WHO KILLED KING?

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

It didn't seem the best solution to everyone. Ex-Babbitt aide Tommy Espinoza remembers objecting strongly to the move at one of the earliest, coalition-building meetings with Nelson Ralston Robb. He says he was horrified that the firm that only two years before had shoved the English Only bill down the Hispanic community's throat was now trying to be believable as a proponent of equal rights. "I said, `It's going to be really hard for me to get excited about this,'" he remembers. Other coalition members echoed his views. In short order, Democratic consultant Rick DeGraw was hired to supplement Robb's efforts with a grassroots campaign for liberals. It was DeGraw's assignment to go into the minority neighborhoods whose needs he understood better than Robb, and whose sensibilities he would not offend.

The campaign was off and running. Sort of.
Robb says it quickly became apparent that Zaler's inciting approach to Proposition 302 could hurt it. Pollster de Berge's numbers were showing that, when you wagged the finger at Arizona and accused it of being racist, "an important voting segment fled from you," primarily Republicans over the age of 55 and some younger Republicans. The same thing was true if voters were warned of dire economic consequences unless the MLK Day passed. When threatened, the voters simply dug their heels in and resisted.

In keeping with the campaign's strategy, Robb and Coughlin decided that Zaler should not make any polarizing statements during his appearances--that he shouldn't publicly announce a voter-registration drive aimed at gays, for instance, or duel with Mecham. They decided, in fact, that no supporter of Proposition 302 should publicly debate anyone. They felt it would be difficult to share a stage with the likes of communist-baiting Julian Sanders, the outspoken MLK Day opponent, without taking a few swings at him, and thus alienating some Republicans.

It was difficult for Zaler to refute this part of the strategy, or any other part. Robb and Coughlin were always able to justify themselves with numbers. Nonetheless, the bloodless plan that was personified by the vague slogan, "Honor Civil Rights, Help Arizona," just didn't sit well with Zaler and Hardaway.

"The campaign totally lacked vision," Hardaway says now. "`Vote yes on 302' is not a vision. `Honor Civil Rights, Help Arizona' is not even a vision.

"You can say that it was positioned poorly on the ballot--which it was--and that having two propositions on the ballot was confusing--which it was--and that the NFL statement hurt us, which it did. But I still believe that if there had been any vision in the campaign, anything that meant something to people emotionally, that we would have won. Because we only lost by 1 percent with all those factors."

Union leader Cantelme also felt that Robb's approach would make it just too easy for racists to hide, since they would never be confronted. "I am not so sure you don't have to challenge racists, to say, `If you're not bigoted, you need to demonstrate that you aren't,'" he says. "Because there aren't any racists in the world! They will always blame it on something else if you don't challenge them."

De Berge's studies coughed up other important numbers and conclusions.
Fewer than 10 percent of the voters were undecided about the holiday. Everyone who had decided was unlikely to change. More than 50 percent supported the holiday and close to 40 percent opposed it, but the opposers were far more likely to vote.

Robb's strategy became four-pronged: He aimed to keep the voters who already supported the holiday; to increase the turnout among young, liberal voters who were most likely to support it; to persuade more young Republicans to support it; and to try to make some inroads with senior Republicans and rural voters. He knew the last groups would be by far the most difficult to convince.

Robb lists the conversion of staid, older Republicans as the lowest priority, and it is true that fewer senior Republicans were targeted with Robb's mailings than any other group. Yet Zaler and Hardaway contend that the campaign shaped up in other ways into one that had the protection of senior Republicans as its first concern.

In particular, they cite Coughlin's mania to keep Zaler out of the public eye.

According to numerous local news directors, Coughlin pressured them to drop Zaler from news appearances. Three news directors say that Coughlin tried to strong-arm them by citing the station's demographics and saying that Zaler wasn't a good match, or by trying to wave dollar signs in front of them. ("My client, the MLK-BAC, has spent $750,000 on this issue. Don't you think we're entitled to the spokesman we want?") Producer Beth Shapiro at Channel 8 says that Coughlin even tried to imply that, if she wouldn't replace Zaler, she was advancing a political agenda of her own.

Coughlin admits it all, but says he was only trying to protect the campaign. He also admits to losing his head altogether. Upon learning one day that Hardaway Connections' Wayne Zink had scheduled yet another interview for Zaler, Coughlin phoned him in a rage, and included in his heated comments a reference to Zink's former career.

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