Supposedly intelligent, respectable people do some really dumb stuff sometimes. Case in point: Former GOP gubernatorial hopeful Mike Harris, who ran third behind Don Goldwater and Len Munsil in the 2006 Republican primary for governor. Munsil won that battle and went on to get his lunch handed to him by current Department of Homeland Security secretary and then-Governor Janet Napolitano.
Harris positioned himself as a slightly more moderate alternative to mush-mouth anti-Mexican doofus Goldwater and the ultra-conservative Munsil, whom Harris reportedly blasted as the "Christian Taliban." After his loss, Harris crossed party lines to endorse Libertarian candidate Barry Hess in the general election.
During his disastrous campaign for public office, Harris went so far as to oppose Prop 107, the gay-marriage ban that was defeated in 2006. (A similar measure won approval to the state's Constitution last year.) Though anything gay is generally anathema in Republican politics, Harris granted the local gay biweekly Echo Magazine an interview wherein he blasted the GOP's "holier-than-thou religious attitude."
Though Harris did not support gay marriage per se, he declared that Prop 107 went too far. He told the Arizona Republic at the time, "When two people are in a loving relationship for a long time, God love 'em."
That's why my eyeballs nearly popped out when I saw footage of an October 24 neo-Nazi rally in Riverside, California, where Harris was present, along with Adolf Hitler-worshipper J.T. Ready and about 20 members of the National Socialist Movement.
Like Ready and some of the others facing off 600 anti-racist demonstrators, Harris was outfitted in all-black combat gear, with a helmet and goggles and plastic flex-cuffs hanging from his shoulder. Later, the National Socialist Movement Web site posted a group photo of the sieg heil-ing SS wanna-bes. Though Harris is not doing the Nazi salute, he is in the shot, smiling, clearly identifiable by the gap between his two front teeth.
Had the one-time defender of homosexual domestic partnerships gone Nazi?
I had seen Harris and Ready together in a video shot at an anti-Obama protest by conservative videographer usadefender1. In it, Ready denounces the "Obongo" administration, as Harris looks on. After Ready finishes, Harris goes on a similar tirade, repeating the slur "Obongo" in his address to the camera.
"Let's first of all clear up some misconceptions," Harris says in the video. "We are not a nation of immigrants. I am the seventh generation born in this country. I did not emigrate from anywhere. This young man is the eighth generation born in this country. We did not emigrate from anywhere. We built this country."
The "young man" is Harris' tow-headed son, who was scampering around. Ironically, Harris caught grief in 2006 when it was revealed he had asked a judge to cut his child support payments then plowed $100,000 of his own dough into his campaign.
But the clincher was Harris' self-made profile on NewSaxon.org, the MySpace for neo-Nazis, run by the National Socialist Movement. You know, the guys who just paraded down Washington Street to the state Capitol carrying swastikas and decrying immigrants and Jews.
On the "online community for whites by whites," Harris went by the handle "freethinkerseeking" and addressed members of the site as "my brothers and sisters." Posted were a photo and bio, in which he bragged about having graduate degrees and being a "highly intelligent" member of the high-IQ Mensa and Triple 9 societies. He also notes that he is of "pure Aryan blood stock."
Mr. Genius' "friends" included Ready and other neo-Nazis, with whom he communicated via the site. At one point, Ready complained that Harris' phone message box was full and instructed him to clear some space in the message box "so I can tell ya where to meet."
In Harris' photo section, there were snapshots of his girlfriends, one of whom is nearly naked, his dog "Tosco the Belgium wonder dog," and (creepily) a shirtless boy sporting a Mohawk, with the caption, "My adorable son, 100 percent Aryan."
I couldn't get in touch with Harris by phone so I went to the Scottsdale law office where he works. He wouldn't come to the front desk.
I thought I would run into him when I covered the November 7 NSM demo on the Capitol lawn, but he wasn't there. But at a recent anti-amnesty tea party at the same location, I spotted him. Though Ready was there, carrying a cloth portrait of Hitler, Harris didn't speak with him. As was leaving, I asked about his NewSaxon account.
Harris denied he was a neo-Nazi, describing NewSaxon as a "social-networking site." He claimed not to know NewSaxon was sponsored by the National Socialist Movement and said he hadn't noticed all the swastikas. I then wondered why he had referred to his son as "100 percent Aryan."
"He is [100 percent Aryan]," he replied, following up with the non-sequitur, "I look at it as white people's civil rights that have been neglected for so long."
Huh? And this dude supposedly has an MBA from Pepperdine University?
Later, via phone, he admitted to being in Riverside at the NSM demo, but only as an "observer" to document "civil rights violations." He repeatedly said he had not been on the front lines, that he was not an NSM member, and was not a neo-Nazi or Nazi sympathizer.
As for the picnic photo with NSM members, swastika flags, and sieg heils?
"It was a group photo," he said. "They had a barbecue afterward. I was invited to it. J.T. Ready was my ride there and back. That was it."
Harris told me that he had taken the profile down after I confronted him about it, and hadn't been on the site for months. As for Ready, Harris said he was a "good guy," with whom he sometimes had strong disagreements.
In the future, Harris said, he will be careful about who he associates with, and that the trip to Riverside was an "eye-opener."
"There are some very scary people out there, bro," he told me, not wanting to give additional details.
Harris also complained that he went to the Riverside "under false pretenses."
I can't get inside Harris' head to figure out why someone who claims to be such a brainiac would attend a neo-Nazi rally, hang out with the most notorious brown-shirt in the state, and post a NewSaxon account with a photo of his tyke on it.
One thing's for sure: Warren Buffett the guy is not.
The twin towns of Pine and Strawberry, just outside of Payson, are surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of the Mogollon Rim, a mountainous shelf of rock that seems to encircle and embrace the piney area.
But like the burg in the David Lynch flick Blue Velvet or his TV show Twin Peaks, the tranquility of the area masks disturbing tendencies. That's what I discovered when I drove up to the Pine-Strawberry Elementary School to take a look at a not-yet-complete mural by Phoenix artist Francisco Garcia.
One side of the single-story school is covered with outlines of images, some finished, some not. There's a brown buffalo, the school's mascot. Musicians. Kids playing baseball. And in the far left corner, there's a rustic cabin that represents a historic structure, a one-room schoolhouse that's purportedly the oldest schoolhouse in Arizona.
However, that schoolhouse was not always part of Garcia's mural. At the behest of the Principal Mike Clark and school board members such as Diane Roeder, Garcia painted over the original image of an African-American boy in a baseball cap. Garcia had made the boy blue and had planned to paint the other faces depicted in the mural other colors.
Garcia, a sophomore in art and Chicano studies at Phoenix College and recipient of the college's Eric Fischl Vanguard Scholarship and the Eric Fischl Award of Merit, explained that Clark and Roeder began getting heat from locals as soon as the blue boy went up. So Garcia was asked to paint over the boy with something "less controversial."
"I was shocked. It's a kid," Garcia told me on the car ride to Pine. "And he's not even black; he's blue. Then [they] asked me if I can change the features. This made me mad as an artist because I worked on it all day. And it was approved. Once you approve an image it's done."
Garcia said his initial sketch for the mural, created after a workshop he conducted with some of the 135 students who attend the school, included an image of Martin Luther King Jr. He said he was told that the kids could not relate to MLK. So he came up with other images, including the blue boy, that were approved by Principal Clark, he said.
Clark denied during a phone conversation that he had approved the blue boy, and he could not recall whether Garcia's initial sketch included an image of Martin Luther King Jr. But his comments in e-mails that Garcia saved, and in a conversation Garcia taped (unbeknownst to others present) of a meeting with Roeder and Clark, are eyebrow-raising.
In one e-mail, Clark outlined some of the comments he had received from the community, including a fairly reasonable one: "The gun the Transformer is holding must be deleted."
The principal also said, "The mural overall needs more of a country flavor to it. We live in the country/mountains, not Phoenix.
"[There are] some questions on why an African-American boy is depicted so prominently," Clark wrote. "This is not a racial comment; it's just that there are no African-American students attending Pine-Strawberry School."
(Clark admitted to me that there is one African-American child in the school, as well as a few Hispanic kids. Otherwise, he said the small student body was mostly Anglo.)
"Faces need to be less ethnic," Clark told Garcia. "Again, not a racial thing. The reality of our community is that the community [is] 95 [percent] Anglo."
In the digital recording of Garcia's meeting with Roeder and Clark, similar issues came up. Such surreptitious recordings are legal in Arizona, as long as one party knows it is being taped. Garcia told me he decided to make the recording after things started getting "crazy."
During the meeting, Clark noted that the mural had become "a political issue," and he described getting constant phone calls and critical community members showing up at the school.
"I don't even apologize," Clark said at one point. "I should have foreseen this happening."
When Clark stepped out of the room for a moment, Roeder focused on the image of the blue boy, which was one of several images from photos that Garcia submitted after the first mural sketch was rejected.
"I know Mike okayed those photos," Roeder told Garcia. "I don't know why. I didn't see that photo."
Earlier, Roeder expressed the belief that it was because Garcia had finished the blue boy first, which angered residents and parents.
"I feel like if you had finished the buffalo face [first]," she said, "or if you had finished anything else on that mural, then it wouldn't have been a problem. But you finished the face in the corner [the blue boy].
"We don't really have an ethnic background here," she said, apologetically. "And [we talked about how] we needed people to be more Caucasian. So the one thing you finished has raised holy hell here. I can't even tell you how much Mike and I have been dealing with. It's just unbelievable."
For his part, Garcia told the pair that he wanted to work with them. "I'd be willing to change whatever it takes," he told them.
The young muralist was also interested in getting paid the money he was owed. He had a contract with a local civic organization called Take Pride, which was funding the art to the tune of $4,000. Garcia had received the initial payment of $1,500, but the rest was not forthcoming.
Still, Garcia painted the old schoolhouse over the blue boy. Roeder later wrote to Garcia via e-mail that the school board "voted not to continue at this time, leaving the buffalo [and] painting the rest of the wall back to the original color."
"Also," she let him know, "Take Pride will not be paying any additional funds."
A representative from Take Pride did not return my calls asking for comment. I did speak with Clark and Roeder. Both said they had seen Garcia's portfolio, which has a decidedly hip-hop flair.
Garcia is a former graff artist and regularly displays his wares at First Fridays in downtown Phoenix, which is where I met him and heard about his travails with the Pine-Strawberry school district. He regularly uses spray paint and acrylics in his work, as he did for the Pine-Strawberry mural.
"What he put on the building was not okay with our community," Roeder told me. "It looked kind of graffiti-ish, like it should be in a more urban community. We're up in the woods, and we wanted something that had sort of our feel."
She denied that the blue boy had been a sticking point. She also faulted Garcia for not giving the school an outline "in a timely manner" and for not showing up when he was expected.
Garcia explained that they wanted him to come by on a Thursday, but he could make it up there only on a Friday, and stayed over 'til Saturday. He said he wanted to work with the school kids on the mural, but that didn't happen, so he ended up bringing assistants to help him with the project.
Pressed on his recollection of events, Clark said he was unsure of whether he had seen the photo of the African-American kid from which Garcia worked. He said he did not think there was anything racist in the objection to the blue boy, just that it didn't fit the surroundings. I asked him what it was specifically about the blue boy that brought down the ire of the community.
"I don't know," he said, after a pause. "Other than perhaps it looked more like — with the manner of dress, the hat and stuff . . . not anything you see up in this neck of the woods. There are mostly cowboys up here and rural people."
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What I don't get is, if the school wanted some kind of lame Davy Crockett mess on its wall, why hire a hip-hop-style muralist from Phoenix? They should've checked out the "art" in Old Town Scottsdale, instead.
Garcia is obviously not happy with the outcome, particularly with not getting paid, even after being flexible in painting over the African-American kid, which ran counter to his principles.
"I believe that they should have different kids on the mural," he told me. "They're keeping their kids ignorant. So when they get out of Payson or Pine, they're going to be afraid of other cultures."