REINVENTING THE BIG WHEEL

DERAILED BY AZSCAM, DEMOCRATIC OPERATIVE MIKE CRUSA HAS WAGED HIS BEST CAMPAIGN YET---TO SALVAGE HIS OWN CAREER

"It was a stupid deal," Roberts says, contending that investigators and other prosecutors "were in too big a hurry" and failed to scrutinize Crusa's role.

@rule:
@body:Win or lose, Mike Crusa boxes up his clients' leftover campaign literature and mails it to them after election day. Frame it and stick it up on the wall, he tells them. Be proud.

"You only have one thing to sell in this business, and that's your word. Your word ain't good, then to hell with it," he says.

And how do his clients know they can trust Crusa? Crusa leans across the desk and steadies his gaze. He swallows--as if to force the anger back down his throat--and speaks slowly. "They know it."

Why?
"Because they have experienced it."
In the world of politics--where anything from a candidate's tax records to her baby sitter's immigration status is fair game--it's astonishing that only one of Crusa's clients has had to answer for his consultant's AzScam link. GOP House nominee Roger Rudman plastered District 25 with "AzScam Kingpin" signs and literature last fall in an attempt to discredit his Democratic foe, Chuck Blanchard. But even some of Crusa's enemies admit that Rudman's attacks were overblown. If anything, according to Blanchard, Crusa proved his worth by launching a counterattack and saving the seat.

"I guess he [Crusa] felt vindicated by the election results. It was a 2 to 1 victory," Blanchard says. Blanchard admits he worried that the charges could cost him his seat, but adds, "I was more concerned about whether this guy who was devoting hours and hours to my campaign was going to find his livelihood ruined." Many of Crusa's clients and acquaintances share Blanchard's devotion to their consultant and friend.

Countervailing sentiments run just as deep, although few admit it publicly--perhaps because of Crusa's alliance with political heavyweights such as Mayor Johnson and newly elected Arizona Democratic party chair Steve Owens. And, of course, his burgeoning list of winning clients.

"Nobody that has any political ambition in Arizona would feel comfortable crossing him," says one Democrat who requested anonymity.

At first glance, it's difficult to imagine that Crusa could inspire such passion. He's soft-spoken, generally saving his temper for outbursts on the golf course. He dresses in Oxford shirts so stiff they crackle, dark blue jeans and cowboy boots. He likes Hank Williams, John Grisham and Dairy Queen.

He's on his fourth marriage and has a 23-year-old son living in Tucson. He guards his private life, preferring to blend into the background. His one distinguishing characteristic is a jolting hack--probably the result of too many cigarettes and the asthma that brought his family to Arizona from Missouri in the mid-'50s, when Crusa was in elementary school.

He was born a Southern Baptist, a Democrat and one-eighth Cherokee Indian. There was no defining moment in Mike Crusa's childhood that branded him a future political junkie. He longed to be a computer programmer.

His father set type for the Casa Grande Dispatch and later managed a Tucson printing company, but he retained his union membership even after years in management. He told his son that one day he would be grateful for the opportunity to learn to speak in front of others, and he encouraged him to study debate at Tucson's Rincon High. "As I get older, my father gets smarter," Crusa is fond of saying. He recalls that the Democratic party was touted at home as the party of small business, and that his parents encouraged Mike and his two brothers to treat others equally.

Crusa studied political science at the University of Arizona, paying his way by working at several jobs--and shooting pool.

He agreed to work on a political campaign when his insurance agent, Howard Shiff, asked for help on his Tucson City Council campaign. Shiff lost, but Crusa was hooked. He quit school and went to work as an aide for a Tucson councilmember, Dick Kennedy. Kennedy was defeated three years later, so Crusa headed back to UofA with law school and more politics in mind.

Not for long. Crusa ran into another young politico, Ron Ober, at the bank one day. Ober convinced him to go to work for Dennis DeConcini, the Pima County attorney who was running for the U.S. Senate.

Crusa moved to the Valley in 1976, first working for DeConcini's successful campaign, then as a staff member for the senator. (He finally got his degree from UofA on May 15, 1982, he says with pride.) He left DeConcini in 1982 for Arizona Public Service Company, where he helped implement the first emergency exercise for the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station and continued to work on campaigns. Then it was back to full-time politics--first with Rick DeGraw, who had his own firm at the time, then with First Tuesday, a consulting firm run at the time by Ben Goddard.

His taste for politics and booze developed simultaneously. It wasn't until the late 80s that he checked himself into a three-week substance-abuse rehab program. He says he hasn't had a drink in nearly six years and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Crusa may have one addiction under control, but he clings to others: cigarettes, caffeine and the rush of a political campaign.

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