An Exercise in Utility

Jim Irvin is poised to give the GOP a Corporation Commission majority for the first time in a decade. If that happens, Democratic activist Barbara Sherman and her mentor, Commission chairman Renz Jennings, will both wind up losers.

The two candidates--Barbara Sherman and Jim Irvin--are a study in extremes.
Former Tempe councilwoman and neighborhood activist Sherman sees a Corporation Commission seat as her chance to continue a long career of advocacy.

Irvin says he wants to change the way the commission does business.
As of late August, according to records on file with the secretary of state, Irvin had $100,000 in his war chest--a startling sum considering that a commissioner earns only half that amount annually.

Spending that kind of money for, of all things, a seat on the Corporation Commission is not without precedent in Arizona. In 1994, Kunasek dumped more than $165,000 into his campaign. Irvin has given every indication that he will continue his spending right up until the election.

As of August 31, Sherman, a latecomer to the race, had managed to scrounge together a mere $10,000.

Barbara Sherman, all five feet four inches of her, marches into the bustling Democratic headquarters on North Central Avenue and heads toward the corner appropriated by her small campaign staff.

In the background, phones ring and volunteers swirl around a lectern, making last-minute adjustments as TV crews set up to record the latest salvo that Democratic congressional hopeful Steve Owens will fire at Republican incumbent Representative J.D. Hayworth.

But Sherman's corner is quiet. A lone staffer tends the phone behind a desk as Sherman inspects a newly minted "Sherman for Corporation Commission" campaign sign leaning against the wall. Though the election is little more than a month away, the sign is from the first batch to come off the presses.

Nothing in Sherman's appearance or demeanor suggests she is more than just another harried campaign volunteer. Even during political functions, she is not one to show up in a power suit, preferring instead horn-rimmed glasses, sensible shoes and a somewhat frumpy wardrobe that would seem appropriate for a librarian.

Her tendency toward modesty goes deeper than her appearance, though. When asked to tell about herself, she must be prodded to mention her accomplishments, dwelling instead on those of her father, a Rhodes scholar and former law school dean who, now in his 70s, still takes cases. "A brilliant man," she says.

But Sherman, 54, is no political neophyte. During the past 30 years, she has built a political resume--both behind the scenes and on the front lines--that belies her retiring exterior.

A self-described "soccer mom" who early on "decided to stay home," Sherman stumbled into political activism shortly after moving to the Valley in the mid-'60s with her husband, Tom. She was freshly graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor's degree in philosophy.

The young couple purchased a Tempe ranch house in the shadow of the Phoenix Zoo. Back then, the area to the east of the zoo was mostly farmland and scrub desert, but it was not going to stay that way for long. A farm nearby was soon snapped up for development and, in a pattern that would be repeated all over the Valley, was zoned for high-density residential construction.

Afraid of seeing the desert overrun with apartments and condos, Sherman mobilized to lead the fight to convince Tempe zoning officials to lower the density.

"We were really ahead of the curve on that one," Sherman recalls.
But there were other threats lurking. When Sherman learned in the mid-'70s that Sky Harbor International Airport was planning a new runway that threatened to turn the skies over her home into the airborne equivalent of the Autobahn, she once again mobilized, this time to impose limits on the jetliners' flight paths that steered them over the nearby Salt River bed and away from homes.

"I was out there every day . . . making sure the airplanes stayed where they were supposed to," she says.

Sherman became such an expert on the subject, in fact, that she was hired on as a consultant by one of the engineering firms involved in the project.

After completing a four-year term on the Tempe City Council, Sherman stepped down in 1992 despite popular support among her district's constituents because "life on the council was not conducive to family life."

Today, she runs a small import business specializing in South American arts and crafts. She and her husband also raise emus--big, flightless birds related to ostriches that are prized for their feathers and meat.

With the November 5 election looming, Sherman has precious little time to get her record or her message across to voters. Because of a family conflict, she did not even file to run for the job until June, well after Irvin had declared his candidacy. For months, the Irvin machine has been chugging away while Arizona's anemic Democratic apparatus struggled to find a candidate to defend its Corporation Commission majority, the only one it holds in the state.

By now, Irvin's name has sprung up on almost every street corner, his ads have appeared in the papers and his populist-sounding radio spots, in which he rails against everything from power outages to dirty water to sluggish telephone service courtesy of U S West, have blanketed the airwaves.

They are attack ads, but it's not Sherman they're attacking. Rather, by maligning the commission, its way of doing business and its agenda for the past ten years, they are a not-so-subtle slap at the man who has shaped that agenda: Renz Jennings.

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