Soiled Hands

It's no surprise that builders take shortcuts to make money. What might shock you: Government officials -- from regulators to legislators -- do little to stop them

The reason: To Arizona politicians, customer satisfaction is clearly not the issue. Homebuilders have juiced the state's political system with so much money and influence that the idea of protecting buyers hardly seems to register.

And so it's no wonder that even though her 2-year-old house is cracking and splitting and shedding insulation like dry skin in an Arizona winter, Melinda Westcott was completely on her own.

Todd Seifert first filed a complaint against his builder in the spring of 2004.
Michelle Paster
Todd Seifert first filed a complaint against his builder in the spring of 2004.
Jim Eckley is an outspoken critic of the state's system.
Michelle Paster
Jim Eckley is an outspoken critic of the state's system.

Arizona's economy, so the story goes, used to be dependent on the Five C's: Copper, cattle, climate, cotton, and citrus.

But most of those industries have been crippled by the facts of modern life in the West.

Water is expensive. Land is even worse. Raising cattle is no longer economical, and any smart orange farmer surely knows he can make much more dough selling out to a developer. Even the clean, dry air that used to be so good for tuberculosis patients and asthmatics is no good anymore.

A sixth "C," construction, is now the main engine driving the state's growth.

Arizona is enjoying the biggest boom in its history. The census bureau reports that greater Phoenix has a net gain of 546 people every day. Across Maricopa and Pinal counties, builders took out permits for 63,570 new homes last year alone, according to RL Brown Housing Reports.

Not surprisingly, the homebuilders' agenda has become, in many ways, the agenda of the Legislature.

"By far, developers are the most powerful entity in the state," says Sandy Bahr, a lobbyist for the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club who has frequently clashed with them. "They raise a lot of money.

"And their power comes both from the fact of this enormous amount of money -- and also because in Arizona we have so focused on not just growth and development, but on rapid growth and development."

Indeed, builders have an important job, one that all but the most annoying not-in-my-backyard whiners can get behind.

Who doesn't want a big new house, and want it cheap? For that matter, how could anyone root against the state's biggest economic engine?

The builders also have the manpower.

"They're very well organized," says Israel Torres, who until recently was Arizona's Registrar of Contractors and made a point of trying to work with the homebuilders. "They put tremendous pressure at the Legislature on several bills."

When the builders care about an issue, they can show up in force. They know how to frame their issues: In legislative meetings, they deftly play the "small business owner" card.

But while many contractors do, indeed, own small businesses, they're also part of a well-financed army.

In the last six years, they've contributed at least $155,304 to legislative candidates and their campaigns, according to a New Times analysis of state elections records.

Since 2000, the trade associations representing homebuilders in Tucson and Phoenix have donated $21,000 to the Arizona Democratic Party, and even more to the Republicans: $33,750.

They've generously anted up for individual members of both parties, too. Builders, their political action committees, and their lobbyists have donated another $58,954 to state legislative campaigns since 2000, according to a New Times analysis of state finance reports.

They've also formed their own committee to campaign directly for candidates, paying for yard signs and door hangers that politicians might not be able to afford on their own.

It adds up, especially when you consider the cost of a campaign in Arizona. A legislative incumbent can win by spending as little as $20,000, and that's for primary and general elections combined.

The builders, too, have connections.

The list of powerful lobbyists who've been affiliated with the building industry here is a long one.

After all, it's not just the homebuilders associations that hire lobbying firms; some builders hire their own lobbyists as well. (Del Webb alone has nine lobbyists pressing its interests at the capitol, according to records, plus three big law firms.)

Working for builders has kick-started many a political career. And that means a number of politicos now hold positions where they could easily do a former employer a favor.

State Representative Jonathan Paton (R-Tucson) got his start lobbying for the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association. The House Majority Whip, Representative Gary Pierce (R-Mesa), used to lobby for the Valley equivalent, the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona.

The Valley association has friends everywhere: Its former lobbyists include Maricopa County Supervisor Andy Kunasek, Phoenix City Councilman Tom Simplot, and Mayor Phil Gordon's former press secretary, Sarah Cowgill.

The homebuilders are connected enough to ensure that their reputation precedes. While Janet Napolitano, for example, has received no more than a pittance from builders, she's surely savvy enough to avoid picking a fight with them.

Look what happened when "smart growth" types pushed a statewide initiative in 2000 to control development here. The builders quickly raised $4.7 million, according to records.

The initiative, not surprisingly, was defeated.

The central Arizona association's longtime director, Connie Wilhelm, is widely admired as one of the toughest players at the Legislature. "She's really fair, honest, and tough," says one former associate. "Some people are a little afraid of her -- but she wants to do things right. And she gets things done."

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