Autograph Hound

Derrick Lee is the most powerful political figure you've never heard of

Derrick Lee's not the only one making good money. If they hustle, his signature gatherers can make hundreds of dollars a day. Signatures from a single registered voter can pull in $8 for a circulator carrying a half-dozen petitions. But the work is hard, and it's sporadic, so it tends to attract people who are unemployed in this time of record employment. Lee hires his circulators as independent contractors, so he doesn't have to deal with payroll taxes; as a result, he cannot train them.

So Lee's greatest task is maintaining his work force.

"The hiring procedure is sort of like throwing shit up on a wall and seeing what sticks," Lee says.

Healthy Arizona 2 proponent Mark Osterloh spent days outside Derrick Lee's offices, trying to lure Lee's signature gatherers.
Paolo Vescia
Healthy Arizona 2 proponent Mark Osterloh spent days outside Derrick Lee's offices, trying to lure Lee's signature gatherers.
There is no formal sign on the door of Lee Petition Management's Tempe office.
Paolo Vescia
There is no formal sign on the door of Lee Petition Management's Tempe office.

Consultant Bob Grossfeld puts it more delicately.

"When we are in a full-employment economy, you can't find people to do what is essentially the bottom-feeder work of politics, which is standing out on the corner or in front of a public building and trying to get people to sign a petition. It is very, very difficult to find those people.

"And for the most part, those individuals in a position to launch an initiative, to conceive of the public policy or to write the legal language and to get all of those other things started, have absolutely no contact with the individuals who are available to go out and stand on a street corner when it's 100 degrees or whatever and try and get signatures.

". . . I don't know how many degrees of separation there are between the honorary co-chair of an initiative drive and the guy standing out on the corner in a tee shirt getting signatures. I suspect it's more than two."

When it comes to gathering signatures, Austin Musgrove is as efficient as Martha Stewart is in the kitchen.

On a chilly March afternoon, Musgrove has staked out a prime spot near the entrance to the Fred Meyer supermarket at Gilbert and Baseline roads; the store manager has given his permission. Musgrove's got a card table and two folding chairs, as well as a padded office chair that barely holds his considerable bulk. He is wearing cowboy boots and a tie under his sweater; he's got inch-thick glasses and a pocketful of highlighters. He marks the title of each petition with a different color so his nearsighted eyes can keep track of them.

Today's collection includes "Healthy Children, Healthy Families," the redistricting commission, income-tax phaseout, drug policy changes and local phone deregulation (see accompanying story "Taking Initiative"). Musgrove refuses to tout the English-only initiative because he doesn't support it; he's not carrying the Sierra Club's initiative, which pays the least.

Musgrove says he used to be homeless but isn't anymore. He grew up all over the West and has always been interested in politics. He says he's studying for his master's degree in counseling and business administration.

"This is fun for me. I remember when I used to do stuff like this without pay," he says. "My father never had the opportunity to vote. The first time my mother voted she had to pay a polling tax in order to vote."

He's been outside Fred Meyer for about a week now. The people are nice; some say hello and buy him coffee. He seems to know about half the people who walk by. Musgrove says foreigners always stop and want to sign his petitions, but of course if they're not citizens or registered to vote here, they can't.

"Unfortunately, I also see apathy. There are a lot of Americans who just don't believe in the system. Don't register to vote, don't care about the vote and honestly believe the vote don't work."

He pauses as a man walks past the table.

"Are you registered to vote, sir?" Musgrove inquires.

"I am."

"Would you like to take a moment to sign our initiative?"

The man pauses, and Musgrove immediately kicks it into high gear with the zeal of any car salesman -- one of his many former professions.

"Okay, we've got several over here today, starting with my favorite. Do you know where the tobacco sales tax is going? Neither do we. With this petition right here, we would like to direct that money towards health care and education. Now, these petitions are nonpartisan. In other words, when you put your name and information on it, you're not voting yes or no. All we're trying to do is be given the opportunity to get this on the November ballot and let Maricopa voters vote on it. C'mon around, have a seat. You can read through it."

In a stage whisper, Musgrove says: "And then the other good thing is, like this guy right here, they'll take a minute and read through it, because they want to have an understanding. Most people want to read something before they sign it. And then you have some people who know more about this issue than you do!"

Back to the prospect.

"This one right here deals with gerrymandering," Musgrove says. "That's when they can come in and change a district by rezoning it, move the boundaries, and they literally can change votes in that district."

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