Arizona: new capital for political sleaze On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

February 28, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

PHOENIX — Phoenix

POLITICALLY speaking, it's raining in the Valley of the Sun.

As Arizona's physical beauty and climate continue to attract newcomers in droves -- Phoenix's 40 percent growth in the 1980s topped all metropolitan areas -- its political sleaze has created a morass of public cynicism toward all politics.

A local police sting operation that earlier this month bagged seven state legislators and several others around the state capitol was only the latest of a chronology of corruption and political confusion to rock the state in the last three and a half years:

* A recall drive in 1987 and then the impeachment and removal from office in 1988 of Republican Gov. Evan Mecham on charges of misuse of state funds and obstruction of justice.

* The savings-and-loan scandal stemming from attempts in 1987 by Arizona financier and heavy campaign contributor Charles Keating to influence federal S&L regulators, involving both Arizona senators, Democrat Dennis DeConcini and Republican John McCain, as members of the 'Keating Five" accused of improperly intervening for him.

* Passage of an anti-Mecham elections change barring plurality gubernatorial winners of the sort he was in 1986, resulting in a bitter, negative runoff campaign lasting four months after the regular November election.

The sting operation, coming just as the wearisome gubernatorial campaign between Republican Fife Symington and Democrat Terry Goddard was ending -- Symington finally won on Tuesday by about 52 percent to 48 -- was the last straw for an electorate by now suffering from political battle fatigue.

As voters went to the polls, local television stations were still running juicy videotapes of the sting, showing legislators stuffing bribes into their pockets or gym bags, bragging about being corrupt and even joking about hidden cameras, which unbeknown to them were recording the scene.

One of the indicted seven legislators, Democratic Rep. Bobby Raymond, who explained taking more than $10,000 in bribes because he was "extremely short of money at that time," has already pleaded guilty and resigned. Recall petitions are circulating against the others but they continue to draw their legislative pay -- yet another cause for public disgust.

Particularly shocking were the brazen admissions, on the videotapes, of those indicted that they were on the take. One said she wanted to "die rich" and Raymond is represented as fearing he "sold way too cheap" on hearing a colleague got more money.

Earl de Berge, a prominent Arizona pollster, says the state already had "a very long and rich tradition bordering on the sleaze that is not unique in tonality, but perhaps in volume" now. The state has enjoyed such enormous growth, with so much money flowing, he says, that people "really didn't give a damn" about what their politicians did. "They said, 'Why bother?' " de Berge observes. "Now they know why bother."

Mark Pastin of Arizona State University's Lincoln Center on Ethics says the widespread corruption is the result of weak party discipline and organization and ineffective reform, with political and community power "closely held by a few key families and political leaders." Bill Jamieson, a veteran Democratic leader, laments: "All of our power institutions collapsed at once."

Low pay ($15,000 a year) and ever-longer legislative sessions, Pastin suggests, have made Arizona legislators "rely on coteries of bagmen to collect checks" to enable them to stay in office. This reliance has become a ready tool for lobbyists, he says, who provide the cash in return for political largess.

Arizona politics at the same time has been marked by an uncommon turnover in key offices of state government. The newly elected governor will be the sixth the state has had in the last 14 years. Leadership posts in the state House and Senate have been similar revolving doors.

Arizonans had high hopes for either Symington or Goddard after they had run high-level campaigns up to November. But in the runoff, the mud flew as each strained for an advantage after their near-standoff in the general election (Symington won by 4,300 votes but lacked a majority).

Now the winner as well as the loser has been tarnished and must deal with an even more seriously tarnished legislature. De Berge says Symington "goes in without a mandate and will have to spend the first two years restoring confidence." Considering all that has happened here, it will be no easy job.

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