REINVENTING THE BIG WHEEL

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

Three cups of coffee and countless cigarettes into a discussion about political strategy, Crusa is sitting on the credenza behind his desk in The Summit Group's close quarters. The rows of framed newspaper pages are his exhibit and, like a teacher, he points to two 3-by-5 index cards matted and encased in glass beneath one page. This particular headline predates The Summit Group: "New boy mayor takes over."

Scribbled on those cards is the plan that put then-Phoenix councilmember Paul Johnson in the mayor's seat when Terry Goddard stepped down to run for governor in 1990. Battling the would-be mayor, councilmember Howard Adams, in a clandestine operation, Johnson won the showdown by securing the unlikely support of councilmember Skip Rimsza. Johnson and Crusa remember breakfasting with a couple of other confidants at the Lunt Avenue Marble Club the morning of the crucial council vote. They listed possible voting scenarios and plotted strategies. Crusa points to names on the cards and tells the story in painstaking detail, gloating like a football coach who recalls a particularly clever play.

It's no surprise that Mike Crusa was one of the people to whom Johnson turned for advice. The mayor remembers listening to Crusa speak on behalf of DeConcini at a political event while Johnson was still in high school. The two formally met in 1983, when Johnson made his first bid for the council--with "nine brothers and sisters, a bunch of double cousins" and $1,000. Crusa was managing Barry Starr's campaign for mayor (and later council) at the time; and while Starr and Johnson were opponents, the more experienced candidate and his adviser took pity on a political newcomer. Instead of humiliating Johnson by correcting his gaffes publicly, Crusa and Starr would pull him aside and gently point out his errors, Johnson recalls.

When Johnson announced his intention to run for city council again in 1985, Crusa and others politely told him he couldn't win, but offered to help. Johnson did win, and Crusa has worked on every Johnson campaign since--gratis, until 1991, when the mayor contracted with The Summit Group.

The mayor took some flak when he hired Crusa to assist with his mayoral reelection bid just a few months after Crusa's resignation from DeConcini's staff, but Johnson scoffed. "A lot of people told me that it was a mistake to keep Mike when he had his--quote, unquote--political problem, but Mike was a friend of mine. . . . I just wasn't going to abandon him when he was having problems."

Johnson's confidence in Crusa (albeit, in the end, to run an uncontested race) certainly helped The Summit Group win more clients.

But not every client. Craig Tribken, elected to the Phoenix City Council in 1991, says Crusa tried to sell him The Summit Group's services. Tribken declined. He says that he shies away from professional consultants as a rule, but admits he was also concerned about AzScam. "No question, it's a bit of a problem," he says. "More so for me than for other people. I was a new candidate. I had to prove myself to the voters."

Other newcomers, including Richard Thomas, Sam Coppersmith and Phoenix City Council candidate Salomon Leija, were not dissuaded from hiring Crusa. And even his former boss Dennis DeConcini may contract with The Summit Group during the senator's 1994 reelection campaign, according to Barry Dill, who replaced Crusa in 1991 as DeConcini's state director. "It's one of the unfortunate aspects of our business . . . that one mistake has the ability to destroy a whole lifetime of achievement. And you know, that's not very fair," Dill says.

Along with his work for individual candidates, Crusa has maintained his close affiliation with the state Democratic party. Democratic players Steve Owens, Lee Stein and Tim Delaney rank him in the top handful of political players in the state--across party lines. "He is one of many people that we draw on for direction and advice," says Melodee Jackson, the party's executive director. Crusa has conducted candidate recruitment seminars on the county level.

And according to party expenditure documents, the state Democratic party directly paid The Summit Group $33,800 for telephone bank, research and survey work in 1992. That's not the only money The Summit Group received from the state party during the last election cycle. Crusa's organization received more than $114,000 in 1992 for work contracted by a campaign committee called Citizens for Excellence in Education and Government. In fact, CEEG contracted solely with The Summit Group, listing payments to the firm as the committee's only expenditures through November 23. The Arizona Democratic party had donated more than $48,000 to the committee.

Privately, some Democrats say they disagree with the decision to trust Crusa with the party's money. The fact that The Summit Group has taken on Republican clients has only served to increase the animosity.

Crusa argues that he worked for Republicans Tom Camp and Joe Arpaio (candidates for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and sheriff, respectively) in primary campaigns only, and has not worked for a Republican in a contested general election. That's not much consolation for Democrat John Armer, who contends that Crusa's expertise helped Arpaio beat him in the general. Armer says that he knows people who have quit the Nucleus Club, the Maricopa County Democrats' fund-raising organization, because Crusa is on the club's board of directors.

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