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Robb is a staunch Republican and politico who since his college days at Occidental College has affected a deep attachment to the intellectual and merciless form of conservatism that's best associated with William F. Buckley Jr. Before going into the public relations biz four years ago, he was a lobbyist for the Arizona and Phoenix Chambers of Commerce. He and his firm were Proposition 302's principal strategists.
According to insiders, Robb and Hudgins and other members of the MLK-BAC were made very nervous by Zaler's idealism, and they devoted much time and energy to trying to muzzle him. They were fearful that his no-nonsense rhetoric would alienate Republican voters with talk of women's rights and homosexuals; they dreaded the divisive effects of his passion for human equality. Finally, they launched an all-out effort to keep Zaler out of the newspapers and off the air.
They tried to bully news directors into canceling Zaler's appearances on their programs. They outlawed any public debate on the MLK Day issue, because debate would result in emotional statements they couldn't control.
And they tried in other ways to soft-pedal the matter of civil rights. For instance, they produced a series of mailers that most often reduced Dr. King's face to a stylized drawing that was practically a logo, as though a photograph of a radical was too shocking and immediate. When the mailers were directed to Republican voters, the text emphasized lost convention trade and the Super Bowl and sometimes barely mentioned the black leader, except in terms of the name of the proposed holiday.
Robb and the MLK-BAC say they did all this so that Proposition 302 could win. Their marketing studies, performed by de Berge, demonstrated that accusations about racism would alienate older, Republican voters. The studies showed that positive spokespeople and subtle, positive images arriving in the mail or flitting across TV screens wouldn't offend anyone.
Robb and the MLK-BAC imply that Zaler, with whom they were forced to work, was in the way of success and refused to get out of the way. "Arnie Zaler's sole purpose was self-promoting, preparing himself to run for the city council," says one MLK-BAC member who asked not to be identified. "I don't even give him the credit of being well meaning. He did harm the campaign absolutely. I would guess that we spent thirty to forty thousand dollars' worth of time trying to deal with Arnie."
Says another: "He pissed me off so bad I really wanted to grab him by the neck and throttle him. He was saying that this campaign should have left the pragmatic, economic issues out of it. He started giving shit to the business community.
"Fine. Let him go and run a campaign on the moral and ethical arguments of a Martin Luther King Day holiday and I will watch him lose 60-40.
"I will never speak to him again. Ever."
Some onlookers, including Zaler, say that all this fear and loathing were not generated solely out of concern for an MLK Day. They say that Nelson Ralston Robb was hamstrung by a conflict of interests: If Robb and his minions designed a strategy that sent liberals scurrying for the polls, they ran the risk of defeating Republican candidates. (Robb was the principal strategist for Congressman Jon Kyl and is a personal friend and informal adviser to Attorney General-elect Grant Woods, another prominent Republican.) They say that Robb stood to damage the future of his business if he bought into Zaler's vigorous tactics.
"Robb's firm was not the firm I would have selected to run a Martin Luther King Day," says Pat Cantelme, president of the Phoenix Firefighters Association and one of the Valley's leading liberal activists who was busy behind the scenes throughout the MLK campaign. "It was difficult for him to motivate those liberal voters in a way that he did not lose the people that he ordinarily does business with."
Cantelme isn't alone as he makes these observations, but he's not part of a unanimous group, either. There are numerous observers who believe absolutely that Robb and Chuck Coughlin, the senior account executive at Nelson Ralston Robb who oversaw the campaign's daily operations, ran the most effective, selfless campaign possible. Some of these observers even are Democrats.
One of them, Representative Art Hamilton, who is a black community leader and member of the MLK-BAC strategy committee, says he was leery in the beginning about the selection of Nelson Ralston Robb. "Through the years, Bob Robb and I have had disagreements on every issue of controversy," he says. "But I am in an opposite place today. I came away believing that the folks at Nelson Ralston Robb gave it their best shot."
Robb himself also denies that he did less than his best job for Proposition 302. He says that he and his staff kept partisan politics out of the campaign--that when they were working the phones to identify pro-MLK Day voters, they never even asked whether the parties on the line were Republicans or Democrats, because they didn't want to know. He points out that political campaigning results in less than 4 percent of his company's revenues in Arizona.