NO MERE MR. NICE GUY

GUBERNATORIAL HOPEFUL EDDIE BASHA IS KNOWN AS A PHILANTHROPIST AND A CRUSADER FOR EDUCATION. WHAT HE'S NOT KNOW AS IS A DEMOCRAT

It was a glorious October afternoon when Eddie Basha, Democrat for governor, rolled into the tiny mining town of Kearny. He was midway through a five-day campaign tour of rural Arizona.

Basha spoke without notes as he stood below swishing ash trees, addressing two dozen assembled faithful on the patio of the General Kearny Inn. He started, as he almost always does, by recalling that his grandparents, Lebanese emigrants, opened a general store in nearby Ray in 1910. Their home was actually in Sonora, Ray's predominantly Mexican twin town, because that's where people with dark complexions lived.

Basha's speech rambled around the three prongs of his campaign: education, economic development and control of crime. When his talk concluded, someone handed Basha a jar of honey in the hope he'd like it and stock it in his supermarkets. As Basha turned to leave, a kid named Rhett Wilson blocked his path and began peppering him with questions.

"You don't seem like the kind of person who's involved in the Democratic party," the brazen teen said.

Basha was taken aback. Arms folded and face taut, he managed a response: "I don't know what would be an appropriate litmus test for being a real Democrat. The fact that I've been involved with education qualifies me as a Democrat. You don't have to be an ideologue to be a good Democrat."

Then Basha bolted.
Damn the luck. Could this kid have heard the whispers among Democratic traditionalists in the big cities? Was he a plant?

Whatever he was, young Rhett Wilson had scraped the rawest nerve in Eddie Basha's body politic.

Fifty-six-year-old Edward Najeeb Basha Jr. has three clear public identities: heir and dynamic front man of the largest family-owned grocery chain in Arizona; a philanthropist who has founded or supported an array of charitable causes; and unabashed advocate of education. He is also a patron of the arts, a friend to Native Americans and an inveterate practical joker given to assuming fake identities in late-night phone calls to friends.

What he is not known as is a politician. Although he has served as an appointee on the state boards of education and regents, his only elective post has been on the Chandler School Board.

Consequently, he has developed a public persona free of the warts that accrue on professional office seekers. That's changing now. His quest for the Democratic nomination for governor is thrusting him, full-bore, into the limelight.

Basha has a unique perspective on Arizona. Every year, he visits each of the nearly 70 stores in his supermarket empire. In his years of dispensing groceries and corporate largess, Basha has come to know small-town Arizona--Greater Arizona," as he calls it--very well. He never forgets a face, so the locals see him as one of their own. They are fond of patting him on the back and stroking his shoulder. If Greater Arizona could have its own governor, it would surely be Eddie Basha.

Basha is driven by an intense desire to be liked, and much about him is likable. He is, perhaps, Arizona's best-known benefactor, and he can afford his generosity.

His company donates about $1 million per year in cash and goods to charities. He has handed $100 bills to grubby panhandlers. He has served on the board of and single-handedly bailed out countless community-service groups. A Catholic, Basha sits on the regional board of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He likes to call other males "brother." He carries a card in his wallet that reads: "The hand of help has no color. The face of caring has no shape. The language of love has no accent."

He's a softy who weeps at movies--his favorites include High Society, Sleepless in Seattle, Moonstruck and the Godfather films.

He has a deep and abiding respect for his ancestors, the embodiment of the American dream. He speaks passionately about the plight of children. He wants Arizona to strengthen its families and educate its children, so they can compete in the global marketplace.

The self-professed "bleeding-heart capitalist" has not necessarily gleaned his guiding principles from textbooks or theory. In many cases, he has lived and learned.

One would think that would earn Basha a pedestal in Arizona's uncluttered pantheon of liberalism.

It hasn't.
Profits demand expediency, so Basha, who fancies himself a small businessman and trumpets mom-and-pop enterprise as the backbone of the economy, builds shopping centers in concert with Wal-Mart, the bane of small businesses. He recognizes the paradox, but shrugs and says, "In my desire to survive, I sometimes feel it's important to align myself with strength."

He has spoken against all forms of legalized gambling, saying "it takes advantage of the people who can least afford to pay for it." Yet his grocery stores sell lottery tickets.

He is outspoken for the rights of minorities, yet Bashas' Markets Inc. has ignored United Farm Workers' requests for boycotts of produce grown with dangerous pesticides.

He is an environmentalist who reveres Native Americans and who had an Indian blessing at his campaign kickoff. Yet as a member of the Board of Regents, he has said and done next to nothing about the controversial telescopes the University of Arizona is building on land the Apaches consider sacred, in the habitat of an endangered species.

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