PHOENIX — Long accustomed to suckling the teat of taxpayer dollars, the titans of Arizona government learned on Thursday to milk a different beast.
In the tradition of Marie Antoinette, the directors of six Arizona state agencies descended from their high horses and join the peasantry in their cattle competition. The directors were on the clock to see who can wring the most milk in two minutes.
But in Thursday’s milking, there was more at stake than the fortunes of agency heads — the fate of the State Employees Charitable Campaign fundraising hangs in the balance.
That’s because the adoring masses weren’t just rooting for their favorite boss — they were voting with their wallets. Each person could pledge a dollar and pick who they think will win. If their bet paid off, then they are entered into a drawing for the grand prize of Omaha Steaks or Killian Beef.
According to SECC director Linda Stiles, the money goes to a fund collected by state employees and donated to charities across Arizona. So, in a way, the lives of Arizonans all over depended on the milking technique of the men and women who run their government.
The crowd favorite was, naturally, Department of Agriculture Director Mark Killian. This is a man who has years of experience mucking both cattle stalls and halls of government, and he came dressed for the part. Killian was the only competitor with an actual cheerleader section, as his employees waved signs with his name and cried out for their fearless leader.
“Actually, you never know if he’s going to win,” Stiles said. “It may be home field advantage.”
Two of Killian’s ardent supporters were enthusiastically waving their rather plain-looking signs and cheering his name. Cheryl and Shelly, who only gave their first names, each had their own reason for coming out to partake in this hero worship.
“He’s our boss,” Shelly said. “And to support the Department of Agriculture,” Cheryl added.
Regardless of where the loyalties lay, both women felt that their bet on Killian was the only way to enter the drawing for the sought-after steaks.
“Our money’s on him,” Cheryl said. “He better win,” Shelly quipped.
Emboldened by this cult of personality, Killian was quick to lay out his schemes. That is, of course, the only way to describe his path to victory — it involved corruption and abuses of power that would make even a sitting president under special investigation blush.
“I’m excited,” Killian said. “Here’s the deal: Even if I don’t get the most milk, since we regulate the dairy industry, I can go around and confiscate their buckets for testing purposes, put it in my bucket, and then I’ll win.”
This shockingly honest statement was followed up with some historical background. Thursday wasn’t the first time that the current head of the Department of Agriculture had tipped the scales in his favor.
“We did that 20 years ago when I was director of revenue,” Killian said. “I didn’t win, but since I was director of revenue, I went around and collected a ‘milk tax’ from all the other competitors. So I’m just following tradition.”
Arrayed against Killian and his milking malfeasance were a veritable list of Arizona giants: Director Charles Ryan of Department of Corrections, Director Gregg Edgar from the Lottery, cigar-smoking Alberto Gutier from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, Director Wanell Costello of the Exposition and State Fair and a team from Arizona Department of Administration comprised of Marie Isaacson, Megan Rose and Jessica Shuster.
With the crowd gathered and the two dairy cows full of milk, the tensions began to rise with the humidity. The sun sweltered as competitors paired off to begin the task that everyone had been waiting for. The timer started and the first pair, Ryan and Gutier, went to it.
Director Ryan came prepared with black, latex gloves where his competitor had merely brought a cigar. As the clock ticked to a close, Gutier tragically spilled some of the cream-laden milk out of his pail. It was a small amount, and it may have cost him that round. Ryan was the clear victor — whether it was the extra grip of his gloves or a dogged determination to achieve victory is unknown.
Round two was set between Costello and Isaacson — each was quick, methodical and ruthlessly professional in the pursuit of more milk. So much so, and so evenly, that it was impossible to truly declare a winner that round. It was here that the cattle became restless with the raucous cheering and feverish milking.
The third round played host to a face-off between allies: Shuster and Rose of ADOA were forced to compete against each other for the top ADOA milker. Despite a rocky start and a less-than-willing cow, Shuster managed to pull ahead with the greater amount in her pail. Faced with such adversity, the crowd cheered.
It was the last round that everybody had truly been waiting for: the trial of the favorite. Killian was squaring off against his competitor, Edgar, and sauntered up to his cow with the practiced ease of a professional. This, clearly, was not his first rodeo. To show his dominance over the pantheon of agency heads, Killian only used one hand.
Such a cocky move proved to be his undoing, however — Killian lost out to Edgar and didn’t even come close to the bounty that Rose had pulled in the last round. To try and even the odds, he did exactly what as he said he would: abuse his privilege as the czar of the Department of Agriculture to steal milk from other competitors.
The crowd, both cronies and passerby, laughed off this egregious act. Instead, Stiles declared the ADOA team to be the combined winners of the competition. The women cheered as the onlookers shuffled away. The farmer’s market was right next to the competition, and it was lunch time.
The cows, at this point, looked quite put upon to have to take selfies with people from the crowd. Rose stood on the edge of the crowd, surveying all that she had help win. She was graceful in victory and reflective of what it took to get there.
“It feels great, and it was for a great cause,” Rose said. “I think that we were really practicing ahead of time, and we were really learning from the audience who was helping us.”
This means that ADOA wins the coveted SECC blue ribbon this year. With Arizona’s agricultural golden boy dethroned, the door was opened for a freer and fairer competition next year. At least, that’s what Stiles thought.
“This is our first annual, hopefully not our last annual,” Stiles said.
What competition arises for next year remains to be seen. Will the same state superstars deign to stoop and milk cattle, or will new challengers appear? Is Killian going to attempt to redeem himself, or once again sour the milking with his heavy-handed regulation? At least in his case, he knew exactly who the main competition was, and always will be.
“Oh, the cow,” Killian said. “The one with all the dark black color.”
Erik Kolsrud is the Don Bolles Fellow covering the Legislature for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at email@example.com.