From journalism to politics
She pointed to a red-and-white strap in a picture frame. “It’s an armband that [the newspaper] made us wear so that people would know not to shoot us.”
Some little girls dream of becoming ballerinas but grow up teaching dance instead. Kris Mayes dreamed of becoming a U.S. congresswoman, but something happened on the way to Washington.
En route, Mayes served as editor-in-chief of ASU’s campus newspaper, witnessed race riots in South Africa, rubbed elbows with then-governor George W. Bush on the campaign trail, and co-authored the book Spin Priests: Campaign Advisors and the 2000 Race for the White House. Now, at age 33, she’s a commissioner on the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates public service corporations, securities, and utilities.
Governor Janet Napolitano appointed Mayes to the commission in October 2003 after Jim Irvin resigned. Irvin was allegedly involved in influencing a bidding war in favor of the Southwest Gas Corporation. A Republican had to fill the vacancy, so Mayes was a perfect fit. She had been Napolitano’s communications director for nearly two years.
In a 2003 press release, Napolitano said, “I have been impressed with [Kris’s] intellect and her passion for consumer advocacy. I also believe in the importance of appointing a commissioner with roots from outside Maricopa County. Kris’s Prescott heritage will serve her well on the commission.”
Mayes describes herself as “driven; very, very type-A; very hard on myself but also very loyal to my friends.”
Memories of her past
Pictures and mementos in her office recall other memories she holds dear. Behind her desk there’s a framed front page of the Johannesburg Star, where she interned in 1993 while attending ASU. Many people might have balked at going to South Africa during a time of civil strife, but Mayes seized the opportunity and is thankful she made that decision.
“They assigned me to the crime and violence desk on the first day,” she said. “I thought, crime and violence desk.’ You call it that? And that’s exactly what it was.”
Photo by Russ GormanKris Mayes wore this red-and-white armband when she was a reporter in South Africa so people wouldn’t shoot at her.
She pointed to a red-and-white strap in a picture frame. “It’s an armband that [the newspaper] made us wear so that people would know not to shoot at us.”
Mayes’s story about a race riot appears on that front page of the framed Johannesburg Star. “A bunch of white thugs tried to block the ANC [African National Congress] marchers inside the township,” she said. “It was an incredibly difficult time for South Africa before the first all-race elections. At that time they really didn’t know whether they were going to be able to pull it off because there was so much unrest and tension between the whites and the rest of the population.”
When her internship ended, Mayes returned to ASU and became editor-in-chief of The State Press during her junior year. Although Mayes spent many hours at the newspaper, she earned her B.A. in political science.
Though respected by her colleagues, she was chided for admitting that one of her favorite bands was the ’70s group the Carpenters—something uncool to admit during the height of grunge music in the ’90s.
“I deserved it,” she said, laughing. “I was in college, and I admitted that I liked the Carpenters. I still like the Carpenters.”
After graduation, she worked as a general assignment reporter for the Phoenix Gazette and a political reporter for the Arizona Republic. She then earned a master’s degree in public administration at Columbia University.
On the campaign trail
Photo by Russ GormanKris Mayes was appointed to the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2003 by Governor Janet Napolitano.
While on the campaign trail, Mayes realized she wanted to write a book about political consultants and how they make presidential campaigns a success. She co-authored “Spin Priests” with Charles Kelly in 2001. “[Writing a book] is just incredibly challenging, one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done,” she said. “You’ve got to be very disciplined about it.”
While attending the College of Law at ASU (she earned her juris doctor in 2003), Mayes met then-attorney general Napolitano on a plane flight. Napolitano asked her to become her press secretary.
After Napolitano became governor, she asked Mayes to be her communications director. Though Napolitano is a Democrat, she had no difficulty working with Mayes. “I think it actually said a lot about her willingness to be bipartisan that she would have a Republican in her midst,” Mayes said. “[Arizona] is an increasingly diverse state, culturally and politically. We’ve got big issues to deal with, and we can’t let politics or partisan politics to be in the way of that.”
Kristin Gilger, who is now ASU’s director of Student Media, worked with Mayes at the Arizona Republic. “[Kris] really understands the state and has the education and experience to lead in politics,” Gilger said. “She’s a Republican but not terribly conservative—not so conservative that she wouldn’t work for a Democrat. She is progressive and independent in the manner of some of Arizona’s best political leaders."
Recently re-elected to the Arizona Corporation Commission, Mayes has gone from objectively reporting on politics to taking a stand on issues. But politicking didn’t come naturally for her. “You have to really put yourself out there and in a way that isn’t natural for a former reporter,” she said. “You have to go to a lot of events and shake a lot of hands and fund-raise and do all the things that candidates do.”
Fun facts about Kris Mayes• Her favorite hobbies are jogging and reading about politics.
• Her sister, Kimberly, is a child life specialist in California, and her brother, Kirk, is an accountant in Boston.
• Kris won the Truman Scholarship, the nation’s top scholarship for public service.
Mayes often refers to the commission as “the most powerful branch of state government that nobody knows about. We affect people’s lives on a daily basis, from the moment they turn on their lights to the water that comes out of the faucet to the gas that people put in their cars and the natural gas that we use to heat our homes.”
Mayes was instrumental in persuading the federal government to allow Arizona to perform unlimited inspections on Kinder Morgan pipelines. In 2003 a Kinder Morgan pipeline broke between Tucson and Phoenix, creating a buying frenzy at gas stations throughout the Valley. Originally, the government was going to let Kinder Morgan perform the inspection to find the cause of the break. Mayes convinced the federal government to perform an independent test to figure out what caused the rupture—a first in U.S. history.
Mayes said she has not yet reached the pinnacle of her career. “I haven’t figured out where I’m going yet,” she said. “How can you know you’ve arrived if you don’t know where you’re going?”
Gilger said she predicts that Mayes will be running for governor in 10 years.
If Mayes is anything like a Carpenters song, she has only just begun.
The Devil’s Tale showcases the coursework of individual students at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication.
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