Furious George

Is Scottsdale ready for four more years of political scrutiny from George Zraket? It all depends on who you ask.

The media have made him a folk hero. Residents stop him at meetings to say he should run for mayor in 2004.

It will take more than money to defeat his following. That's why the strategy to discredit Zraket now appears focused on three specific issues, none of which holds up under scrutiny.

• He's got too much power.

"I believe there's a majority vote waiting for me out there," George Zraket says of the March 12 city election.
Kevin Scanlon
"I believe there's a majority vote waiting for me out there," George Zraket says of the March 12 city election.
Jack Long has worked at Scottsdale Auto Supply since 1955.
Kevin Scanlon
Jack Long has worked at Scottsdale Auto Supply since 1955.

Zraket's detractors love to talk about the issues they say he has defeated. Yet Zraket is just one vote on a seven-member council. At most, he commands three votes in the current political makeup, one short of the majority needed to approve or defeat any given item.

The oft-used example is Los Arcos and the proposed Phoenix Coyotes hockey arena at Scottsdale and McDowell roads. To imply that Zraket alone killed the deal makes as much sense as arguing that one vote can trump a majority. Six other council members never brought the issue to a vote during the more than two-year discussion. In the end, the arena died not because of Zraket, but because the city never secured a serious development plan.

• His focus is too narrow.

Although Scottsdale is a city without council districts, meaning each elected official must compete as an at-large candidate, Zraket's critics say he doesn't have the entire city's best interests at heart. That his attention too often is commanded by the desires of a handful of residents, and he doesn't consider what residents in the south and central parts of Scottsdale might want.

It's an assessment based in hypocrisy.

The chamber and its supporters of a development-friendly city have the same narrow focus. They want someone on the council who is sympathetic toward developers, which Zraket is not. The chamber isn't interested in what all the city's residents want, just what its own membership wants.

• He's a jerk.

"He's abusive to staff. He belittles them. We're talking about professionally trained people," says former councilman Richard Campana, a onetime Zraket friend who now bitterly dislikes him. "He likes to pick on people. George is a bully. He bullies the staff, he humiliates them and he dominates the agenda."

Anyone who has ever watched a Scottsdale council meeting knows Zraket can be blunt, even aggressive in picking apart agenda items. But his questions aren't unjustified. He doesn't come out of left field. And his demeanor, while intimidating, is no worse than that of any person who is passionate about a cause.

"Many times, we sat watching on television, sitting in the kiva, we would say, 'Why don't they ask such and such?' It became evident the questions were asked someplace else. We wanted to hear the answers," says Darlene Petersen, a 43-year resident of Scottsdale who volunteered during Zraket's first campaign. "It may look like he's putting them on the spot, but you know, that's their job, to answer the questions."

The myth of George. No two opinions seem to match.

For every pundit who says he's ruining Scottsdale, there is an average citizen who says he has taken a stand for them behind the dais.

George Zraket isn't the devil. He's not an angel, either.

He's just a man in for one hell of a fight come March 12.

The truth about George Zraket is almost as entertaining as the legend that's been created.

In person, he is gracious, bombastic, funny, charming and intense. He's the kind of guy you want to have a beer with.

He's the product of a working-class suburb: Lawrence, Massachusetts, an ethnic enclave of 100,000 people during his childhood, all of various descent.

The son of Harry Zlaket, a Lebanese immigrant whose family name was changed to Zraket upon arriving in America. A kid whose mother, Grace, died when he was 5, a year before he got his first job stocking shelves in his father's neighborhood market. A young man whose five brothers were all older, whose father, a World War I veteran, died when he was 19.

Zraket paid his own way through Northeastern University in Boston, earning a bachelor's degree in business administration. He met his wife, Carol, a North Carolina native, there and he went to work immediately after graduation, spending the next 30 years in hotel/restaurant management.

He lived and ran hotels in places other people dream of visiting: Cape Cod and Key Biscayne, where he presided over some of Miami's swankiest beach getaways.

In January 1979, Zraket accepted an invitation to Arizona to look at a piece of property on Scottsdale Road that some business partners wanted to turn into a hotel.

Several trips later, while in town for business, Zraket stepped outside.

"I could smell the desert. It was beautiful," he says. "The air was so clean. The switch went. I said, 'I'm moving here.' The commitment was made."

He went back to Miami, talked to his wife and daughter, Alexis, and by Christmas they had moved.

After several years, Zraket segued from hotel management into consulting. It was on a trip to Tucson in 1989 that he discovered the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. The largest gathering of its kind, the event draws thousands of exhibitors and more than 50,000 people worldwide every year for two weeks.

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