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Vogt juggles law school and lawmaking in hectic session

'It's like trying to put a pilot in an airplane that's already airborne'

PHOENIX — He never thought he'd be here.

He leans back in his padded blue chair. With his chin resting in his hand, he listens to the other representatives in the committee discuss a bill.

It's just after 9 a.m.

Rep. Ted Vogt is a Tucson Republican and the new kid on the block.

Dressed in a black suit and tie, Vogt is 37 and parts his hair to the side. He wears partially framed glasses, and has a wide smile that he doesn't hesitate to show.

He joined the Arizona Legislature in the middle of the session—an endeavor that House Speaker Kirk Adams, a Mesa Republican who came in mid-session in 2006, says is really difficult.

"You get moving quickly in the middle session, and you don't get the same orientation that everybody else does," Adams says.

Vogt's journey began when Republican state Sen. Jonathan Paton resigned to run for Congress against U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat. State Rep. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, took Paton's place in the Senate, leaving an empty seat in the House.

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Vogt was serving as Republican chairman for the district, which covers the southeastern Tucson area, including Green Valley and Sahuarita. The Pima County Board of Supervisors chose him for the position over two other nominees.

Since taking office in March, Vogt has been a reliable Republican vote.

Vogt tries to explain what it's like jumping in mid-session.

"There's the adage out there, 'it's like switching a horse in midstream,' " he said. "But it's not even like that — it's like trying to put a pilot in an airplane that's already airborne."

Vogt says he's had to do a lot of front-end reading before committee hearings and floor votes to catch up on and understand all the bills.

* * *

In the meantime, he's trying to keep up on his readings for law school — he's in his final semester at the University of Arizona.

With graduation right around the corner, Vogt says, "it would be really painful to quit now."

So he has worked out ways with his professors to finish school while spending most of his week in Phoenix.

He's double booked, but he's committed to finishing law school.

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Vogt remembers, "I told (my dad), I was like, 'I'm going to get across that finish line. It may not be pretty, but I'll get across that finish line.' "

His dual role, however, is bringing scrutiny as well as stress.

Vogt was chosen as a speaker for the law school's May 15 graduation ceremony before he was appointed to the Legislature. But a few of his votes — particularly for Arizona's controversial new immigration law — have some of his peers planning a protest and petitioning against his speech.

Melanie Fontes Rainer, a graduating law student, sent out one of the first e-mails encouraging students to peacefully protest the speech. She also wrote a public letter expressing disappointment with his support for bills that she calls "racist."

She says a group of about 40 students are organizing a protest to take place during the ceremony — some are planning to respectfully walk out during Vogt's speech.

Rainer says she and Vogt are good friends, and that the dustup shows a friendly relationship can survive a difference of opinion.

Vogt has heard that some students are passing around a petition asking him to step down, but he says he will still give the speech.

He knows that there have been some heated words, which he says can be frustrating and painful, but he has been heartened by other classmates who, although they disagree with his votes, have sent e-mails encouraging him to speak.

Sometimes you agree on things, he said, and sometimes you disagree. It's a lesson that will serve him well if he's elected to a full term in the fall.

* * *

At 1:15 p.m., Vogt walks onto the House floor a few minutes late.

He is coming straight from the morning's four-hour committee hearing. The ongoing discussion had to be postponed until after a floor session.

This is not typical, Vogt says. Usually committees last about an hour and a half. But today, he hustles from one to the other without a break.

For Vogt though, the long hours and the extra readings aren't the hardest part.

"The biggest challenge, I would say, is just getting personally comfortable with, 'OK, I know enough about this bill to make an intelligent vote,'" Vogt said. "I don't want to cast an uninformed vote."

He calls his time in the Legislature a great experience and rare opportunity to better the lives of Arizonans — especially, he adds, during this challenging time.

But becoming a member of the Legislature wasn't exactly in his five-year plan.

"Never in a million years — and I say this about so many things in my life — never in a million years did I think this would be the path that I take," Vogt said.

* * *

He didn't think he would end up in Afghanistan either. At age 5, his love of animals made him want to be a veterinarian.

But when he graduated from Yale in 1995, Vogt took a different route. His first job was in investment banking. In 1996, he worked on the Dole-Kemp presidential campaign. And then he moved to Chicago to work in advertising, doing improv comedy at the famed Second City at night.

"It was great," Vogt says. "But at the time it was kind of like, well," he pauses, "that's all very interesting. But I wanted to do more."

He decided to take old advice from a boss who told him to consider joining the military.

At the end of November 2000, he entered the Air Force as an intelligence officer.

Vogt says one of the things that helped prepare him for his legislative position was his time in the military.

"There was definitely a lot of truly life and death stuff going on," he says about the six years he spent as an intelligence officer. "So this stress does not seem that bad."

When September 2001 rolled around, Vogt was still in training.

From the beginning, he had a plan — he would serve his four years and move on with his life.

Then came Sept. 11.

"It was, as it was for everybody, very shocking," Vogt recalls.

He remembers attending a graduation for one of the classes, when the Air Force general who was there to graduate the class got up to speak.

Vogt paraphrases the message the general gave the class: "I came here intending to deliver one message, and now all I can tell you is this: While we don't understand what has happened, we — you will be in a completely different world after this. And many of you are going to go to war."

"He was right," Vogt said. "Within a year, most of my classmates and I were deployed over to either Afghanistan or throughout the Middle East."

A little over a year after the 9/11 attacks, Vogt was in Afghanistan. Next he went to Japan, and then back to the Middle East.

He says that while serving during this time put more stress on individuals and families, for him it was also more rewarding.

"You were serving at a time of real need for your country," Vogt says.

His last duty assignment was at the Pentagon. After that, he decided to leave to be with his family.

He says his parents were getting older, and he wanted to be around to help. So he and his brothers moved his parents from Salt Lake City to Tucson, and Vogt settled in Tucson as well.

* * *

At 4:30 p.m. the House adjourns the floor session. But Vogt's day is not quite over.

He heads back to his blue chair in hearing room four, where he stays until 6:30 p.m.

Right now, Vogt doesn't have spare time to speak of. He's a full-time student with an all-day job at the Legislature.

And his schedule isn't freeing up this summer. He'll be studying for the bar exam and running for a full term in the House.

But it's worth it, he says: "I'll tell you what, this is a lot of work, but it's very rewarding."

Before he came to Phoenix, Vogt didn't have a lot of time to think about how he'd decorate his office.

But he does have some pictures hanging from the walls. They show him during stints working for U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl and then-Vice President Dick Cheney, posing with his class of White House interns, and being commissioned into the Air Force.

Vogt also has a photograph of his family. He says the thing that is always on his mind is how the legislation will affect his family and other families, one of the ways in which he feels the weight of his job. .

"I never really understood what politicians meant when they say, 'I'm truly humbled by your support and the job that you've give to me,' until I had to cast my first vote on the floor," Vogt said.

"Your vote will affect 6.2 million people in this state. And you want to make sure that when you push that button, you're pushing the right button, for the right reasons, and you know what the outcome is going to be," he said. "And so that is very humbling."

Alec Nielson is the Bolles Fellow for the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism.

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Alec Nielson/ArizonaNewsService.com

Rep. Ted Vogt is an Arizona legislator and University of Arizona law student.