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By Weston Phippen
WANTED: Self-starter with extensive experience in political advocacy, fund raising and lobbying, to serve as executive director, Common Cause Arizona chapter. Preferred candidate: ethical--but not self-righteous; plugged into scene at state legislature--but not an insider. Must be able to operate fax and photocopy machine, answer phone. SALARY: $20,000-$25,000 for the full-time position. No overtime.
@body:Arizona Common Cause is a one-person show, starring--since 1987--Dana Larsen as executive director. Larsen, a mild-mannered guy in his early 40s, has earned a fabulous reputation among both Arizona politicos and the national organizers of Common Cause.
He'll be missed, they say. What they won't say--publicly, at least--is how difficult he'll be to replace. Especially for the salary advertised. The salary isn't even commensurate with those offered in the nonprofit sector, admits Tim Hogan, executive director for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest and a Common Cause board member.
Hogan quickly and correctly observes, however, that Common Cause managed to get "somebody like Dana for that." In fact, Common Cause "got" Larsen in 1987 for a paltry $18,500. He'll leave with a salary of about $30,000.
Larsen says he's received about 50 applications, including some from "stellar candidates." The new director will take over at the end of November.
The salary is so low, organization officials say, because Common Cause is completely member-driven. Arizona's $50,000 annual budget is funded through member dues and contributions. (The organization's national membership peaked at 325,000 the week Richard M. Nixon resigned as President of the United States; for the last decade, numbers have remained at 270,000. Arizona has about 4,700 members.) Even if the job paid better, Larsen would be difficult to replace, observers say. "Dana's going to be a loss. He's an institution, especially at the legislature. He is a source of great concern for those people who are seeking to protect secrecy and those sorts of things," says Alfredo Gutierrez, of Jamieson and Gutierrez, a local political consulting firm.
"I don't know how quickly anyone can build that kind of substantial presence--[the] integrity, credibility that he had, and good relationships with all sides," he says. It's been a good time, Larsen says, adding that he's leaving now because he's accomplished most of his goals. Plans are fluid, he says, but he knows he'll stay in Arizona and may contract with the national Common Cause.
"From the Mecham era through AzScam and [the] Keating Five, I mean, it's been quite a ride," he says. Jay Hedlund, Common Cause's national vice president for grassroots lobbying, calls the Arizona chapter "absolutely one of our best," and adds that Larsen "has been as good as anybody I've ever seen in any of our state operations."
Larsen and other Arizona Common Causers have "taken some of these scandals and the outrage that people have felt about those issues and turned it into constructive solutions and have passed a number of them," Hedlund says. Under Larsen, Arizona Common Cause worked in 1990 to cut the pre-election voter registration deadline to 29 days (from 50--the longest in the nation) and in 1991 succeeded in winning legislation that allows mail-in registration. The organization reports that voter registration has increased significantly as a result.
Arizona Common Cause lobbied against Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court, fought for environmental protection and successfully challenged a telephone company's drive to weaken the Corporation Commission's regulatory powers.
Appropriately--given the times--many of the most significant reforms that have taken place during Larsen's tenure are in the realm of campaign finance and lobbying reform. He lobbied successfully in 1991 for the first major campaign finance reform in the legislature since 1978. That law prohibits personal use of campaign surplus dollars and requires the disclosure of any large contributor's employer and occupation. The same year, the legislature approved a bill that requires disclosure of lobbyist expenditures, sets limits on gifts from lobbyists to public officials and prohibits fund raising from lobbyists while the legislature is in session.
Larsen was instrumental in the passage of measures that establish lobbyist disclosure requirements and prohibit personal use of campaign funds by candidates, for the city of Phoenix. Even failures--such as this month's whopping defeat of a Phoenix proposition that would have provided matching tax dollars to candidates who agree to campaign spending limits--are successes in Hedlund's eyes, for they increase awareness among the public. "We have a motto: 'No permanent friends and no permanent enemies.' We've got half of it right," Larsen chuckles, with a hint of self-deprecation.
But even those who find fault with Common Cause rave about the outgoing executive director. Barry Aarons has worked with Larsen for years, both as a lobbyist for U S West Communications and as director of legislation for Governor Fife Symington. "There's a lot of stuff that I'm gonna disagree with him vehemently on, but I think he's a gentleman and the process will miss him," Aarons says. He adds, "I am not sure that if it hadn't been for Dana Larsen and Common Cause that as much of the lobbyist-registration laws and some of the public-body lobbying laws and some of the expense reporting laws would have been enacted in quite the way they were. . . . And I don't know if that's good or bad for the system because there's some things they promoted that I disagreed with." Larsen demurs at the suggestion that Arizona Common Cause will suffer without him. "It's not the Dana Larsen organization. . . . You become very closely identified with the organization when it's a one-person operation, but the successes have been those of Common Cause and not of me personally," he says.