Meet Steve Pierce, the new Senate leader

The Arizona Republic
Saturday, November 19, 2011
Mary Jo Pitzl

Steve Pierce has spent 2 ½ years sitting in the back of the state Senate chambers, quietly surveying the proceedings and rising rarely to weigh in with a floor speech.

Now, as president-elect of the Senate, he'll be at the front of the room and pressed daily for comment on everything from the budget to the hot-button bill of the moment.

"I have lots of new friends," the Prescott rancher told the crowd attending the Arizona Tax Research Association's annual conference Friday. "They all want to come in and see me. I don't know most of them."

Among those new buddies: GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

Pierce, a Republican, is finishing the term started by Russell Pearce, who was removed from office in a recall election earlier this month.

In his first week on the job, Pierce has tried to highlight the similarities and differences between "S Pierce" and "R Pearce," as the two were referred to at the Capitol to dispel any confusion.

The new president signaled he'll stick to much of the course the controversial Pearce charted, namely a focus on the economy and holding the line on state spending. He's been gracious about Pearce, saying the Mesa Republican didn't deserve being voted out of office.

Steve Pierce is devoid of the bombast and rigid ideology that made Russell Pearce a rock star among "tea party" types but also a ripe target for recall.

Pierce sticks close to his rancher roots, sprinkling his speeches with cow jokes and decorating his office with Western memorabilia.

He lives on and runs a ranch in Prescott, a property that's been in the family since he was a kid. A Phoenix native, Pierce spent his early years on grain and cattle ranches in the Valley, before the family moved north to raise herefords and black Angus on the rolling meadows of the Las Vegas Ranch.

The family left a legacy: His father donated 20 acres to the city, which today is the home of Pierce Park at 46th Street and Thomas Road. The developer who bought the family ranch built a shopping plaza at 40th Street and Thomas and called it Pierce Plaza in homage to the ranching family.

One of the wealthiest members of the Legislature because of his ranch holdings (he has a second one near Payson) and related business ventures, Pierce, 61, said he's still a hands-on rancher.

"That's all I've ever done," he said of ranching work and selling cattle.

Yes, he rides a horse, he says as he plucks a framed photo of himself on horseback from a forest of pictures in his office.

And yes, he's been bucked.

"I've been dumped," he said. "I had one (horse) roll on me when I was young that gave me a brain concussion."

But he's not all boots and spurs. He recently saw the Ballet Arizona production of Cinderella and said he listens to opera on his drives to the Capitol from Prescott.

"I like Randy Travis, too," he said.

He and his wife of 38 years, Joan, patronize the iconic steakhouse Durant's regularly and have made the rounds of some of the trendier restaurants in central Phoenix.

He became a fan of then-Sen. Ken Cheuvront's wine-themed restaurant soon after joining the Legislature, and the two -- from opposite sides of the political aisle -- became friends.

Cheuvront said Pierce reminds him of the Arizonans he grew up with 40 years ago: pragmatic, hardworking and good for their word.

Pierce said he tries to stick to a credo of treating others as he wants to be treated, and he said he is open to working with all 30 senators, even though with a supermajority of Republicans, Democrats are an afterthought at the Senate.

Pierce said he isn't one for lingering at the Capitol.

"I like to have fun," he said. "I'd like to see us start at 8 in the morning and be done at 3 in the afternoon."

That's one goal, he readily admits, he's unlikely to achieve.