'What's happened to Karen?' Election audit puts spotlight on Senate president after decades in office

Arizona Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, speaks to the media in Phoenix on May 26, 2020.
Mary Jo Pitzl
Arizona Republic

People think they know Arizona Senate President Karen Fann, the Republican who permitted the review of Maricopa County's 2020 presidential election results and has since rocketed to national attention.

Some see her as a savior of democracy, a patriot from Prescott whose work will return Donald Trump to the White House and send the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to jail. At a recent national conference of conservative lawmakers, she was feted as the “Audit Queen,” in a spinoff of the ABBA anthem "Dancing Queen."

Critics, however, are troubled. They say she is driving a clown car of Republicans intent on labeling last November's election as flawed — all previous findings of a fair election be damned. Others see her as a sort of Dr. Frankenstein who launched a process that careened out of her control and which she wouldn’t reel in. They fear the results, scheduled for release Friday, will further shred faith in the country's electoral system.

Fann doesn’t see herself in the stark terms of audit critics, or its supporters.

Nor do the people who have known her for years, long before she became associated with ninjas, bamboo threads and ultraviolet lights checking for watermarks.

The woman who enabled the partisan exercise, many of her friends and associates say, is not the person they know.

Fann says people are reading their own hopes or fears into the months-long election review. Although she has refused to talk in detail about the decisions that led her to pursue it, she says her motive is simple: to get answers for people who question the 2020 results. It's a line she has stuck to even before she signed the contract that brought the Cyber Ninjas to town.

"Mr. Trump knows this, I’ve said it many times," Fann said in a recent interview. "This is not about you. This is about election integrity and finding out the true facts to make sure that our elections are honest and true. That’s all I want."

But the hyperpartisan nature of the effort has many doubting Fann's stance. It’s odd territory for someone known as a consensus builder: leading a contentious process that is all but guaranteed to deepen partisan divisions and leave no one satisfied.

One Capitol lobbyist who has worked closely with her observed that it’s an ideological approach from a nonideological person.

Another put it more succinctly: The level-headed lawmaker has lost her mind.

Fann's Arizona roots run deep

Karen Fann, who turns 67 this month, grew up in the woodsy, Western atmosphere of Prescott, a community that bills itself as “Everybody’s Hometown.” Twice the capital of the Arizona territory, Prescott and surrounding Yavapai County are reliably Republican turf, turning a deeper hue of red as decades have passed.

She graduated from a high school in El Cajon, California, when her family moved to the neighboring state to work on projects that buried power lines underground. From there, she took off, literally, with a job in the airline industry while her parents ultimately moved Fann Construction back to Arizona.

After 10 years in positions that took her from a flight attendant in hot pants and go-go boots to working in flight operations for Braniff Airlines, she returned to Prescott.

Back on home turf, she abandoned dreams of a catering business and established a road-safety company separate from the excavation and road-construction company started by her parents, Jim and Sylvia.

At age 30, Fann entered the male-dominated domain of that industry. She launched Arizona Highway Safety Specialists in 1984 with $500 in her checking account and a boost from a federal program that certifies women and minority-owned small businesses.

It was a humble start. Fann would get up at 4 a.m. to drive to Black Canyon City so she and a crew could provide flagging services for a road project. One job led to another, and the company expanded into guardrails and signage. The growing business cemented Fann's reputation as a businesswoman and unexpectedly propelled her into politics.

Today, she regularly drives her red Lincoln Navigator along roads edged with the guardrails her company installed.

She sold the business in March, capping 37 years as president. By then, the Chino Valley-based company was the largest of the eight Arizona firms that provide guardrails and barriers, she said.

Senate President Karen Fann poses for a portrait at the Central Arts Plaza in Phoenix on Monday, Sept. 6, 2021.

An unplanned journey into public life

It may be hard to believe given Fann's nearly 30 years in politics, but she says she never planned to run for elected office. Maybe volunteer on some board, but not a politician, much less an influential legislative leader headlining a process that many see as lacking any guardrails.

While Fann saw herself as a volunteer, her work assistants had other ideas. In 1992, while recuperating from a broken pelvis she suffered during a ski trip, she found a notice at the bottom of a stack of business paperwork: Her two assistants had nominated their boss for a vacancy on the Prescott City Council.

She didn't hold it against them. Instead, Fann was appointed from a field of 32 applicants; it was the start of a political career that continues today, moving from council member to mayor of nearby Chino Valley for three terms and then to the state Legislature, where she is in her 11th year.

Fann brought business experience to government, and not just from roadwork. She and her husband, Jim McKown, ran a Chino Valley ranch that offered team roping, barrel racing, horse boarding, as well as event hosting. Fann catered the events, indulging her love of cooking. The couple sold the Fann-M Ranch in 2006 and built a home on a golf course in Prescott.

She met McKown, a construction contractor, 26 years ago at a quintessential Prescott venue: A bar on Whiskey Row, a storied part of Prescott history.

Fann said she had come off an acrimonious divorce from her first husband and had finally given in to her girlfriends’ pleas to go out. While exiting a restroom at the Palace Bar, she bumped into him, spilling his drink. An apology, a couple of two-step dances and they hit it off. They married on the Big Island in Hawaii.

McKown never had a taste for politics and has stayed out of the public eye. But Fann got pulled in and, like with her company, one thing led to another.

The 'consensus queen' of the Capitol

Fann is regarded as a personable and approachable official. She exudes a genial nature, once greeting a reporter with a cheerful "What's up sweet pea?"

Her record shows she's attentive to her constituents and her home turf.

“She really cares about serving her constituents in LD1," said Steve Pierce, referring to Fann's legislative district. Pierce is a Prescott rancher and Republican who served with Fann and was himself a Senate president.

She goes everywhere, Pierce said, and is well-liked. At a summer meeting of the district's precinct committee people — the grassroots of the Republican Party — she got a standing ovation.

In fact, the sprawling legislative district is numbered first because of Fann's intervention.

In 2011, as an acrimonious redistricting battle was waging, Fann avoided throwing fuel on the partisan fire. But she did ask the Independent Redistricting Commission to name whatever new district contained Prescott as the first district, a nod to the city's role in the state's history. She later ran a bill to codify that naming convention in state law.

Today, her license plate proclaims "Senate1" — a reference both to her district and to her post as president.

Consensus building is a through-line of Fann’s political career, from her start on the Prescott City Council to the Legislature, where she first won election in 2010.

“She was very inclusive and fair,” said Malcolm Barrett Jr., whom Fann edged out for an appointment to fill that vacancy on the Prescott Council in 1992. Barrett later ran for the council and won, as did Fann, and the two worked together for several years, promoting fiscally conservative policies.

Senate President Karen Fann at the Senate hearing on the progress of the election audit in Maricopa County at the Arizona Senate in Phoenix on July 15, 2021.

“From what I’ve witnessed, she’s very good at getting compromise,” said Barrett, who later served as chairman of the Yavapai County Republican Party until the Tea Party era of a decade ago.

In her 11 years at the statehouse, Fann has cultivated that consensus-focused reputation. People who have worked with her describe her as approachable, pragmatic and willing to listen. She calls herself the “stakeholder queen” for the numerous meetings she holds to work through an issue.

As a House member in 2015, she brokered a compromise that satisfied all sides when ride-sharing companies disrupted the traditional taxi industry and set off a debate about regulation and accountability. It took two years and numerous stakeholder meetings, but the effort was worth it: Fann counts the legislation as her proudest achievement. It led to model legislation that other states have copied, she said.

As a lobbyist for AAA, Stuart Goodman has worked with Fann on transportation-related issues and attended more than his share of stakeholder meetings. 

“Her preference is to find ways for one party to win without having one party lose," Goodman said of Fann, who served on the Transportation Committee while she was in the House.

Her style, he said, is businesslike, but she likes to keeps things light, often interjecting humor. There's a running joke about his sock collection, which draws laughs and keeps people at ease.

“She’s not looking for compromise," he said. "She’s looking for solutions."

He saw that play out in the debate over whether to ban texting while driving. Fann was initially was supportive only of a ban for teen drivers, which passed in 2017. It was a partial win for AAA.

But the teen ban evolved into a statewide ban (with an allowance for hands-free messaging) two years later, as more evidence emerged of serious accidents due to texting. By then, Fann was Senate president and not sponsoring many bills, but she walked over to the House to whip votes on the measure, convinced a ban was a sensible solution.

Fann also was the prime sponsor of major water legislation, the 2019 drought-contingency plan, designed to keep Lake Mead from falling to critically low levels. It won deep bipartisan support after concessions were made by all parties.

This year, she championed the first increase in the state’s unemployment benefit in 17 years, raising the weekly rate to $320 from $240.

“If I can somehow figure out there is any consensus that can be built, and that we can find some sort of common ground, I’m all for that,” she said, describing her approach to policy. “That’s my first priority.”

But when it came to the audit, there was no common ground. 

The GOP-led House and Speaker Rusty Bowers backed out of initial plans to do a joint legislative investigation into the Maricopa County election results. Senate Democrats made it clear they wanted no part of the exercise.

"We didn't believe there was fraud," said Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix. “A lot of us wonder, ‘Why on earth did she agree to the audit?’ Bowers didn’t.”

'What's happened to Karen?'

Throughout her legislative career, Fann has hewed to conventional GOP issues such as economic development, cutting regulation, and insurance reforms, a reflection of her business background.

As an employer, Fann was offended when a would-be hire wanted to delay his start date until he was done collecting his unemployment insurance.

He didn't get the job, but Fann got a change in state law that allows an employer to report people who decline an employment offer to the agency that oversees unemployment benefits. 

"It's fair," she said. "If you're offered a job, you shouldn't get to milk the system any longer. That's all there is to it."

She’s stayed away from the front lines of the headline-grabbing topics that roil the Legislature: abortion restrictions, school-choice debates, tax-cut brawls.

That’s why her role at the head of the polarizing audit, which has fueled headlines nationwide and beyond, is such an odd fit, many say. Fann agrees.

“So yeah, they’re saying ‘What’s happened to Karen? She’s sticking her neck out on this,’” she said of people who have looked askance at her newfound reputation as the audit queen.

“Well, why am I doing this? No. 1, because my caucus told me that is what they wanted. And as Senate president, that’s my job to represent my caucus.

“No. 2, we have lots of people in Arizona who have questions about their election. And that’s what we’re supposed to do, to represent them and answer their questions. And if some people don’t like that, I can’t help that. I’m doing my job; that’s what I was elected for.”

Lobbyist Kevin DeMenna, a Republican with Prescott roots, said Fann brings a Western attitude to leadership. It's like the old saw about feeding your horse before yourself; constituent and caucus care come before personal concerns.

Republican senate president Karen Fann, LD-1, as the Senate votes on bills related to the budget on the Senate floor at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix on June 22, 2021.

That sense of obligation to do what others want reflects her tendency to try to please people. But it has made her a chameleon to some. They say they don’t know what Fann really wants or believes.

Lawmakers who have worked with her say sometimes they can’t tell if she's leading them into a gold mine or a landmine. 

Fann lets the environment make decisions for her, said one Republican lawmaker, who, like many others interviewed for this article, spoke on background. They feared that public criticism of the Senate president would risk the fate of future bills or committee appointments.

Former state Sen. Dave Bradley, D-Tucson, worked well with Fann during her first term as president when he led the Senate Democrats. Now retired, he's puzzled as he watches the audit play out.

“I don’t understand Sen. Fann’s position," Bradley said. "I was explaining it to myself that she was under some pressure from her right-wing and couldn’t find a way out of it.” 

Fann's pleaser personality makes her uncomfortable with controversy. Full-throated argument is not her style; instead, she tries to move on.

Senate minority leader Rios credited Fann for keeping her cool when other lawmakers have tried to provoke a debate.

“She wouldn’t engage,” Rios said. “She’d just say, ‘OK, thank you, ma’am.'"

That’s a standard Fann catchphrase. Although said in a sweet tone, Rios said one could almost hear the irritation rippling just below the surface.

“You never want to let them see you sweat,” Rios added.

Senate President Karen Fann:In emails, tries to appease both critics and supporters of election audit

Maintaining power as challenges grow

Fann’s leadership style, combined with a penchant to avoid conflict, has made for a tenuous hold on the Senate presidency.

She took the dais as Senate president in the wake of the 2018 election, winning the support of a bare majority of the 17 senators, although a formal vote was never taken.

One lawmaker described voting for Fann as the least-worst alternative. The Senate was facing a big turnover and Fann, with two years’ experience, was preferable to a newcomer.

Her colleagues returned her to the presidency after the 2020 election, again with the slightest of margins. Complicating things further, Democrats had narrowed the partisan divide, leaving the Senate with a razor-thin GOP majority of one vote.

Supporters say Fann is doing her best to listen to her caucus and reflect its needs as she makes decisions about which policies to advance and which to hold back.

“She has some difficult people,” said Pierce, the former Republican Senate president. Two senators in her caucus are former speakers of the House, he added, and they think they know everything.

Keeping the diverse GOP caucus together is a struggle, something Fann readily admits. She can’t afford to lose one vote unless she wants to turn to Democrats for support — something that rarely happens on major issues.

“My job is to try and protect the rest of the caucus,” Fann said. At times, that means holding back a member's pet bills to spare the embarrassment of losing the vote of the caucus.

But where Fann sees her actions as protective, others say they’re confusing and unpredictable.

“All of the chaos in the Senate stems from Karen Fann,” said Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, one of the few lawmakers who would criticize her on the record. The feelings appear mutual: She once cut off his mic when he persisted in trying to explain his vote on the child sex abuse bill.

In February, when Boyer voted against the Senate’s motion to hold the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in contempt for not complying with subpoenas related to the audit, he said he was removed from the GOP caucus’ group text message string.

There were moments that lawmakers and Capitol observers say left them wondering what Fann was trying to accomplish.

In January, a mini-rebellion erupted on the first day of the legislative session over proposed rules on COVID-19 protocols, including mandatory mask usage. Without an opportunity to discuss the changes in a GOP caucus, some Republicans aired their objections in public session, disrupting the spirit of comity typical for the start of a new session.

One lawmaker said the my-way or the highway rules change was highly unusual for the Senate — and totally avoidable.

A caucus meeting might have averted the discord; others argue it would have been impossible to find compromise on mask requirements, given how politicized COVID-19 is.

Feelings were still raw from 2020 when Fann moved to shut down the session early as the COVID-19 pandemic triggered economic uncertainty and as Gov. Doug Ducey issued stay-at-home orders.

Arizona Senate President Karen Fann (right), and Rusty Bowers (center left), the Arizona Speaker of the House, look on before the start of the  Students for Trump rally at which President Donald Trump will speak at Dream City Church in Phoenix on June 23, 2020.

House Republicans objected, saying it would cancel out the work they had done. Ultimately, the 2020 Legislature ended early, and with it, the policy hopes of many Republicans.

This year's session ended with an awkward attempt to avoid overriding a bill Ducey had vetoed. A majority of Republicans, along with all the Democrats, pushed for the override to assert legislative prerogative on policymaking.

In the end, the override succeeded. Fann voted with the majority, despite her misgivings about rebuffing the governor. The bill, however, failed in the House.

And while the audit started with unanimous Republican support in the Senate, support has splintered.

Boyer and Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, have openly criticized the way Fann has conducted it. Ugenti-Rita called it "botched."

Audit cheerleaders have grown weary of the delays in a process that was originally scheduled to end in mid-May. 

Fann's sometimes mixed messages about her views have confused and irritated onlookers, depending on their leanings.

She told a CNN reporter she considers One America News Network a credible news organization; OAN host Christina Bobb has done fundraising to cover audit costs, and legitimate news outlets don't raise money for partisan causes.

In an email to a constituent, Fann wrote that Biden won but insisted the audit was justified because 45% of Arizonans believe there are problems with the election system.

That prompted a conservative Tucson radio talk show host in July to issue a warning to his listeners. "Don't trust Senate President Karen Fann," Garret Lewis of KNST-AM said. "She's telling constituents that Biden won Arizona and this isn't about getting Trump back in the White House."

Indeed, that's still the gist of Fann's view. 

Today, Fann concedes the official record shows Biden won, but quickly adds — "if, and this is a big if, a huge if" — the audit finds problems, she'll refer them to the Attorney General's Office for investigation. The audit, despite the fervent beliefs of Trump supporters, is not about overturning the election, she continues to maintain.

Fann is well aware of the criticism; she says she reads all her press. She even has a subscription to The Arizona Republic, despite her complaints about what she views as biased reporting.

The audit, said her friend and state Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, has given Fann some angst.

“There's always something new cropping up," Cobb said of the nine-months-and- counting of the audit process. “She just tucked and rolled.”

Unlike others, who say the Karen Fann of the audit is different from the woman they've known for years, Cobb sees a familiar determination.

"Her consistency and her dedication to this audit and how she’s seen it through to the end is nothing short of what she’s done with other things," Cobb said.

In the spotlight, with an eye on exit

The audit has done for Karen Fann what 30-plus years of public service haven't: Made her a nationally recognizable figure.

In August, she stepped outside a shop in Truckee, California, to handle some text messages. A woman approached, asked if she was Karen Fann and then thanked her for the election audit.

“She came up hugged me, literally started crying, had tears in her eyes," Fann recalled. “I was a little taken aback. I’m going, ‘OK, this is a little creepy, weird.”

She told Cobb she couldn't believe strangers in California knew who she was.

"I said, ‘Oh honey, you’re the only one who believes that,'" Cobb replied, laughing.

In August, Fann was named president-elect of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that drafts model legislation for conservative lawmakers to introduce in their states. Fann has stayed a steady ALEC member since early in her legislative days; she currently serves as treasurer.

Her installation was capped with the impromptu performance of “Audit Queen,” with lyrics composed by Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Scottsdale, and sung by fellow lawmakers and a lobbyist.

Fann laughed so hard she was to the point of tears, Cobb said.

But the national title does not signal ambitions for higher office.

“I have no desire to run for Congress or any statewide office,” Fann said, adding the Senate presidency is the “top of the ladder for me.”

In fact, she said, she may not seek re-election in 2022, when she is eligible for a fourth and final Senate term.

“I don’t know," she said. "I’m really deciding on that."

Reach the reporter at and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.

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