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When the final grain of sand ran out of the official timer, the forum in the Kenilworth Elementary School gymnasium was called to attention. Candidates climbed on stage, took their spots on blue plastic chairs and waited to address the audience.
Randy Pullen, a late entrant in the mayoral race, sat patiently on stage with two empty seats next to him. The forum, sponsored by the NAILEM alliance of neighborhood groups, had promised an event featuring all three mayoral as well as city council candidates. In a barely visible race for the top job in Phoenix, it was to be the first time the three candidates were to appear together.
But only Pullen had shown up.
The seats sat empty while the school principal led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance, and Donna Neill of NAILEM explained the process. It would be precise. Each candidate would get three minutes to speak to the audience -- about 70 folks who had given up a Saturday afternoon to learn more about those seeking to lead Phoenix. When the timekeeper held up the red card, time was up. Period.
After that, the audience would split into groups, and candidates would rotate and speak to them, each spending 15 minutes with each group, no more, no less. People in the groups would select a number out of a manila envelope and query the candidates in order. Afterward, participants would grade and offer comments to each candidate.
Neill explained that she was a stand-in master of ceremonies and wasn't familiar with all the candidates. First, she introduced Pullen. But she had to check her notes to get his name right.
More than 20 minutes after the program began, the other mayoral challenger arrived. Patrick Dardis, his hair disheveled, took a back entrance to the stage and sat beside Pullen.
Ten minutes later, 35 minutes after the forum began, Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza made his entrance. He arrived with an entourage, including his 3-year-old triplets, and the whole crew headed for the stage. While District 7 council candidate Rosie Lopez was using her precious three minutes to address those gathered, Rimsza and crew were creating a commotion behind her. New chairs had to be brought in and set up and the toddlers had to be settled.
The final council candidate to speak mentioned that she had three kids, but that they were with a sitter.
Neill returned to the mayor's candidates. She introduced "the mayor," who spoke his piece with a triplet in each arm. When his time was up, Rimsza asked little Nicole, in his left arm, if there was anything she wanted to say. "No," she answered. After a prompt, she declared, "Vote for Daddy!" to ahhs and applause.
Dardis was introduced, and Neill again had to find her notes to check his name. "Someday, you're going to remember that name," Dardis told her, an apparently hopeful reference to his political future that some interpreted as more ominous than amusing.
Both Rimsza and Dardis left the forum early. The mayor claimed his kids were getting fidgety, and Dardis took off after a spat over his racial views. Only Pullen stayed to the end of the three-hour forum, quietly impressing others, earning "A"s on all but two of the report cards he received.
It was a telling snapshot of the three men who want to lead Phoenix into the next millennium. When voters go to the polls on Tuesday, September 7, they will choose among three candidates (all Republicans in a nonpartisan race) with sharply different styles and qualifications:
Skip Rimsza, 44, the personable incumbent who many believe is unbeatable. Praised by some as a good leader who has done great things for the city in five years at the helm, the former real estate agent is sometimes criticized as a more style than substance kind of guy. He's a mayor, they say, who loves the press conferences and the handshake photo opportunities, who schmoozes voters with flowers and birthday cards, who trots out the triplets every chance he gets to win over the aren't-they-cute, what-a-great-dad vote.
Randy Pullen, 50, the deliberate, largely unknown opponent who has lived in Phoenix for 45 years. A CPA who has worked as a hospitality and management consultant over the years, he is a bright, capable guy who would make a great mayor, supporters say. He may not have the pizzazz of someone like Rimsza, but those who know him admire his ideas and his style.
Patrick Dardis, 33, another unknown who owned a vending-machine company when he entered the race but now says that status is questionable because of a dispute with his brother. His credentials are rather bizarre. He believes he has a political destiny and finds spooky coincidences in his life that support this, beginning with the circumstances around his conception and continuing up to his arrival in Phoenix four years ago. Others, however, merely find him spooky.
Actually, there is another candidate, one with even less of a chance than Dardis because his name will not even appear on the ballot. Anthony A. Abril Jr., a part-time self-employed cosmetologist who previously has run unsuccessfully for local posts, filed a notice of candidacy in April, withdrew it on June 16, then declared himself a write-in candidate July 19.