Commission Impossible

An underfunded Democrat takes on a powerful Republican in a quest for the state's least-sexy elected office

The luncheon appears to be nothing special, just another stop on the rubber-chicken circuit for some of the state's true power brokers--the heads of Arizona's utility companies. But for Paul Newman, it's like entering the lion's den.

At the annual gathering of the Arizona Utility Investors Association, Newman, a Democrat, is facing off against Tony West, his Republican opponent for the Arizona Corporation Commission, the state's top regulatory agency. Newman and West are vying for the seat being vacated by Renz Jennings, a Democrat who is leaving after 14 years because of term limits.

You don't have to tell this crowd that the three-member commission is a mess, mired in backstabbing and internal politics between the two remaining commissioners, Carl Kunasek and Jim Irvin. This is one of the few audiences in the state that even knows the commission is responsible for setting the rates utility customers throughout Arizona must pay.

The crowd is also well aware that Democrats like Newman get elected to the commission only by promising lower rates. That's popular with Arizona's consumers--who pay the second highest electric rates in the country--but to investors, higher rates mean more money.

On this afternoon, the issue of deregulation--the end of guaranteed profits for utilities--has the crowd antsy. The utility bosses want to hear they're still going to get their cash.

West, the outgoing state treasurer and a veteran of Arizona politics, is a strong speaker. He stands and orates like a preacher, promising a new day on the commission if elected.

The commission "is the most chaotic, most dysfunctional state agency I have seen in 26 years in state government," West thunders. West has also seen two governors forced out of office, AzScam and numerous other minor scandals. Still, the line draws applause even from a staid gathering like this.

Newman, on the other hand, is awful. He hems and haws through his 15 minutes, remaining seated. He is caught between technical issues and his campaign stump speech. His slogans pop up in the middle of long and involved sentences about regulations. He tells the crowd his qualifications about 10 minutes into his allotted time. His nasal voice constricts when he loses his place.

It's like watching William Jennings Bryan debate Dr. Joel Fleischman from Northern Exposure.

West clearly wins the match-up. At the end of the debate, Newman looks like a man with the whole world against him.

Which he almost is. With little more than his famous name, Newman is taking on West, who's armed with cash from political action committees, years of insider connections and the blessing of the GOP.

Whoever wins the seat will play a crucial role in the flow of billions of dollars between utility companies and consumers. And unless Newman, a Bisbee lawyer with six years in the Legislature, can pull off an upset, West, one of the state's top deal makers, string pullers and insiders, will be cast in that role.

West is closely tied with Kunasek, who wants an ally against Irvin to join him on the panel. Kunasek and his staff have aided West in the primary and general elections.

And although West is still on the state payroll as its sitting treasurer, he's got other irons in the fire as well. He's on the payroll of another old friend, John Stiteler, a GOP fund raiser and developer who employs West as a sales rep in his real estate business, and serves as his campaign finance chairman. Kunasek has ties to Stiteler as well, having invested in one of the developer's land deals.

Stiteler has made use of West's political connections in the past. Shortly before West took office as state treasurer, he helped Stiteler convince state retirement fund officials to invest in real estate projects Stiteler was involved in.

West came to Stiteler's aid a few years later when Stiteler was forced to resign from a state retirement fund board after past business failures were disclosed.

If West is elected, all three members of the commission will be business-friendly, anti-government conservatives.

Jennings, the outgoing Democrat, asks: "Can you imagine what kind of shake the consumers are going to get when all three commissioners are big-business Republicans?"

But Newman surprised many with a strong showing in a recent KAET poll conducted by Arizona State University professor Bruce Merrill. The race was a dead heat, with Newman pulling in 30 percent to West's 31 percent, according to Merrill's poll.

The undecided votes--39 percent--are crucial. West has all the advantages, and his record shows he's not afraid to use any edge to the fullest.

West has a hefty wallet as the race enters its final weeks. He's raised more than twice as much campaign cash as Newman, most of it from securities firms, bankers and developers.

West started his run saying his integrity and character made him the most qualified to join the commission.

But that strategy has backfired. Now, Tony West's integrity has become the only substantial issue in the campaign.

At first, it looked like the race for the open seat on the commission was going to be a lot more civil than the day-to-day politics of the commission itself. Both Newman and West signed "clean campaign pledges," promising to focus only on the issues.

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