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.

And on the issues, they sound a lot alike. Both say they want to protect consumers. Both say they want deregulation to be fair to the utilities. And both state the obvious when it comes to how the commission is run: The place is a disaster area.

The Arizona Corporation Commission, set up at statehood in 1912, is one of the most-ignored state agencies. Most people can't name a single member of the commission and don't know what it is or what it does.

This is unfortunate because, more than any other state office, the commission intersects with people's daily lives. It oversees the companies that bring water, power, gas and phone service to your home. In addition, it polices securities traders in the state and incorporates all Arizona business.

The agency is run by a three-member panel of elected commissioners: Jim Irvin, Republican and current chairman; Carl Kunasek, Republican; and Renz Jennings, Democrat.

To put it mildly, they don't get along.
For more than a year, much of the panel's time has been spent in bitter, behind-the-scenes infighting that occasionally blows up into very public embarrassments.

The battle lines aren't drawn along party lines. The real animosity is between the two Republican commissioners, Irvin and Kunasek. Jennings has sided with Irvin, which has left Kunasek on the sidelines. With Jennings' support, Irvin became chairman of the three-member panel last year.

The first public eruption came last year when Kunasek's choice for executive secretary, the commission's chief staffer, was dumped in favor of Jack Rose, who was supported by Irvin and Jennings.

Since then, there's been a host of troubles at the agency, including the abrupt departures of longtime staffers caught in the middle of the hostilities; the hiring of a new head of the utilities division, Morris Wolff, whose resume turned out to be mostly fiction; the public shouting match between Kunasek, his aide Jerry Porter, and Rose, over alleged violations of the open-meetings law; and the memo Rose penned shortly afterward, asking to hire an independent counsel to investigate Porter.

Morale is low. The commission's turnover rate is near 20 percent for each of the past two years, one of the highest for state agencies its size.

This turmoil couldn't come at a worse time for the people the commission is supposed to serve: Arizona's consumers. Arizona, like other states, is struggling with the deregulation of utilities.

Since the commission was created, the utilities have been run as state-regulated monopolies. State government guarantees them "reasonable profits" while ostensibly making sure that everyone can afford air conditioning, heat, water and telephone service.

But in 1992, states began to study a free-enterprise system for utilities. By 1999, any electric utility, even if it's in another state, should be able to sell power in Arizona without being bound by the traditional geographic districts now in place. The states, including the Arizona commission, are helping make the transition by introducing new rules for the free market.

Under the new rules, there are no guaranteed profits. And that leaves utilities with a lot of debt and assets--called "stranded costs"--that they might not be able to pay off.

Before they give up their guaranteed profits, the utilities want to pay off that debt with ratepayer increases. Consumers, on the other hand, don't want to have to pick up the tab. Some consumer groups fear deregulation could boost rates by 10 percent to 15 percent.

Utilities also want to be able to compete on each other's turf, but don't want to lose their own customers. And big-business customers want breaks on their utility bills, since they buy in bulk. But residential customers don't want to have to subsidize those discounts.

And all of this without sending everyone's monthly bills into orbit.
It's a nightmarishly difficult task. And the Arizona Corporation Commission has never been less up to it. The commission has had to ask for outside help just to read the thousands of pages of material submitted by utilities in the process.

Time is running out. Competition is mandated to begin by January 1 for big-business customers, and by the end of next year for everyone else in Arizona.

Whoever steps into the commission in January will have a lot of work to do. The decisions he makes will have repercussions for years to come.

Because the stakes are so high, the campaigning began early. The divisions on the commission extended into the primary: Everyone had a horse in the race.

West, 60, a longtime friend and ally of Kunasek, ran in the GOP primary against Gary Carnicle, a political novice who directed Jim Irvin's campaign for the commission.

It was an uneven contest, at best; Carnicle lost despite dumping $150,000 of his own money into the race.

It didn't take a psychic to see that defeat coming. As state treasurer, Tony West presided over an unprecedented economic boom that filled the state's coffers to bursting. The treasurer's office manages $6.6 billion in state dollars and has earned $1.7 billion from investments during his time in office.

West knows every player in Arizona politics. The list of people on West's campaign committee stretches across three pages, and includes Governor Jane Dee Hull, Senator John McCain, Representative J.D. Hayworth and Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana, among other influential figures.

Treasurer is only the most recent office that West has held. He was elected to five terms as a state representative and three terms in the state Senate. He's racked up a lot of alliances, favors and friendships in that time.

As a state senator, he led the impeachment hearings against former governor Evan Mecham, even though it cost him support among the Republican party's diehard conservatives, especially Mecham's fellow Mormons.

West says without irony that he views public service as an extension of his religious faith, a public ministry. (He is Catholic, an ordained deacon and a member of the St. Francis Xavier parish in Phoenix.)

But now, forced by term limits to leave the treasurer's office, he's looking for another pulpit. He says this campaign will be his final go-round in the political world. (Corporation commissioners are limited by law to a single six-year term.)

West says this race is about integrity and competence, about bringing peace and tranquillity to the fractious commission.

"They have a lot of good people down there, and they have to restore their pride, their professionalism and their competency," West says. "They all feel like they've been beat around the head."

He cites the agency's high turnover--he incorrectly puts it at 43 percent--as evidence of its problems. He also cites a rate decrease requested by Tucson Electric Power that took the commission two years to approve.

Over and over again, West hammers on the discord at the commission. In fact, his only specific proposal for the commission is to hire a management consultant to help run the place.

"I'm not going to live down there in that chaos," West says. "I'm used to order, I'm used to competency, to professional conduct."

Jerry Porter, Kunasek's aide, says West's experience makes him best for the job.

"We need somebody that's got management experience, that's actually managed an agency," Porter says. "You've got two commissioners here who've never really had an agency to administer before, and it functions poorly because of that."

West points to his record as treasurer as an example of what he can do. There has been no turnover in the past four years, and two perfect audits from the Auditor General's Office.

But there's more to West's record than West and his supporters are telling.
Jennings, the only Democrat in statewide office, went after West in the GOP primary. Jennings was the first to raise the ethical issues about West that Newman is pressing now.

"Tony West is a guy who calls himself a big man for a big job. Well, he's been a big government conservative," Jennings tells New Times. "His ministry has been to utilities, banks and big business. And for him to run for the state's top consumer office is absurd."

In a scathing letter and press release last month, Jennings castigated West for accepting his state pension without actually retiring, for lobbying the state government while working for it and for his relationship with John Stiteler.

"Tony West's excesses and ethical lapses are a working example of why people dislike politics and politicians," Jennings wrote. "Fortunately, elections give voters a chance to say when they've had enough!"

West fired back, calling Jennings' charges "outright lies" and Jennings himself "a disgrace."

The exchange was largely ignored by the media. Now that Newman is raising the same issues in the general election, however, West is starting to come under closer public scrutiny. And it's revealing a side of West that he'd prefer to keep out of the papers.

Though West boasted at his announcement, "You haven't read a lot of headlines about the Office of the Treasurer," he's suffering from selective memory. There has been plenty of press about West and his performance while in office.

West's biggest public embarrassment came in 1994 when he resigned as treasurer just before midnight at the end of his first term, and then resumed office three days later. The move enabled him to begin collecting his $37,000-a-year state retirement pension, for his legislative service, at the same time he was drawing a $54,600-a-year state salary.

West was widely criticized on opinion pages and on the floor of the state Legislature, which passed a measure to close the loophole, dubbed "the anti-Tony West bill."

The pension flap wasn't West's only blemish while in the treasurer's office.
In 1993, West came to the aid of his old friend John Stiteler.
Stiteler and West's connections run deep. West works for Stiteler Investments, a real estate and investment firm, as a sales representative. West is also a business partner in Stiteler's 99th Avenue Limited Partnership, where West's share is valued at more than $100,000, according to his most recent financial disclosure statement. The two are also close personal friends.

In 1990--with West's help--Stiteler convinced a state retirement fund to invest in at least one project he was involved in. Stiteler also got a $137,000 fee for later introducing another developer to that board. West has never said how much he received for his assistance on these deals.

In 1993, Stiteler, despite a string of tax liens and bankruptcies behind him, was appointed to another retirement board, the Arizona State Retirement System, which oversees the state's multibillion-dollar retirement fund.

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.

West and Kunasek have been friends for 26 years and served together in the Legislature. The relationship extends into West's campaign as well. Porter, Kunasek's top aide, was present at West's announcement and has contributed to his campaign. Lindy Funkhouser, a Kunasek appointee at the commission who was forced out by Irvin and Jennings, is listed as counsel to West's campaign.

Kunasek also is linked to Stiteler. He was an investor in one of Stiteler's land partnerships.

But Kunasek and West both deny that they're working on a package deal.
"We are not joined at the hip. If we disagree, we disagree, period," Kunasek insists. "And the one that gets the second vote on any disagreement is the one who carries the day. As far as him getting my proxy, it ain't going to happen."

Irvin did not return calls for comment.
Still, West's tendency to go right up to the ethical line between his public and his private roles calls into question the entire premise of his campaign: that he has the most integrity and character for the job.

In the race for the commission, West has gotten close to the line again. He has accepted $8,300 in PAC money and personal contributions from bankers and investment advisers, despite a possible conflict of interest in both areas.

West and Newman have both taken money from the state's utilities within the past year, according to campaign finance reports, although not directly for their corporation commission races. The state's utilities have agreed not to contribute to corporation commission races because it's such an obvious conflict of interest. And commission candidates generally never take contributions from utilities.

Still, West's treasurer's campaign took $500 each from APS and SRP in 1996, and another $150 in January 1997 from SRP. His treasurer's campaign also collected $150 from Richard Snell, chair of APS' parent corporation, in November 1997. That was before he announced for corporation commissioner but after he knew he couldn't run for treasurer again.

Newman's legislative campaign accepted $350 from AT&T in 1997 and, in 1996, $275 from APS. That was also before he announced he was running for corporation commission.

Funds can be transferred from one committee to another, so utility money could indirectly end up in the corporation commission campaign. In fact, in March, Newman transferred $3,473 from his legislative committee to his corporation commission campaign, according to records on file with the Secretary of State's Office. West had not made any transfers, as of last week, the most recent deadline for filing finance records.

Paul Newman once took a beating to protect someone else's money.
It was the summer after he graduated high school. He was working as an Italian ice salesman in his hometown, a little place outside Jersey City. "I tell you, on a hot summer day, you were the most popular guy around in that truck," he recalls.

Maybe too popular. While he was making rounds, he was jumped by a gang. They took the keys from the ignition, and began hitting Newman, trying to get him to give up the cashbox. Newman curled into a ball, hugging the cash to his chest.

He ended up in an emergency room, but they didn't get the money from him.
For Newman, 44, it's a pretty good metaphor for the theme of his campaign.
"My main focus is to make sure that the consumers of Arizona don't get screwed," Newman says. And he's going to have to hang on if he wants to get onto the commission to do that.

Newman is financially outgunned by West, according to the most recent campaign filings. West has raised nearly $123,000 in contributions, compared to Newman's $55,467, according to the most recent reports. Most of Newman's money comes from retirees, with some larger donations from unions and prominent Democrats like Phoenix lawyer Paul Eckstein. West is also a two-time statewide office winner, while Newman is largely unknown outside of his legislative district. And West has the power of the Grand Old Party behind him.

Newman also seems badly in need of a day planner. He was hours late for two campaign appearances in Fountain Hills and Tempe when he blew a tire driving from Tucson. His campaign staff couldn't find him. He only learned that reporters were present at the investors' lunch when he walked in; it caused him to shift the focus of his speech at the last minute, from a technical talk to a campaign spiel.

About the only thing Newman has going for him is that he shares the same name as an actor known for Oscar-worthy performances and salad dressing.

However, that may be enough to tip the race in Newman's favor, says ASU professor Bruce Merrill, who conducted the KAET poll that showed voters almost evenly divided.

"If you go back and look, in the late '60s and early '70s, when the Republicans controlled everything, the only Democrat who won for two or three elections was a guy named Kennedy," Merrill says. Merrill doesn't think people confuse Paul Newman the candidate with Paul Newman the actor, but "when you have a good name, a name that is familiar and positive to people, they'll choose it."

Newman says he'll take whatever he can get.
"To be honest, I knew my name was going to help in overcoming all the chits that Tony has over the years, doing people favors, and all the power that Carl [Kunasek] has over the years, doing people favors," Newman says. "It's a huge mountain, to overcome that chit network."

Newman's legal career has included work as a public defender and, before he came to Arizona, as a court administrator and consultant in California. He currently runs his own private law practice in Bisbee.

Newman is no political novice. A member of the state House for the past six years, he was the only Democratic sponsor of House Bill 2663, the Legislature's deregulation bill. Newman managed to get several amendments tacked onto the bill that provided for consumer education and protections for rural customers.

As a legislator, Newman staked out consumer protection as his turf. He once criticized a tax break for a satellite-TV facility as a giveaway to billionaire Rupert Murdoch. He also took a strong stand against a bill dubbed the "Polluter Protection Act" because it enabled companies to escape fines for environmental hazards. He criticized the Republican majority's support of random drug testing in businesses, in terms so strong he later apologized on the House floor.

State Representative John Loredo, a Phoenix Democrat, has counted Newman as a friend since Loredo came to the Legislature two years ago.

"Paul's relentless in representing people who don't usually have a voice," he says. "He's always very outspoken, and he'll press his issue no matter how much it aggravates the other side of the aisle, and that's exactly what we need in the corporation commission."

Loredo recalls Newman's clashes with Marilyn Jarrett, the Republican chair of the States Rights committee. Jarrett once ruled that Newman couldn't question any witnesses before the committee, just to keep him quiet. House Speaker Jeff Groscost and House Minority Leader Art Hamilton had to be called to smooth things over.

"Everybody in that room was going to hear his point, whether the chairman wanted him to hear it or not," Loredo recalls. "What he had to say was usually on behalf of people who didn't have a lobbyist in the room. Regardless of the pressure, he was going to get his point across."

Jarrett, who confirms the incident, will only say about Newman, "If you think the corporation commission is interesting now, just wait until Paul gets there."

Newman's known for questioning opponents to the point of exhaustion. He even once earned the dubious honor of being the runner-up for "Biggest Windbag" by the Arizona Republic for his filibusterlike speaking style.

One on one, Newman comes off a lot better than he does in debates or speeches. He explains himself without bogging down as he did at the investors' luncheon debate.

Newman's motto for the campaign is "lower rates, better service." Consumers are going to need a lot more protection under deregulation, he argues, not less. Someone has to make sure that power is still reliable and affordable, and that's up to the commissioners.

He ticks off a list of measures he wants to implement if elected: an equitable solution to stranded costs "that doesn't favor utilities," funding for consumer education about deregulation, and an alternative energy portfolio that encourages investment in solar power.

Newman's passion for detail in these areas is almost comical, but Jennings says Newman's intellect is one of the best reasons to elect him.

"He's a smart guy, but I think you want a guy who's a little wonky," Jennings says. "He's got intelligence and a consumer orientation; and that's the purpose of the commission, to protect the consumer against the concentrated power of the utilities."

First, Newman has to convince people that there's even a reason to care.
With so many newcomers in the state, Newman may be a victim of the Democrats' success on the panel. There are a lot of people who don't remember the astronomical utility bills under the GOP-controlled commissions of the '70s and early '80s.

When the Republicans ruled the commission from 1975 to 1984, electric rates rose from 4 cents per kilowatt hour to 10 cents. From 1985 to 1994, under the Democrats, rates only went up a quarter of a cent. (Kunasek, however, blames the increases under the Republicans on the energy crisis and high interest rates.)

Voters finally reversed the trend in 1985 by electing Jennings and Marcia Weeks, another Democrat, who led a push for reform. The Republicans reclaimed the majority in 1996, when Weeks was replaced by Irvin.

"That's the difficulty for the Democrats today: The rates aren't skyrocketing, so you won't get a Republican crossing party lines to vote," says Weeks, who, like Jennings, is supporting Newman.

Today, rates are comparatively under control, thanks largely to the rates decided when Democrats were the majority. But under deregulation, rates could climb again.

"There's no threat to the public out there, but it gives the public time to get the Dems back in, because once those freezes are off . . . I'm worried what will happen," she says. "Is the consumer going to benefit at all from competition?"

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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