By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Renz Jennings, chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission, can't ignore the telephone behind his desk. "We may be the only ones in the building," Jennings tells his visitor as he grabs the receiver. On the other end of the line is a high school student who wants, at 6 p.m. on the evening before her report is due, a succinct description of the most complex office in state government.
"Well, we have a number of functions," Jennings patiently explains, his eyes rolling, just perceptibly. "But probably the most important thing [is that] we set rates for what people pay for utilities--for gas, electricity, telephones and sewer services."
He pauses, waiting for the caller's scribbling pencil to catch up.
"We also have a securities division," he says. "We recently opened a stock exchange. And when a business that wants to relocate or expand here seeks an exemption, some sort of break in utility rates, we either approve or disapprove that. And we also serve as the repository of the state's corporate records. So if someone needs to find out who serves on the board of directors of a company, when it was incorporated or anything, they'd come to us."
With the customer apparently satisfied, Jennings replaces the receiver and returns to the business at hand. In a matter of weeks, voters will decide whether Jennings will retain the seat he's held since 1985, or be replaced by Tom Freestone, a free-swinging Republican from Mesa who for the past 14 years has served on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. Since announcing his bid for the commission, Freestone has blasted Jennings for supposedly not creating enough jobs, and has deplored the chairman's "insensitivity" to the needs of the state's utilities.
Resting on the table in front of Jennings is a case packed with handwritten notes and newspaper stories. He handles these papers--most of which reflect negatively on the competence or judgment of his opponent--with disdain. It's obvious Jennings would rather not dirty his hands, but Freestone is an aggressive, professional politician who's not afraid to play rough to win an election. If Jennings is going to keep his job, he's going to have to hit back.
And so begins the commissioner's counteroffensive.
Jennings contends his opponent is an oily politician who operates on a strict quid pro quo basis. He says Freestone has a pattern of mingling government decisions with personal financial dealings. Freestone was "bought out" of the District 6 congressional race, Jennings argues, and entered the corporation commission contest only because he needs the $54,500 a year the job pays. (Freestone's supervisor's post pays $42,000 annually.)
Five days after Freestone dropped out of the congressional race, he popped up in the corporation commission contest, waving a letter signed by 19 Republican state legislators. Most of these legislators had been at the forefront of a failed movement to strip the commission of its autonomy and place it under the control of the Governor's Office.
Doug Wead, the eventual winner of the District 6 primary, made a contribution of $610--the legal maximum--to Freestone's new campaign. Wead's son Shannon also gave Freestone the maximum amount, as did John Godzich, a wealthy Wead supporter who doubles as finance chairman of the state Republican party. Bill Spiegel, a Wead associate who lives in Springfield, Missouri, contributed $100 to Freestone's campaign. In fact, Wead and his associates gave Freestone more than $3,500, and provided organizational help in his race against Jennings.
Jennings points out that in past campaigns, Freestone has accepted money from the likes of Arizona Public Service Company, Southwest Gas Corporation and AT&T. In this race, Freestone has also received support from Ed J. Robson. Robson, a former prot‚g‚ of Sun City developer Del Webb, founded the Sun Lakes retirement community. According to Freestone's latest campaign finance reports, Robson, his employees and associates have given Freestone at least $1,460. Robson is also the president of Pima Utility, a water and sewage company that provides service to his developments.
Robson says he sees nothing wrong with his contribution to Freestone, and that he expects no special favors. When Jennings first challenged Freestone about Robson's role in Pima Utility, the candidate said he was unaware of Robson's involvement with the company and that he would return the contribution. Now Freestone says he doesn't believe the public cares who gives money to the candidates, and that Robson's utility business is "no big deal." So Freestone's keeping the cash.
While Jennings admits it's not illegal for a commission candidate to accept contributions from a utility PAC or executive, he says the money Freestone has received from Robson and his associates should give ratepayers cause for concern.
"The reason why most, but certainly not all, candidates for corporation commission do not take utility money is that it raises serious doubts about the independence of the commissioner to make proper decisions in a rate case," Jennings says. "After all, you can't expect commissioners to be independent from utilities if they're being funded by them."
Jennings even finds it significant that in this race, Freestone's first campaign headquarters--since moved--was in the shadow of APS offices on Fifth Street. "I came up with a slogan," Jennings says. "If you want to find Tom Freestone, just look for the APS sign.'"
@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.
All of this must worry Renz Jennings. Though he says his opponent's aggressive campaign style plays shrill and hysterical, "too much like a politician on the make," Jennings knows elections are more often won by candidates who provoke emotions than by those who resist simple solutions to complex problems.
Freestone thinks the commission has been "anti-business." He thinks it should provide more incentives for new and existing companies to create jobs. That's a concise, alluring proposition.
With less than a month before the election, Jennings has taken a hard look at his reelection chances and decided he can no longer merely answer Freestone's questions. He's digging into his leather case, pulling out the supervisor's dirty laundry.
Renz Jennings says he regrets having to run a negative campaign. But, he adds, Tom Freestone started it.
@body:Newspaper reporters like Tom Freestone. They like him because he dutifully returns telephone calls and because he allows them total access to all documents and memoranda that come across his desk, a claim verified by one reporter who's covered him.
That reporter says Freestone not only allowed him to examine anything on or inside his desk, but also to copy documents and use Freestone's office when the supervisor was otherwise occupied.
"He's just smart enough to know he's too dumb to lie," the reporter says.
"My secretary knows to come and get me out of a meeting if there's a reporter on the phone," Freestone says. "I know they've got deadlines, and I just hate to see that 'could not be reached for comment' in a story. People see that [and] they think you're out on the golf course. Or that you're hiding."
In fact, Freestone's a favorite source for many reporters. In 1991 his name appeared in 239 separate stories in the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette, far more than any other county supervisor. He says he's been told he's been quoted in more than 700 stories in the Mesa Tribune in the past few years. Reminded of a press release that called him "obscure," he laughs easily.
"I've been around a long time, for 24 years in politics," he says. "People know me all over the state. I've got a lot of friends."
It seems he does. Almost everyone who knows Freestone attests to his good humor, if not to his administrative capabilities. One Republican who's worked with Freestone calls him a "sweet lummox," while another notes there's a shrewd side to Freestone's apparent guilelessness. "He always knows exactly what he's doing," this former county employee says. "He's the most instinctive politician I've ever worked with. He has a real gift for making people underestimate him."
In his sports coat from J.C. Penney and his scuffed shoes, Freestone has been campaigning hard. A recent week found him bouncing from Yuma to Flagstaff to Phoenix to Tucson. He readily acknowledges he's been aggressive, though he denies he's been negative.
"I'm sticking to the issues. I'm just raising questions," he says. "The best way to handle it is to answer the questions. If you weren't connected to the issue, fine, say you weren't connected and move on. And if you made a bad decision, the course that will win you the most votes is to admit that you made a bad decision and come up with measures to ensure it doesn't happen again. Nobody's perfect, and voters understand that."
Freestone's only real issue, he insists, is the economy.
"You can't do anything for anybody unless you've got a pot of money," he says. "You've got to have jobs. You've got to have a consumer class."
Freestone seems to know only one speed--full throttle. That's one reason some of his supporters were disappointed when, in May, he opted out of the race for the newly created District 6 congressional seat.
Freestone says his exploratory committee decided he couldn't raise enough money to make a credible run for Congress, especially not against the sleek, well-financed organization of Doug Wead.
"To be honest, I was embarrassed," he says. "I've never been much of a fund raiser. I've always raised paltry amounts. But people were talking about how [newly created District 6] was Freestone's district, about how I ought to walk away with it. But it seemed like I couldn't raise a dime."
Freestone says he originally wanted to raise $100,000 before announcing for Congress. Then he cut the goal to $50,000. Then to $35,000. He still couldn't raise the money. So in May, he dropped out of the race, even though he says his polls showed he was a strong contender.
"I made up my mind, and I promised my wife, I wasn't going to go into debt on this race," he says. "There were some people pretty angry with me--some haven't spoken to me since I decided not to run. They said I could win, and I'd make the money back when I got to Congress. But I didn't want to get up there with all these special interests willing to help clear up that debt. I'd like to think I would have resisted that, but I didn't even want to put myself in position to be tempted."
Of course, there were other Freestone allies who thought better of saddling Arizona's delegation with a freshman so dense as he. One prominent supporter offered his help so long as Freestone ran for practically anything but Congress.
Whatever the reasons, Freestone says that when he decided to drop out of the race, he talked to all of the Republican candidates.
"They all came by to talk," he says. "Phil MacDonnell, Mike Myer, Doug Wead, I talked to all of them. And, of course, they all asked what they could do to help, they all offered their support. I never expected anything from them.
"But when Wead came over to the house, the first words out of his mouth were, 'What can I do to help?' And I told him I could use a little help financially. He said he'd see what he could do. I was really surprised when he came through with the contributions."
Freestone vigorously denies he was "bought out" of the congressional race. He ticks off a laundry list of explanations for his disenchantment with a run against Wead.
"If I was bought out, wouldn't it make sense that I get the money before I dropped out?" he asks. "And I don't think I got enough if I was bought out. In a congressional race, where I was leading, I'd think it'll be worth more like $50,000 than $3,500."
Freestone says he and Wead have similar conservative philosophies, though Freestone is "more pragmatic" than the congressional candidate.
"Doug Wead is a fascinating, interesting guy," Freestone says. "He's so smart, he's just at another level than most of us. And he knows Washington and the way to get things done there."
Freestone says his abortive bid for Congress was "temporary insanity." After thinking about it, he didn't want to uproot his family and move to Washington, D.C. He says at the same time he was rethinking the District 6 race, he was approached by a group of 19 Republican state legislators who urged him to apply his "managerial skills" to the corporation commission. "I never made a formal announcement to run for Congress," he says. "It was an exploratory committee. We looked at it, and we decided that wasn't the race we wanted to make. This is. But the issue is not whether Tom Freestone should run for Congress. The issue is the performance of the corporation commission."
Nimbly changing subjects, Freestone takes aim at the commission.
"I think the corporation commission has played a shell game with Arizonans," he says. "When you look at the record, they have been part and parcel of driving our economy into the cellar. We have had nothing but problems in trying to get the corporation commission to work with us on enticing companies to locate here to handle expanding populations."
Jennings counters that the commission has had a hand in creating some 4,200 jobs since he was seated in 1985. And he disagrees that the commission's prime responsibility ought to be to aid the state's economic development.
"[Freestone] wants to make the corporation commission the engine of economic development," Jennings says. "But there's no shortage of people doing economic development. The commission's first responsibility is to the people of Arizona, the ratepayers--the consumers."
Jennings also rejects Freestone's charge that the commission is hostile to business. Under Jennings' chairmanship, the commission established the state's first economic-development rate plan, designed to attract industry to Arizona. The plan makes discounted utility rates available for a limited period of time to businesses locating in the state, provided they meet certain criteria:
First, the businesses must not have already decided to locate or expand in the state. Jennings says this is to ensure that the special rates serve as incentives, not as a "free lunch."
Second, the businesses must not be in direct competition with existing companies located in the state that would be paying the higher, standard rates.
Third, the economic development rates cannot be lower than the actual cost of service, causing other ratepayers to subsidize the new business.
Jennings says the corporation commission has had a hand in bringing at least 17 new companies to Arizona during his tenure, and points to the incentives as major factors in convincing Chase Bank and Bank of America to locate major credit-card processing centers in Phoenix.
At an October 1 debate before the Arizona Chamber of Commerce at Phoenix Country Club, Freestone accused Jennings of "trying to destroy business," citing the commission's denial of an electric rate discount application made by the Meredith/Burda printing plant in Casa Grande in 1988.
Jennings said the Meredith/Burda request was rejected because it failed to satisfy the criteria for the discount rates. Since the printing plant had been operating in the state for two years, he said, the discount rates would have amounted to a "free lunch." Though the company was considering adding a press to its existing facility, company officials now say the rejection of the discount rate was not the determining factor in their decision not to expand.
Jennings says the commission has approved 19 of the special rates since 1985, and that the Meredith/Burda request was one of only two the commission turned down. (In 1988 the commission denied a request for a $1.8 million rate break for a Rubbermaid plant near Goodyear because of a possible conflict of interest: The proposed plant site was owned by a company run by Nancy DeMichele, ex-wife of Arizona Public Service Company president Mark DeMichele.)
While Freestone complains that he's worked to get high-tech companies such as U.S. Memories to locate in Arizona, only to be thwarted by the commission's "hostility" to business, Jennings says the commission never even got to the negotiating stages with the companies Freestone mentions. "But even though we play a complementary role, economic development's not our main job," Jennings says. "Our main job is to regulate public utilities. I think that the corporation commission has rescued the utility industry from itself."
Previous commissions, Jennings says, were passive, unable to force utilities to become efficient. During the eight years Jennings has served on the corporation commission, APS business customers have had their rates increased by a half-cent per kilowatt hour. In the decade immediately preceding Jennings' tenure, APS rates rose more than 6 cents per kilowatt hour.
But Freestone says the commission hasn't really stabilized rates, it's just pushed them off into the future. He says big rate increases are due.
"I think we can be economic leaders. I think we can put it back in order. I think we can have good, solid reliable rates throughout this state," Freestone says. "It's possible to do both."
Renz Jennings agrees. He says that's exactly what the commission's been doing.
@body:In a shadowless, fluorescent-lighted classroom at Scottsdale Community College, Renz Jennings is addressing a group of about 90 students.
This is Bob Winters' first current-affairs class of the term, and he's enlisted Jennings, an old friend, to deliver a partisan lecture on the 1992 presidential race. Winters' class is a demographically diverse group, with the students ranging in age from late teens to early 70s, gray heads nodding along with sun-streaked co-ed manes, with an eager Young Republican positioned in the front row.
Since Jennings is ear-deep in his own campaign, he hasn't prepared anything special. He wends his way through an impressionistic survey of the Bill Clinton candidacy, touching on the Arkansas governor's deficiencies as well as his strengths. He also offers a critique of America in the 1980s.
"In 1988 both George Bush and Michael Dukakis missed it," he says. "The election was neither about ideology nor competence. It was about values. What kind of values we espouse as a nation. And what kind of people we are. And I don't see Bush espousing the values I think he believes."
Bush, Jennings continues, is a patrician who believes in noblesse oblige and the natural virtue of the rentier class. Bush believes that trickle-down economics works, that people who have money are those best equipped to make the country go. But Bush can't say that, Jennings says, because it is unegalitarian and "un-American," so the president eats pork rinds and plays horseshoes to maintain a plebeian front.
A few pencils drop sharply on desks. A few students slump disgusted in their seats. But most of the class seems genuinely interested, even impressed.
"George Bush mocks vision," Jennings says, quoting Clinton. "He calls it 'the vision thing,' like it's a silly thing to be concerned with the long-range consequences of our actions.
"In the 1980s, we were so focused on the short-term profits that were out there to be taken that we ignored the long-term consequences. Are we an ethical people if we leave behind a bunch of stinking Superfund toxic cleanup sites, if we've looted the banks? Ultimately, the Reagan-Bush years were a fundamentally delusionary era--they led us to believe we weren't required to make any sacrifices. It was the age of 'Just Say Yes.'"
Though Jennings isn't overtly campaigning for himself, the implication is clear. He is the corporation commission candidate with vision, the one who understands the delicate equilibrium between need and excess, the candidate who would never mortgage the future for a few short-term jobs. It's also clear that Professor Jennings is a better candidate when he's got time to weave philosophy and economic theory into his stump patter. Many of Winters' pupils came into class informed by the polemics of shock-conservative Rush Limbaugh; now they seem kinder and gentler, temporary liberals. Sometimes Renz Jennings requires a good 45 minutes without interruption to win converts.
Hands go up. Jennings points. An older man near the back of the room unfolds a newspaper clipping. The story refers to Freestone's charge that Jennings delayed U S West Communications' recent implementation of area-wide toll-free calling in the Valley for political advantage. The student's follow-up question is obsequious.
"How can they ever question your integrity, Mr. Jennings?"
The candidate is amused by the tender treatment.
"Well, thank you for that plug," Jennings answers. "But it is quite possible to engineer something to coincide with an election. The fact is that we've been working on this for four or five years, and finally the phone company had to go through with it. Freestone's got it wrong--we didn't drag it out, we had them hurry it up."
Good answer. But Jennings, perhaps forgetting there's a reporter in the room, presses on.
"Of course politicians think about elections," he says. "There's been times I've thought about timing. But I don't weigh every decision against how it's going to play. In this case, I would have been much better served politically had this gone through months ago. Of course, it looks politically motivated."
Jennings pauses, struck by his own candor. It's as if he's crossed some line of psychic demarcation, and he decides it's safer to light out across the frontier than to turn back.
"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.
Two days before, Jennings had called a press conference in the pressroom of the Arizona Senate to call attention to what he called "serious questions" about Freestone's "judgment and skill." It was Jennings' first overt attack on Freestone, the campaign's fire bell.
"The central issue is about a pattern of activity that raises questions about Freestone's character," Jennings said.
Freestone, tipped off by a friendly reporter, was there when Jennings levied his charges.
Jennings alleged Freestone was negligent in the apparent overbilling of Maricopa County by Larry Richmond, an attorney and lobbyist who billed the county for 3,780 hours in fiscal 1990--the equivalent of more than 10 hours a day, every day of the year. Jennings pointed out that Freestone had accepted campaign contributions from Richmond in prior races. Richmond also contributed $500 to Freestone's exploratory committee earlier this year.
The Richmond story had broken in the Mesa Tribune earlier in the week. Although the newspaper had not cast any aspersions on Freestone, he was ready for the charge.
"I was complaining about [Richmond's hours] for years," Freestone says. "It's in the minutes of our meetings. I was raising concerns back in 1983."
Although he was chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors when Richmond's most extensive billings were filed, Freestone says he was unable to "get anyone's attention" about the problem and that the county continued its contractual agreements with Richmond over Freestone's protests.
Other county supervisors don't remember it that way. Though none of them would go on the record, several of Freestone's colleagues on the board at the time said they couldn't remember Freestone--or anyone else--raising any concerns about Richmond's hours. Freestone, however, maintains that he did raise the question, though he adds that he wasn't upset about the quality or quantity of Richmond's work, simply the lack of competition.
"I thought it looked bad that we didn't have any competing law firm doing any of that work," he says.
Also in his press conference, Jennings said Freestone tried to use his influence as a county supervisor to cancel a county contract in 1987 with a Mesa man after Freestone had a personal disagreement with the man over a real estate deal.
According to a story in the Arizona Republic on March 25, 1987, Freestone proposed to the board of supervisors that it remove the county courts from a building owned by Russell Nielson and put them in space owned by Coury Development Company. While Freestone says he had long been an advocate of pulling the courts out of Nielson's building as a cost-saving measure, he didn't tell the board about his business relationship with Nielson.
Freestone admits that in 1986 he, acting as a private real estate agent, brought Nielson a prospective buyer for some Mesa farmland. Though the deal eventually fell through, Nielson kept some of the buyer's deposit. Nielson says he received $55,000, while Freestone claims it was $85,000. Freestone contends that, though there was no written agreement between him and Nielson, he should have received some percentage of the forfeited deposit as a finder's fee. He says that sometime in 1986, he asked Nielson for $10,000. Nielson says Freestone demanded $25,000.
Nielson refused to pay Freestone, though the county supervisor called him at least twice about the matter. Then Freestone proposed moving the courts from Nielson's building to a building owned by developer and car dealer Tony Coury, a consistent contributor to Freestone's campaigns. The board of supervisors turned down Freestone's proposal after it became clear that very little, if any, money could be saved by moving the courts.
Freestone denies he tried to move the courts in an effort to get back at Nielson. He says it was just good government. He says he didn't "think about" any potential conflict of interest.
While he was obviously rattled at the time, Freestone now says he thinks Jennings' press conference, which resulted in a dramatic photograph of an angry Freestone on the front page of the Arizona Republic's Valley and State section, marked the turning point in the campaign.
"I'm a little surprised, but it's really sparked interest," Freestone says. "We've had a lot of people call about it, asking how they can help, where they can send a check."
Ironically, Freestone, the Republican, compares Jennings' tactics to those of George Bush. He thinks people are getting sick of negative campaigning, which this year he believes will "backfire." As the Freestones make their way from the SRP picnic toward their mid-size Buick--purchased from campaign contributor Tony Coury--they meet another supporter, State Representative Greg Patterson.
"I hear you're really kicking some butt," Patterson says. "I saw that picture of you in the paper. If there's anything I can do to help, well, my ideas are pretty slim, but you're welcome to them."
Freestone slips Patterson a card. "We need to get together," he says, wearily. "You've got a younger mind. It's easier for you to remember to call me."
Freestone is tired, but his day is just half over. He has two more events this evening, and an extremely difficult week ahead. He wants to work out with his weights this afternoon. As he wheels the car out of its parking space, he catches a glimpse of District 1 Congressman Jay Rhodes trudging to his own vehicle.
"Jay doesn't like to campaign," Freestone says. "He can't stand it. And you can see that he doesn't. Renz doesn't like to campaign, either. I, well, I can't say I always like it, but I try to make the best of it, to get out and meet the people and all."
@body:Tom Freestone is right. Renz Jennings probably would prefer not to campaign--particularly not against Turnbuckle Tom, the former pro wrestler. Jennings is a complex man, a farmer with a law degree, a politician with no apparent thirst for the tussle and jive of the game. He is reflective where Freestone is reflexive; he is mild and soft-spoken where Freestone is hale and boom-voiced. Jennings resembles the judge he once was, or a law professor, precise yet scattered. Freestone, however, still looks like a guy who enjoys setting up a good half nelson.
Frankly, Jennings doesn't think Freestone is qualified for the commission.
"You really ought to want to be a corporation commissioner to run for this office," Jennings says. "It's a complex office, and the decisions have lots of impact. You shouldn't get talked out--or bought out--of a race by a congressional candidate and then jump into this race. Tom Freestone had no great interest in utility regulation before May 1. Five days later, he announced for this office.
"His political problem is that he wanted to be a congressman," Jennings continues. "All his political life he's been doing favors. He's had access to the vast powers of pork. He's done all the natural things to end up as a congressman. To go from wanting to deal with issues like prayer in school, abortion and the line-item veto to setting rates on utilities is not a natural segue."
What Jennings does not say, but what is apparent, is that he regards Freestone's vigorous campaign as a personal affront. Jennings thinks his record on the commission merits his reelection. Utility rates have stabilized. No ratepayer is paying for the speculation or mismanagement of any utility executive. Jennings is satisfied that the commission is on track, and he fears that his opponent would bring a "county politics," wheeler-dealer mentality to the body.
So he's willing to go negative.
"I'm perfectly aware that if I live by the sword, I can die by the sword," Jennings says. "But I'm confident I'm clean."
And Tom Freestone accepts the battering he's taken as part of the process. He likens it to a football game--you know you're going to get hit; sometimes, you'll even take a cheap hit and the referee won't see it.
"The last three weeks of the race, that's when it really gets bloody," Freestone says. "It hurts, but you expect it."
Both Freestone and Jennings are ready for the race to end.
"We were both at a debate, and we both were just beat," Freestone says. "And right before the debate was about to start, Renz looked at me and said, 'Are you as tired of this as I am?'
"I had to laugh. Because I sure am tired of this.