CORPORATION MEN

TO RETAIN HIS SEAT ON THE COMMISSION, CHAIRMAN JENNINGS TAKES HIS GLOVES OFF AND BATTLES TURNBUCHLE TOM

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@body:Tom Freestone has never been too hard to find. A barrel-chested good ol' boy with a toothy grin, he wrestled professionally while he was going to college, and his debating style seems a natural extension of his grappling career. Despite a tendency to snag on his own syntax, he has rocked Jennings in several debates throughout the state, often overcoming the Democrat's measured phrasings with sheer bluster and volume. He has only a couple of issues, but he hits them hard.

Freestone claims the corporation commission "ignored" problems at financially troubled Tucson Electric Power Company until the utility was near bankruptcy. Furthermore, he says the commission during Jennings' tenure has been "an impediment to economic recovery, not an active participant in bringing economic recovery to Arizona."

Though Freestone alleges the incumbent is guilty of "malfeasance" and "McCarthyism," he offers no compelling evidence to prove either charge. Nor does he seem to hold any genuine rancor toward Jennings. For Freestone, politicking is just business.

"Yeah, Renz and I, we do put on a show," Freestone says with a chuckle. "We've been having debates all over the place. It seems like we've been having two or three a week. It just happened that we showed up at the same event. . . . I guess that word just got around that we were good together, so the talk shows and anybody having a forum just started booking us both. It's been a lot of fun."
It's been more fun for Freestone than for Jennings.
"The first time we were together, he came up and got right in my face," Jennings says. "And he was loud, throwing out all these charges too fast for me to follow. He was just all over me, just a madman. Then, when it was all over, he stuck out his hand for me to shake and grinned at me and said, 'It's nothing personal.'"
Jennings, who, during six years in the state legislature and eight on the corporation commission, has always enjoyed a reputation as a reform-minded consumer advocate, now finds himself in a peculiar defensive posture. Because his job is complicated, and irreducible to sound-bite syllogism, he often finds himself pinned into corners by the hard-driving Freestone. Often, he says, Freestone's "Gatling gun" allegations are "gibberish," impossible to answer.

"He doesn't know enough about the job to really make an argument," Jennings says. "Apparently, he thinks the commission hasn't been generous enough to utility companies. One of his backers, [State Senator] Tom Patterson, said we were 'insensitive' to utility companies.

"He's telling people they can have it all, low utility rates and economic development, but he doesn't know the first thing about the office. He's got a Washington pollster who told him the issue this year is 'jobs, jobs, jobs.' So every chance he gets, he brings up economic development."
Jennings says Freestone is as ignorant about the office as the school kids who telephone after hours. He calls Freestone the "Barney Rubble" of county government, an allusion to Fred Flintstone's semicompetent little buddy.

"All he knows is patronage and pork," Jennings says. "That's kind of the way county government works. When you have a Barney Rubble on the county board of supervisors, that's one thing. He can cut deals and get things for his district, but his influence will be diluted by the other members of the board. But when you've got a Barney Rubble on a three-member body, then he's got a lot of influence and he can really muck things up."
And Jennings is determined not to give Freestone an opportunity to muck things up. Though he says he can't imagine a scenario in which Freestone could win, there are a few factors in the Republican's favor.

First, according to the Secretary of State's Office, there are exactly 62,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in Arizona. And in their respective primaries, during which neither candidate faced an opponent, the Republican drew 209,499 votes to the incumbent's 183,928. (A write-in candidate, Libertarian Doyle Vines of Superior, picked up 440 stray votes.)

Though it may say more about the waning popularity of Arizona's junior senator than the reliability of the county supervisor's support, Freestone collected 7,999 more votes than did Senator John McCain in the Republican primary. That fact didn't elude the spin doctors in McCain opponent Claire Sargent's campaign. They issued a press release suggesting the senator was less popular with Arizona Republicans than Freestone.

Another factor the candidates must consider is that, despite the frequency and intensity of the Jennings-Freestone debates, the race is not likely to capture the imagination, much less the attention, of many voters. While Freestone notes that both he and Jennings are native Arizonans with lengthy r‚sum‚s, neither is exactly a household name.

And neither candidate will likely be able to raise enough money to change that. So far Jennings has raised more than $28,000 for the race and spent more than $18,000, while Freestone has raised more than $25,000 and spent almost $24,000. Freestone says he may have trouble raising the $50,000 he estimates he will need to run a competitive race.

Without a good grasp on either the issues or the candidates, some voters may cast their ballots on hunch or impulse. While in most years inertia tends to favor incumbents, this year many voters are ready to throw the rascals out.

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