Commission Impossible

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

Stiteler's appointment was pushed by George Leckie, a crony of former governor J. Fife Symington III. (Stiteler later returned the favor by chairing Leckie's legal defense fund when the former adviser was indicted on federal bid-rigging charges.)

As a board member, Stiteler also tried to get that fund to invest in risky local real estate projects. Stiteler's proposals would have meant more commissions for local brokers, but without the safeguards of investing in larger national funds. Some saw this as basically a feeding trough for local developers. Two top officials resigned, saying the security of the fund was in danger.

West, state treasurer by then, was outspoken in his support of Stiteler, accusing the officials who had resigned of incompetence and mismanaging the fund.

Later, it was disclosed that, while serving as a state senator and working for Stiteler, West had unsuccessfully lobbied the Arizona State Retirement System to invest in one of Stiteler's business projects. The project, a partnership to buy land in the path of the Price Freeway, later went bankrupt.

West denied any conflict of interest then. The controversy ended when Stiteler resigned from the retirement board after a closed-door meeting with Symington.

West remains close to Stiteler, his employer, business partner and also the chair of his campaign finance committee.

Jennings questions whether the cozy relationship between the two will continue on the corporation commission. He notes that the commission regulates investment firms and deals with a number of issues that concern developers, like power-line siting.

"You could see him [Stiteler] resurface again," Jennings says.
West promises Stiteler will have no role at the commission.
West has also been a registered lobbyist while treasurer; he worked as director of the Arizona Chiropractors Association for two years during his first term.

West still adamantly defends his decision to take his pension before he actually retired as "legal, ethical and moral," noting he consulted with the Attorney General's Office.

"The opportunity was there to take [the pension], and it would've cost me $160,000 not to take it. And that's financial stupidity not to have done that, as far as taking care of my family and financial obligations," he says.

West remains unapologetic about his support of Stiteler after his friend was booted from the retirement fund board. He maintains that Stiteler was right about investing in local projects, and he's still proud of standing up for him.

West also says he was registered as a lobbyist for the chiropractors, but never actually lobbied for them. "I wasn't about to go over there and use my chits up lobbying," he says. He says he only registered because it was required by law for the director's position.

West insists he won't let personal interests conflict with his professional duties.

"Listen, I'm the guy that put our accountant in jail for five years when he embezzled $1.9 million from the state treasury," he says. "In AzScam, I'm the one guy that when they tried to get me in that web, I reported it to the AG's office, and then followed up on it. Don't ever worry about me not doing the right thing in the public interest."

West's affable demeanor evaporates when he gets defensive. He has the instincts of a political gut-puncher. Those are skills he's picked up with practice. One former opponent of West's, who didn't want to be named, says, "Tony West is the last man in state government you want to piss off."

Even though West is now running against Newman, he still seems to be campaigning against Renz Jennings.

At campaign appearances, he refers to the "Democrat-controlled" corporation commission--even though Republicans have the majority. He blames Jennings for the discord at the agency, as if no feud between Irvin and Kunasek exists.

He calls Jennings a "spoiler" and says that he once got a standing ovation when he told an audience at a campaign appearance that Jennings was leaving office.

Jennings ridicules West's attempts to pin the commission's troubles on him.
"Trust me, look at the record. We didn't have mass firings or mass resignations or a steady stream of directors [before Irvin and Kunasek]," Jennings says. "Tony can't blame either of the Republicans, so he's just constructing a laughable argument, and I think people will see through that."

West also blames Jennings for bringing up questions about his past.
"That's going to be his [Jennings'] legacy. No matter who wins the race, it's going to be his legacy as a spoiler," West says. He adds that Jennings is just "lobbing mud" at him, and using Paul Newman to do it.

Jennings has used this tactic before. In 1996, Jennings campaigned hard against Irvin on behalf of another of his protegees, Democrat Barbara Sherman. Irvin, then a political outsider, outspent Sherman and won the seat.

West, however, is trying to paint himself as a mediator rather than a political fighter.

Mangling metaphors, West says he can "bring oil to the waters [of the commission], where nobody's poking one another in the nose."

The problem is that West's election could mean just another 2-1 commission, only this time stacked in Carl Kunasek's favor.

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