Commission Impossible

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

Newman's dilemma is this: To get on the commission and do something about the real issues of deregulation, he has to have a single compelling issue. Deregulation, unfortunately, is a fuzzy, boring topic that won't get him elected.

He has to have something to focus the voters' attention on. And right now, that's West's record.

"Without my presence there, for all intents and purposes, the corporation commission will fall into a time of implicit backroom politics," Newman says.

His strategy isn't without risk. West believes Newman violated the clean-campaign pledge only three days after he signed it by issuing a press release that echoed Jennings' earlier attacks about the pension and lobbying.

"You talk about integrity, I can't imagine signing a letter and reneging on my signature within 72 hours," West says. "I don't think people like that deserve to be in office."

Given the voter backlash against recent negative campaigns--John Kaites' race for attorney general and Robin Shaw's state Senate campaign, for instance--West's talent for counterattack could come in handy.

At another joint campaign appearance the same day as the investors' lunch, West appears livid when Newman raises the issue of an alliance between Kunasek and him.

"I guess that's all you can do when you're behind in the polls, is sling mud, Mr. Newman," West intones grimly.

Newman concedes that it sounds like he's going negative, despite the pledge. He thinks West, however, opened the door to his past by making character the focus.

"Wherever Tony can take advantage monetarily of his position, he does. And I'm worried about that, because the position of corporation commissioner is that of a judge," Newman tells New Times. "There are billions of dollars on the table. And just the threat out there worries me. I don't think Tony West is evil. I think I've got a duty to point out these things that show he's ethically challenged."

More to the point, if the last year of turmoil on the commission has proved nothing else, it's shown that character--at least the playground-variety character taught by coaches, such as take your lumps, don't whine and play well with others--really does matter. It may even be the most important qualification for the post.

And in the end, Newman has little choice but to raise the issue. Tony West's ethics are really the only card he's got to play.

"He could get burned," Marcia Weeks concedes. "But he has to do something, because Tony West has all that money."

Contact Chris Farnsworth at 229-8430 or at his online address: cfarnsworth@newtimes.com

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