The Clash of '98

John Kaites and Tom McGovern — John McCain's and Grant Woods' hand-picked candidates for attorney general — are duking it out like schoolboys, while the Dems' Janet Napolitano goes to school on them

By the beginning of August, in a now-famous televised debate on the PBS program Horizon, McGovern was openly mocking Kaites for exaggerating his experience as a criminal prosecutor.

"You were seven months as a county attorney," McGovern told his opponent. "And that's good, John. That's fine. I'm not attacking you for that. But don't tell people you're Buster Bad Ass when all you did was forecast the weather in a community where the sun shines 11 months out of the year."

Momentarily speechless, Kaites sputtered and whined and choked, his already high voice squeaking up into the helium-sucking range.

But the race is still on, and Tom McGovern will get his. As this campaign heads into the final days and the candidates blow their wads of cash on television ads, things will only get uglier.

Who's the Big Man on Campus? Who knows? See you in the cafeteria.

Alone, McGovern and Kaites are both nice guys. Family men. But put them in a room together, with their respective cronies, and it's pure high school.

Tom McGovern is the suave, loping letterman. Doesn't study much, doesn't need to; he's quick on his feet and instantly likable. John Kaites is class president--always running for office, very smart but a little smarmy.

Where else will you find a race where height has become a campaign issue? At six foot four, McGovern towers over Kaites by almost a foot. Every public appearance is a scramble for the shorter man, who openly strategizes about how to keep from being seen--or, heaven forbid, photographed--standing next to his hulking opponent.

The diminutive Kaites and the bruising McGovern may appear opposites, but their campaigning techniques aren't much different. They tangle and twist one another's biographies and records and ideas so that it would take a judge and jury, at this stage of the race, to determine the truth.

What did you expect from two lawyers?

The quality of this race has deteriorated over the past six months to the point that the candidates squabble in public over which of them worked more months in the Attorney General's Office. The casual observer is left confused. Hence, the following primer on each candidate's actual background and position on the issues.

John Kaites was born on April Fools' Day, 1963, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Kaites begins every stump speech with his supposed life's goal: Stop Crime and Fight Criminals. But over the years, he has occasionally succumbed to the spotlight. As a teenager, Kaites deejayed for a radio station in his hometown. He graduated from Pennsylvania's Allegheny College and Duquesne University. He worked as a TV weatherman during law school at Duquesne.

After law school, Kaites continued his cloudgazing on weekends at Phoenix's Channel 12, and got himself an internship--and, eventually, a job as a prosecutor--with then-attorney general Bob Corbin.

Kaites was on the AG payroll from May 1989 to January 1991, a total of 19 months, when Corbin's successor, Grant Woods, fired him within days of being sworn in.

Woods has gone on the record during the current AG campaign, saying he fired Kaites because he was a lousy lawyer. "Lousy" may or may not be an accurate assessment of Kaites' performance. The Kaites camp claims his personnel file from the AG's Office has mysteriously disappeared; actually, according to spokeswoman Karie Dozer, all personnel files are destroyed after five years. In any event, it's unlikely that Woods knew much about Kaites beyond the fact that he had openly supported Woods' opponent, Steve Twist.

Kaites was one of nine lawyers Woods fired during his first weeks in office. Was he simply cleaning the house of Twist-ites? Hard to say without that personnel file, but McGovern's supporters have dug up a court case Kaites lost, citing that as the reason he was let go.

Whenever he speaks of his AG experience, Kaites points out that he was assigned to the office's organized crime and racketeering division. But what he doesn't say is that he worked on environmental cases which, while certainly important, don't fit as well with his current pose as a crime buster, nor are they as sexy as cases about drugs and mobsters.

The civil case in question involved a company in Pinal County, Red Baron Car Washes, accused of polluting an aquifer. Kaites lost the case on a directed verdict, a rare move during a juried trial in which a judge dismisses a jury and decides the case based on the performance of the plaintiff's attorney (in this instance, Kaites) without even hearing the defense's argument.

The judge found in favor of the defendant, the alleged polluter.

After his stint at the Attorney General's Office, Kaites dabbled. He ran for the congressional seat vacated by Mo Udall in 1991, continued to do the weather and landed a job at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

Kaites claims to have won 100 convictions as a county prosecutor. While technically true, such stats don't give Kaites bragging rights as Mr. Crime. Almost all county criminal cases are plea-bargained. Given Kaites' short stint as a county prosecutor, he averaged a conviction every day and a half. He was hardly trying the O.J. Simpson case.

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