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Not long after leaving the council, Klahr made his first run for county attorney. Before losing to Charles Hyder in the Democratic primary, Klahr spouted enough off-the-wall rhetoric to cause his opponent to say: "Mr. Klahr suffers from a veritable Niagara of verbal dysentery."
By the mid-1980s, Klahr was still struggling to find a balance between his private practice--he describes it as "small personal injury and small criminal cases" that earn him about $200,000 a year--and public service. In 1985 he was appointed to a civilian board that reviews shootings by Phoenix police. Lots of people, including the president of the police union and editorial writers at the Arizona Republic, decried the appointment, made by Mayor Terry Goddard. Klahr, it turned out, had filed more than 100 complaints and a dozen or so lawsuits against police over the years.
Klahr waded into his review-board duties with glee. Eventually, the police department complained to the city council because, they said, Klahr was abusing his civilian-observer privileges. In one case, the police said Klahr, while riding with a cop, got out to hug a motorist stopped for a traffic violation. Klahr defended his action, saying, "I come from the school that believes you communicate with touch."
Klahr's practice brings him into contact with lots of losers. He handles drunken-driving cases, for example, as well as the usual grab bag of solo-practitioner law.
"He's taking cases which are well below his level of competence," says John Doherty, an attorney who has opposed Klahr in divorce cases. "If a large law firm had gotten ahold of him and paid him a lot of money, he would've been taking cases to the Supreme Court and things like that.
"He really missed his calling. He would've made a brilliant professor of law. He can convert these difficult theories into simple terms which we can understand."
As for Klahr's lawyering style, Doherty says: "It's like he's always running two feet off the ground. He's not an easygoing guy. There's no sitting down and negotiating with the man. Maybe he's a genius, I don't know."
Klahr's two most recent forays into public awareness were his temporary ouster from a lawyers' referral service and his arguing of the tee-shirt case.
Klahr took the teen-apparel suit at the request of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, for which he frequently does pro bono work. The case arose when Osborn School District administrators, trying to neutralize gang trouble, banned tee shirts bearing certain team names and insignia. Klahr went to court against the district on behalf of the ACLU and a couple of students. The Brown & Bain law firm has since taken over lead chair on the controversial case.
Romley has used the tee-shirt case to bash Klahr, but Klahr doesn't care about the political implications of taking potentially unpopular causes.
"Early on it was a real negative," Klahr says. "But I think people are starting to see I was right. I'm not representing a gangster, I'm representing an all-American boy. They [detractors] don't understand. They see it as being pro-gang or anti-discipline and it just isn't."
Romley also has used the referral-service issue against his opponent. Klahr was suspended for a year from the service, a county-bar program which grants citizens 30 minutes of legal advice for $25, because too many patrons complained about his deportment. "This is not a suspension from practice," says Klahr in his defense. "It's a suspension from a service most people have never heard of. The only charges were rudeness and discourtesy. There were no charges of incompetency and no charge of unethical conduct.
"As far as being rude and short, I am sometimes."
Theoretically, I'm not the strongest candidate that the party could've put out, but who knows? If there had been a primary, I wouldn't have been in it. Literally, every other day I wonder if I really want this job. The reason I say that is I really can't afford it. Even though my expenses are low, I give so much money away. I'll have to take a pay cut to somewhere between a quarter and half of what I make. One test of a public official is, is the guy taking a cut or getting a raise? I think Rick Romley got a raise.
Considering Romley's record and Klahr's reputation, voters should be encouraged to wonder: How did we get this way?
There are several reasons, starting with the vast Republican voter-registration advantage in Maricopa County. As of August, there were 537,539 Republicans registered, 384,720 Democrats and 124,588 independents, Libertarians and "others." Democrats eyeing the county attorney job must figure in a 100,000-plus vote deficit before they raise a single campaign dollar. "It's just a real tough county for Democrats," says Melodee Jackson, executive director of the state Democratic party.
Reason two is campaign dollars. Georgia Staton, Romley's opponent for Tom Collins' vacated office in 1988, says she raised about $90,000 for the race, and figures that anyone attempting to unseat an incumbent should plan to gather twice as much. That's a lot of begging for a job that pays $70,000 a year.
Reason three is the job itself. Democratic insiders say the party went door to door at several of the Valley's larger law firms in search of a solid candidate to take on Romley, to no avail. Time and again, Democratic headhunters heard the same rationale for staying out: It's a bad job at low pay.