An Exercise in Utility
A popular lunch hangout just down the street from the Capitol. Renz Jennings' chicken taco languishes on his plate, untouched, as its owner explains the ins and outs of utility deregulation.
Florid, balding and flamboyant, Jennings, an attorney by training, sees beauty in the nuts and bolts of a job that is full of technical detail: chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission.
"To me, what we do is fascinating because it draws on so many things," he says. "You just can't do this unless you sit down and look at something in all of its intricacy. And sometimes the amount of detail is staggering, but that's the nature of utilities."
He also relishes his role as Democratic agent provocateur. Last month, when Governor J. Fife Symington III and Republican state Representative Jeff Groscost fired off nearly identical letters urging him to slow the pace of electric deregulation, Jennings would have none of it.
In their letters, Symington and Groscost argued that, in the wake of the massive blackouts that hit the West this summer, Jennings and the commission should move with caution toward deregulation.
"As the power outage demonstrates, safe and reliable power for Arizona citizens depends as much on its neighboring states as it does on Arizona's electric utilities," Symington's September 18 letter stated. "We simply must have regional standards that are mandatory for electric utilities operating in the Western area before we move into a competitive forum."
Calling Symington a politically "sick animal," Jennings accused the governor and the Republican-dominated Legislature of caving in to pressure from utilities who fear losing out in a deregulated marketplace.
"Sections of the two letters have exactly the same wording, and the tone of both letters reflects the position of those with a vested interest in obstructing the introduction of competition," Jennings wrote the next week.
Jennings pauses midbite as a tall, gaunt man in a bola tie ambles past.
"Hey, it's Rusty Bowers, the environmentalist!" Jennings chides loudly enough to turn a few heads. Bowers, the conservative Republican chairman of the House Environment Committee, nods and smiles wanly as he makes his way toward the door.
"He gets all worked up if you call him that," Jennings explains in a conspiratorial voice. "As if that was some kind of insult or something."
But Jennings has other matters on his mind this afternoon, specifically the upcoming race to decide who will fill the seat being vacated by his fellow Democratic commissioner, Marcia Weeks, who has decided to step down. He uses the occasion to stump for Barbara Sherman, the former Tempe councilwoman who will face off against Republican Jim Irvin.
"She's terrific, perfect for the job," Jennings gushes. "She's got a good record as an advocate, and she knows the issues."
"He's not what this state needs," he says, shaking his head.
"Do Arizonans really want a commission that is controlled by a couple of millionaires?" he asks, referring to the fact that both Irvin and Republican Commissioner Karl Kunasek have hefty personal fortunes to their names. "I don't think so."
Jennings, no pauper himself, produces a manila folder containing a sheaf of charts showing how Arizona's utility customers have historically fared badly under Republican-dominated commissions.
"This is what people can look forward to," Jennings says, brandishing a graph.
But if he is concerned about policy, Jennings also has political interests. He stands to become a wallflower on the three-member commission--whose agenda he and Weeks have largely shaped since 1985--if Sherman, his 11th-hour, hand-picked candidate, does not mount something that resembles a challenge to Irvin's well-funded, smoothly running campaign.
Think of Arizona's three-member Corporation Commission as the Rodney Dangerfield of state politics.
Its members don't have the satisfaction of seeing their names in the paper all that often, and their jobs don't make them instant hits at parties.
Not that what the commission does--regulating the state's utilities and deciding how much they can charge customers--isn't important; it's just that much of it is so arcane that people find it about as enjoyable as a root canal.
There have been times, however, when the commission has become the center of controversy. The last was in 1985, when voters swept Weeks and Jennings into office amid allegations that the two Republican commissioners they replaced were in bed with the utilities.
The uprising stemmed from a series of massive rate hikes the two Republicans had approved, much of which was used to fund construction of the Palo Verde nuclear plant.
This year's race, however, has stirred little interest.
Asked why he hasn't done a survey on the race, veteran political pollster Earl de Berge says: "Frankly, people don't really care about it."
All of which seems to suit Jennings just fine.
"Really, this is a commentary on the commission's success as much as anything," he explains. "The reason people don't think about us much right now is because we have held the line for consumers."
Though unnoticed, it would be a mistake to dismiss this race as unimportant. The election comes at a time when the commission is preparing to launch into one of the more daunting tasks in its history: nudging Arizona's electric power market, long monopolized by Arizona Public Service Company, toward competition, or "electric wheeling," through which consumers can pick and choose power providers much the same way they do a long-distance carrier. Earlier this year, the Democrats also adopted rules aimed at opening up local phone service to competition.
The two candidates--Barbara Sherman and Jim Irvin--are a study in extremes.
Former Tempe councilwoman and neighborhood activist Sherman sees a Corporation Commission seat as her chance to continue a long career of advocacy.
Irvin says he wants to change the way the commission does business.
As of late August, according to records on file with the secretary of state, Irvin had $100,000 in his war chest--a startling sum considering that a commissioner earns only half that amount annually.
Spending that kind of money for, of all things, a seat on the Corporation Commission is not without precedent in Arizona. In 1994, Kunasek dumped more than $165,000 into his campaign. Irvin has given every indication that he will continue his spending right up until the election.
As of August 31, Sherman, a latecomer to the race, had managed to scrounge together a mere $10,000.
Barbara Sherman, all five feet four inches of her, marches into the bustling Democratic headquarters on North Central Avenue and heads toward the corner appropriated by her small campaign staff.
In the background, phones ring and volunteers swirl around a lectern, making last-minute adjustments as TV crews set up to record the latest salvo that Democratic congressional hopeful Steve Owens will fire at Republican incumbent Representative J.D. Hayworth.
But Sherman's corner is quiet. A lone staffer tends the phone behind a desk as Sherman inspects a newly minted "Sherman for Corporation Commission" campaign sign leaning against the wall. Though the election is little more than a month away, the sign is from the first batch to come off the presses.
Nothing in Sherman's appearance or demeanor suggests she is more than just another harried campaign volunteer. Even during political functions, she is not one to show up in a power suit, preferring instead horn-rimmed glasses, sensible shoes and a somewhat frumpy wardrobe that would seem appropriate for a librarian.
Her tendency toward modesty goes deeper than her appearance, though. When asked to tell about herself, she must be prodded to mention her accomplishments, dwelling instead on those of her father, a Rhodes scholar and former law school dean who, now in his 70s, still takes cases. "A brilliant man," she says.
But Sherman, 54, is no political neophyte. During the past 30 years, she has built a political resume--both behind the scenes and on the front lines--that belies her retiring exterior.
A self-described "soccer mom" who early on "decided to stay home," Sherman stumbled into political activism shortly after moving to the Valley in the mid-'60s with her husband, Tom. She was freshly graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor's degree in philosophy.
The young couple purchased a Tempe ranch house in the shadow of the Phoenix Zoo. Back then, the area to the east of the zoo was mostly farmland and scrub desert, but it was not going to stay that way for long. A farm nearby was soon snapped up for development and, in a pattern that would be repeated all over the Valley, was zoned for high-density residential construction.
Afraid of seeing the desert overrun with apartments and condos, Sherman mobilized to lead the fight to convince Tempe zoning officials to lower the density.
"We were really ahead of the curve on that one," Sherman recalls.
But there were other threats lurking. When Sherman learned in the mid-'70s that Sky Harbor International Airport was planning a new runway that threatened to turn the skies over her home into the airborne equivalent of the Autobahn, she once again mobilized, this time to impose limits on the jetliners' flight paths that steered them over the nearby Salt River bed and away from homes.
"I was out there every day . . . making sure the airplanes stayed where they were supposed to," she says.
Sherman became such an expert on the subject, in fact, that she was hired on as a consultant by one of the engineering firms involved in the project.
After completing a four-year term on the Tempe City Council, Sherman stepped down in 1992 despite popular support among her district's constituents because "life on the council was not conducive to family life."
Today, she runs a small import business specializing in South American arts and crafts. She and her husband also raise emus--big, flightless birds related to ostriches that are prized for their feathers and meat.
With the November 5 election looming, Sherman has precious little time to get her record or her message across to voters. Because of a family conflict, she did not even file to run for the job until June, well after Irvin had declared his candidacy. For months, the Irvin machine has been chugging away while Arizona's anemic Democratic apparatus struggled to find a candidate to defend its Corporation Commission majority, the only one it holds in the state.
By now, Irvin's name has sprung up on almost every street corner, his ads have appeared in the papers and his populist-sounding radio spots, in which he rails against everything from power outages to dirty water to sluggish telephone service courtesy of U S West, have blanketed the airwaves.
They are attack ads, but it's not Sherman they're attacking. Rather, by maligning the commission, its way of doing business and its agenda for the past ten years, they are a not-so-subtle slap at the man who has shaped that agenda: Renz Jennings.
Jim Irvin. Age: 46. Occupation: Former elementary school teacher, now president and CEO of Continental Security Guards, a company founded by his father which now employs almost 900 people.
Married to Carol. Three children. Education: Bachelor's degree in primary education from the University of Southern California, master's in business administration from Loyola Marymount University.
Political background: Arizona Republican party, former finance director, precinct committeeman and chairman of Trunk 'N Tusk, a GOP booster organization. Longtime member of Rotary International. Serves as volunteer deputy sheriff.
In 1994, Irvin squandered almost $350,000 of his own money on a losing primary race for secretary of state against well-liked fellow Republican Jane Hull. Much of that money was channeled into high-profile attack ads that blasted Hull as a career politician who wanted the $54,000-a-year post solely to increase her retirement benefits.
Never mind that Hull's husband is a doctor.
Though unsuccessful in his bid, Irvin posted respectable numbers, netting 48 percent of the vote to Hull's 52. At the time, Irvin was dubbed "the mystery man" and a "blank slate" by local pundits, many of whom wondered why anyone would spend so much money to become secretary of state. (That was then. Now, it appears more likely every day that Hull could succeed Fife Symington as governor.)
Irvin also was regarded as a bit of a paradox, and still is. Though Jennings would like to paint him as an appendage of the Governor's Office, Irvin shows no apparent intention of marching lock step with the governor anytime soon; he labeled Symington's proposal to eliminate the state's personal income tax "unworkable." He is also pro-choice on abortion.
Two years later, Irvin remains an enigma, and he seems to prefer it that way. He would speak only briefly with New Times while attending a candidate's forum in Kearney, a small mining town southeast of the Valley.
The event is sponsored by People for the West!, a conservative organization that lobbies on behalf of extractive industries. About 150 people, many of them employed at the nearby copper mine, file into the high school auditorium to hear a slate of candidates, including J.D. Hayworth.
Sherman speaks first. In the auditorium, her voice fails to carry well, making her sound almost girlish. Her speech is brief and halting, as if she hasn't had time to polish her delivery.
After she jokes about the disadvantages of being short, the moderator lowers the microphone for her and Sherman gets to the point.
"There are significant differences between my opponent and me," she says, pointing to her track record as an advocate and councilwoman. In contrast, she says, Irvin is trying to buy his way into office.
"And," she adds, "he has earned several million dollars from the Arizona Public Service Company, which represents an historic conflict of interest between him and one of the utilities he is supposed to regulate."
The jab is a reference to a deal Irvin once had with APS under which his company provided security at the newly built Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Jennings has hammered on the point as well.
Sherman goes on to charge that Irvin has an additional conflict with APS because the utility recently won approval to start a home-security subsidiary in a joint venture with Honeywell, Inc.
"I don't know where a lot of this stuff comes from," the stocky, blunt-featured Irvin says once he takes the podium.
Though no accomplished orator, Irvin manages to stay on message better than Sherman. His delivery is smoother, more relaxed. The gist of the speech is not appreciably different from the text of his radio ads: that the commission has failed in its mandate under the Arizona Constitution to protect the interests of consumers.
"A tree falls in Oregon, and we lose power?" he says in wonderment, referring to the summertime blackouts.
Irvin goes on to lambaste the commission for things that have traditionally fallen beyond its scope, such as failing to regulate water quality among the state's thousands of small, rural water companies, and allowing many of those same companies to skate by with delinquent property taxes.
Nevertheless, the message seems to strike a chord. Afterward, Irvin steps outside for a drink of water.
"I really don't know where they get all of this stuff," he says of Sherman's dig about his conflict of interest. "I had a contract with APS. So what? That was six, seven years ago. What does that have to do with anything now?"
A reporter asks about the security deal between APS and Honeywell, which places the two in direct competition with Irvin's own company.
"Simple," he says, a little irked. "I declare a conflict of interest and I abstain from voting."
Irvin calls Jennings' allegation that his campaign is being run out of Symington's office "ridiculous," saying that, of all the state's offices, the commission should be nonpartisan.
"And who are they to criticize me?" he asks, referring to the help Weeks, who co-chairs Sherman's campaign, and Jennings have provided to his opponent.
Jennings makes no qualms about helping Sherman.
"Let me be just straight-out," Jennings says. "I'm helping her because I think he [Irvin] is inappropriate. I don't think he has any credentials whatsoever. He's a seller of services, just like utilities are sellers of product or service. And he hasn't paid any kinds of dues. He hasn't shown any interest in these issues."
But then again, neither has Sherman--until recently.
As for the charge that he is a country-club Republican, Irvin notes that Sherman's 1994 filing for a failed Tempe mayoral bid listed a hefty portfolio of 59 separate investments. Her filings for this race list 53 separate investments; the filings do not require disclosure of their value.
"She's quite comfortable, believe me," he says.
Inside the auditorium, the boom of Hayworth's voice can be heard.
"I'm sorry, I don't want to miss this," he says, shrugging as he turns to walk away.
Irvin and Sherman are scheduled to meet for additional debates in Tucson and Phoenix. In the meantime, Irvin's ads continue to play out on the radio and his signs continue to go up as he funnels more money into a race for one of the state's most obscure offices.
But will his investment pay off? Without polls to judge the race by, it's tough to say who's ahead.
One Republican operative who has watched the race closely, though, points out that Irvin's money is no guarantee of victory.
Ever since the 1985 debacle that swept Jennings and Weeks into office, the GOP source says, voters--especially Sun City Republicans who are more than willing to embrace antitax Republican governors and legislators--have balked at allowing Republicans to run the commission that regulates utility rates.
"Their feeling is they got burned the last time," he says. "Irvin will have his work cut out for him trying to convice them he'll be any different."
The presidential race is another factor working against Irvin, the source says. If Bob Dole generates tepid support among Republicans, the GOP turnout will naturally be lower.
"There are a lot more things working against Irvin than for him," the source says. "This is definitely an uphill battle.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.