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.

Jim Irvin. Age: 46. Occupation: Former elementary school teacher, now president and CEO of Continental Security Guards, a company founded by his father which now employs almost 900 people.

Married to Carol. Three children. Education: Bachelor's degree in primary education from the University of Southern California, master's in business administration from Loyola Marymount University.

Political background: Arizona Republican party, former finance director, precinct committeeman and chairman of Trunk 'N Tusk, a GOP booster organization. Longtime member of Rotary International. Serves as volunteer deputy sheriff.

In 1994, Irvin squandered almost $350,000 of his own money on a losing primary race for secretary of state against well-liked fellow Republican Jane Hull. Much of that money was channeled into high-profile attack ads that blasted Hull as a career politician who wanted the $54,000-a-year post solely to increase her retirement benefits.

Never mind that Hull's husband is a doctor.
Though unsuccessful in his bid, Irvin posted respectable numbers, netting 48 percent of the vote to Hull's 52. At the time, Irvin was dubbed "the mystery man" and a "blank slate" by local pundits, many of whom wondered why anyone would spend so much money to become secretary of state. (That was then. Now, it appears more likely every day that Hull could succeed Fife Symington as governor.)

Irvin also was regarded as a bit of a paradox, and still is. Though Jennings would like to paint him as an appendage of the Governor's Office, Irvin shows no apparent intention of marching lock step with the governor anytime soon; he labeled Symington's proposal to eliminate the state's personal income tax "unworkable." He is also pro-choice on abortion.

Two years later, Irvin remains an enigma, and he seems to prefer it that way. He would speak only briefly with New Times while attending a candidate's forum in Kearney, a small mining town southeast of the Valley.

The event is sponsored by People for the West!, a conservative organization that lobbies on behalf of extractive industries. About 150 people, many of them employed at the nearby copper mine, file into the high school auditorium to hear a slate of candidates, including J.D. Hayworth.

Sherman speaks first. In the auditorium, her voice fails to carry well, making her sound almost girlish. Her speech is brief and halting, as if she hasn't had time to polish her delivery.

After she jokes about the disadvantages of being short, the moderator lowers the microphone for her and Sherman gets to the point.

"There are significant differences between my opponent and me," she says, pointing to her track record as an advocate and councilwoman. In contrast, she says, Irvin is trying to buy his way into office.

"And," she adds, "he has earned several million dollars from the Arizona Public Service Company, which represents an historic conflict of interest between him and one of the utilities he is supposed to regulate."

The jab is a reference to a deal Irvin once had with APS under which his company provided security at the newly built Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Jennings has hammered on the point as well.

Sherman goes on to charge that Irvin has an additional conflict with APS because the utility recently won approval to start a home-security subsidiary in a joint venture with Honeywell, Inc.

"I don't know where a lot of this stuff comes from," the stocky, blunt-featured Irvin says once he takes the podium.

Though no accomplished orator, Irvin manages to stay on message better than Sherman. His delivery is smoother, more relaxed. The gist of the speech is not appreciably different from the text of his radio ads: that the commission has failed in its mandate under the Arizona Constitution to protect the interests of consumers.

"A tree falls in Oregon, and we lose power?" he says in wonderment, referring to the summertime blackouts.

Irvin goes on to lambaste the commission for things that have traditionally fallen beyond its scope, such as failing to regulate water quality among the state's thousands of small, rural water companies, and allowing many of those same companies to skate by with delinquent property taxes.

Nevertheless, the message seems to strike a chord. Afterward, Irvin steps outside for a drink of water.

"I really don't know where they get all of this stuff," he says of Sherman's dig about his conflict of interest. "I had a contract with APS. So what? That was six, seven years ago. What does that have to do with anything now?"

A reporter asks about the security deal between APS and Honeywell, which places the two in direct competition with Irvin's own company.

"Simple," he says, a little irked. "I declare a conflict of interest and I abstain from voting."

Irvin calls Jennings' allegation that his campaign is being run out of Symington's office "ridiculous," saying that, of all the state's offices, the commission should be nonpartisan.

"And who are they to criticize me?" he asks, referring to the help Weeks, who co-chairs Sherman's campaign, and Jennings have provided to his opponent.

Jennings makes no qualms about helping Sherman.
"Let me be just straight-out," Jennings says. "I'm helping her because I think he [Irvin] is inappropriate. I don't think he has any credentials whatsoever. He's a seller of services, just like utilities are sellers of product or service. And he hasn't paid any kinds of dues. He hasn't shown any interest in these issues."

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