Hours after one of their reporters filed a hard-hitting expose showing a powerful politician had used taxpayer resources for campaign purposes, the Arizona Capitol Times received an email: The seats from which they had covered the state legislature for nearly half a century would be given to another news outlet.
The paper’s editor, Jim Small, said the timing was obvious.
“It was irrefutable when we published that story and within hours, literally a matter of two hours, we had our credentials for opening day pulled,” Small told The Hill.
Grisham did not return an email on Tuesday seeking comment.
“Stephanie Grisham is tough as nails,” said Brett Mecum, a veteran Republican strategist in Arizona who worked alongside her in Gowen’s office. “Nothing intimidates her, but she’s also incredibly loyal, incredible compassionate.”
In Arizona, Gowen backed down and gave the Capitol Times its seats back after the paper threatened to file a federal lawsuit. It was not clear that Grisham herself was involved in formulating the retribution, though she offered advice to Gowen and his top staffers during the dust-up, Mecum said.
Even after capitulating, Gowen’s team still tried to punish the paper.
A few months later, after another Capitol Times expose had forced Gowen to repay $12,000 in mileage costs for which he had improperly billed taxpayers, a new policy emerged from Gowen’s office: Reporters who wanted access to the state House floor would be required to undergo a background check and to submit personal information including former addresses.
Gowen’s office, through Grisham, said a handful of past convictions would disqualify a reporter from accessing the floor, including trespassing — a misdemeanor.
To Capitol Times leadership, it was another direct shot at the reporter who had broken more news on Gowen. That reporter, Hank Stephenson, had a trespassing charge on his record, which he said stemmed from an incident at a bar in rural Arizona.
“They had clearly set this whole policy up just to target me,” Stephenson said in an interview Tuesday night.
In solidarity, none of the reporters at the state House filled out the background check forms. Days later, the outcry in newspapers across the state grew so loud that Gowen, worried about keeping cohesion within his office, dropped the policy.
Four months later, Gowen, who was running for a U.S. House seat now held by Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D), ended his campaign before the Republican primary.
By that point, Grisham had taken on side responsibilities for then-candidate Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Despite the run-ins with Arizona reporters, Stephenson said Grisham maintained professional ties with journalists.
“For all her faults, Grisham was responsive. Grisham was a human being, which is rare enough for PR people. So we still kind of got along,” he said Tuesday.
That changed after Trump won. Grisham joined the transition team on Trump’s victory lap, for a series of thank-you rallies — while she was still receiving a salary from the Arizona legislature.
Again, Stephenson broke the story. And then he got a letter from Grisham’s lawyer.
“It was just one of those random threats that lawyers send out,” Stephenson said, ordering the Capitol Times to preserve documents for a two-year period. The lawyer never wrote back, an empty threat meant to rattle the paper’s leadership. “I’m sure she was never even going to sue us. It was just her attempt to get us to back off the story.”
Mecum, who has known Grisham for years, said she would prove to be Trump’s best choice for the job so far.
“She’s very protective of both the president and the first lady,” he said. “But she also gets along with reporters very well.”
Stephenson said there are two types of public relations professionals at the top echelons of politcs: Those who fight reporters, and those who hide from reporters. Grisham, he said, is “very much the former.”
“She does understand the reporter’s mentality, and she’s a really effective spokesperson because of that,” he said.
Disclosure: This reporter wrote for the Arizona Capitol Times as a freelance journalist, most recently around 2010. He did not work for Small or Stephenson.
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