Blue-blooded governor in red Riches to rags? Gov. Fife Symington, the Maryland aristocrat who flourished in the Arizona desert, has filed for bankruptcy and now finds himself being investigated by a federal grand jury.

February 27, 1996|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHOENIX -- Arizona's governor has cut taxes. He's reformed welfare. He's trimmed government, kept the Grand Canyon open when the federal government shut down and presided over a booming economy.

Yet Fife Symington is beleaguered -- a bankruptcy filing and a federal investigation of his finances haunt his second term.

His supporters say he's the victim of a Democratic witch hunt. His critics predict indictments.

"I've done nothing wrong," Mr. Symington said as he sat in his office at the Arizona Capitol. "I really love my job. I don't expect to be indicted. And I just stay focused."

But Mr. Symington's bad luck seems to be holding. Even his foray into presidential politics in today's Arizona primary didn't go well. He backed Texas Sen. Phil Gramm only to see him drop out of the race.

A privileged son of Maryland horse country, product of Gilman School and Harvard University, Mr. Symington is an Eastern transplant who flourished in the Arizona desert.

But in September, the man who promised voters he'd run the state like a business filed for bankruptcy, listing debts of nearly $25 million and assets of about $62,000.

His office and retail projects, he said, went bust along with the economy a few years back. He has no access, he added, to his wife's wealth.

Dragging through the background is a federal investigation that reportedly focuses on whether he obtained loans by giving lenders false information.

Heckled at Super Bowl

At the Super Bowl in Tempe last month, the governor was heckled.

During a high school visit, a student asked why the state should trust Mr. Symington with its finances when he apparently can't manage his own.

And a statewide poll found that 42 percent of Arizonans believe that he should resign.

Even his political opponents concede that he's streamlined government and reduced taxes.

But his record in office is colored by continuing questions about his corporate finances and his ethics. His critics say he's a patrician who doesn't believe he's bound by the rules that apply to others.

The governor concedes only that the investigation is a distraction.

"All politics aside," he said, "I feel really badly for anyone in public life today who's under assault. You're a hero today. You're a bum tomorrow."

The friends of John Fife Symington III say he is a brilliant governor, a loyal colleague and a man of integrity. He is tenacious, they say -- a man who loved competing in Gilman sports and today loves battling over public policy.

"Fife is intrepid," said Thomas Caplan, a Baltimore novelist and Mr. Symington's friend since Gilman days. "He sticks to things."

Mr. Symington and Mr. Caplan were in the school political club, "though I was an admirer of John Kennedy and he was a devoted Goldwater man."

(In fact, Arizona Sen. Barry M. Goldwater once came to Maryland to campaign for Mr. Symington's father, who ran three unsuccessful campaigns for Congress and in 1969 was named ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago.)

After Gilman came Harvard, and after Harvard the Air Force, which stationed Mr. Symington in Arizona before sending him to Vietnam.

In 1972, he returned to Arizona and soon founded his own development firm. The Symington Co. built big, classy office-retail developments, financed with borrowed money.

In 1990, Mr. Symington made his first bid for elective office, running for governor.

"I said, 'Hell, I can't get elected,' " Mr. Symington recalled recently. "Nobody likes real estate developers."

But despite his profession, his lack of an Arizona political pedigree and his boarding school background, Mr. Symington won a tough race. And in 1994, he was re-elected narrowly.

"It's a real tribute to him, the fact that he could come here and within 20 years be elected governor," said Richard Mallery, a Phoenix lawyer and friend.

Today, Mr. Symington, pale hair carefully combed, still dresses as if he were headed for lunch at the Harvard Club, in dark suits, oxford-cloth shirts and quietly rich ties.

'Never a warm guy'

"He was never a warm guy who everybody loved," said Michael J. O'Neil, who heads a Tempe polling firm. "He was a hard-nosed businessman who was going to cut the income tax."

He did, reducing taxes every year for the past five years. He limited the time an adult may receive welfare benefits.

And he challenged Washington to cut regulations on the states.

Mr. Symington is very proud of the fact that the Grand Canyon was the only national park to remain open, after negotiations with the Department of the Interior, when the budget stalemate closed the federal government.

In sync with Newt Gingrich's Congress, Mr. Symington believes that the federal government should return powers to the states.

"We've run very far afield from what the Founding Fathers envisioned," he said. "My argument is simple: We can do more with fewer dollars."

"This is my Revolutionary War speech," he said. "People like it."

By the time Mr. Symington ran for re-election in 1994, his financial troubles were public.

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