Autograph Hound

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

Because the circulators are independent contractors and he can't train them, Lee tells them to read the initiative and try not to get into any arguments.

"I know that with the number of people that are out there, there's probably some out there saying something that they probably shouldn't," he says, although he does hire someone to drive around town and observe the circulators in action.

"The only logical thing I can say is I think sometimes they just get it confused."

Derrick Lee: "I was really rude to people [who circulated petitions] before I ever went out and gathered."
Derrick Lee: "I was really rude to people [who circulated petitions] before I ever went out and gathered."
Derrick Lee: "I was really rude to people [who circulated petitions] before I ever went out and gathered."
Casey McKee
Derrick Lee: "I was really rude to people [who circulated petitions] before I ever went out and gathered."

It is impossible to find Lee Petition Management unless you know where to look. Lee has the phone listed under his security business, First Safety, Inc., and there's no sign outside the office, near Broadway Road and Mill Avenue in Tempe. The only clue you're at the right place is a piece of paper posted on the door: "No Concealed Weapons, unless authorized by Lee Petition Management, Inc."

Inside are two rooms, a ramshackle tangle of tables and chairs and stacks of petitions. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 1 p.m., circulators are allowed to come in to submit petitions and claim their checks. When you turn in a pile, you sign the back of each petition and the office staffers flip through the petitions to be sure they look okay and notarize them. The clerks mark down how many signatures you have for each petition and write you a receipt. The signatures are spot-checked onsite; one of Lee's clients gave him a disc with the Maricopa County voter registration database. Two days later, circulators can pick up a check -- if the signatures checked out.

On a recent Friday, just before 1 p.m., Lee is on the phone in the office with his landlord. Apparently, there have been numerous complaints from other tenants that Lee's employees are loitering around the building, and the landlord wants him out.

Lee's having a bad day. He's just come back from a business trip to Wichita, and the phone messages are piled up, as usual. Rain's predicted for the weekend, a circulator's nightmare. Some county official called this morning; they don't want him using that voter registration disc. They say he's using it for a commercial purpose when it's for non-commercial use. And last week, a California petition firm, Progressive Campaigns, moved in down the street to start circulating petitions for the one Arizona initiative Lee won't handle, Healthy Arizona 2, a competitor of the Healthy Children, Healthy Families initiative. A sign on the wall offers a $500 reward for any of Lee's petition gatherers caught taking bonuses for collecting both Healthy Children, Healthy Families and Healthy Arizona 2 signatures at the same time.

Mark Osterloh, a Tucson physician and political activist who is Healthy Arizona 2's chief proponent, tried to hire Lee to circulate petitions. But Lee says he was retained by Healthy Children, Healthy Families months before Osterloh approached him, and he won't carry competing initiatives. Osterloh actually stood outside Lee's Phoenix and Tempe offices, holding a sign advertising for petitioners, trying to lure Lee's workers away, but with only one petition for them to carry, it was difficult to recruit.

Now Lee's getting kicked out of his office, at the height of signature season. But he is incredibly solicitous with his landlord on the phone, says he totally understands, no problem.

He hangs up, tells everyone they're moving next week, back to a former location on McDowell, and turns to John Irvine, one of his office managers: "Put a stop payment on that check. Fuck him."

A few minutes later, the circulators start arriving; Lee disappears to make phone calls. The circulators are a disparate group -- a gussied up, middle-aged blonde with a fur collar; a guy with dreadlocks down his back; a sweet, older gentleman in a baseball cap who just made $674 in four days, working four hours a day outside the Department of Motor Vehicles in Mesa.

The elderly gent, Max, is asked the secret to successful circulating. "Dress appropriately. Look well. Basically, you're selling yourself."

Max's biggest dilemma, he says, is what to do with the talkers. Talkers take up your time, but never sign.

Mel, one of Lee's best gatherers, smiles a gap-toothed grin and advises: "Get in their face!"

Irvine, who's worked with Lee since 1994, describes his job duties this way: "Well, I guess my official title is notary. Assistant manager. Clerk. Wet nurse, priest, judge, jury."

He takes the petitions and yells at those waiting to quiet down when it gets too loud. The worst part, Irvine admits, is the smell. One circulator smelled so bad, he says, "we finally told him, 'If you can't take a bath at least once a week, don't come in the office.' His petitions look like he slept on them, and a lot of times I just won't take them."

Lee emerges from the back room and Irvine offers him a pile of petitions. The circulator watches sheepishly. Lee flips through them, looking at the signatures, shaking his head. "This is bullshit," he tells the guy, who says he doesn't know what Lee's talking about. Lee never uses the word "forgery," just keeps shaking his head and using the word 'bullshit.' Write him a receipt, Lee tells Irvine, but he says he doubts the signatures will check out.

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