THE COUNCIL'S BROKEN PLAYWHEN THELDA WILLIAMS GOT THE TEAM TO PUNT ON GAY RIGHTS, CITY HALL KICKED OFF A WHOE NEW BALL GAME

Most politicians, inclined to remain politicians, prefer to have the future charted in terms of probabilities; before they get behind a cause, they want to know its probable effect. As a class, they don't much like surprises, because surprises beget other surprises--before you know it, a vein of unpredictability seeps into the governing process. So it is by design that surprises occur infrequently in the cool chambers of the Phoenix City Council. When they do happen, as in the council's June 16 decision to punt the issue of gay rights into the voters' hands, they are usually accidents--loud, upsetting and dangerous. They signify that something has broken down, or that the powers normally guiding the government have, at least temporarily, been usurped.

It took more than three weeks for Mayor Paul Johnson and the council to respond to the June 16 surprise that left the usually unanimous body fractured and ineffectual. On July 8, the consensus-driven mayor persuaded District 5 representative John Nelson to vote in favor of a watered-down gay-rights ordinance. By getting Nelson to approve the compromise proposal, Johnson engineered a 6-3 majority and may have saved the city a long and divisive debate. But the arrhythmia of the June 16 meeting, played out before about 3,000 interested citizens at Civic Plaza, amplified daily by the media throughout the Valley, signaled more than mere standstill or political timidity. When five members of the council surprised the mayor by voting not to vote on June 16, it was the kickoff of the next season of political career-building, as councilmembers contemplate moving to the next level, or holding on to what they have.

Unlike his predecessor--and possible future political rival--Terry Goddard, Paul Johnson has been reluctant to use council meetings as forums for debate on issues. Under Johnson the council almost always has presented a united front, and potentially controversial issues have been handled gingerly. Compromise, consensus and caution have been the watchwords of this body as the city moves into the post-boom 1990s with diminished expectations. Issues rarely go to a vote unless the mayor knows, with a high degree of certainty, the outcome.

While Goddard would often stake out what he perceived as the moral high ground on an issue and then publicly batter other councilmembers into submission or open revolt, Johnson's style is anticonfrontational. First he and his staff work behind the scenes, exploring positions on issues; then they work to forge a compromise that a majority of the council can support. Most of the sausage-making aspects of governance are relegated to council subcommittees, and approval by the appropriate subcommittee generally means acceptance by the full council. Quite often proposals are placed on a consent agenda and rubber-stamped by the entire council, with no debate, during meetings.

Ironically, the roots of the June 16 breakdown may extend back to an event that, at the time, promised to make the council even less contentious. A lot of people were stunned when Kathy Dubs defeated two-term councilmember Linda Nadolski for the District 6 seat last October.

That surprise victory led directly to the council's surprise decision not to decide whether gays and lesbians ought to be accorded civil rights protection. Because if Nadolski had not been a lame-duck councilmember, it is unlikely she would have tried to attach an amendment to the city's antidiscrimination ordinance extending protection to gays and lesbians. If no amendment had been tendered, then the city council would not have been subject to the tremendous pressure exerted by both the amendment's advocates and opponents, and the council would not have had an opportunity to shift the burden of deciding onto the voting public.

What's more, Mayor Paul Johnson would not now be desperately scrambling to prevent the issue from going to referendum, and Vice Mayor Thelda Williams--who has made no secret of her desire to succeed Johnson--would not be under heavy fire from a gay community that formerly had supported her. And Kathy Dubs, private citizen, would presumably have more time to return telephone calls.

But Dubs, District 6 council representative and physical-fitness enthusiast, is busy these days, chronically behind on her schedule, rushing from the council chambers to dedication ceremonies to community cleanups to neighborhood-association meetings to the small computer-graphics shop she and her husband run out of their east Phoenix home.

That energy served her well in her race against Nadolski. She believes she won 55 percent of the vote last October largely because she knocked on 10,000 front doors in the newly redrawn district. On the other hand, Nadolski, who had pursued a similar strategy in her first two campaigns, hardly walked at all, even though the district had been redrawn to include, by way of a thin umbilical corridor of land along 48th Street, the newly annexed, strictly planned suburbs of Ahwatukee south of South Mountain.

Though Dubs bristles a bit at the "mystery candidate" image that was hung on her by the Arizona Republic, her campaign did modestly awaken the media's radar. A political neophyte whose previous political experience had been as chairwoman of the Loma Linda Neighborhood Association, Dubs avoided public debates with Nadolski, taking as her chief theme the idea that the councilmember--who late in her second term was ending up on the wrong end of a lot of 8-1 votes--was not a "team player." Dubs also suggested Nadolski's pointed criticism of then-Phoenix police chief Ruben Ortega was counterproductive. Much of Nadolski's support had come from the older women in her district--District 6 has the highest percentage of older voters in the Valley--and Peter Martori, a citrus farmer and longtime council observer, says these voters saw Nadolski's attacks on Ortega as evidence their councilmember was "disrespectful" and had gone "soft on crime."

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