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By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Michael McNally, a slight, 48-year-old cabinetmaker of independent stock, was in a disconnected mood four months ago when he decided to attempt a recall of Governor J. Fife Symington III. McNally'd had a bad week, made worse by surgery on his mouth.
When he turned on the radio and read newspapers, everything kept coming up Symington. The governor was under fire for paying aide Annette Alvarez's overdue income taxes. The governor and the Arizona State Legislature were quarreling over the state budget, and a poll showed Symington's approval rating at just 32 percent.
George Leckie, another Symington aide, was drawing heat for his handling of Project SLIM, the governor's pet cost-cutting effort.
"It had been a steady barrage of Symington this and Leckie that," McNally says. "For several weeks, I'd had the feeling of, 'What is going on here?' I just got fed up with things."
So on March 20, with some thought but no planning, McNally drove down to the Secretary of State's Office and filed a handwritten application announcing his intent to seek Symington's ouster.
Since then Alvarez and Leckie have both resigned from their state posts. The governor's troubles with federal regulators over his alleged role in the failure of Southwest Savings and Loan have faded from the front pages, and the wind is leaving McNally's sails.
With two days left before he must file petitions bearing at least 263,852 signatures to place a recall vote on the November ballot, the bearded carpenter concedes that "only a miracle" will salvage his efforts to dethrone "King Fife."
"If there's such a thing as a miracle, we need it now," he says. "I really don't think we're going to make it."
But, McNally claims, even with no money and an organization cobbled together by volunteers, he has managed to collect roughly 230,000 signatures. The numbers are hard to verify, since petitions are scattered among recall volunteers across the state, primarily in Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff.
If true, however, McNally's ability to produce almost a quarter-million signatures with his shoestring effort does not speak well of Symington's standing with voters, McNally says.
"It was basically a grassroots effort, just a lot of people who are dissatisfied and wanted to send a message," he says. "It's nothing personal with him. It's just his attitude of sitting up there on the throne.
"In every segment of Arizona, someone had something to complain about," McNally says. "We don't know where he is, what he's up to, and we don't trust him."
Bruce Merrill, an Arizona State University pollster who has tracked public opinion for 20 years, says that McNally's results, even if overstated, reflect the sour mood toward Symington he has been finding. "Only 22 percent of the registered voters in the state of Arizona say they would vote to reelect him," Merrill says. "That's a lower percentage than we ever measured for Evan Mecham."
Merrill's twice-monthly polls for a local television station, he says, show voters concerned about the same types of matters that riled McNally to begin with.
"I think the way he has handled everything from Annette Alvarez to George Leckie has been kind of 'public be damned.' There's a certain arrogance there that these people and these relationships are more important than the people of Arizona."
Former Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard, who lost the 1990 gubernatorial race to Symington, called McNally's showing "amazing." "My gut sense was that [McNally] operating essentially alone with no organization or money would be lucky to get 50,000 signatures," says Goddard.
"Anybody's that's been involved in petition campaigns will tell you much the same thing--that a nonprofessional group has very seldom gotten over 100,000 signatures, if ever."
McNally says that more than 600 workers statewide circulated petitions, mostly trying to target large gatherings like concerts and Fourth of July celebrations. No one donated any money to the effort, he says, except that which volunteers spent to get themselves around and copy petition forms.
A self-described political outsider who now says he was "stupid" even to attempt the recall, McNally says he was disappointed that nobody with political heft jumped onto his makeshift bandwagon.
"The unions didn't want to get involved. The Democratic party didn't want to get involved," he says. "What was interesting was the lack of help from certain quarters."
State Democratic chairman Bill Minette of Tucson says the party historically stays out of recall efforts. "We have always considered it unnaturally divisive," he says. "There are, we think, more appropriate remedies, and that is to vote."
If McNally's numbers are correct, though, Minette says, "I think it tells us a lot about the quality of the policies and abilities of Governor Symington."
With the exception of former Governor Evan Mecham, elected officials have seldom had to fear the prospect of recall. Since 1988, 37 recall efforts have been registered with the Secretary of State's Office--including 22 filed by pro-Mecham forces against legislators who helped impeach him.
Only the recall directed at Mecham gathered enough signatures to make the ballot, but Mecham was impeached and ousted before a recall vote could be held.
This year only Symington and Attorney General Grant Woods face recall efforts, and neither appears at risk. The woman who filed the petition against Woods, reportedly upset over his handling of gaming negotiations with Native American leaders, was on vacation last week as her deadline for filing approaches.