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Paul Sterrett stood in the late-May sunshine outside a Scottsdale post office, waiting for someone to sign his petition. The cardiac care nurse at John C. Lincoln Hospital was on loan from his employer to Arizona for a Healthy Future, the campaign to increase the state tax on a pack of cigarettes by 40 cents. AHF must gather 105,541 valid signatures by July 7 to qualify the measure on the November ballot.
Sterrett was accompanied by a New Times reporter. But before long, he had additional company--a man and a woman clad in loud, red tee shirts that bore the message: "Read Before You Sign." The man carried a walkie-talkie. The woman carried a clipboard.
Sterrett approached a prospective petition signer, but the red-shirts anticipated his move and converged on the unsuspecting postal patron. One of them handed the startled man a pamphlet and announced, "Sir, don't sign that petition, and don't be misled by these petitioners." The pedestrian hurried off without signing the tobacco-tax petition.
Satisfied, the man in red lighted a cigarette and blew smoke into Sterrett's face. He approached another passerby and said, "These petitioners are lying to you."
As the sun crawled toward its noon peak, the anti-initiative squad shifted tactics. They asked Sterrett how much he was being paid for collecting signatures, and the proselytizing began. "You would be making more money collecting signatures for us," the man in red said. "Or you could collect signatures for the steel leg-hold traps or the frivolous-lawsuits initiative," the woman chimed in.
Through it all, Sterrett stoically kept collecting as many as 15 signatures an hour. But finally, he began to argue with the man in red over how funds raised by the proposed tobacco-tax boost would be spent.
Of course, during the debate, Sterrett could gather no signatures. He had been successfully "gooned"--a term coined by tax proponents for the tactics being employed by Enough Is Enough, the tobacco-industry-sponsored committee dedicated to defeating the tobacco-tax measure.
"I think Arizona is a big testing ground. It will decide whether or not this kind of thug politics is going to work," says Kelly Kimball, president of the Los Angeles-based Kimball Petition Management Inc., which is providing some of the petition circulators for Arizona for a Healthy Future (AHF).
Kimball and other political consultants say the tactics being employed by pro-tobacco forces in Arizona are unprecedented.
"The tobacco industry has tried all kinds of other tactics--legalities, deceptive media ads during campaigns," says Jack Nicholl, an AHF consultant who directed a similar successful campaign in California. "But now they are moving their efforts earlier and earlier in the process. They're trying to keep it off the ballot because they know they can't win once it gets to the ballot." Nicholl says a pair of AHF petitioners at a Phoenix post office were recently surrounded by eight opponents who harassed them and blocked their path as they tried to move around.
And Sonja Clack, a development assistant for the Arizona Chapter of the American Cancer Society, says she was "gooned" June 14 while seeking signatures outside the Tempe Public Library. She said one foe took photographs of her and another followed her car. "He was just there to frighten me, but also probably to find out where else I was going to petition," Clack says. "But I was going home."
Organizers for Enough Is Enough, which is underwritten by tobacco giant Philip Morris, say their paid troops are instructed not to intimidate anyone.
"We encourage everybody to keep their distance or not to sit up right next to or be adjacent to them [AHF petitioners]," says Mike Crusa, whose political consulting firm, The Summit Group, has been retained by Enough Is Enough. Gene Duhon, spokesman for Enough Is Enough and owner of Stag Tobacconist & Gifts, says the tax foes are handing out a pamphlet titled Get the Facts Before You Sign. "This is what they are trained to do," Duhon says. "Not to confront anybody; if there is any problem, they are just to back off . . . so that we know we are not the ones causing any problems."
Crusa and Duhon say their troops are simply exercising their rights to free speech.
"I understand they don't want us out there, but that's what this constitutional system of free government is all about," Crusa says. "This is an educational process."
George Watson, professor of political science at Arizona State University, agrees. He believes people "often sign petitions out of ignorance."
"There is no reason in terms of free speech why they [Enough Is Enough] shouldn't be able to engage people in discourse at any stage of the political process," Watson says. "As long as they stop short of intimidation--and that's a difficult issue sometimes."
Dan Cole, who collects signatures for Enough Is Enough in the field, says AHF's circulators have harassed foes of the tax as well. "These people get upset because they're out to make a dollar," Cole says. "I just had a lady [tobacco-tax petitioner] swearing at me." The initiative is formally known as the Tobacco Tax and Health Care Act. If approved by state voters, 30 percent of the revenue raised would go to fund tobacco education programs. The remaining 70 percent would go to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System to help defray the costs of the uninsured and low-income people.