THE OBJECT OF THEIR DESIRE

WOULD-BE POWER COUPLE TOM AND LINDA RAWLES WANT VOTES MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE

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@body:It's 1 p.m. on June 23, and Tom Rawles will appear on Horizon, a public-affairs program produced by the local PBS station, in six hours to talk about the county's financial woes. His administrator, Manjula Vaz, has orchestrated the afternoon: back-to-back meetings with county budget staff, fellow supervisor John Katsenes and Linda Turley, the county's $72,000-per-year spin doctor and charm coach.

The goal of the Horizon appearance is for Tom and Katsenes to present Rawles' alternative budget, designed to address the county's deficit, which, on this particular day, stands at an estimated $70 million.

Tom sits in his office on the tenth floor of the county building and sorts through the contents of his "In" box. His desk is bare except for a framed picture of Clayton and a few stacks of paper. Tom's graying hair falls over his forehead, Dennis the Menace style, and despite his large frame, his dark suit seems too big.

He was raised on a ranch 100 miles north of San Francisco. He graduated from Willamette University and Arizona State University College of Law, practicing criminal defense and medical malpractice law until 1987, when he went to work for U.S. Representative Jay Rhodes. Even when he's yelling at county staff, Tom looks as though he's eager to please--his wide face hopeful, his body straining forward. He says "all's" a lot, as in "all's we gotta do." Tom also quotes Winston Churchill, his hero, and talks about his book on Dwight Eisenhower's political motivations--the manuscript half-finished, in a closet at home. He calls books "my friends."

He's never completely still. A leg or a foot is always shaking, the rapid staccato of a man who's running a congressional campaign, practicing law on behalf of Dial, a Fortune 500 company, and trying to balance a budget run amok in the nation's sixth-largest county.

But right now, he's reading a seven-page document prepared by an outside consultant, detailing the county's requirements for a new county manager. Disgusted with grammatical errors and phrases he finds contradictory, Tom summons Paul Ahler, the county's human resources director. Vaz is instructed to push the other meetings back.

The county's financial crisis seems forgotten as Tom rips the document apart. The consultant has even included mention of an automobile allowance--a huge no-no in light of the recent controversy about supervisors and staff keeping county cars. (Rawles vehemently opposed the practice, and never used a county car.)

An hour later, Ahler gone, Tom calls Linda. He wants to catch her before she leaves to walk. He reminds her of the time of her district meeting that night, and spends five minutes repeating detailed directions to the site, the Scottsdale Senior Center.

He tells her he hears it's 114 degrees outside, and they decide she will feed Clayton.

"I love you. All right, bye," he says, then spreads out his budget notes to play with some numbers before Katsenes arrives. It's almost 3 p.m. The phone rings, and Tom's secretary pops her head in. Manda Turley, Linda's campaign manager in title, is on the line. Tom, the campaign manager in practice, takes a final look at his computer screen, mutters, "Well, I've gotta find another $1.7 million," and picks up the phone.

Manda's having trouble setting up a campaign event for the weekend. Tom advises her, cracks open a Coke, and turns to Vaz. "Okay, let's talk to John."

It's late June, and the clock is ticking on the county budget. Tom doesn't like the staff proposal, which would slice each department by 15 percent. He's tinkering with a model that would cut some programs by only 6 percent, and skewer some entirely.

If all goes well, and a few numbers can be rearranged, Tom can present his budget on Channel 8 tonight and maybe speak with some of the daily newspapers' editorial boards before the end of week. He and Katsenes are joined by Barbra Cooper, the acting county manager. It quickly becomes clear that Tom doesn't yet have a solid budget to pitch.

Cooper's nervous; she's just come from a meeting with the public-sector credit people at Bank One, and they weren't encouraging about offering the county help. "I think we've gotta throw them [Bank One] a bone," she says. "Close the trauma center [of the county hospital]. Close two floors of the hospital."

Tom has an alternative. Transfer the hospital's debt to the general fund and let it start fresh. Cooper wants to know if he's ready to sell the county's health-care business after a year, or raise taxes, if it doesn't work.

Yes, Tom says, although "I don't like putting my political future in the hands of 4,000 employees. But that's what we're talking about." By 4:30, they've decided to share just a few general themes with Horizon's viewers. Linda Turley, a former TV news anchor, comes in to prep Tom and Katsenes. Don't use acronyms, she tells them. And try to come across confident and honest, Turley says, adding that she's frustrated because "we're not getting the word out" about how hard county staff is trying to resolve the crisis.

The pep talk turns into a gripe session. They grouse about David Schwartz, the Arizona Republic reporter covering the county. "We could clue David in to the resurrection of Jesus and he'd want to know who pounded the nails," Tom says.

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