The mighty, the memorable, the moronic: 20 political moments for 20 years

POLITICS, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage. --Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Ten years ago, when TW Automatic-Weapons Editor Emeritus Emil Franzi recapped the political highlights of the previous decade, he observed that politics is just showbiz for ugly people.

One thing hasn't changed: We're still poor players strutting and fretting our hour upon the political stage. During the Tucson Weekly's two decades, we've seen two governors driven from office, an overrun border, an indicted crop of lawmakers, brown crap pouring from our taps and so much more.

We've picked 20 moments from the last 20 years--a mix of the momentous, the memorable and the moronic. Before you dig in, one note: Uncle Emil picked off a lot of the low-hanging fruit--the brief reign of Evan Mecham, for example, and the notorious legislative sting operation known as AzScam--for our 10-year anniversary back in '94, so we've knocked those off our list this time out (and that's why the list is skewed toward the most recent decade).

Water Wars

Remember the good old days, when brown gunk poured out of our taps because Central Arizona Project water flushed decades of sediment from inside our aging pipes? While city officials insisted that everything would be fine if we just put up with the CAP crap for a little while longer, the voters grew increasingly pissed off. By the time council members decided to shut down the CAP and go back to groundwater, the wave of anger had translated into an initiative that banned the direct delivery of CAP water. Backed by big bucks from car dealer Bob Beaudry, the Water Consumer Protection Act passed overwhelmingly in 1995.

The Growth Lobby, certain that Tucsonans would come to love crappy water if they were just served enough of it, ran their own initiative two years later to repeal the Water Consumer Protection Act. Voters, who remained unconvinced they were wrong about wanting decent water in their taps, re-affirmed their support of the ban.

But in 1999, Beaudry--who had gone from folk hero to raving eccentric in four short years--went to the well one time too many with a plan that would have forced the city to re-charge its CAP allotment into central-city riverbeds. With nearly every reputable hydrologist saying it wouldn't work, the plan was rejected by more than 60 percent of the voters, making Beaudry the only man in Arizona history to spend six figures to reverse his own mandate.

With CAP water now being re-charged in Avra Valley and blended with groundwater, the water wars have subsided--for now. Just wait a few years, though, for the proposal to start serving treated effluent in our taps.

Road Blocks

Four times in the last 20 years, local leaders have tried to persuade voters to approve sales taxes for transportation--and four times, voters have replied with a resounding no. It hasn't mattered whether the money was going to be spent on roads, tunnels, bridges, trains, buses or bike lanes--every plan has been rejected, all but one by at least six out of 10 voters.

The shortage of transportation funds has left us with crumbling residential streets, increasing congestion and an anemic bus system. On the positive side, it's kept the engineers from blowing a fortune on mad dreams of lining Grant Road with a half-assed freeway lined with crazy grade-separated intersections.

Hope springs eternal, though. Local leaders are now at the state Capitol, hoping to get permission to again ask voters to approve a transportation sales tax.


In the single most irresponsible government giveaway in state history, Speaker of the House Jeff Groscost forced an 80-page bill past lawmakers in the closing moments of the 2000 session. The bill, dubbed alt-fuels, was advertised as an environment-friendly law that would get cleaner cars on the road. In reality, it was a massive subsidy that allowed Arizonans to get the state to pick up the tab for their cars, as long as they converted them to run on alternative fuels--even if they never actually used the option.

The final tab on alt-fuels ran about $140 million--and it also cost Groscost a state Senate seat when he was beaten by an unknown Arizona State University professor, Jay Blanchard, who had gotten into the race on a lark. As a result, in the 2001-'02 sessions, the state Senate ended up with a 15-15 split between the parties, with Democrats wielding more clout than they'd had in years.

Groscost's hasn't let a tiny $140 million mistake keep him out of politics; he's been spotted all over the Capitol this year, including in huddles in Speaker Jake Flake's office.

Board of Supes '96 Three-Way

When the Growth Lobby tired of loose cannon Ed Moore, who had served two terms as a Democrat before switching to the Republican Party to avoid getting knocked out in a 1992 Democrat primary, they found a new champion in Vicki Cox-Golder, a real-estate sharpie on the booming northwest side. The 1996 plan was simple: Knock out Ed in the GOP primary and deliver a six-figure KO to Democrat Sharon Bronson in the general.

But Ed, easily Pima County's most quotable elected official, had a final trick or two up his sleeve. He evaded Cox-Golder in the primary by running as an independent, and he then set himself on a kamikaze mission to take her down with mailers that alluded to lurid tales of underworld dealing and Golder's links to the power structure.

Ed's plan worked perfectly. On Election Day, Bronson cruised to victory with 52 percent of the vote, while Cox-Golder limped home with just 31. Ed got 17 percent and retired to his Casas Adobes fortress.

Fred Ronstadt's City Council Win

It had been more than a decade since a Republican had won a city election when political neophyte Fred Ronstadt grabbed his City Council office in 1997. When he launched his campaign, most political observers wrote Ronstadt off, because Democrats held a 3-2 registration advantage in the city limits. But a bitter Democratic primary and Fred's famous family name narrowly carry him over the top on election day.

Fred's win gave local powerbrokers a stalwart defender on the City Council. More importantly, it restored the GOP's confidence, setting the stage for ...

Bob Walkup's Mayoral Win

Like Ronstadt before him, Bob Walkup wasn't given much of a chance against Molly McKasson, the former midtown City Council member who sought the mayor's office in 1999. But McKasson, beloved by neighborhood organizations in the center of the city but despised by the business community, washed up on the wrong side of Bob Beaudry's water initiative, which dragged her into the depths on Election Day.

In recent years, Republicans have learned an important lesson that Democrats are still struggling to grasp: It doesn't matter that Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 3-2 margin in the city limits if Democrats don't get out to vote. On the Republican eastside in last November's mayoral election, nearly half of the voters cast a ballot, while on the Democratic southside and westside, turnout was a miserable 25 percent. Walkup ended up winning re-election by less than 1,500 votes against Democratic retread Tom Volgy.

The Pygmy Owl

The tiny little cactus ferruginous pygmy owl has caused developers more grief than an army of environmentalists armed with overlay zones. After the Center for Biological Diversity successfully forced the federal government to list the pygmy owl as endangered in 1997, blade-'n'-grade on the northwest side met with the only thing that could stop it: federal red tape.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and the Pima County Board of Supervisors used the pygmy owl's listing to launch the ambitious Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. It yielded big results when the Clinton Administration set aside 129,000 acres in the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

But last year, the homebuilders won a big round in court when the Ninth Circuit ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erred when it listed the owl as endangered in the first place. The court fight ain't over, but the rules are changing all over again.

Fife's Indictment

J. Fife Symington III's creative accounting--portraying himself as a fat cat when he was trying to get loans, and as a bankrupt deadbeat when he was trying to get out of paying them back--was a successful formula for success as a developer and politician. And most of the big banks, in their typical generous fashion, were perfectly willing to forget about the governor's defaults.

But federal prosecutors weren't as understanding. After years of investigation, they jacked Symington up on a 23-count indictment in June 1996, mostly on wire- and bank-fraud charges, with a little dollop of perjury on the top. In September 1997, a federal jury found Fife guilty of six counts and deadlocked on 11 other charges, forcing Fife's resignation from the governor's office two days later.

The judgment was tossed out on appeal, because Judge Roger Strand excused 74-year-old Mary Jane Cotey from the jury after she refused to even consider the idea that such a nice young man could have done anything wrong. When she was replaced by an alternate, and Fife was ultimately convicted, it gave his lawyers enough of an opening for a dismissal.

Before the feds could file for round two, Fife got a complete presidential pardon from Bill Clinton as he packed up to leave the White House.

Fife went on to attend culinary school and became a pastry chef in Scottsdale.

Janet's Gubernatorial Win

Janet Napolitano proved herself the most competent Democratic politician in the state by beating Republican Matt Salmon in the 2002 gubernatorial sweepstakes. Everything broke right for Napolitano, from a torrent of public campaign funds to Indian-gaming propositions that drove up the Native American turnout.

The first Democrat to grab the governor's office since Bruce Babbitt won it in 1982, Napolitano has plotted a much different course than Salmon would have, particularly when it comes to state spending. Napolitano's crafty budget maneuvers have driven GOP lawmakers batty, but she's enjoying stratospheric approval ratings in statewide polls.

So will she seek re-election in 2006--or choose to take on U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl?

Mr. Grijalva Goes to Washington

Raúl Grijalva went from being a Chicano power activist to the TUSD School Board to the Pima County of Supervisors before reaching for the big brass ring of Congress. Backed by a machine of environmentalists, labor unions and social activists, Grijalva swept past more than a half-dozen primary opponents and easily won the general election in a heavily Democratic district drawn up by a redistricting commission.

Mr. Eckstrom Calls It Quits

Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkitt was famous for his simple line: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em." Perhaps no local politician better understood that maxim than Pima County Supervisor Dan Eckstrom, who served 15 years on the Pima Board of Supervisors before stepping down last fall.

Eckstrom was the classic patron pol: He knew how to deal to get what he wanted for his constituents. Eckstrom wasn't one to schmooze the press, but he knew the intricacies of county government and the budget process, and he used that knowledge to bring home the pork for his southside district, even at those times when he was in the minority on the board.

He also knew the value of forging relationships with federal officials, such as Congressman Ed Pastor, who was always generous to Eckstrom's requests.

His decision to retire brought an end to an era on the Board of Supervisors.

Border Build-Up

When the U.S. Border Patrol started fortifying the border in Texas and California, the result was an influx of illegal immigration in the once-quiet areas of Southern Arizona.

Rural residents who once tolerated the occasional border-crosser are feeling increasingly under siege. More and more illegal entrants are dying as they try to enter the country across the broiling killing fields of the Cabeza Prieta. Increasingly savage smugglers are engaging in car chases and shoot-outs on our highways.

Most disturbing of all: There's no solution we're likely to achieve in the near future.

Sprawl Brawl

Arizona's conflict between bulldozers and cacti came to a head in 2000 with the Citizens Growth Management Initiative, a complex plan to strictly restrict development to urban areas and protect the rapidly vanishing wild spaces of Arizona.

The Growth Lobby, recognizing the greatest threat to their longtime reign in these parts, spent a record $2 million to knock down the initiative with TV ads, mailers, phone banks and everything else they could think of.

And it worked. The greens started out with the support of somewhere around 68 percent of the voters, but by the time Election Day rolled around, those numbers had been completely reversed.

Take the Money and Run

Money remains the mother's milk of politics, no matter how hard you try to keep politicians off the teat.

Tucson voters were ahead of the trend of limiting campaign spending, passing a 1985 proposition that allowed for a public match of every dollar raised, provided candidates agreed to limit their spending.

But the recent emergence of independent campaign committees has completely undermined Tucson's system. These independent campaigns, generally funded by car dealers, developers and other members of the local power structure, are now spending nearly as much as the candidates themselves. Former Mayor Tom Volgy, who designed the system almost 20 years ago, discovered just how flawed it was when he ended up the target of one of those independent campaigns last year; Volgy lost his bid to recapture the office to Bob Walkup by 2 percentage points.

Statewide, Arizona voters approved the Clean Elections program in a 1998 initiative. The biggest impact was probably Janet Napolitano's gubernatorial win, made partially possible by the nearly $2 million she received in public funds.

Opponents of public financing are running their own initiative this year to overturn Clean Elections. Given that the original initiative only passed by a couple of percentage points without any organized opposition, the grand experiment could be coming to an end soon.

Term Limits

Voters decided they couldn't be trusted to make the right decisions at the ballot box by passing an initiative in 1992 that limited state office holders to a maximum of eight years in any office.

The idea: Re-create a "citizen's legislature," where the common man would serve his fellow citizens and then retire back to ranch to resume his agrarian lifestyle.

The ultimate impact, particularly at the state Legislature: a revolving door of inexperienced chowderheads who can't find the bathroom until the end of the first year. The power has shifted even further to staff and lobbyists--who are often former lawmakers who know more than the boobs who are serving.

Supermajority Rules

Supporters of the idea that we should starve government to keep it from growing scored a big victory in 1992, when voters passed a proposition that required a supermajority of two-thirds of lawmakers to increase taxes.

As a result, it's been politically impossible for lawmakers to raise taxes--which worked out OK during the go-go '90s, but it didn't work out so hot when the economy collapsed and the state's books started to hemorrhage red ink.

The big losers are the ivory-tower economists and eggheads who argue that the state needs to adjust the tax code to better compete for jobs--because to make reform work, some taxes will have to lowered and some will have to be increased. Since more than one-third of the Legislature is opposed to any tax increase on principle alone, reform is dead on arrival.

Recall of Assessor Alan Lang

It takes a lot to get people to notice the sleepy office of county assessor. It takes even more to successfully recall a county official.

But the gun-toting, beer-swilling Alan Lang gave local voters plenty of reasons to take him out, from domestic-violence charges to the revelation that he'd put his girlfriend's daughter on the payroll--and then fired her after they broke up.

Lang was so notorious that a crew from a tabloid TV show tracked him down in Las Vegas; the intoxicated assessor belligerently revealed to a television audience that he had every right to carry a handgun to protect himself. The program called him "The Worst Boss in America."

Before he was finally recalled in '94, Lang had been ordered to steer clear of guns and booze by a judge and faced an unprecedented and incompetent series of hearings before the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

Early Voting

When lawmakers loosened up the absentee-voting process to allow anyone to cast an early ballot, they said it would increase voter turnout. That hasn't happened--in fact, when you figure in population growth, a smaller percentage of Pima County residents are voting compared to 1992.

But early voting has had a big effect on how campaigns are run. Competent politicians and their handlers now try to lock in votes as soon as they can, urging voters to request early ballots and tracking requests daily so they can target mailers and phone banks. The sooner you can land their votes, the less chance they have to change their minds.

The end result: Campaigns are more expensive and convoluted than ever, although the last-minute hit has become less effective.

International Incident

While most of the media was celebrating the opening of Arizona International College, an experimental liberal-arts institution being spun off by the UA, TW writer Margarget Regan started asking some old-school questions: Why was AIC based at the UA Science and Tech Park in the Rincon Valley? Was it perhaps because having a school there might spur development? Why was the Arizona Board of Regents willing to spend so much money on AIC when budgets were so tight at the existing universities? And why were professors at AIC denied the opportunity for tenure, when the school's provost, the UA's Celestino Fernandez, enjoyed its privileges?

That last question grew in importance after Fernandez fired a promising young professor because she often challenged his administration.

AIC was eventually recalled to an off-campus headquarters and fell victim to a tight university budget that couldn't justify spending so much on so little.

The Amphi School District Recall

The ruling majority of the Amphi School District did so many things wrong in 1990s: They bought big plots of land without the most basic due diligence of getting appraisals (and paid a lot more for them than anybody else); they fought an expensive, albeit successful, court battle to build a high school on the edge of critical habitat for the pygmy owl; they spat on their own constituents by refusing to allow them to address the board at meetings; they used school rosters for campaign purposes; they hired cronies and family members in classroom and administrative positions; and on and on and on.

Voters finally had enough in 2000 and successfully forced a recall of the three members of the majority who hadn't already been taken out by voters. The recall was a clean sweep, finishing off the recalcitrant board members.