Episode 5 with Dennis DeConcini Transcript


Keith: Welcome to Disability Empowerment Now. I’m your host, Keith Murfee-DeConcini. This episode is a really special one-I never intended to be interviewing a family member, but when said family member happens to be a former senator of the US and was in the US Senate when the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) was debated and crafted and signed into law-you just have to do it…… Welcome to the show Dennis, thank you so much for agreeing-

Dennis: Keith, I’m very pleased to be with you and your podcasts are excellent. You’re serving a very important purpose to recall the importance of disabilities in our country and it needs to be reminded. There’s nothing to be, sorry about it. It’s life. And you portray a very fine example of, how to communicate on the subject matter.

Keith: Thank you very much. I’m very humbled by that particularly when it comes from an astute gentleman like yourself. I know your time is valuable so let’s get right into it. This was originally just supposed to be a practice interview last summer at your California home where you reside with your wife Patty, but we had so much fun doing it that I decided to recreate it.

So, the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act turns 32 this year and was further updated in 2008. It’s a huge milestone for people with disabilities in the US. You were there when it was debated and passed. Such a memory-what was that like to be in the room where it happened to follow a line from Hamilton. What do you remember?

Dennis: Well, jeez, I remember being there. I really do. It was we had many constituents in Arizona that had contacted me in support of this. I was well aware of it. Though, I did not sit on the committee of jurisdiction. I knew Senator Dole and Senator Harken, very well, Senator Harkin and I, who are the same party. And we got to know each other and our wives got to know each other. And Bob Dole was just a wonderful person. I’ll talk about him later. He and I got along very well, we served on the judiciary committee together. And then Senator Weicker was also a major player in this. And I remember them holding hearings on it and discussing it and getting a lot of mail and support. But, it was something that was overdue for a long time. There had been discrimination of people with disabilities for a long time. It just hadn’t been, you know, nobody thought it was that big a deal, but indeed it was. Particularly if you happen to be one of those people, but even if you’re not-what’s right is right. I remember Bob Dole speaking on the floor and, and, uh, Harken and Weicker and others. And I put in a statement, uh, I don’t remember reading it on the floor, but I put in a statement-I don’t have it here, but it’s in my archives in support of it-So it was, it was a big deal then. And then 2008, I wasn’t there, but I suspect that was important that too.

Keith: Indeed it was. So you mentioned that there was some opposition-which isn’t surprising. I mean, it’s Congress-

Dennis: You know, there was some opposition. First of all, on a philosophical basis there are some-and I respect it I just disagree with it-Some strong, strong positions that the government shouldn’t be regulating our lives. That should be left to the states and I just don’t happen to agree with that.

And so there was some pushback from that. And then my recollection now it’s been a long time, Keith. My recollection is there was some little hesitancy about businesses because they would have to spend money to provide the facilities and what have you for disabled people who were visiting? They couldn’t just say, sorry, we don’t have, uh, facilities for you here. They had to have them. And in our own family business, the real estate business. I remember well we had to adopt many of our rental offices, uh, with the, with the requirements of the ADA. And you know we did not push back, we thought it was a good idea. Yes, it costs money, yes, but that was a part of doing business. And so there was some pushback, but I don’t remember what the vote was on the final roll call but I know it was overwhelmingly in support of it.

Keith: Yeah, I mean one of the great things about the internet is that all of that stuff regarding votes in history is easily accessible, depending where you live. Particularly massive legislation like this one. So what are some of your memories of working with Senator Harkin and Senator Dole?

Dennis: Well as I mentioned, I knew them both quite well. Harkin was, uh, we were in the same, like I said, same party. So we had lunch every weekend in the caucus and my wife at the time and his wife were friends and we spent some social time together. But harken was just an outstanding person. He believed in caring about people and disability was important to him. He had some disabled, uh, constituents and relatives as well, and he felt, uh, you know, committed to that. And it takes something like that when you have new legislation that is not something that’s been on the books before for a long time, even though there had been a council on this subject matter that put out some suggestions and what have you, but they don’t believe they had any legal authority to impose anything. So harken deserved a great deal of credit for the leadership here and also for being sure that it was bi-partisan that’s where Bob Dole came in. Now Bob Dole did have a physical disability. A lot of people didn’t, maybe he didn’t know that, but he was injured. Uh, his arm was injured in the second world war. And just a little side note, he actually was sent to the veteran’s hospital in Arizona. And he did that. And he mentioned that many times to make that was a long, long time ago, but he was a keen player here and he had the advantage of not only being the leader in the Republican party but having had a disability and being able to spooks to speak, you know, personally about what that meant. And to me, that meant a lot to a lot of people. I remember listening to his speech on the floor. It was very touching and moving and certainly convincing if you weren’t already convinced before.

Keith: Yeah. So now the Congress of today is a lot different than the Congress you were apart of. In both good but majority the not so good ways, that’s my bias as an outsider. So do you think that the ADA would have any chance getting passed today in Congress? Why or why not?

Dennis: I doubt it. It’s kind of hard to say, uh, because in those days there was far less rhetoric and discrediting each other on the other side of the aisle. I think today it would pass the house because a majority of the Democrats in there. In the Senate. It’s hard to say for one thing, how many Republicans would support something that President Biden would be for and was for at the time he was there and he was a big supporter of it, uh, because there’s so much hostility on the political side. However, having said that, Keith, I think that something like this might be something that would bring some Democrats over that might have some doubts. Like there’s a couple of, actually one from Arizona on some of these programs. I think they would bring them and it would bring some, some Republicans that are prominent in the, in the health area. And could overcome the toxicity that is there now. So to me, it would be. I would say with a lot of hard work and support from constituents again, that’s what it to me it would take. And not, not like it did, uh, some 32, some 30, some years ago. You had that support, but there wasn’t this hostility, there were some who, who didn’t think the government should get into this area. But they were, they were a minority and they weren’t just out to defeat the other party and in the majority of accomplishing anything. So it would be more difficult, but something like this could be almost similar to the bi-partisan infrastructure bill that passed on a bipartisan basis, which is quite amazing in today’s world of politics.

Keith: Yes, you mentioned and I had forgotten that the current President Joe Biden was in the Senate while at the same time you were- and while the ADA was being debated. Of course, then he was just a Senator in the same party. In your recollection-you maybe will not remember because like you said it was 30 + years ago-but do you have any memory, even the vaguest one about how Joe, then just a Senator from Delaware responded to the debate or the eventual passing of the ADA?

Dennis: I don’t remember actually talking to him about it. I served 18 years with him and I knew him very well, but I know him well enough then and know, well enough now, without going back in history and looking at that, he voted for it and he supported it.

President Biden, Senator Biden at the time, was really into legislation that in his mind helped solve a problem. And he was very much involved in legislation for civil rights. And, uh, he was there for many of them key votes on, on the civil rights. So I’m just certain without looking, uh, that he, he was a big supporter of it. And, you know, knowing, knowing him as I know him, I have a pretty good judgment that he was for, for the bill. I could almost promise that’s the case. If somebody wanted to question and look.

Keith: Yes indeed. As am I. His track record on disability rights at that time is pretty remarkable, in terms of the vote and whether or not the ADA got passed. So looking towards the future… Because a lot of people with disabilities are running for, if not national, for local office. Like in my second episode of Disability Empowerment Now was with Arizona State House Representative named Jennifer Longdon who is a gun violence opponent and she got into politics because she saw that there was a need and there was a lack of representation of politicians with disabilities. And a very good friend of mine in Tucson is running for a seat at the House. Arizona State House and she recently became hard of hearing so a lot of people with disabilities are getting more and more active in politics. A recent example was the major push to overhaul the ADA a few years ago and people with disabilities came out in droves against that. So as a former politician, what would you recommend in terms of effective ways of speaking to Congress for advocates who want the law to be updated again. Meaning the ADA, especially concerning digital accessibility. When the ADA was passed in the 1990s, the world wide web was at least a few years off so the ADA and as it stands now doesn’t address digital accessibility. So what would be your advice on advocating for issues like that?

Dennis: Well, I think you have to gather the evidence. I’m sure there is an ample amount of what the changes have come about digital and the internet. The capability of communication, on legislation and areas and what have you, and I’m sure there is a need of bringing the ADA current. To do that it’s still customary from what I understand, talking to people still in the Senate who used to work for me and friends of mine, that they still would hold hearings at the public health committee and maybe the committee has jurisdiction over revenue if it’s going to cost anything. And to justify and they would bring forth the evidence and then that means, uh, of course, witnesses that can testify that there’s been a problem with the ADA. That even though it helped them, that they still need additional assistance. One thing you mentioned, which I think was very important, uh, it’s gotta be very difficult I would say physically or disabled people who have physical disabilities to run for public office. But it is most effective and, you know, there’s a United States Senator now, uh, who, who has a severe physical disability and there was two when I was there. And, uh, you know, people listen to them. They didn’t feel sorry for them, although maybe they felt sorry and felt that they’d been damaged, but they didn’t just sympathy and nothing else, they had respect for them and they were good legislators. Just like anybody else, the fact that you’re disabled physically would mean that you couldn’t function in so many other ways. It’s got to go through a process and I don’t know Keith if there’s been planned any hearings or anybody who is introduced a, you know, a bill that would update and, uh, and deal with the particulars that you sighted.

Keith: Thank you for your candor. Any other thoughts regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act and its overall legacy. I mean we are over thirty years removed from it and I’m that when you-when Congress is debating about a bill regardless of what the bill is, they probably don’t expect the bill to have an ongoing legacy. Or maybe they do. But so what do you think will be the overall legacy of the Americans with Disabilities Act Now?

Dennis: Well I think its a fundamental. A very, very important act, and just like the civil rights act and the voting rights act and those acts go down in history. Creating a better place for our country and it is so recognized today, the ADA. Uh, you go into any, any restaurant or any public place and there are facilities for you. You see there is parking availability. Even special interest if you can’t physically get up the stairs or into an elevator. Those things have become part of our life, which is very important in my opinion. What needs to be done is to be if there’s evidence there. And I presume, based on your statements, that there is that it needs to be brought up to date, just like the voting rights act in the civil rights act and other acts that deal with gender and race and religion and what have you so there’s not discrimination based on that. And if that is happening and I suspect that it is, uh, it needs to be brought up. It needs to be-the people with disability are the best spokesperson for that because they need to talk to people and, and explain to them why it’s important. And if you know, disabled people like I have over the years, you know you talk to them and they don’t need to tell you, specifically, everything is wrong with them. You, you know, it comes out as part of the part of the discussion you have just like you share with them that your particular interest in health problems if you have one or what have you. So it’s, it’s, it’s a human involvement of communicating with each other. But, you know, the disability act like you say, 32 years ago, and then 2008, this was quite a bit long time now too. There certainly is with the new internet and digital computerization and there should be some update. And I just think it has to go through the process and you gotta get started. I don’t know if right now is the perfect timing for it, but you gotta get stuff done. And I don’t know if there have been bills introduced, maybe you know that Keith, but certainly if there hasn’t been, there should be. So the subject matter is as they say on the table to be discussed.

Keith: And so one of the most frustrating things is and you see this is a lot of advocacy today, particularly around disability is that 30 years is long enough that a lot of businesses are still resisting making improvements and updating according to what’s laid out in the ADA. The terminology of an undue burden whereas if the update to a business is so great that it draws any improvement then it’s virtually unattainable, the business might say it’s a financial detriment. And you can probably answer this but I just want to get it out there-You’ve been involved in politics for most of your life, why do you think it is that people, particularly businesses are so resistant to making change, particularly involving accessibility?

Dennis: Well, Keith, I think it usually comes down to money and if you’re in business you have to make a profit to stay in business and make a living. And that’s our system and works pretty well most of the time, but when there are additional legislative requirements for you to continue to do your business, whether it’s a restaurant or a service station or a mechanical shop or practice the law or medicine or something, and you need to spend some money to be in compliance with the rules or regulations. People often object to that, they think that it’s doing just fine. So it’s important how that is presented. Uh, if it’s presented with little or no evidence, just because they think it’s been a long time it’s been 20-something years now. It’s time we get back. To, to clearing up these problems, well you need to know what the problems are. You need to have public hearings. You need to have witnesses who can testify by the lack of, uh, updated the ADA or any other major legislation dealing with the rights of people of individuals, you know, is, is outdated and needs to be corrected. That takes a long time. Those things just don’t happen. But I think in the case of the ADA, it’s a, it’s been long enough. And there certainly are examples of today that there’s, there’s not ample legislation for, for the ADA, for disabled, other disability acts. I mean other civil rights acts that people need to be updated on. You take the voting rights act as a perfect example of that and those things are very, you know, need to be addressed and it takes time and particularly in today’s well, today’s political climate, let’s call it. Uh, you know, it takes a lot more time because of the personal hostilities that have been developed.

Keith: What always surprises me is that people look at the ADA as a watershed moment as a huge, mild stone, a law. And while it certainly is in some respects, if you look at that entire law it is basically the bare minimum of what can be federally mandated and half of it is, at least the last time I checked, was underfunded or completely not funded. So yes it was a huge civil rights milestone but like you said there needs to be updated. There need to be other bills out to either enhance or surpass the ADA and unfortunately in this particular political climate there doesn’t seem to be that much gusto in getting it done and working across the aisle which is so heartbreakingly sad. And I read your memoir “center aisle” and that’s what you did the entirety of your senate career was working across the aisle. And before I let you go, not only commend you on your long history of public service but ending on working across the aisle. Recently, we lost as a country two titans of the US Senate. One from the Republican side and one from the Democrat side. I know you know them both very well. What are your thoughts on the passing and the legacy of your former colleague both Bob Dole and Harry Read.

Dennis: Well, you raise really outstanding questions. It’s just difficult to answer today, why it is so, so toxic or so hostile towards each other. And it used to not be that way. When you talk about working across the aisle, I did that and a good example was Paul Laxal from Nevada, who was a staunch Republican conservative. And we worked on the legislation. Uh, I did that with many others including Mitch McConnell. Uh, when I was there, he came in as a Senator. We worked together. He was known as a Southern gentleman and the nicest man you could ever work. And we worked on child legislation dealing with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, of which I serve on the board. Now, those were different times. And to get back to that, uh, I think there’s a couple of basic, basic needs. Uh, one is the Congress-they don’t stay in Washington anymore. So they all go home on the weekends. The Senators do too. Didn’t use to be that way and I don’t know how you change that. But now, you know, they really only work about four days a week, or there’ll be only boats on four days, a week or three days a week so they can have days to travel, to go back to their states. That was not the case when I was there. So those are things that have to be taken into consideration. And then of course the money that is necessary to run for office is just outrageous in my opinion. And we need legislation that would control that, but there’s been opposition to it for political reasons. So I like to be optimistic. Keith that is just my nature, and I really do believe that the time is going to come that we’re going to find more, excuse me for saying, the Mitt Romney’s on the Republican side. Uh, and, uh, and you know, people that can reach across the aisle and work together and come to some agreements, uh, that just, it’s just very, very important to find people like that. And they used to be there when I was there. And for many years I just kind of have shrunk now that to one, I want to do that. And, uh, like I say, if you go with the other party you’re going to be criticized within your own party and you can see that to extremes with our former president. Uh, and his, his remarks about people and people back about him that causes some damage, but you can’t blame it all on, uh, former president Trump. But it did bring in an atmosphere that you either with me or against me and don’t budge one way or the other that needs to be mildly dissipated so people don’t kind of get punished by their own party if they do reach across the aisle. Uh, I like to be optimist. I like to think of what will come about. I realize it doesn’t appear to be that way now. And I understand that, but I think the future will bring us together. You look at the particular situation in Ukraine and Russia’s invasion and war that is bringing both Democrats and Republicans together in Congress that the United States needs to do more. Yeah, it’s not only just condemn Russia, but actually take more action. Even those more than those that the President Biden has taken. Good results from an awful terrible situation that is going on. And that’s what it takes. I’m sorry to even have to mention this, but 9/11 brought this country together. And, uh, because it just was an overwhelming realization that we were under attack. And we are not quote under attack by Russia, but our principles and our day and our beliefs and those of Western Europe and democracies are, and we need to do more. And that is something that is, that is bi-partisan. I think that’s a positive sign that there is still the feeling there that, you know, we can agree on some things. In my opinion, the Americans with Disabilities Act and what should be done to correct it, I’m no expert like you are many others, but it’s obviously been a long time. It needs to be known both on the Republican and Democratic side of the Senate, through their constituents primarily that something needs to be done and I think that’s a perfect vehicle for some bipartisan legislation.

Keith: Yes so a quick correction I misquoted your memoir title, it is actually From the Center of the Aisle. It came out in 2015. On the University of Arizona Press. Dennis I would like to thank you very much for sharing some fast insight on the legacy and formation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, before we go-do you have any last words on your recently departed colleagues Senator Dole and Senator Read? I also know you worked hand in hand with Senator Barry Goldwater and he was the opposite party as well, any final momentos on your departed colleagues and anything you want to say wrapping up this interview?

Dennis: Harry Reid was a really close friend of mine. He was in the House before he came to the Senate and, at the time he was a democrat. At the time the Senate Democrats got together and we would be assigned or pick somebody that we would help in the campaign. And I picked Harry Reed. And we got to know each other and I helped him get in and then when he was elected, I helped him get on the appropriations committee and he could never stop thanking me for that. But he was a very effective Senator and a friend of mine. I’m sorry that he got kinda mean-spirited in his last few years as majority leader, but that was the time. And when he was a dear, dear friend of mine, I used to talk to him on his birthday, which was December 3rd. I called him and left a message, happy birthday. And then I texted him. He texted me back, and said, sorry, I was on the phone. Thank you for thinking of me. And I would talk to him every couple of months. Uh, he was a dear friend of mine and Bob Dole. Uh, I struck up a relationship with him about a year ago, I would call him every month or five weeks and we would talk and we would just talk about old times and what have you and President Trump, he was not happy with at all. And he used that famous saying that Ronald Reagan used to say, I didn’t leave the Republican party. The Republican party left me.

He was sharp as could be. And, uh, we had wonderful conversations about how we did work bipartisan and how, you know, some of the, uh, you know, extremists on the right and the left are not good for our party. We had long discussions. Matter of fact, I talked to him two days before he passed away. And I was at the funeral service at the Capitol, when he was laying in state there with his family there. And he was just a wonderful man.

Then you, then you talk about Barry Goldwater. Interesting. Interesting gentlemen, Mr. Conservative, indeed he truly was. What I think the Republican conservative party was all about, he and Ronald Reagan. And it wasn’t about, you know, no government, no bitterness. It was about the effectiveness and a strong defense. And he knew how to promote that. He and I came from the different parties and, uh, but he was so nice to me because he knew, um, my, my Aunt. Who was the head of the Republican party in Glenn County and knew my mother-in-law had gone to school with her, even though we were strong Democrats who had not supported him when he ran for the Senate, but he was a wonderful man to work with. And, uh, we had, uh, we had an agreement. He and I, that we would not do negative commercials or campaign against each other when we were. And he, and I sat down and talked about it, that we would endorse the candidate of our party that were running against the other one of us, but we wouldn’t do any kind of negative campaigns out of respect for each other. It worked and worked for both of us. And I have recently been appointed to the Barry Goldwater Education and Scholarship in Excellence Foundation as a trustee. I was there in 1986 when we passed that legislation creating this foundation and, uh, appropriating money. They give out scholarships. For engineering and other high-tech areas every year. And it’s hundreds of them. I’m now on the board of that. And as a matter of fact, tomorrow is my first board meeting. And so, you know, there are some positive things going on and I think we need to keep looking at those positive sayings. But Dole leaving, Goldwater, You know, three fine examples that it can work together. I just hope we can get back to those days Keith.

Keith: Yes, I do too and one last thing and then I’ll let you go. I would be remiss in mentioning that you also worked very closely with the late senator John McCain you had a very strong history with him. But that’s another example, not that you need any more examples of working across the aisle, but I mean your legacy of doing is paramount and it is one of the only reasons the ADA was able to get passed in 1990 and so thank you for playing whatever part you did on that day and also throughout your entire senate career. And I may be a little biased here but I hope my listeners will excuse the bias, but you exemplify the very best of what a US senator should behave and be like and I join you in hoping that eventually, we get back to those days of civility and less toxicity. We can disagree, we can argue it out, but we have to remember we are all passionate about our country and her needs. We just need different ways of getting there and it need not be a grudge match and thank you for sharing so much insight on a sadly bygone time.

Dennis: You do a fine job in interviewing and you just summed up the whole situation. I couldn’t have done that any better than you did. And there is hope. And, and I do believe, uh, I want to be an optimist and you’re kind of podcast and communication is very helpful to see that that is advanced. So thank you also for interviewing me and the professionalism that you demonstrate.

Keith: Thank you. Have a good board meeting tomorrow. I’m sure Barry Goldwater is looking down and smiling.

Dennis: I like to think so.

Keith: Okay. Bye. Now

Keith: You have been listening to Disability Empowerment Now. I would like to thank my guest today and you, the listener. More information about the podcast can be found on visit on disabilityempowermentnow.com. The podcast is available wherever you listen to podcasts or on the official website. This episode of Disability Empowerment Now is copyrighted 2022.