The Bench Warmer and the Straggler

Gubernatorial candidates have been playing the usual political game. One of them lost a long time ago.

The morning's newspapers have nuked him, and Paul Johnson is dealing with the fallout.

On a warm morning in early October, Johnson's tall, lanky body is folded into the passenger seat of a speeding red Honda Passport. He juggles two different cellular phones and a pager with his driver, who tries to steer the car and answer Johnson's phone calls at the same time. Johnson is hurrying to make a campaign appearance in Tucson, but he's in constant communication with his campaign workers in both Phoenix and Tucson, discussing the recent attacks he's taken from the state's media.

Outside the window, hundreds of ostriches living in the shadow of Picacho Peak zip by in a blur.

The state's newspapers have denounced Johnson as a desperate candidate, hopelessly behind in the polls, who has leveled a scurrilous charge against a sitting governor. Three days earlier, Johnson had lobbed a bomb in an otherwise somnambulent public television debate: Governor Jane Hull had taken campaign money from Las Vegas developers who needed Arizona water to survive. Johnson had suggested that Nevada was negotiating a deal for Arizona water with Hull, and Las Vegas developers and other Nevadans had given her $31,000 in campaign contributions to grease the wheels.

With varying degress of acrimony, the media blasted Johnson, condemning him for gambling his candidacy and his political future on a bogus charge. His plan has backfired, and now he's had it, says the state's largest newspaper.

For once, his 13-month gubernatorial bid against Hull is front-page news and the talk of the state.

Johnson loves it.
Months of dreary campaigning unnoticed in backwater districts have been replaced with an incessant daily press clamoring for details and documents and sound bites.

"God, I love a campaign," he utters between phone calls, sounding like the youthful (he's 39) climber he's sometimes criticized for being. And, as if to reinforce the image, he takes out pieces of red licorice from the plastic tub between his feet, offering some all around.

The boyish-looking former Phoenix mayor, father of two sons and a native of Sunnyslope, has gambled hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money on his campaign, cash that came from the sale of his ownership in a telecommunications business. He has put $700,000 into the campaign; another $650,000 has come from contributors. Johnson says he's spent his own money to avoid the complications of taking more cash from special interests; his critics say he'd take it if he could get it.

His driver, who goes by the unlikely name Cal Sunshine, hands him a phone so Johnson can speak to his campaign consultant, David Steele.

Johnson complains to Steele that Nevada officials are trying to convince Arizona reporters they want none of Arizona's water--after previously telling Nevada reporters they desperately need some of Arizona's share.

"They were 15,000 acre-feet under what they need, and lo and behold today they have enough? Bullshit," Johnson says.

Throughout the morning, Johnson and Steele will debate whether to hold a press conference to announce their latest evidence raising questions about Hull and water rights. In the meantime, they have to scramble to find that evidence. Johnson makes multiple calls, instructing his troops to locate a particular retired water lawyer who might agree to appear with him at the press conference. He recruits another attorney to begin researching water law. Other calls confirm for Johnson that a Yuma Democrat, Herb Guenther, has agreed to go on record about his knowledge of discussions between the two states--discussions Hull had denied were going on. (Johnson's elation over Guenther's help would be short-lived. Guenther recalled talks that occurred under the Symington administration, which didn't help Johnson's argument.)

It's clear Johnson thinks he's seized on the stratagem that will reverse his fortunes and thrust his poll numbers higher. He excitedly passes on to Steele something an attorney has just told him: "If you can show Hull's not telling the truth, I think she's done."

"She's done." Johnson says it with gravity, and it's clear he wants to believe it. You can almost see the reverie going through his mind as a look of seriousness washes over the normally jocular candidate. It's tempting to imagine the panorama of a full-blown Jane Hull nose-dive playing out in his mind: the headlines, the accusations, the shame, the concession speech. But soon enough, it's over, and reality sinks in.

She's done? Is Johnson insane?
Hull seems all but assured of election next week, with Johnson trailing badly in the polls. She's raised more than $1.8 million for the campaign, none of it her own. Libertarian candidate Kat Gallant and Reform Party candidate Scott Malcolmson have added inimitably to several debates, but should have little effect on the outcome.

Hull's challengers have been unable to dent her lead. Despite her considerable record as a friend to lobbyists, insurance companies and developers, she's managed to recast herself as a moderate, unbeholden to the special interests that have filled her campaign chest.

If people have short memories about the Iron Lady of the Legislature--a nickname Hull acquired in 14 years as a legislator with a reputation for toughness--they seem to have very long memories about her Democratic challenger. Paul Johnson has repeatedly brought up Hull's changing political stances, citing Hull's record whenever he can and issuing elaborate, multimillion-dollar policy proposals nearly every day. Yet despite his solid abilities as a speaker and his grasp of wonkish political minutiae, Johnson has had trouble generating fervent support even within his own party. Some constituencies that would normally flock to a Democratic challenger express reservations about Johnson, remembering previous campaign tactics that turned them off as well as his centrist attempts, as Phoenix mayor, to bring together coalitions in ways that alienated them.

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