The Devilish Deeds of John Kaites

By now, Arizona Republicans have chosen either Tom McGovern or John Kaites as their candidate for attorney general in November's election.

Either way, John Kaites' political star has fallen. If McGovern won, the deed is done. If, by some twist of wacky Arizona electoral fate, Kaites pulled this thing off and won the primary, Democrat Janet Napolitano will smoosh him like a bug.

Kaites' political career bottomed out Wednesday, September 2, the day his campaign aired a commercial so nasty, so malicious, so totally misleading, it could compete with George Bush's Willie Horton spot for space in local high school civics textbooks, chapter heading: "Dirty Politics."

Politics aside, the Kaites commercial was so heinous it could cost him his credentials to practice law, if Tom McGovern pursues charges through the state bar. McGovern is also considering suing for defamation of character.

If you were near a television late last week, you probably saw the ad, which Kaites pulled over the weekend. The commercial depicts the normally clean-shaven, suit-wearing Tom McGovern in a beard and orange prison togs, behind bars. "Tom has a record--not as a prosecutor, but as a criminal," the viewers are told.

By now most of Arizona is familiar with Kaites' warm folktale about his opponent's early bout with the law.

It's lifted from a 15-year-old Sea Isle, New Jersey, police report that details McGovern's arrest for possession of an air pistol and a car ashtray smeared with pot residue. But Kaites conveniently deletes the part where the charges are almost immediately dropped and McGovern is completely exonerated.

Kaites knows that part. It's in the police report and it's in all the newspaper stories that have been written about the 1983 case. Tom McGovern was never prosecuted. He was never convicted. He never admitted guilt. He never served time. And although he spent that night in jail, he was out early the next morning--scarcely enough time to grow a five o'clock shadow.

Tom McGovern isn't a criminal.
But that didn't stop John Kaites and his consultants--HighGround Inc.'s Chuck Coughlin and Wes Gullett--from trying to make him look like one. In February, around the time Kaites announced his candidacy for AG, copies of the police report were floated to the local media. The Tribune's Mark Flatten bit. Kaites staffers circulated copies of the Flatten story, and Kaites mentioned it at low-profile campaign events.

A week out, with polls putting McGovern 12 points ahead, Kaites dropped the bomb.

And blew his credibility to smithereens.

John Kaites is a stooge. He wanted to be attorney general so badly that he let Arizona's most devilish political duo, Coughlin and Gullett, put their mark on him.

On Thursday, September 3, the day after the premiere of "Bearded Tom," the Maricopa County Republican district chairmen held an executive committee meeting and considered a resolution to censure HighGround Inc. for its role in the commercial.

In the end, the county Republicans watered down their resolution to simply condemn negative campaigning, but the message is still loud and clear: This time Chuck Coughlin and Wes Gullett had gone too far.

First as staffers for Governor Fife Symington (Gullett also worked for U.S. Senator John McCain) and now as political consultants, these two have earned a reputation for nasty campaigning.

For example, in 1996, Coughlin launched a campaign on behalf of client Del Webb to get a parcel of commercial land near Red Mountain in Mesa rezoned as residential. Coughlin ran newspaper ads showing pollution-spewing smokestacks on factories superimposed on Red Mountain, with the tag, "Factories, not Families."

The heavy-handed tactic backfired, and Del Webb lost.
But Coughlin and Gullett have had many successes, particularly while working for Symington and McCain, two politicians who beat the odds to overcome lousy reputations and win reelection, using the sledgehammer approach.

A Republican insider who has firsthand experience with the HighGround Inc. methodology says Coughlin and Gullett make the mistake of thinking any candidate can win that way.

"They manage to convince people to go much further than they would like to go, and they do that because Symington and McCain have been very successful at doing that. But only Symington and McCain can do it; other people can't pull that off. It takes a certain kind of person to pull off that kind of caustic rhetoric," says the insider. "And you have to admit, those two guys pulled it off. Yeah, sure, they made a lot of enemies in the process, sure they were looked down upon a little bit. But Symington could have gotten away with this without looking like Kaites right now."

In fact, Symington won his first term as governor using a commercial similar to "Bearded Tom" to defeat Terry Goddard in the 1991 run-off.

Back in February 1991, Symington had been way behind in the polls; Goddard had been attacking his business record. During the campaign's final days, Symington released a TV commercial that muddied Goddard. The ad accused Goddard of breaking a campaign finance law, and showed bars slamming in his face.

Symington won. Credit for the ad goes to longtime Symington media consultant Jay Smith. But the lesson wasn't lost on Coughlin and Gullett, who employed similar tactics when they started working for Symington. And this year's "Bearded Tom" commercial bears the imprint of the 1991 Goddard smear.

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