Furious George

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

Zraket and his wife founded Atrium Productions, and have run one of the show's vendor sites ever since. They work from home, a spacious house with a pool, a circular gravel driveway and a scenic view of the McDowell mountains.

"I am not part of the grind anymore," he says proudly. "I have no alarm clock next to my bed."

He sets his own hours, shuns early morning meetings and spends months each year preparing for the February show in Tucson.

Darlene Petersen volunteered during Zraket's first campaign in 1998.
Kevin Scanlon
Darlene Petersen volunteered during Zraket's first campaign in 1998.
Scottsdale City Councilman Ned O'Hearn
Kevin Scanlon
Scottsdale City Councilman Ned O'Hearn

It's obvious that Zraket doesn't need the $1,384 he makes every month as an elected official. What's not obvious at first is why he would choose to endure the pitfalls of public office, especially after 51 years spent working a daily job.

The question isn't easily answered. For such a colorful background, George Zraket is deceivingly plain.

He's neither tall nor short, with a crescent-shaped halo of pink scalp and bushy eyebrows that make him resemble a fleshed-out Gene Siskel, the famed movie critic from the Chicago Tribune.

He appears equally comfortable in faded work pants as he does a suit. He still owns his 1977 Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon.

It's his personality and his presence that set Zraket apart.

He can't sit still when he talks. Either his hands, his face or his entire body is constantly morphing, mutating wildly into gestures both comic and absurd. His eyebrows arch, his mouth twists.

"Zraaaaaaaaaaket!" he growls, mimicking those people he knows mutter his name with dripping venom.

One minute he's telling a story so detailed that he recalls the specific ordinance number of a particular agenda item from years past. The next he's bouncing off a plush leather sofa in his office to pick up a newspaper clipping.

With high camp, he reads the words of Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts in January describing the looming political battle between the good old boys of Scottsdale past and the new regime it seeks to unseat.

"The empire is back and taking aim at one of the leaders of the rebellion," Roberts wrote. "Their rallying cry: a return to civility, which is empire-speak for 'get rid of that bigmouth, George Zraket.'"

It's a classic story of good versus evil, and as told by Zraket it becomes Star Wars.

The SAC PAC, as he calls the chamber's new political action committee, is the Empire, trying to build a partisan Death Star council to enact its will. Zraket himself is Luke Skywalker, a naive farm boy enlisted to battle the forces of darkness with a ragtag following of freedom fighters.

A look of glee spreads across his features.

It's 6:30 at night. He's been talking for more than three hours about various votes, issues and the extreme personalities he has encountered. In the kitchen, Carol is cooking dinner. When he leaves his office, still talking a mile a minute, still gesturing, she doesn't flinch.

It's just George.

A person's take on politics often can range from apathetic to obsessive, but rarely does someone make it seem like this much fun.

At first, Zraket was just a casual observer. He kept up with city government by reading newspapers and magazines when he moved to Scottsdale.

Even though he was friends with some of the city's highest-profile power players, including Herb Drinkwater and Sam and Richard Campana, he knew them mostly in a social context.

That began to change in 1984 with a simple city council decision to allow a property in his neighborhood off Cattletrack Road to be rezoned for use as a business.

Zraket went to city hall and pleaded his case that allowing one property to rezone would open the floodgates to a mixed-use neighborhood. He lost, but his prediction turned out to be true.

Over the next 12 years, Zraket found himself standing before the city's elected leaders, fighting each new rezoning case in his neighborhood. He lost each time. Support from his neighbors dwindled, as they grew frustrated with the lack of response to their concerns.

By 1996, when a neighboring property owner who offered space to local artists asked for his support in her effort to expand the makeshift artist's colony, Zraket had had enough.

The plan, he says, included more room for the artists, which was fine. It also envisioned retail space, a restaurant and a performance theater, which was not.

Zraket said he wouldn't support a rezoning effort that included businesses that might be open seven days a week, attract more traffic to his residential street and bring additional noise and commotion to his quiet enclave. He worried that a restaurant would need a liquor license. He envisioned loud, boisterous parties.

He battled city planners, arguing their records didn't support the facts. He lobbied the council. He rallied his neighbors.

After more than a year, the city approved the rezoning. Zraket still wasn't done. He and a small group of supporters got enough signatures to put a referendum on the next city election ballot. Then he took the city to Maricopa County Superior Court for allegedly misstating the wording on the ballot, and won. The referendum itself was defeated by voters.

"We had realized early on we had no council members to turn to," he says. "This case was the prime example of what was wrong with Scottsdale's government. They had lost touch with the citizens."

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