The ROX Interview: Sen. TJ Shope

Interview by Bea Lueck

GC LIVING: Welcome, Sen. Shope. Now, is that a strange title? It started as representative.

TJ Shope: Yeah. It has taken a little bit of getting used to, for sure. And I think that for some of my colleagues who served with me in the House, we still revert back to what we were when we first started serving together. So it does happen every once in a while, you’ll misspeak and say representative. But it rolls off the tongue a little easier, I feel like, Sen. Shope.

GC LIVING: Well, let’s start a little bit farther back in your history. You were born in Florence.

TJ Shope: I was born at Florence General Hospital on Adamsville Road, which doesn’t exist as a hospital anymore. And lived in Coolidge almost my whole life. I graduated from Coolidge High School, went to Central Arizona College where I continued to live at home and work at my family’s grocery business, Shope’s IGA. And spent three years in Tempe while I was attending Arizona State University.

Then I moved back to Coolidge, bought a home when I thought that the market had completely tanked in late 2008. And then who knew there was a bottom after that? But the good news is that with all the positive things going on, those of us who may have bought at that time are feeling pretty good about ourselves right now, because if you stayed in your place, you’re ahead of the game.

GC LIVING: What made you go from growing up in Coolidge, going to school at ASU, to deciding to get into politics? You started with the school board.

TJ Shope: At ASU, I had led the College Republicans group and was a state chair for College Republicans in Arizona. And then came home and decided to run for school board for Coolidge Unified School District. There were, I think, three seats open and five of us ran. I ended up getting elected and did that for 12 years. And I’ll tell you, between that and growing up in a grocery store, I think, were the two best things to prepare me for either angry, irate customers, or angry, irate parents. Because you either spell the kid’s birthday cake wrong…

GC LIVING: Did you do that once?

TJ Shope: I didn’t do it, but you have to respond to the angry parent, understandably so. So you go back in to fix it. And then the school board setting, I think if you ask any person, it’s a thankless job, really. I mean, I feel for everybody that does it.

And I didn’t have kids. Some people would be like, “Oh, why are you on there?” I said, “Well, you know what? Not every person who resides in this community has children, but they pay taxes as well. And somebody’s got to be representing the entire global community.” So it was a good experience for me. That ended, let’s see here, 2020. So, December of 2019 would’ve been my last year on the board. And I did that while serving in the House, too.

I was glad I was done when I was, because obviously COVID has completely changed a lot of dynamics about how people feel about education and their children, whether they wanted to mask or not or how they want in-person school or online.

Luckily in Coolidge, about five years ago, we had decided to purchase iPads for every student. And in one sense, we were a little bit ahead of the game. We just kind of lucked out in that respect, I suppose. I learned how a government budget works. It’s not necessarily how your home budget works, because of the numerous funding sources and things like that. So it was a really good experience.

GC LIVING: What positive take do you get from this school board experience? What really stands out in your mind after your tenure?

TJ Shope: I mentioned the iPads, for example. In a community like Coolidge where you’re at 80% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, some of those things are unattainable for a lot of families. For a school district to go ahead and make that investment because we know that the jobs of the future are going to be done pretty heavily on devices of any kind, I take a lot of pride in.

And I’ll tell you what, my favorite night every year was always the same, it’s graduation night. Whenever you get to shake hands with these students that, in my case anyway, four years earlier, I had shaken their hand at maybe a promotion event or something like that, and they get their diploma and you see them ecstatic about what’s next in their life.

GC LIVING: What made you decide to run for the House of Representatives?

TJ Shope: In 2012, we were kind of in the same situation we are now; redistricting had just happened. Casa Grande had grown, and it seems that we compact ourselves every 10 years into a smaller district. And Frank Pratt was there and there was no other incumbent on the House side. I decided after talking to him to go ahead and throw my hat in the ring. And it was as a Republican anyway, in a district where I was outnumbered by 9 1/2 percentage points.

So nobody really expected me to win out of the four candidates. We worked hard, scored the biggest upset victory of the night and the Legislature that evening. Frank, of course, won pretty easily.

But it was really exciting. I mean, as a 27-year-old, to know that I was walking in as the second-youngest member of the Legislature that term. And it was really, really great. I won by 740-ish votes out of 75,000 cast. So less than 1% of the total. So I went from nobody thinking I can win, to that night, I’m getting a phone call congratulating me from the Speaker of the House and the governor calling me to congratulate me and this and that.

There’s really no training school for being a legislator. You kind of just go in with what knowledge you have and you start leaning on people. And that was a very good educational process as well.

You realize that you know very little about a lot of things. Most candidates, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, use usually about three or four themes that each side campaigns on and it’s low taxes, strong economy, or things for the workers and such. And you realize when you get in office, that’s about 5% of what you actually do. There’s so much of what we do is just not discussed at all.

I think my first two weeks I was there I was on the Land and Agriculture Committee and we had a discussion on egg dates and whether or not Arizona should join the rest of the country and have a three-week expiration date instead of two weeks like Arizona did. Those are the things that nobody campaigns on, but those are the issues that average everyday citizens are called in to go ahead and decide for the state.

And a lot of the things you end up educating yourself on depend on what committees you find yourself on. My first year, I was on the Commerce Committee, Energy, Environment and Natural Resources, as well as Land and Agriculture.

GC LIVING: In 2012 the economy was terrible.

TJ Shope: We’re trying anything, just like any other state is trying anything, to lure employers here. Because I think at that point, we had a very good come-to-Jesus moment at that period of time that you can’t build an economy on just one or two sectors.

And for so long, construction and land had been the basis of an Arizona economy. And when things are great, that’s fantastic. But when things happen in that sector, especially in finance, that make it so people can’t gain and attain, it made it very difficult for us. And we had the largest budget deficit per capita in the United States.

I think that you’ve seen since then, when you see a Lucid opening, when you see a Taiwan Semiconductor, or you see these other entities choosing Arizona, that’s based on decisions and that kind of revelation that occurred in ‘09, ‘10, even before I got there, and it kind of continued and we keep on building on that. Of saying, we have to diversify our economy and not just be confined to one thing.

And frankly, that was a massive change for Arizona from statehood because for so long you have a state that’s confined in its economy the “five Cs” — copper, cattle, cotton, citrus and climate.

And the ‘50s came and you have the Raytheons and the Motorolas of the world, and a lot of that was because Barry Goldwater was the chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a lot of that defense appropriation ended up coming to places like Arizona.

But still, you’re truly in one sector of an economy at that point. And when that begins to fade away, what’s next? And I think that we’re in a better position now.

GC LIVING: When you first got into politics at the state level, you partnered with Frank Pratt. What was the reasoning behind that decision?

TJ Shope: Frank and I got along well. I’d helped him on his previous campaigns. And when it came time for me, he was one of the few people who gave me a shot. And we were pretty, I guess he’d say it from a campaign sense, inseparable after that. We really meshed well.

He had obvious interest in energy policy and things like that, natural resources and was a long-time person from the area. And for whatever reason, the oldest Republican member and the youngest Republican member of the Legislature really clicked, so we kept it going.

I have a lot of colleagues where they’ll run as a team with other folks, but the reality is that one of the team is always trying to maybe one-up the other and try to see what’s the long game here. There was none of that, Frank or me.

We were always trying to help each other.

And obviously, like many others, very sad to see him not be with us anymore, but it was a great experience to work with him and learned a lot from him and met a lot of people that I otherwise would’ve probably never met.

I served four terms in the House, the last two terms as a speaker pro tem. Which has me right behind the speaker; in that position you’re the only other person who can preside over calling the House into session. And that meant I spent probably about 70% of the time in the speaker’s chair, just running the daily business of the House. And that was a great opportunity.

And I think that position, more than any other, is a trust position between the speaker and the pro tem. The majority leader and the minority leader and the majority and minority whip, those are elected positions within a caucus, but the speaker chooses his own pro tem; kind of think of it, I guess, as your vice president.

I was kind of known as the stickler for the rule book at the House, ran a very tight meeting with lots of gaveling if necessary. But I’m very happy in the fact that I think even at the end of it, Democrats would come to me and tell me they would always like me there because I was fair. And I think that that was the ultimate compliment for something like that.

Now, I was also the chairman of the Rules Committee; every bill goes through Rules. You can hold a bill if it’s based on the constitutionality of it, and that was an interesting time. I also served as the Ethics Committee chairman and I had to lead an investigation against a colleague during that time, and that was not very fun, but also very educational.

GC LIVING: How did you decide to run for the Senate?

TJ Shope: Well, I was term-limited in the House, and at 35, I still felt like I had something I needed to do, continue some things. Chief among them has been I-10 and the continued discussion about widening it, so I decided to go ahead and run.

I thought at the time it would be a very tough race, just like my others had been. Shortly after announcing that I was going to run, COVID hits, and it not only changed many of our lives forever and the way we interact and how we feel about health and things like that, it also changed campaigning completely. Nobody’s going door-to-door anymore. There were no events to go to. And I think if anybody knows me or Mr. Pratt, we used to do a ton of events. And that was all gone.

And you had to figure out how do you get your message out? And it’s not just me. I was thinking of the ones who maybe had never been elected before, so they had no name recognition. They had really no record to point to or anything like that. So how do you reach people who truly can’t be reached? And we have weathered, and continued to weather all of that, but the campaign was totally different.

GC LIVING: So, what are some of the memorable bills you’ve introduced?

TJ Shope: I think the one most recent, that people I think are still talking about either because they enjoy it or are annoyed about it because they hate seeing all the commercials, was sports betting. They asked me to run that bill, and one of the reasons is that I represent a district that has a tribe in it, and it has a significant portion of population that’s obviously not tribal. This was almost symbolic of the fact that we were entering a new time where tribes were not going to have exclusivity over gaming in the state, and we were going to go into this together as an entire state. And I think that was a very difficult thing to do.

Five years ago, I don’t know what I would’ve thought if you would’ve told me that in the governor’s State of the State address he was actually going to mention working with (Gila River Indian Community) Governor Stephen Lewis and me on that expansion of I-10, which I have a bill on for the $400-million appropriation for it.

If I can just get that one deal done, I will consider it a pretty darn successful tenure. And I think that it’s one of those things that is going to make so many people’s lives a lot easier.

I think more than anything, I’ve enjoyed the things that I have been able to do to help make people’s lives a little bit easier. I ran a bill during the height of the COVID pandemic to make it easier for dentists or other medical professionals to dispense vaccines; that was something that we had to do.

You try to bring people together to come up with a commonsense solution. And those are the things that I enjoy doing more than anything.

GC LIVING: But technically, that’s a part-time job for you. Granted it’s 80 hours a week, but it’s a part-time job. Tell us about your real job.

TJ Shope: I work for National Bank of Arizona as the community sales development director for the state. It’s a very rewarding role because I get to work with businesspeople or people who have a dream to expand a business. And it reminds me a lot of what I grew up in, and the folks that maybe own small businesses all around that want a way to find capital to make their dream come true. And that’s all I do is business banking for the most part.

And it really came, during the Paycheck Protection Program process, during a period when you had a lot of the larger banks looking at their larger accounts and making sure they were taken care of, a lot of small business owners really fell through the cracks.

We were able to pick up and open new accounts for people when the others were not, for their PPP loans and things like that, if they could show us that they had a functioning account, they had the cashflow, and things, up until that point in time. We did a lot, and we’re the No. 1 Small Business Administration lender in Arizona.

It was a mission really, to make sure that you could keep as many of our small businesspeople functioning and going because none of these guys wanted to shut down.

GC LIVING: What’s in your future? You’ve got another term for the Senate.

TJ Shope: At this point I’m running for reelection. If I were to serve through my term limit, which I have every intention of doing and respecting, I would have this one coming up and then two more to go. And then I’d be a 43-year-old former legislator with 16 years. I got married a little over a year ago, and we are enjoying life right now.

And the politics is something that’s always a love/hate relationship because you enjoy doing it, but there’s always a roadblock in front of you that you’re trying to get around or navigate through. And luckily I’ve been fairly successful at doing that, but I don’t know necessarily what the future holds.

I also work in the private sector, so I can easily see myself doing something like that when my time is done as well. I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I’m interested in running for Congress or this or that. And I had an opportunity to go to D.C. and meet with the National Republican Congressional Committee and decided in the end that I could make a bigger difference in Arizona by staying in the Legislature than by going to Washington, D.C. and being one of 435 people.

GC LIVING: What do you see in the future for this district? And if you could accomplish something for the district, what would it be?

TJ Shope: First off I am super optimistic. I mean, I don’t know how you couldn’t be optimistic in the direction of where this community and where this entire area is going.

For once, we are truly going to have job centers within the confines of our community. People are going to be able to not just make a living wage, but also above and beyond without having to drive more than 10 or 15 minutes from home. And that is a success story.

I think we’ll soon be able to say that Casa Grande or Maricopa or Coolidge and Eloy aren’t just bedroom communities. That means more time at home for parents that have kids. They don’t have to be on the road for an hour, to and from. That means more of a cohesive community. That means more of the sales tax dollars that currently go to Chandler or Phoenix when you buy a car will stay in our communities to help improve our fire departments or police departments or whatever entity you’re very interested in.

I am nothing but bullish on what’s happening right now. And as a native of this area, my dad’s side of the family came here in the early ‘50s, it’s something I think many of us have been looking forward to for a very long time.

And as far as the next big push, I’m a huge infrastructure guy and have become even more so. I’m vice chair of the Transportation and Technology Committee, and we need to make sure that our entire area is lit up with fast broadband internet.

It’s kind of like a highway. I mean, it’s almost exactly like a highway; everybody wants to be able to get to work in a quick amount of time in a safe manner. And if we want to attract even more jobs to this area, they’re going to have to have fast internet. Because these people are talking to people across the world, the jobs that we’re bringing in.