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"The hardest thing that politicians have to do," Jennings says, "is to tell unpleasant truths. Because you people don't always want to hear the truth. In my own campaign, I'm running a negative campaign against my opponent."
The candidate draws a breath.
"Negative campaigning works," Jennings says, tough resignation creeping into his voice. His eyes draw gunfighter tight as he scans the room.
No one picks up the challenge.
@body:Tom Freestone is at his best when he's up close, where he can smell your breath and test your grip. At age 54, he can bench-press 360 pounds, even with a degenerative nerve condition that makes two fingers on his left hand tingle. He is a mass of tough flesh and heavy bone, with a catch in his stride from a football injury. He is corporeal, visceral and immediate--a real people person.
And this Saturday, he is in his element, a political picnic hosted by Salt River Project. Freestone and his wife, Phyllis, arrive early to string up their banner. Phyllis attends to details while Tom steals a few quiet moments before he begins to work the tent.
"You don't want to start too early," he says. "There's going to be a big crowd here today, and if you start shaking hands now you're probably not going to remember whose hand you shook later in the day. People get offended if you don't remember them, so it's better to wait, not to spread it out. It's easy to forget."
As Freestone, who's already survived a morning speech to the American Association of University Women, prepares for a couple of hours of almost nonstop schmoozing, he's approached by Art Hamilton, the District 22 state representative. Hamilton, a Democrat, faces only token opposition in the general election, but he is very concerned about the prospects of the proposed Martin Luther King Day holiday.
"How's the MLK thing going?" Freestone asks.
Hamilton crinkles his brow.
"I don't know. I think it's going to be close," he says. "I think it'll pass, but you never know."
He waits a meaningful moment.
"Say, Tom, I want to thank you for your help in Mesa," Hamilton says. "You guys really took a risk for us out there. I mean it, you had something to lose."
Freestone is touched.
"It's just the right thing to do," he says. "It's just time."
A few minutes later, Freestone begins his mission to shake every hand beneath the big SRP tent. He leans across tables, striving to make some connection with everyone to whom he speaks. Alternately self-deprecating and varsity-captain proud, he dives into crowds and surfaces yards away, grinning with his arm around another old friend. At times Freestone is a force of nature, a hurricane of goodwill. While he's probably closer to Sinclair Lewis' George Babbitt than to Arizona's former governor of the same last name, in settings like these, he doesn't seem untalented.
As he makes his way toward free cups of iced Pepsi, he encounters an older man in tinted wraparound goggles. The man knows Freestone.
"My son wrestled against you in high school," the man says, raising an ancient finger. "You beat him."
Freestone takes a step back, regarding the old gentleman. He glances at the name tag.
"Moore . . . yeah, I remember him," Freestone says. "Nice guy. Sandy hair, about so tall. Where was he at, Camelback? No, South Mountain. We wrestled for the state title in 1956. I remember him because he was the only one who beat me in high school; he'd beat me earlier. I saw him once after that, when I was about 20, when I was going to school. How's he doing?"
With a pleased look, the elder Moore tells Freestone his son is now in Pensacola, Florida, preparing to retire. "He was just here last week. I wish he'd had a chance to talk to you."
"Yeah, well, tell him that I'd like to see him when he gets back here again," Freestone says. He fishes a business card from his wallet and hands it to Moore.
For the next hour and a half, Freestone mixes with Democrats and Republicans alike, holding miniconferences with the likes of District 26 State Senator Tom Patterson, one of the cadre of GOP legislators who originally urged the county supervisor to seek the corporation commission seat, and Doug Wead, the congressional candidate for whom Freestone stepped aside.
Wead is concise in his appraisal of Freestone. "Tom's a good man," he says, smiling. "I'm glad to help him any way I can."
Freestone also has a keen sense of mischief. For instance, he introduces Fife Symington to a reporter the governor's been avoiding, then stands back to enjoy the governor's obvious discomfort. But he seems to have no malice toward anyone--even when former governor Evan Mecham glides by, Freestone regards him fondly.
"Ev's not a bad guy," he says softly. "He's just not like the rest of us."
Renz Jennings also makes the picnic, but the two candidates give each other a wide berth, rarely coming within 50 yards of one another. Familiarity seems to have bred, if not contempt, at least a healthy mutual aversion.