By Brian Powell
Since being elected as a Safford city councilman at a young age, Joe Hughes has been immersed in the inner workings of all levels of government.
He has spent most of his career working in government relations representing transportation and construction interests, currently serving in Phoenix as the regional director of government and community relations at American Airlines, where he oversees Arizona and markets in Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.
“If anything pops up in Arizona or the neighboring states, then I’m on top of it, whether it’s a tax issue, a noise issue—and legislation is a big part of it,” Hughes says. “Anytime the airline interfaces with state or local elected or appointed officials in those markets, that falls to me.”
This past year, the Flinn-Brown Fellow was involved in the passage of a state law that capped jet fuel taxes in Arizona for airlines—Phoenix did not have a cap—and required the revenues be used for aviation-related expenses.
“That was a huge win for us, but it also made Phoenix more attractive for other airlines,” Hughes says.
He also is a fixture in the state’s leading business and policy organizations. Hughes is a member of the executive committee for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and serves as its tourism committee chairman. He also sits on the executive committee of the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association, the board of directors of the Arizona Tax Research Association, and as an ex officio member of the Tempe Chamber of Commerce board of directors.
And sometimes he’s the public face of the airline, as was the case when he attended meetings where residents protested the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to change flight paths west of Sky Harbor Airport, which sent departing planes over historic neighborhoods.
Hughes was hired as director of government affairs by then Tempe-based US Airways in 2012 and stayed on after the merger with American Airlines.
“Airlines may get a bad rap, but the things we do are actually meaningful in people’s everyday lives,” Hughes says. “We connect families and business people. We fly across borders and oceans, connecting the world. It’s kind of an honorable deal when you think about it.”
A rural beginning
After graduating from Northern Arizona University with a political-science degree, Hughes returned to his hometown of Safford in southeastern Arizona.
At age 23, he was elected to Safford City Council. The council dais included his high-school principal and past teachers. The small-town councilman and vice mayor said he was interested to see how local government works. He also had the opportunity to serve in a regional role as the chairman of the SouthEastern Arizona Governments Organization, the council of governments which represents Cochise, Graham, Greenlee, and Santa Cruz counties on issues such as economic development, transportation, and social services.
Hughes worked for Phelps Dodge at its mine in Morenci—as had his father—both as a blast-hole driller and in human resources. But after being laid off from the company, his family moved to the Phoenix area and settled in Mesa.
Hughes served as a rural-transportation liaison for the Northern Arizona Council of Governments. In this role, he lobbied on behalf of Arizona’s 13 rural counties and 54 rural communities. He went on to lobby for contractors as vice president of the Arizona Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America.
In 2007, he became state director of GoRail, which sought federal legislation to increase the capacity of the nation’s freight rail industry. He was tasked with building grassroots support in Arizona and seven other states and lobbying members of Congress.
When Hughes was accepted into the Flinn-Brown Academy, the flagship program of the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership, his cohort included Drew John, a former Graham County Supervisor from Safford who in 2016 was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives. When Hughes served as a councilman in Safford, John was a county supervisor.
Hughes said he met many people he didn’t know through Flinn-Brown, and has stayed in contact with Fellows through the Flinn-Brown Network. He says he exchanges ideas even with those with major policy differences.
“The people in the room were different from the normal cast of characters, and there were a lot of people from the state agencies that I didn’t know,” Hughes says. “There were folks from the far other end of the political spectrum that I probably wouldn’t have reached out to, and now I have that connectivity with them.”