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

In an otherwise ho-hum political season, the GOP attorney general primary has emerged as the race to watch--as much for its pure entertainment value as for what it divulges about the condition of Arizona's Republican party.

Tom McGovern and John Kaites both want to be Arizona's top law enforcement officer, responsible for a staff of 900 and two heartbeats away from the governor's chair.

But there's more to it than that. The AG race has become a popularity contest between dueling Republican cabals. Behind McGovern stand current Attorney General Grant Woods and his pals; lined up for Kaites are U.S. Senator John McCain and his.

The winner and his friends will lead Arizona Republicans into the 21st century.

John Kaites is a conservative who spent his three terms in the state Legislature carrying water for law enforcement and the Symington administration.

His champion, John McCain, is the self-anointed kingmaker of the Arizona Republican party. He usually manages to strong-arm stray members of the GOP flock who dare to challenge the senator's pick for a particular office. Traitors get trounced. As you read this, Republican state officials are quietly twisting arms and bending ears, suggesting that there might be repercussions for GOP loyalists who don't support Kaites, clearly the Party Boy. McCain ally Fife Symington has not endorsed a candidate, but given his convict status, that's a gift to Kaites.

Tom McGovern is a long, tall political novice and neopopulist in the mold of his friend and former boss, Grant Woods. Woods has made a career out of defying the likes of John McCain and Fife Symington, and has emerged as a wildly popular maverick. McGovern hopes to do the same.

The stakes for the GOP are high. The party needs new leaders. Consider: Fife Symington has been convicted. Grant Woods is retiring. John McCain wants to be president. If reelected, Jane Hull has only one term left to serve.

The pressure to emerge as the more popular Republican is making this campaign as childish and nasty and void of substance as a race for Prom King. A Kaites/McGovern debate registers as much sophistication as a cafeteria food fight.

As of press time, the race is a dead heat.

Except for height, McGovern and Kaites are evenly matched. They're white guys in rep ties with good hair and a soft spot for the death penalty. They've raised the same amount of campaign cash, around $300,000 each. The Arizona Republic endorsed McGovern. Kaites got the nod from the Tribune. They both have experience in public and private law. Each can say he's backed by law enforcement--Kaites, by the state's police unions, and McGovern, by ever-popular Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Each has his own clique of GOP operatives and officeholders, centerpieced by hired guns. Kaites has hired HighGround Inc., a consulting firm run by former McCain-Symington staffers Wes Gullett and Chuck Coughlin. Contrary to its name, HighGround and its staffers are renowned for mudslinging. Newer to the scene but quickly gaining a similar reputation is McGovern's consultant, Rose and Company, run by Jason Rose, who formerly partnered with consultants Bob Robb and Kevin DeMenna.

Both HighGround and Rose and Company have other clients this season, but no race is as likely to tax the appreciable energies of both camps as much as McGovern v. Kaites.

Or promise as great a return. The winner will be the bellwether that signals which way the GOP is going. That means more business for either Rose or HighGround, and possibly jobs and favors for others lurking in the shadows of the two camps. Former Symington chief of staff Jay Heiler is behind McGovern. Cassidy "Daughter of Sam" Campana, who works for Rose, is his campaign manager. Kaites' campaign manager, Bettina Nava, works for HighGround. Kaites also has a handful of lawyers from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office offering cash and stump speeches. Their boss, Rick Romley, has stayed away from the race.

Beyond the spoils of primary victory, the race is crucial because the winner will face the Arizona Democratic party's most formidable candidate on the ballot this year, former U.S. attorney Janet Napolitano.

It's usually the Democrats who pants each other in the primaries, leaving the GOP's preordained candidate cash-laden and unscathed, ready to sail through the general election to near-certain victory.

This year the Democrats got lucky with an unopposed slate of candidates for statewide office in the primaries. Although the top Republican primaries are all contested, all but one are dramatically lopsided. The AG race is the wild card.

Most of the other races have remained moribund. This one's been hot and heavy since last February, with Tribune reporter Mark Flatten's curious discovery of a 1983 Sea Isle, New Jersey, police report detailing Tom McGovern's detention, and almost immediate exoneration, in a minor incident involving an air gun and an ashtray smeared with pot residue. Since then, McGovern has hammered back at Kaites about everything from the guy's days as a TV weatherman to his stint as a professor at Lamson Business College at Tri-City Mall to his hallmark campaign slogan: "20,000 police officers have endorsed me."

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.

Kaites left the County Attorney's Office after seven months and joined the law firm Struckmeyer and Wilson. In November 1992, Kaites was elected to the state House of Representatives. After one term, he won a seat in the Senate, where he continues to serve.

As a lawmaker, Kaites gained a reputation as the governor's man on crime, supporting Symington favorites like juvenile justice reform and sexual predator notification. He was named chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1996, but by then Kaites already had his eye on the next prize: the attorney general's seat being vacated by Grant Woods in 1998.

Kaites has pursued the AG spot with the single-mindedness of a cat chasing a moth. He'd already earned a reputation as a party loyalist, a constant fixture at GOP events. He'd been currying favor with the law enforcement and insurance communities for years in the Legislature.

Now it was time to cash in his chits and raise money for the AG race. But there was a problem. In Arizona, officeholders are required to resign from one office to pursue another, unless they're in the final year of a term.

Instead of resigning, or holding off on the AG campaign while focusing on his tasks as a state senator, Kaites introduced legislation that would allow an officeholder to create an "exploratory committee" to raise money to run for another office, while maintaining the original office. The bill passed.

Subsequently, he was investigated by an independent counsel who found that Kaites' new exploratory committee law had so muddied the waters that it was not clear whether he had violated the original resign-to-run law.

And by the end of 1997, weeks before he officially announced his candidacy, John Kaites had raised well over $100,000.

You might call him an effective legislator.

Like his opponent, Tom McGovern hails from Pennsylvania. He was raised in Philadelphia, the eighth of nine children in a poor family--as he regularly reminds audiences. He graduated from Duquesne University and Delaware Law School. In 1983, the year he graduated from law school, McGovern had his other brush with the law.

On a Sunday night--four days before he took the bar exam--McGovern was heading home to Philadelphia from his weekend bartending job in Sea Isle, New Jersey. He had borrowed his older brother's car, and had offered two women a ride back to Philadelphia. Both decisions proved to be mistakes.

According to police records and McGovern's own account, the future lawyer picked up a pizza and brought it into the women's home, so they could get their belongings before the drive. Before McGovern had even entered the house, one woman brought him a duffel bag, which he put in the trunk of his car. He then went inside to eat, where he found a group of young men. He was told they had been in a bar fight--at a bar miles from where McGovern worked--earlier in the evening and were hiding out from their adversaries. A few minutes later, a group of Sea Isle, New Jersey, cops burst into the house, SWAT-team style.

"I was the first person they encountered, so I was face down eating carpet in about a second," McGovern recalls. "It was my great luck to walk in with a pizza and the girls, five minutes before the SWAT team."

The cops searched McGovern's car and found a gun in his friend's duffel bag. McGovern was arrested and charged with illegally carrying a weapon and obstructing justice. He says that when he tried to protest that he wasn't involved, the cops searched the car and found marijuana residue in the ashtray.

McGovern says he's never smoked pot; it was his brother who inhaled.

"I've had friends sell drugs, I've had friends killed by drugs, and it is one of the proudest achievements in my life that being exposed to that poison in a high-crime, lower-middle-class urban environment, that unlike many in my generation I have been able to say no to it too many times to count. Not because I am a moralist on the subject or better than any other person, but . . . some tiny part of me knew that it was a nice way to repay mom and dad."

McGovern's brother admitted it was his pot. It was revealed that the gun was actually an air pistol designed to look like a gun. McGovern was exonerated within days.

McGovern, now 40, resisted the lure of public office until he'd made his fortune. After law school, he moved to Phoenix to take a job with the firm Black, Robertshaw and Copple, where his practice focused on insurance defense litigation. He started his own firm in 1989, and won a number of lucrative cases, including a $16 million judgment in 1993 against Samaritan Health Systems.

Then he accepted a job as Grant Woods' third in command.

Under Woods, McGovern served as special assistant attorney general--the spot now-Congressman John Shadegg held under AG Bob Corbin, he always says.

Kaites is quick to point out that his GOP opponent has never prosecuted a criminal case, but McGovern reminds him that generally county attorneys, not attorney generals, handle such cases. In fact, McGovern has logged his share of high-profile court appearances. Last year, he defended the state's law banning partial-birth abortions before U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bilby.

That was a tough one. Bilby had expressed his displeasure with the law beforehand. But during the arguments, Bilby was so frustrated he actually came down from the bench and, in a somewhat embarrassing development, took over McGovern's questioning of a witness. The state lost.

As special assistant attorney general, McGovern also successfully handled appeals that confirmed two death row executions, handled still-unresolved tobacco litigation and argued the tuition tax credit before Arizona's Supreme Court. The court has yet to rule.

After 13 months, McGovern resigned to run full-time for attorney general.

Unlike the governor's role, the attorney general's is largely that of an administrator. The AG does not set policy; he or she follows guidelines set by the state's statutes. That partially explains why this race has become so ugly: It comes down to matters of personal integrity and administrative ability, rather than a real difference of opinion on policy matters.

McGovern and Kaites don't differ significantly on most issues--although you'd never know that, listening to the two of them. A Kaites-McGovern debate strays from substantive discourse at every available opportunity. At a recent match before the Pima County Republican Women in Tucson, McGovern accused Kaites of not supporting Hispanics because he has a plan that would eliminate the AG's civil rights division.

"You don't have to trust me," McGovern told the crowd. "Read his handout."

Kaites took the mike, shaking his head. "From that document, somehow extrapolated is that I don't like a certain race," he said, laughing and pointing to a young Hispanic woman in the corner. "This is Bettina Nava, my campaign manager."

After the dust has settled, and one picks among the detritus, the positions of the two AG wanna-bes on pertinent issues seem to shake out as follows:

Constitutional Defense Council--Kaites supported the creation of the Constitutional Defense Council, Fife Symington's way of skirting Woods and hiring a Washington, D.C., firm to defend Arizona laws subject to constitutional question. Even after the CDC itself was declared unconstitutional, Kaites voted to create another one.

McGovern opposes the idea of a CDC.

Medical Marijuana--Kaites opposes the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

McGovern agrees with Kaites, and believes Arizona's law is unconstitutional, but says he will uphold the will of the people, as expressed in Proposition 200, approved in 1996.

Open Primaries--Both candidates support the proposal to open primary voting to independent and third-party voters.

Indian Gaming--Both candidates support it.

Anti-Tobacco Litigation--The state's $2.2 billion anti-tobacco lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in March. Kaites opposes Woods' current contingency fee plan, which could net the AG's outside counsel almost $400 million. Kaites says that's too much. McGovern says he would not break that agreement.

Public Records--Both candidates say they support opening up the AG's Office and releasing AG opinions. Woods has been criticized for labeling such opinions "attorney-client privileged" and keeping them secret.

McGovern says that, in contrast to his former boss, he will allow the press access to the inner workings of the AG's Office in almost all cases.

Kaites agrees. He even says he is considering setting up a press office at the state's Department of Law.

For all his claims of openness, Kaites has run a tightlipped campaign. He refused to grant New Times any on-the-record interviews during the race, citing his reasons as "campaign strategy." He has, however, responded in writing to some questions.

Crime--There is no topic that resonates more with these two than crime.

Guess what? Both Tom McGovern and John Kaites hate criminals.

McGovern is no pansy. This guy wants to execute child rapists. But it's Kaites who begins stump speeches with the pronouncement, "I hate criminals and I hate crime and I've dedicated my life to fighting crime."

This has become a race to see who can be the biggest, the meanest, the toughest, the most effective crime fighter. Even though the AG has very limited authority over criminal prosecutions--in almost all circumstances, those are left to county attorneys--Kaites has all but promised that, if elected, he personally will catch, cuff and prosecute every criminal in the state of Arizona.

The Kaites strategy is nothing new. It's lifted right from Fife Symington's 1994 reelection campaign. In 1994, Symington was beleaguered, badgered by charges of financial impropriety and a horrible record on social issues. He made juvenile justice reform his hallmark campaign issue, and won reelection.

McGovern teases Kaites, calls him "The Caped Crusader" and "Buster Bad Ass," but he's obviously bothered by Kaites' stack of law enforcement endorsements--even if Kaites does seem to have won the support of the cops with multiple pay raises while he was in the Legislature.

To that end, McGovern has focused on kicking Buster's bad ass, showing the voters that Kaites' crime-avenging persona is smoke and mirrors and not appropriate for the role of AG.

McGovern hammers on the police pay raises and Kaites' relatively short time as a criminal prosecutor.

He also picks apart his opponent's pledge to devote more of the AG's budget to crime fighting. Kaites says he would earmark 60 cents of every dollar appropriated to the AG's Office for fighting crime. Under the AG's limited purview, that means money for narcotics and organized crime investigations, as well as criminal appeals.

The problem with that idea is that, as McGovern frequently observes, the AG is statutorily obliged to represent state agencies, boards and commissions. Kaites has supported legislation that would allow those entities to hire outside counsel.

McGovern has crunched the numbers, and correctly points out that if 60 cents of every dollar appropriated to the AG were spent on crime, it would necessitate the elimination of key AG divisions, including those that handle white-collar crime, civil rights and elder abuse.

Kaites' answer to the charge? Only this written response:

". . . You wanted my response to McGovern's charts and graphs outlining his assessment of my fiscal plan for the Attorney General's office. What's troublesome, is that at the taxpayer's expense, Tom has gained access to materials at the A.G.'s office, and they have distorted the numbers in order to run a negative campaign against me."

For the record, McGovern's charts are based on figures from Kaites' own press release.

Attacking the Kaites bogus budget plan was fair play, but McGovern crossed the line, recently, when he sent out a piece of campaign literature titled "A Tale of Two Candidates." Like any good hit piece, the mailer massaged the facts just enough to preserve the truth and yet make Kaites look like a putz.

To his credit, after the piece caused a stir on Horizon, McGovern compiled an inch-thick, tabulated notebook, titled "Just the Facts," backing up his contentions.

The piece was over the top in just one place, claiming that Kaites does not support the automatic transfer of juveniles accused of serious crimes to adult court, a hot statewide issue.

Technically, McGovern was correct. But he failed to explain the intricacies of the political battle behind that decision and thus grossly misled the voters. In 1993, Kaites opposed a Woods proposal, but supported a Symington one. And, in the end, Kaites was the chief spokesman for the state's juvenile justice initiative that included, among other things, the automatic transfer provision.

At the end of the Horizon debate earlier this month, still smarting from the "Buster Bad Ass" remark and the "Tale of Two Candidates" mailing, Kaites climbed back on his high horse and vowed, again, to run a clean race.

"What disgusts people is politicians not talking about their record, but attacking their opponent the whole time," he said. "I intend to run this race on my merits, with a positive message about my record on crime and not attacking my opponent."

That's Kaites' public shtick, and he's stuck to it with a few notable exceptions--like the time he told the Arizona Republic that Grant Woods is "evil."

In private, the Kaites campaign has been playing dirty pool for months.

On June 19, the day Tom McGovern's third child was born, the candidates were scheduled to debate before the Maricopa County State Bar Association. McGovern was a no-show, obviously, so Kaites thought he'd speak for McGovern.

According to an article in the weekly Arizona Journal, Kaites told the crowd, "Tom comes from humble beginnings where he was raised in a roach-infested apartment. He grew up to make something of himself, and his opponent is a jerk."

The joke didn't go over well with McGovern, who says he's steamed that he is the one who has gained a reputation as a mudslinger.

"It's appropriate to talk about his voting record. It's appropriate to talk about his policies," McGovern says. "He's been negative, personal, attacking [my] family, and it's appalling, but I'm sorry to say it's typical, because he's a little politician of no substance."

McGovern says Kaites threw the first punch--below the belt, at that.

Only Mark Flatten knows who slipped him that 1983 police report on McGovern, on which he based his February story for the Tribune. There is no proof that Kaites had anything to do with it. But there is evidence that he's been making hay with it for months.

Tim Casey, an attorney with Snell and Wilmer and counsel to the McGovern campaign, says he was at a legislative district meeting in Chandler last spring, and saw Kaites' campaign manager Bettina Nava placing copies of the Tribune story--with McGovern's comments removed--on chairs before the meeting.

Nava admits she passed out the story that night, but insists she handed out the story in its entirety, and says she hasn't done it since.

But that's not the only time the Kaites campaign has broached the Sea Isle incident. Kaites himself mentioned it at a May meeting of the Mesa branch of the Fraternal Order of Police.

McGovern says he's been approached by many people who say they received anonymous faxes of the story.

Casey is still trying to find who tracked down that police report, and how. Because of the age and obscurity of the report--and the fact that the case was dismissed before it made it to the courts--conjecture in the McGovern camp is that someone in the Kaites camp asked a cop to run McGovern's name through the National Crime Information Computer. That's illegal.

Outside of specific law enforcement purposes, NCIC checks can only be requested by the individual to be checked. On August 7, McGovern asked the Arizona Department of Public Safety to run such a search on himself, knowing that the report would include the name of whoever else had requested it. Casey, who's handling the paperwork for McGovern, says he was told by DPS the search would take two to three business days.

As of August 24, he had heard nothing, and says he doubts he will, until after the primary.

In keeping with the remedial-level standards of this race, the Sea Isle, New Jersey, incident is very likely to pop up again in Kaites' TV commercials, during the final days of the race.

And so the campaign goes on with Tom McGovern and John Kaites flinging mashed potatoes and giving each other noogies. Meanwhile, Janet Napolitano is waiting demurely to find out whom she'll face November 3.

Napolitano has never held elective office, but her last job--Arizona U.S. Attorney--is the best credential imaginable for the seat she's seeking. She's honing her debating skills with frequent speaking engagements and even has a new, although not too different, hairstyle.

Conventional wisdom: She'd have an easier time against Kaites, partly because she's almost sure to pick up endorsements from Grant Woods and Joe Arpaio. But victory would not be assured. A Kaites-Napolitano race would likely make the Kaites-McGovern match look like a day in the sandbox.

If Napolitano's Republican opponent decides to go negative, he'll have a tub of mud to fling. Napolitano is a single woman, forced to declare her sexual identity--straight--in the daily paper recently, for fear someone will try to make it a campaign issue. Someone still may.

Count on Napolitano's opponent to make something of the fact that she was part of the legal team that represented Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991.

And there's always the chance of continuing fallout from MonicaGate. That may be the GOP's best hope for snagging the attorney general seat.

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