Scottsdale senator shepherds bioscience agenda at state Legislature

August 29, 2007

By hammersmith

Senator Carolyn AllenBy Matt Ellsworth
Flinn Foundation

When the Arizona BioIndustry Association (ABA) convened in June to celebrate leaders from the state’s bioscience enterprises, the audience and honorees constituted a virtual alphabet soup of MBAs and J.D.s, M.D.s, and Ph.D.s. Among that distinguished crowd, Sen. Carolyn Allen owned perhaps the rarest academic distinction: a GED from the state of Colorado.

Consequently, being honored alongside several of Arizona’s most accomplished and promising innovators “was a very touching moment,” says Allen, the Bioscience Elected Official of the Year.

Allen’s history provides more than the context for a heartwarming story, though. Her background, including the long shadow of family suffering, has served as a sort of lodestar for her, shaping her concerns and priorities during the 14 years she has served as a member of the Legislature.

Over the course of four terms as a state representative, where the Scottsdale Republican rose to the post of majority leader, and now in her third term in the Senate, where she serves as chair of the Health Committee and vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, Allen has earned a national reputation as a powerful and distinctively independent champion of the arts, the environment, healthcare, and most recently the biosciences. She credits her personal experiences for supplying the drive to adopt those interests.

Allen was born and spent her youth in Hannibal, Mo., a small town that she says in the 1940s lacked the social-services infrastructure to provide for its citizens who were in crisis. Pairing such inadequacy with what today seem like crude medical treatments produced tragedy for Allen’s family.

Her brother suffered from what was then an extremely rare brain development disorder: autism. Removed from her family’s home to a state home, he died young, at age 17. Allen wonders now what his life might have been like with more appropriate and informed care.

She has the same questions about the medical treatment her father received when she was a child. He endured serious mental illness, debilitating enough that he was committed to a sanitarium. He died there, overshocked while undergoing an early form of electroconvulsive therapy.

Thereafter, Allen’s mother raised her alone, for a period of time relying on public assistance, one of the reasons that today Allen holds a nuanced attitude toward topics like welfare reform, resisting subscription to a sharply partisan perspective. “I suppose I do this because of my mother. She had nowhere to turn,” Allen says.

Regarding her interest in health and science issues, she adds, “I don’t want to see other families suffer the consequences of being trapped in their bodies. I want my great-grandchildren to have access to treatments they may need. Their genetic background shouldn’t hamper their potential.”

Allen is referring to her own physical health as well as her family history. She has rheumatoid arthritis, and says that one of her goals is to see development of an effective vaccine for the disease. She chairs the Greater Southwest Chapter of the Arthritis Foundation, and in that capacity has encountered young people who experience especially devastating cases of rheumatoid arthritis. “I don’t want anybody’s children to suffer that way.”

Allen’s reliance as a lawmaker on the lessons of personal experiences is rooted in abiding self-assuredness. She recalls that her husband didn’t think it was a good idea to place her GED certificate prominently on the wall of her office at the Legislature. She went right ahead. “I’m just not ashamed of where I came from,” she says.

Allen now has a long tenure as an Arizonan. She was living happily in Colorado in the 1970s, but her husband wanted to escape the snowy climate. They landed in Scottsdale, where she found herself drawn to preventing degradation of her new home’s natural environment.

Among her fellow new residents, though, she found that it sometimes took long years to embrace concerns and interests unique to Arizona. She worked as a professional certified fundraiser in the arts as the development director for the Scottsdale Cultural Council and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. She says she discovered that “it’s difficult to get people to transfer their allegiance to Arizona, especially if they only live here half the year.”

Working as an advocate for the arts and the environment gradually drew Allen toward political life. “I saw an opportunity to involve myself in areas that impact my family,” she says.

Recalling, as an example, her family history of autism, she notes the alarming increases in that disorder’s incidence over the past several decades. Today, about 1 in 150 children are affected, compared to 1 in 10,000 as recently as the early 1990s. “The suspicion is that the cause may be environmental,” she says. When she was elected to the state House, she began focusing on such issues at the convergence of environmental and social policy and sought ways that state government could positively affect healthcare and research, and more broadly citizens’ quality of life.

In an electoral era defined in part by term limits for elected officials and the Clean Elections law (which provides partial public financing for candidates), the Legislature has seen more frequent turnover than in decades past, which Allen says has sapped continuity and institutional knowledge and increased partisanship where there should be none, making it much more difficult to manage long-term legislative endeavors—such as bolstering the state’s biosciences.

“We really have to stop making every issue partisan,” she says. Part of the challenge, according to Allen, is that many elected officials, feeling the pressure of term limits, quickly begin focusing on their “higher ambitions” and feel obligated to vote strict party lines. Allen says she has no interest in higher office herself, and so she has been able to work with both Democrats and Republicans.

She explains that she tries to make strategic decisions with an eye on the fate down the road for her personal legislative priorities. “I’ve helped Democrats,” she says. “Then, if I need support later, I can get it.” She notes that some of her fellow Republicans have been unwilling to support or even allow discussion of some Democratic initiatives, and she speculates about what may happen if power shifts and Democrats take control of one or both chambers of the Legislature. “Of course, Democrats are as capable as Republicans of being partisan,” she says. “I just don’t think that’s why we’re here.”

Allen acknowledges that the characteristics of voters in her district—encompassing much of Scottsdale, Rio Verde, and Fountain Hills—enable her to take more independent positions than some of her colleagues. “My district is affluent and highly educated,” she says, arguing that District 8 voters understand and share many of the concerns important to her personally.

To build support for those priorities among her fellow legislators, Allen employs an approach to political persuasion that makes her sound rather like a scientist: “First,” she says, “you have to be prepared to show evidence.”

“Take funding for arts education,” Allen explains, citing one of her longstanding interests. “Studies show that people who excel in science and math often excel in the arts, and that engagement in one stimulates performance in the other. If you can show that kind of correlation, some colleagues will come around.”

Allen has applied those tactics for the past several years in legislative advocacy on behalf of Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap. As a member of the Roadmap’s 75-member Steering Committee, she has worked to bring along some colleagues who may initially “lack the long-term vision” about what Arizona and its citizens might gain from strengthening the state’s biosciences enterprises.

“It’s terribly exciting to think of what we can do,” she says. “Through organizations like TGen (Translational Genomics Research Institute) and Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz), we have the chance to find cures—or at least change outcomes—for chronic diseases. It’s exhilarating to be around the people who can open the doors. There are many unknowns, but we really have the opportunity to enhance the human condition.”

Allen says that some of the state’s investments in the biosciences over the past several years have required leaps of faith by lawmakers, as when the Legislature threw its support behind establishment of the University of Arizona Medical College-Phoenix, in partnership with Arizona State University, and when it helped to create SFAz.

Some of Allen’s colleagues were nervous, and others “were kicking and screaming,” she says. Some, representing rural parts of the state, didn’t see the urgency or importance of such an investment. “And many people do think that private enterprise should make the investments. I argue that public and private support must go hand in hand.”

Allen says that encounters with leaders outside of Arizona have confirmed for her that the state is engaged in a critical push to bolster the biosciences. In early August, she traveled to Boston for the annual meeting of the National Council of State Governments. “There was lots of chatter about the biosciences,” she reports. While Arizona is still playing catch-up with several other states, certain achievements—especially the creation of SFAz—are turning heads. “The race is on, and every state is putting value on being in the mix,” she says.

Allen’s trip to Boston coincided with her selection for another award as legislator. Americans for the Arts, a national arts advocacy organization, presented Allen with the 2007 State Arts Leadership Award. The annual award honors one public official who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in the advancement of the arts at the state level.

As in the case of her award from the ABA, Allen credits the experiences of her youth for her abiding commitment to the arts. “In the third grade, I fell in love with the theater,” she says. “This was my Tony and my Academy Award.”

Though such honors might seem appropriate capstones to a political career, Allen says that she isn’t quite finished. She is interested in advancing legislation to improve air quality, head off coming water shortages, and address a growing shortage of emergency-room doctors. So she is preparing to run for a fourth term in the Senate. In the coming years—even before her current term ends—she sees a particularly challenging environment at the state Capitol.

“I have some concerns about the budget,” she says. “Folks who haven’t supported some of the projects I’m interested in will look at the money coming in and believe they have an excuse to start cutting. And the fight for tax cuts will be interesting. I hope we’ll have enough people who do share the long-term vision I have.”