Republican Karrin Taylor Robson relies on wealth, personal connections in bid for Arizona Governor's Office
At her father's drug store in Mesa in the 1970s, a young Karrin Taylor Robson earned her first paychecks sweeping floors and cleaning for 25 cents an hour.
She sold macramé potholders in the corner, her first business venture in what would grow over the next five decades into a career in law, lobbying and real estate development.
Now Taylor Robson, 57, is hoping to jump to the state's highest office. She is seeking the Republican nomination to replace Gov. Doug Ducey, counting on her significant personal wealth and connections built over decades of community involvement to buoy her.
She wants to encourage economic and small business growth, secure the state's southern border, and "triage" the state's water woes with a long-term solution. She's leaning on her career in land use and wants to take a strategic approach to the state's public lands, looking to lease or sell more space to generate funding for education and other causes while creating opportunities for construction that could alleviate the state's housing crisis.
But that doesn't mean the desert landscape will be erased by development, insisted the Phoenix resident who, even during the demands of a campaign, has made dawn hikes of Piestawa Peak a routine.
"I want to keep Arizona, Arizona," she said in an interview, asked why she was running for governor. "Arizona has been extremely good to me and my generation. And it's my opportunity to give back. My life's journey has prepared me to lead."
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East Valley roots in development
Taylor Robson is a member of the notable East Valley clan, the Kunaseks. Her father, Carl Kunasek, spent 17 years in the state Legislature, and her brother, Andy Kunasek, was on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors for 19 years.
"I honestly always thought she was probably the best suited for public office," Andy Kunasek said. "(Karrin has) the best temperament. We all have our talents, but intellectually she’s a pretty smart person, focused and has a great work ethic."
Taylor Robson's career has taken her from macramé in Mesa to the White House and back home to Arizona. Along the way, she married and had four children who are in high school or young adults now and whom she raised following a divorce in 2006. In 2014, she approached the developer Ed Robson, of Robson Resort Communities, about hosting a gala for a civics education organization she led.
"I asked him to sponsor, and he asked me to dinner," she said. They married in 2017.
As a young woman, Taylor Robson worked as an assistant to Ronald Reagan's economic policy council for a year and spent another with George H.W. Bush's office of Cabinet affairs.
She returned to the Grand Canyon State to earn a law degree at Arizona State University, and with two other partners began the law firm Biskind, Hunt & Taylor, which focused on land use and what would become her expertise.
One of her clients at the time, the prominent developer DMB Associates — known for giant master-planned communities like Verrado in Buckeye and Eastmark in Mesa — brought Taylor Robson in-house to lead the team of entitlement attorneys that make sure those projects can succeed.
It was Taylor Robson's, and her team's, job to navigate the complex web of local, state and federal regulations and zoning requirements to make sure projects could move forward; that involved internal work, making sure development plans fit into local rules, but also lobbying local jurisdictions, businesses and development opponents to allow projects to proceed.
A blend of expertise, connections and follow-through made Taylor Robson excel, said Drew Brown, the "D" in DMB Associates and a founding partner at the firm.
"She's good with people, and is good at maintaining relationships," he said. "She builds trust, she does what she says she’s going to do, and knows what she’s talking about."
Taylor Robson left in 2016 to start her own small land use firm, Arizona Strategies, that continued to count DMB Associates among its lobbying clients.
"My executive experience over the last 30 years has prepared me not only from a leadership perspective, but from a substantive perspective," she said. "Everything from infrastructure, transportation, water, education, everything. I've been involved with tax policy, economic development."
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In 2017, Ducey appointed Taylor Robson — they met while both studied at ASU — to the Arizona Board of Regents, the body that oversees the state's public universities. While there, the board shepherded the universities through tuition hikes and the COVID-19 pandemic. Taylor Robson helped start a debate program and, during an overhaul of the general education curriculum, advocated for students to learn American history.
She resigned the post in July 2021 to run for governor, after years of speculation that she would seek public office.
Taylor Robson has picked up significant endorsements from Arizona's establishment leaders, including each of the state's living Republican governors: Ducey, Jan Brewer, and Fife Symington. Former Congressman and former state Republican party chair Matt Salmon ended his run for governor in late June, going all-in for Taylor Robson.
He proclaimed her a "successful businesswoman and a conservative outsider who is well qualified to serve as chief executive of the state we love."
Is she really a conservative outsider?
In several of her advertisements, Taylor Robson claims to be a "conservative outsider." But Taylor Robson has, for decades, run in influential circles.
She's been a precinct committeewoman for nearly three decades, an elected but low-ranking post. In 2020, she chaired the Republican Legislative Victory Fund, which spent over $850,000 to keep Republicans in control of the state Legislature.
She led the Joe Foss Institute, a leading advocacy group for civics education that fueled Ducey's interest in the topic, and on the board for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.
She lobbied from 2018 to 2021 on behalf of Arizona Public Service Co., one of the deepest-pocketed and most-influential organizations in state politics, to build power substations in downtown Phoenix.
In 2018, she also lobbied for Chicanos Por La Causa, a powerful social justice and equity organization, records show. Founded by local Latino civil rights advocates, Chicanos Por La Causa offers a wide variety of services from housing to loans, as well as operating multiple private real estate development companies.
Taylor Robson’s campaign said she helped the nonprofit with a single real estate deal near the airport. Chicanos Por La Causa honored her for that work in 2020 during its annual dinner.
And she also was selected by the governor to help oversee the state's three universities.
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Taylor Robson said her "conservative outsider" claim was based on not running for high-ranking office before.
"It's a very, very different thing to be a member of the business community and in the arena," she said.
While she is known in Arizona's business community, Taylor Robson has spent heavily on advertising to propel her from an unknown name to the general public into a viable candidate.
She's spent over $4 million from her mostly self-funded campaign bank account, and that's only through the end of March, the last time candidates had to disclose their finances. One leading opponent, Kari Lake, tallied Taylor Robson's spending on advertising alone at $12 million, but Taylor Robson declined to provide a more current spending figure.
Her silence stems at least in part from Lake's barrage of attacks that Taylor Robson is trying to buy the election.
Taylor Robson has also taken criticism for donating to Democratic candidates herself, including $1,000 to the liberal Congressman Ruben Gallego, even as she attacks Lake for donating to Barack Obama. Taylor Robson dismissed the criticism, noting her lengthy record as a donor and fundraiser funneling millions of dollars to Republican candidates and committees.
"First off I would, I would put my donation record up against anybody's," she said, adding that there is a "big difference between a first-time congressional candidate and the most liberal progressive presidential candidate and president in this country's history."
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Throughout the campaign, Taylor Robson has said she would not run without receiving donations from voters, a sign of support she believes is necessary for anyone running for office.
While she's banked millions in contributions from others, she's also had to refund a large number of them. Some donors' family members who received refunds said that Taylor Robson was using deceptive fundraising tactics. After defending its practices initially, the campaign said it would end the use of pre-checked boxes that made one-time donations recurring.
In an interview, Taylor Robson said she didn't feel the tactic was deceptive, citing multiple chances to opt-out, and explained away the controversy by saying many campaigns use the same tactic.
Asked if she was deploying an everyone-else-is-doing-it defense that voters should expect to hear if she's elected, Taylor Robson said "what they should hear is I'm extremely transparent, and when somebody raises an issue, I'm going to respond."
Taylor Robson's wealth, and her willingness to spend it to become the most powerful politician in the state, has opened the door to criticism from opponents that she cannot relate to Arizonans who are struggling to make ends meet or fill their gas tanks due to exorbitant inflation.
“I grew up in a working-class Arizona family where my siblings and I were taught that anything is possible with education, hard work and persistence," she said.
"I believe these same values are universal and something my family shares with Arizona families across our state.”
Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at email@example.com or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona Governor's Office primary 2022 candidate: Karrin Taylor Robson