ROX Interview: Karen Fann

Arizona State Senator

Making a Positive Difference—‘That’s My Goal in Life’

Interview by Ray Newton

For more than 27 years, Yavapai County resident Karen Fann has been an active and positive influence not only in the county but also the state.

Fann, a lifelong Republican, currently is a state senator representing District 1, which includes more than 8,000 square miles of Yavapai County and portions of Maricopa County.

What’s more, Fann is serving as the president of the Arizona Senate, a powerful role that lets her influence many of the major laws that impact residents within the Grand Canyon State.

Before being elected to the Senate in 2016, Fann had been an influential member of the Arizona House of Representatives, where she was first elected in 2011. Before that, she had been a council member and then mayor for the Town of Chino Valley from 2002 to 2009. Predating that, she had been a member of the Prescott City Council, where she served as mayor pro tem. 

Her service in the Legislature has resulted in more than 40 awards, recognitions and honors, including being named Legislator of the Year, Leader in Public Policy of the Year, Woman of the Year, Best Elected Republican Representative, and Senator of the Year.

Fann Has Longtime Connection to Arizona

The Fann name has long been prominent in Prescott. When parents Jim and Sylvia Fann came to Prescott in 1958 to rear their four children, the family almost immediately became involved in what was then a small community of around 10,000.The senior Fanns owned a contracting business that Karen’s brother Mike later turned into Fann Contracting. He lives in Prescott with his wife Tammy. 

Sister Sarah Fann Bird has a graduate degree and lives with her husband Brian in Peoria. Her other sister, Gail Fann Thomas, earned a Ph.D. and lives with her husband Ken in Monterey, California. 

For a brief period, the Fann family lived in El Cajon, California, where Karen graduated from high school. While there, she was an athlete, musician, student council member and president of Y-Teens. 

When her family returned to Prescott, she went on to a 10-year career with the airline industry, living in Los Angeles, Hawaii, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

She worked briefly as a legal assistant and the jury commissioner for Yavapai County but then decided to launch her own business in 1984. With $500 she had saved, in 1984 she began her own company — Arizona Highway Safety Specialists. In the 36 years since its founding, the company has grown into Arizona’s largest installer of guardrails and signage.

She has been married to Jim McKown for the past 13 years, although they first met 25 years ago by chance at the Palace Bar. “Jim asked me to dance and we’ve been together since that night, realizing we had known each other most of our lives but never met.“ Jim was the owner of his own construction companies and was friends with Karen’s parents, sister and grandparents. Their wedding turned out to be a surprise during a family trip when they decided to get married in Kona.

“It was a great memory for all of us. Even now, we enjoy returning to Hawaii. Some great golfing there.” 

A candidate for re-election during the upcoming general election in November, Fann, now in her mid-60s, shared her thoughts about public service and her obligation to the citizens of Arizona.

Prescott LIVING: You’ve been a legislator — representative and now a senator — since 2011. What is it that appeals to you about serving?

Karen Fann: I never had intended in getting into politics. This was not my idea. But for some reason it worked out that way. I look back. I think it was supposed to be this way. I once had mentioned to my assistants that I was going to volunteer for planning and zoning or something like that. Once, when I was away skiing and, unexpectedly, a position opened up. They signed me up for a vacated Prescott City Council seat. That’s what started it.

I’ve said all along, even in my business and everything else, that God put us on this Earth to hopefully do something good and leave it a better place than when we came in. That’s always been a factor for me. I hope that when it’s time for me to leave this Earth, somebody will say “She made a difference. She contributed and she made a difference.”

Prescott LIVING: Are there differences in serving in the House and the Senate?

Karen Fann: In the House, there are 60 members. At least a third, if not more, are all brand-new people. It’s rowdier because there are 60 members, and some are younger. Also, some people prefer the House because it is exciting. There is commotion going on all the time. When I moved over to the Senate, I didn’t like it the first three weeks. It was so quiet. I’d walk the halls and everybody’s gone at 5 o’clock. We’re done with our work.

We don’t go on and on for hours and hours on the Senate floor like they do over in the House. We only have 30 members, and most have earlier served some years in the House. So after about three weeks, I realized what was going on. The fact that we’re done in the Senate, and they’re still debating things at 10, 11 o’clock at night in the House — I decided I’m going to love the Senate.

Prescott LIVING: Do you find your colleagues in the Senate are as memorable, friendly; as cordial?

Karen Fann: Yes, and that is another difference between the House and the Senate. As a general rule, in the Senate we are more the mature body. I’m not saying that we’re a lot older, but we are the mature variety. We tend to be more respectful to each other, regardless of which side of the aisle we’re on.

 We always try to keep that decorum. That’s one thing I insist on as a Senate president. I will not allow people to use the floor as a personal political stage to do something other than the people’s business. The House is not always that way.

Prescott LIVING: Did you find fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate or the House?

Karen Fann: No. Here’s the really sad thing about all of this. If you look at 80% to 85% of everything we do in the Legislature, it should be nonpartisan. It is budgets. It is education funding, public safety, infrastructure, roads — all of those really great things. I also will say it should never be political. Sometimes it’s so sad that we see politics get injected. Case in point last year: Because of ideological things, education has been a huge, huge issue for us for three years. Trying to get the teacher salaries increased, to get more money into education. Thank God our economy was doing great.

That has been our No. 1 priority — to get back to the levels that we were in, in 2008, and to get caught up and put more in. Last year we put a much larger amount, and the Democrats over in the House voted no on the K-12 budget. We’re all just saying: “Why would you vote no for raises for teachers?” And they said, “Well, because our caucus, our Democratic caucus, says it’s not enough. So we are voting no.”

I don’t understand why we have to play those games.

Prescott LIVING: What took you into the leadership position in the Senate?

Karen Fann: It was kind of a fluke. Remember, I had not planned on being in politics, but it seems that it was just meant to be. The same thing happened with the leadership.

 At the end of the second year of my freshman Senate term in 2018, we had Senate President Steve Yarborough. He was termed out, so he was leaving. The president pro tem was Debbie Lesko. During a special election, Debbie Lesko was selected to go to Congress.

The majority leader was Kimberly Yee. However, Yee ran for state treasurer and was elected, so she was gone. The whip was Gail Griffin. She was termed out, so she went to the House. We lost our entire leadership team in the Senate. Everybody was gone. We looked around to see who else was left who wanted to step up. There really wasn’t anybody there.

A big freshman class was coming in — eight freshmen coming in from the House. We had 17 Republicans, so that was half the body. So I just stepped up and I said, “I’ll do it. I’ll run for it.” I put my name in the hat and was elected. Here I am and I will be running again for Senate president.

Prescott LIVING: What have been your major satisfactions as a legislator?

Karen Fann: I started in 2011. That was at the tail end, coming out of the recession. During these last 10 years, we have worked so hard to turn this economy back around, getting people back to work, getting business startups.

Arizona is the No. 1 state in the nation for business startups — people coming and starting their businesses here. We do things like angel tax credits and limited regulation. We work with our chambers of commerce in rural Arizona, as well as the entire state. We are always pushing for economic development and more higher-paying jobs.

What happens when we do that? Not only does that build them up, and make them successful and strong, but we have now taken them off the unemployment and the AHCCCS, and the food stamps and all of the subsidy programs that are needed so desperately when you don’t have a job.

One of my favorite things in the Senate is when we generate debate on the floor. Last year we had the big ERA — Equal Rights Amendment — that started again. That is a very contentious issue, very contentious everywhere. There are important issues on both sides of that issue. So I was trying to figure out, “How can we have this conversation without it getting out of hand?”

I had some Democratic members that wanted to drop a bill that would equalize that. I had Republican legislators that said, “It’s a moot point because they’ve already run out of time.” But I knew this was important.

I went to Sen. David Bradley, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate. I said, “Here’s what I’d like to do, but I’m going to need your help with this. You know that bill is never going to see the light of day, because the votes aren’t there for it. But I know this is important to your members. And I know that my members would like to have this conversation as well.”

So I said, “Let’s pick a day when we’re not really busy. We’ll do a day on the floor. I will give them all the time they want.”

We ended up with nine Democrats and nine Republicans who wanted to talk about it. We agreed, “OK, and here’s the deal. We’re going to get healthy debate. We’re going to rotate back and forth, and nobody’s going to go down any rabbit holes. We’re not going to be disrespectful.”

Of course, everybody got wind of it. The gallery was full of people on both sides. It was perfect. It went on for two hours and 45 minutes. It was polite, respectful. It was truly a lesson in real politics. I wish those galleries were full of high school and college students watching, because this is what democracy is really all about. That was probably my favorite two-plus hours in the entire 10 years I’ve been down there.

Prescott LIVING: What have been your disappointments?

Karen Fann: I already mentioned part of it was the lack of decorum. It wasn’t that way when I started 10 years ago. People were a lot more respectful. The public that visited was a lot more respectful. Members were a lot more respectful.

 We have seen that change during the last four years. I think a lot of it has to do with the national attitude, if you will. I know some think part of it is because of what’s going on the presidential level. It hasn’t been nice. I think that attitude has elevated it. It’s one of those things, “Well, if it’s OK for them to do it, it must be OK for us to do it.”

 Another thing, if you want to talk about another disappointment. It’s a disappointment — COVID ¬— but it was unexpected, and we couldn’t help it. We all had worked so hard getting our economy back after the recession, building it up. We went from an earlier billion-dollar deficit to last year, when we had a billion dollars in our rainy-day fund. Plus, we had an extra $700 million that we were working on in the budget. We were going to be able to put more and more into education, more into infrastructure.

Then came the pandemic and shutdown. Of course, we had to do that skinny budget on March 23, because we didn’t know if we would be shut down. We had no idea how bad it was going to get, so we took out that $700 million. We made sure that education stayed funded the way it should have, as well as some of the other things we put in there. But all of the extra stuff, we had to hold off on that.

We really didn’t know what to expect financially when COVID first hit. Originally, we thought there would be over a billion dollars of lost revenue, which is why we held back spending the $700 million. Fortunately, as of right now, our shortfall has been minimal and if this trend continues we will be able to accelerate the education funding and increased infrastructure funding as planned last spring. Arizona’s financial position is one of the best in the entire nation. Because of our pro-business model, Cares Act monies and increased online sales taxes, we have been fortunate to weather these financial uncertainties.

 Prescott LIVING: Can state economists predict how long it’s going to take for the economy to come back?

Karen Fann: It is really hard to predict. The sad thing is we know that some mom and pop businesses will never come back. They were already on a shoestring, and they were not able to survive.

Prescott LIVING: Shifting to the future. What are key issues in the upcoming Legislature come January?

Karen Fann: No. 1 is going to be the budget, which we’ve already talked about. That’s obviously going to be a huge issue — balancing again. And business’ liability when people claim they were infected with COVID there — we were hoping to address it in special session, but we may end up having to do it later.

I’m setting up a stakeholder’s task force to address state emergencies. We have a unique opportunity right now while it’s still fresh in our minds to ask ourselves, “Were we truly prepared for an emergency of this magnitude?” The answer was no, we weren’t.

What were the big things that we learned? One is we were not prepared to flip that switch on education and say, “Guess what? You guys all need to start learning from home, starting Monday, and be prepared to do that for two, three, four months or more …”

We can do better. We can say, “OK, what did we learn out of this, and how can we be prepared? Is that going to be better broadband for rural Arizona? Is that going to be to make sure that there is a plan B always in place?”

Second, I can tell you from an unemployment insurance standpoint, we were not prepared to handle 100,000 cases a week when we’re used to doing 3,000 cases. Now, will we ever be prepared to do 100,000? No. But let this be a lesson that maybe our computer system really does need to be upgraded.

Third, I think we need to have a serious conversation about the state constitution. We also found out there seemed to be a blurred line about exactly who has what authority to do what in an emergency.

We have a governor who declared an emergency. He has a lot of power to order us to stay at home. Questions started coming up — constitutionally he’s OK here, but how long is he OK keeping us closed down? Then we had the mayors in Flagstaff, Phoenix and Tucson who are very liberal. They didn’t think the governor went far enough. So they were starting to implement their own orders. These concerns need to be sorted out.

Prescott LIVING: Should we have a lieutenant governor? Your thoughts?

Karen Fann: We have had the bill introduced a few times but it needs to go before the voters for approval. For many years, a lot of people said, “No, we don’t need it. It’s just another paid position.” I think that we are getting to the point that Arizona is getting big enough. It’s a lot for the governor to handle all on his own now. I think we are at the point that we need a lieutenant governor. 

Prescott LIVING: What secrets about you, things you’ve done, are you willing to share?

Karen Fann: I grew up here in Prescott, but when the recession hit so bad here, dad had to move the contracting business over to California. That’s why I went to high school there. I was on student council, I was on the gymnastics team; I played the flute. So jack of all trades, master of none.

Prescott LIVING: Now you own a contracting company.

Karen Fann: Those were the days when girls really weren’t considered to be the ones to take over the family business. My brother Mike was the only boy in the family. It was just automatically assumed he would take it over. He’s worked very hard, and I’m very proud of him. It worked out fine because I started my own business, which means I can shine on my own.

I’m the licensed contractor, and I have a wonderful husband who, when I’m down at the Capitol, he handles the day-to-day stuff. 

Prescott LIVING: You’ve a talented family.

Karen Fann: Everybody says, “You’re an overachiever,” but I tell them, “No, actually you should see my siblings.”

My sister Gail is a year older than I am. She has her doctorate degree in business education and teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School over in Monterey. She is always being asked to present papers to the 5-star generals at the Pentagon. 

Then there’s my brother Mike, who everybody in Prescott knows and is Mr. Overachiever and Mr. Wonderful. He built the skate park and is always involved in philanthropic causes on top of being successful in business.

My younger sister Sarah started out in nursing, then obtained her master’s degree, which vaulted her into a VP at Hospice of the Valley. She is now working in the telemedicine field on a national level.

Prescott LIVING: What do you and husband Jim do for fun?

Karen Fann: Jim plays golf every day — his favorite thing. I play golf whenever I can, which is not very often, but I do love it. I have not had time lately, but Jim and I used to go fishing a lot. We both love to fish. Unfortunately, since being in the Legislature, the last six years in particular, I haven’t been able to fish much.

Prescott LIVING: What about travel? You traveled internationally.

Karen Fann: Yeah. Ironically, Jim was not a big traveler before last year. We do go to Hawaii almost every year. Our family always goes somewhere for Christmas vacation. We’ve done that for 30 years.

And now, because of my Senate president’s position, I’m on the board of a number of national organizations and invited to attend events that allow Jim and me a little more travel time together. For example, we did go to Italy. He’d never been overseas. He absolutely loved it. He actually got on a golf course and played golf over there. I went to Berlin by myself. I did not know a soul on that trip, but it was great. People were wonderful. They made me feel very welcome. I’ve become very good friends with them as part of the Senate Presidents’ Forum. It was an honor to be at the memorable spot where President Reagan said, “Tear down this wall.”

In August 2019, Jim and I went to Taiwan with Speaker Rusty Bowers and his son. I didn’t think that Jim was going to like Taiwan at all because he couldn’t go golfing every day. Well, they do play golf — but it was the Taiwan government that invited us. We were up at 6 o’clock every morning and did not get back to our hotel room till 10 o’clock at night. That was really work. I think we had one afternoon off. It was nonstop.

Prescott LIVING: Your hope for the future of Arizona and your future?

Karen Fann: My fervent hope is that I can represent honestly the people who elected me as well as the greater population of Arizona. We’ve got some major issues to be faced at the Capitol. We can’t let partisan politics get in the way of what is best for Arizona. I have two rules I follow: First, I will respect everyone. Second, I will never blindside someone. I will be honest, ethical and forthright. I will listen and not ignore.