which I used recently: When your job is to sweep the streets, you sweep the streets. So you do your job, not someone else’s job. The same thing applies to the Legislature. We all do the job – rules committee chairman, speaker of the house, committee chair – we are entrusted to do.
Do you have any pets or favorite pastimes?
I’ve got a dog. It’s my wife’s dog and before that it was my son’s dog. It reminds me of The Monkees’ lyric: “I’m gonna buy me a dog, ’cause I need a friend now.” We are going to sit my son’s dogs – an English Bulldog and a Huskie – for him. We love having them around. But, I’m trying to get into retirement mode without having a pet. Our favorite breed is the White German Shepherd, but they are overbred. When our kids were growing up, we had all the animals – a gerbil, a goldfish that lasts the weekend, an ant farm – we have ants all over the yard!
As far as pastimes, I like to travel – I wish I could do it more. I have a big 1800 Suzuki motorcycle. I like to work on classic cars. I’m working on my 1969 Pontiac GTO right now. All that on $24K a year!
What would you tell someone thinking about a career in public service?
Be mindful of why you want to be a public servant. In politics there are two types of people – those who want to do something and those who want to be somebody. If you want to be somebody, government is probably not the right place to be. If you want to do something, then it is a good fit. I’ve had a lifetime in public service – a lifeguard in high school, a soldier, and a firefighter. I loved being a part of the fire department, but it didn’t fit into my life at the time. I had young kids and it took too much time. Public service is a very rewarding, but also thankless, job. And, one more thing, there is a reason we have two ears and one mouth. We should listen twice as much as we talk. I like to listen and not call attention to myself. That is not what it is about.