WHO KILLED KING?

THE VALLEY'S HOTTEST POLITICAL STRATEGISTS TEAMED UP TO PUSH MLK DAY. NO WONDER IT FAILED.

A great deal has already been said about Arizona's failure to pass a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and most of it has taken the form of pronouncements. On some days since the election, the Arizona Republic has contained little but the wallowing and finger-pointing of every self-impressed columnist from Phoenix to Washington. All of them believe that the defeat of the holiday is a disgrace, and most of them blame it on the National Football League. And now for something completely different.

The thing that has gotten lost in the chest-beating is the story of the spleen-venting struggle to mount a pro-Martin Luther King Jr. Day campaign that went on behind the scenes.

It was a struggle that has left some insiders enraged, and wondering why a political, staunchly Republican public relations firm--the same firm that in 1988 successfully campaigned for Proposition 106, the patently racist "English Only" measure--was assigned to design the strategy in favor of Proposition 302.

It was a struggle that has left some Phoenix minority leaders shaking their heads, and wanting to know why their communities of voters weren't better reached and educated by the business people who saw MLK Day as the key to the Super Bowl.

It was a struggle that erupted into at least one of the more interesting exchanges in recent Arizona political history, a moment when one frustrated strategist screamed at another, "You're nothing but an aerobics instructor!"

Most of all, the feud-that-nobody-saw pitted the passionate reasons for an MLK Day against the dispassionate ones. It resulted in a public campaign that many onlookers felt emphasized greed, as a coalition of downtown business people pontificated that economic betterment for the Valley was the reason an MLK holiday was important.

The residue from the feud was a key reason that an entirely new pro-Martin Luther King Jr. Day coalition has formed in the weeks since the election--a coalition that emphasizes grassroots involvement and stresses the importance of ethical, not economic, messages going out to the public. As the fight for an MLK Day continues, the powerful business people who ran the last campaign will participate with the coalition, but they will not be the spearheads. The minority communities that claim King as their hero will play a much larger part than before.

The new approach is a relief to some insiders--insiders who are asking angrily why the same stodgy pollsters and community leaders are allowed to continue dictating strategy on important Valley issues such as ValTrans, Rio Salado, and Proposition 302, when they do not succeed. The insiders are pointing out that 302 failed by only 1 percent, or 8,500 votes, and that it is too easy to lay those votes entirely at the feet of the NFL. When you're dealing with tiny numbers, couldn't anything have made the difference, including a campaign blueprint that was faulty? "These people have a consistent history of failure," says Arnie Zaler, the entrepreneur and former left-wing radical who, as the head of the grassroots group Unity, became one of the holiday's most outspoken proponents. He is referring to business leaders like political consultant Bob Robb and CEO Mark DeMichele, who have worked on behalf of many community projects and were members of the Martin Luther King Better America Committee (MLK-BAC), the group of largely Establishment leaders that pushed the holiday. He's also referring to Earl de Berge of Behavior Research Center, one of the Valley's most prominent pollsters, whose projections were used by strategists supporting ValTrans, Rio Salado, and Proposition 302--all of which failed.

"It is an incestuous relationship," Zaler continues. "These guys pay each other fees to regurgitate the same old-fashioned style, to get the same wrong information.

"When you only do things in the old way, you are missing the raw energy. And that is what all those issues were about! There are two sides: People who want change and those who don't."

There is no doubt which side Zaler is on. There's no doubt, either, that his rabble-rousing rush toward change was at the heart of the split in the pro-MLK holiday campaign.

His form of support for civil rights was the form of an obnoxious, seasoned reformer whose dreams and anger are still with him. Throughout the campaign, he wanted to speechify about the moral evils of racism. He wanted to poke his audiences with reminders that the absence of a holiday in this state is the work of that often reviled character and bigot, former Governor Evan Mecham. He proselytized for human rights in gay bars on the weekends, accompanied by his wife. His idealism ran smack up against the tendency of the members of the Better America Committee to feel awfully alarmed by any expression of extreme emotion on behalf of Martin Luther King Jr.

The MLK-BAC is personified by Terry Hudgins, the co-chair and a lobbyist for Arizona Public Service Company, and Bob Robb, a partner in the public relations firm of Nelson Ralston Robb Communications.

Hudgins is an agreeable conservative who is an amateur at thinking in terms of human rights. He embraced the ideals of true equality as clumsily as Gerald Ford coming down an airplane ramp.

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