What happened to Karen Fann?
We asked the reporter who watched her most closely to try to answer the Capitol's most pervasive question.
Julia Shumway spent three years watching Arizona Senate President Karen Fann become a darling of the far-right.
She shared her thoughts on Twitter last week about how the lawmaker formerly known for pragmatism borne from her business and city council background became the leader of the charge to sow doubt about the 2020 election.
The Arizona Republic dove into Fann’s personal backstory and her thrust into the spotlight, but we wanted to hear more of Julia’s insight as a reporter following Fann every day as the Senate fell apart.
So we asked her to write about what she witnessed and tie it all together. Julia now works in Oregon, covering that state’s legislature for the Oregon Capital Chronicle.
The last time we spoke, after a volatile news conference on a GOP-led attempt to get Arizona voters to pass a voter ID law that couldn't make it through the legislature, Senate President Karen Fann flatly told me that she would not answer my questions.
She turned, instead, to a woman standing on her other side, who had no questions but did have a message for the Prescott lawmaker who has become the face of a nationally derided attempt to sow doubt about the 2020 election.
"I just want to thank you for your bravery, and your courage," the woman said. "We are supporting you, we are covering you in prayers, so thank you for your class and your courage and your bravery."
The Arizona Capitol Times is the only news outlet in Arizona that has a reporter on both the House and Senate floors from gavel to gavel, and I was the paper's dedicated Senate reporter for most of Fann's time as president. That meant spending hundreds of hours watching and listening to her, and many more talking to Fann's legislative colleagues and lobbyists about how she operates and what makes her tick.
Around the Capitol, "What happened to Karen?" was second only to "When will they finally pass a budget and go home?" as the top question in 2021.
Lobbyists, consultants, reporters and gadflies have long know Fann as a pragmatic politician, who works on fairly wonky business-friendly policy and never grabbed headlines for gaffes the way some of her colleagues did. The version of Fann they saw this year humoring unfounded (and often outlandish) theories of election fraud and presiding over a vote to arrest fellow elected officials seemed like a stranger.
I don't have the answer to what happened to Fann — no one, not even her, knows the full answer to that question. But after close to three years of closely watching her and talking to others about her, I can recognize some of the factors that contributed to her transformation.
Over the past eight months, Fann has alienated former political allies and lost friends because of her attachments to the Senate's audit. Emails and text messages the Senate released after losing a court battle over public records showed the demise of her relationship with Maricopa County's supervisors and the longtime lobbyist who represented them, as chummy messages about working and socializing together turned into terse exchanges and harsh rebukes.
The once-accessible Senate president also largely stopped talking to local media. We met weekly in her office in the 2019 and 2020 sessions, but the few interviews Fann granted this year required ultimatums: We had enough to print that she had tried and failed to convince former Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell to run a hand recount, or that she was going on a Hawaiian vacation instead of passing a budget, and this was her last chance to tell her side of a story.
But she found a new network in a group of people who fervently believe the 2020 election was stolen, people like the woman she met after that August press conference, the conspiracy mongers who play-act as reporters and the voters from around the country who flooded her inbox with effusive praise. The combination of reinforcement from new fans and what she viewed as betrayal from former friends cemented her conviction that the election audit she initially hesitated to begin was the right step.
Republican Sen. Paul Boyer is now one of Fann's chief foes for opposing the audit and repeatedly withholding his support of budget bills, but they started as House colleagues working together on a complex optometry bill years ago. Their working relationship deteriorated after he moved to the Senate — she cut his microphone off while he was speaking in 2019 — but it reached a new low this year when he refused to support a Senate GOP push to hold Maricopa County's supervisors in contempt and criticized the audit as a grift, resulting in a flood of death threats from angry audit supporters. Now, he can't remember the last time the two spoke.
When they first started working together, Boyer said he could never have imagined that Fann would be leading a sham audit and publicly accusing him of going over to the "dark side" for not supporting it.
"I always thought she was kind of like me where she would just put her head down and do the work," he said. "When you're at the legislature, you work your bills, and then when you leave, you leave.”
Fann's own answer, in an end-of-session interview with the Capitol Times, is that she hasn't changed, but people's perception of her has because of unfair media coverage.
"Up until this point, a lot of the issues that I’ve dealt with haven’t been something that the media has been so vehemently opposed to," she said.
Fann ascended to the Senate presidency with the support of just over half of the Republican caucus in 2018 — there was never an actual contested vote in the GOP caucus, but everyone knew eight of the 17 Republicans would have preferred to see outgoing House speaker and freshman Sen. J.D. Mesnard jump directly from the top leadership post to the top job in the Senate.
That early tension didn't dissipate; it worsened during Fann's first session.
Republican lawmakers who supported Mesnard or who Fann didn't view as "team players" for any reason were treated differently than their colleagues and denied opportunities to preside over debate on bills. After a group of four Republican senators publicly announced they wouldn't vote for the state budget without certain concessions, Fann caved and spent the next month complaining in interviews about their lack of team spirit.
As a leader, Fann insists on promoting a facade of the entire Senate, or at least the Republican caucus, as a unified front. She bristles when members of her caucus reveal the cracks in that facade, or when anyone engages in what she refers to as "stirring the pot."
If the picture of Fann's Senate as a happy family cracked in 2019, it was in pieces by early 2020. The two most endangered members of the threadbare Senate majority were at ideologically opposite ends of their caucus, and Fann's attempts to protect moderate Kate Brophy McGee from politically harmful votes only upset conservative Sylvia Allen, who held a press conference complaining about Fann mere days into the start of the session.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The legislature succeeded in passing a "skinny" budget and a temporary recess dragged on through the spring. By the time Fann decided to call the Senate back to adjourn for good, members of her caucus were ready to revolt. She met conservative activists in the Senate parking lot who pledged to recall her and anyone else who supported ending the legislative session.
When it came to COVID-19, the Senate GOP caucus was divided on how best to proceed. But when it came to investigating claims of fraud in the 2020 election, the message from rank-and-file lawmakers was clear: Their constituents needed to see some kind of public hearing or investigation to know if results were accurate.
Before she settled on hiring a small Florida cybersecurity firm to spin ballots around on lazy Susans and ultimately determine that more Maricopa County voters chose Joe Biden than Donald Trump, Fann spent a few months playing with other ideas. She set up a Senate email address to collect allegations of voter fraud, though it quickly filled with jokes, spam and insults instead. She checked with legislative lawyers just to make sure the legislature couldn't send the state's electoral votes to Trump instead, and she spent calls urging Trump allies to file lawsuits with whatever proof they had of fraud.
Ultimately, under mounting pressure from Republican senators, Fann scheduled a public hearing on the election, something House Speaker Rusty Bowers resolutely refused to do. Subpoenas, court battles and the audit itself soon followed, and Fann became a hero to the same activists who threatened to recall her over COVID-19 months before.
Beyond trying to be liked, Fann falls fairly frequently for fake news and struggles to differentiate reliable and unreliable sources. A widely-watched CNN video this spring featured Fann chuckling to herself about CNN's Kyung Lah telling her One America News — which peddles false information about COVID-19 and elections to its viewers — wasn't a credible news source.
In separate interviews with the Yellow Sheet Report and KJZZ's "The Show" shortly after Election Day, Fann responded to questions about how Republicans kept control of the state legislature with claims that Biden was in poor health. Such claims were and are common in right-wing media, though not supported by Biden's publicly available health reports.
Fann still insists that the audit she commissioned has nothing to do with attempts to overturn the presidential election — despite the frequent calls to “decertify” the election from members of her caucus and the public — she just wants to restore faith in the electoral process. But on some level, she understands that continuing to sow doubt in the electoral process will cause trouble.
Just over a month before the 2020 election, Fann shared a widely circulated photo of discarded mail on the side of a road. An accompanying caption described the picture as Trump ballots — though the mail pictured was actually bank statements and birthday cards left on the side of a road in New Jersey in August 2018.
Fann said that she knew the image was old and the caption inaccurate when she shared it, but it didn't matter.
“I think the voters have every bit of a right to demand that we have fair and accurate voting systems so they have that confidence that nobody is playing games. And if everybody does that, then whoever wins whatever races, that’s what it is,” she said at the time. “But if you put doubt in people’s minds about the integrity of our election system, it’s very hard for people to accept the results.”
Next Week from Julia:
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