The Bench Warmer and the Straggler

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

Meanwhile, Hull is on a juggernaut, having pushed through moderate legislation that has pleased many Arizonans. But perhaps more important, she's helped make former governor J. Fife Symington III's conviction of fraud charges seem a distant memory. Environmentalists and other critics may complain that Hull's policies are no better, but at least no one's calling for her impeachment. And for a Republican Arizona governor, that's saying something.

Hull's Las Vegas confab may have raised legitimate questions about her fund-raising activities, but it didn't translate into a boost for Johnson.

After Johnson's gamble, polls soon showed that he hadn't gained anything from it. He still trailed badly, and ASU pollster Bruce Merrill pronounced Johnson's campaign all but dead.

But as Cal Sunshine drives him around Tucson, Johnson hasn't yet given up on the story, and he works the phones at a feverish pace. Sunshine consults a map, trying to find the meeting place where Johnson is supposed to conduct a pro-choice press conference.

The two of them joke about Johnson somehow working the water issue into his speech about abortion rights.

"I could do the story of my wife," Johnson says, referring to the story of her giving birth to their first son, a staple of his stump speech.

He practices it for Sunshine's benefit.
"I remember when her water broke. Speaking of water . . ."

Jane Hull catches herself. She was telling her audience that it's been a year now since she became governor, but she was about to say that she had "ascended" to her post. "I don't like to use that word," she says.

It's a populist moment in an otherwise patrician setting. Hull has ascended to the Arizona Club, a tony restaurant nearly at the top of the Bank One building in downtown Phoenix, to give a speech to a gathering of business people who seem receptive to her claim that Arizona has proven "the Republican theory" that cutting taxes results in a stronger economy.

With a smoky, halting voice, she gives an uninspiring speech, as if she were a low-level bureaucrat delivering a report on quarterly earnings rather than the captain of the ship of state. She's not a great speaker, and political observers say her campaign has been smart to keep Hull from having to make many televised orations. It makes good political sense to keep the popular incumbent under wraps, but there's another reason she's better off not running for microphones--flashes of her previous persona tend to emerge when she's holding forth.

Hull was the first woman to serve as Arizona's Speaker of the House, and her fellow legislators called her the Iron Lady, partly for biting, off-the-cuff remarks, but mostly for a steely resolve that could bring the Legislature to a grinding halt until she got her way.

In her speech to the business people, that irascible quality only emerges once or twice. Talking about state spending on schools, for example, the 63-year-old says three times that she's for "basic education," without explaining exactly what she means. But she adds a testy coda: "I don't think schools are there to entertain the little darlings."

For just a moment, she sounds like a mean principal looking for a fourth-grader to spank.

Her treatment of fourth-graders and other little darlings, however, is the centerpiece of her campaign.

When Hull took over as governor last September, she was not well known. Could she handle the job?

She inherited an inequitable school funding system that had bedeviled lawmakers for years. The state Supreme Court had threatened to shut down the schools unless lawmakers found a way to get more money to poor districts in bad need of capital improvements. Symington failed to devise a plan that the courts would accept. When Hull's proposal, StudentsFIRST, passed court muster in the spring, Hull, too, seemed to have passed a major test.

Districts had been raising funds for new schools through revenue bonds backed by property taxes. Districts in wealthier areas raised more money than poorer areas. StudentsFIRST replaced that system with one paid for with state general funds--a state treasury bolstered by a $500 million budget surplus.

Johnson criticizes Hull for the plan, saying that needed improvements will soon prove too heavy a burden for the general fund, especially if the economy slumps and tax revenues decline. He warns that StudentsFIRST could prove the worst thing to happen to Arizona education.

Hull smartly resists coming back with economic forecasts of her own. Instead, she appeals to a public that has grown weary of the debate: Does Johnson really want the state to go through the whole mess again, she asks?

So Hull gets credit for saving the state from one of its biggest headaches. But, says Democratic state Senator Pete Rios, the public forgets Hull was part of the reason the problem lasted as long as it did.

"In 1991, when Democrats were in control of the Senate, we wanted to take the bull by the horns," Rios says. "We wanted to bring equalization to the districts. We asked the House to join in, we said let's create a committee. She [as Speaker of the House] declined at that point. And that was it. It was our attempt to get started. And that was 1991. It took another seven years before it got resolved."

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