In 1987, Derrick Lee was selling roofs in Huntington Beach, California. He had no interest in politics. But he had this unemployed roommate. One day Lee noticed some help-wanted ads for paid petition circulators -- the folks you see outside the library and the supermarket who ask you to sign petitions to put issues like medical marijuana and tobacco taxes on the ballot.
"I figured, 'Hey, we've got rent coming up,'" Lee recalls. "I'm like, 'Eric, call one of those ads in the paper. I'll take you down there myself. You're gonna have a job, 'cause I'm not paying your rent again this month.'"
"... When I walked in with my roommate, the guy just assumed that I was there for a job, too. He said, 'You can get paid by the signature on this.' I envisioned looking out my window at all those people on the beach, and I was like, 'I am all over this.'"
Lee quit his job and started gathering signatures.
"I did it for about a month, then I thought, 'I can manage a group of people doing this. This looks easy.'" Kimball Petition Management, based in Thousand Oaks, and one of the country's largest petition companies, hired him as a crew chief; the next campaign cycle, Lee was promoted to area coordinator. By 1994, Kimball had him running the petition drive that put the tobacco-tax initiative on the ballot in Arizona (voters would approve it). Lee had married by then and his wife, Amy, was from Tempe. They settled here to start a family and a business: Lee Petition Management.
Lee doesn't remember the issues on that first ballot or how much he was paid per signature, and he lost track of his old roommate ages ago. Thinking back, he laughs at where he's landed. "I was really rude to people [who circulated petitions] in California before I ever went out and gathered," he admits.
Sitting in Bruegger's Bagels on Mill Avenue in Tempe one recent morning, Lee still looks like a twentysomething beach bum in jeans and a striped tee shirt; he recently streaked his dark hair with blond.
But Derrick Lee, now 35, is the father of four children under 6 and one of the most powerful political operators in the state.
Starting with the tobacco tax, Lee has been responsible for nearly every major statewide initiative that has found its way onto the Arizona ballot in the past several years. The same is true with county and city ballot questions and candidates ranging all the way from the governor down to school board members. Sure, once you're on the ballot, you've got to get yourself elected or your issue approved. But getting on the ballot is all but impossible, political observers agree, without the help of a professional. And in Arizona, Lee Petition Management has a virtual monopoly.
This campaign season alone, Lee will hire more than 100 people for an average of more than $1 per signature to collect more than 1.5 million signatures that will likely let Arizona voters act in November on initiatives affecting growth, drug laws, the state income tax, bilingual education, local telephone service and the use of tobacco-settlement funds. He's already got the signatures to qualify the Reform Party for the ballot, and he will work for many individual candidates.
"I feel like I am really blessed," Lee says, picking at his whole-wheat bagel. "I have more than enough work to do. I don't have to advertise. And I'm constantly turning down work, because I don't have the time to do it.
". . . The goal would be to have more coordinators trained so we can take on more and more work. Eventually, I'd like to retire and get out of it. I'm almost 36 years old, and I've already had campaigns where I'm eating Rolaids three or four times a night, I'm so stressed out over what's going on, you know? And everything's going well."
Phoenix political consultant Jason Rose has worked with Lee on several issues and has hired him for two current ones: a push in Coconino County to put the controversial Canyon Forest Village development project before voters and a proposed amendment to the Arizona Constitution to create an independent redistricting commission. Lee and Rose have been on opposite sides on at least one issue: Lee has collected signatures for groups that want to keep Wal-Mart Supercenters out of Mesa and Yuma; Wal-Mart is one of Rose's clients.
Lee's influence is impressive, Rose says. "No legislator has passed nearly as many measures as Derrick Lee has. No legislator could pass as many measures as Derrick Lee has. And no legislator, I would argue, could approach the impact of some of the measures that Derrick has qualified for the ballot."
Bob Grossfeld, another local consultant, concurs.
"Derrick Lee may in fact be the most influential person in Arizona politics -- elected, unelected, it doesn't matter," Grossfeld says. "Because at this moment in time, he is the only one available to go out and collect the massive amounts of signatures to put something on the ballot."
And unless you're a political junkie -- or among Lee's army of signature gatherers -- you've likely never heard of the guy.
David Broder's new book, Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money, tells the story of Lee Petition Management -- even though Derrick Lee and his business are never mentioned by name.
Broder, a veteran political reporter for the Washington Post, argues that the initiative process in this country is deeply flawed -- that it was designed to allow citizens an independent voice in government through grassroots organizing but instead has ushered in yet another era in which money dictates public policy.
In Arizona, there are four ways to change a law: The Legislature can vote with the governor's approval; the Legislature can put a question on the ballot; any citizen can launch an initiative, in which signatures are gathered (signatures of 10 percent of the total voters in the last gubernatorial election is required; 15 percent if the initiative seeks to amend the state Constitution) and, again, the question is put before the people; or any citizen can launch a referendum, in which the people are asked to reverse a law already passed by the Legislature. To qualify a referendum, only 5 percent of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election is needed, but the signatures must be collected within 90 days of the law's passage.
Only 24 states, mainly in the West, allow initiatives. The idea was borrowed from Switzerland and born of a 19th-century movement, favored by progressives and populists, designed to curb the power of special interests who controlled legislatures.
And for some time, it was a good idea, Broder acknowledges. One of Arizona's first initiatives -- on the ballot in 1912, the year of statehood -- mandated putting headlights on trains. Another gave women the right to vote -- nearly a decade before suffrage was granted nationally.
Dave Berman, a political science professor at Arizona State University, has done extensive research into the history of the state's initiatives. Berman believes that initiatives are still a good idea. He maintains there's got to be an alternative to the Arizona Legislature.
"I think Broder's up a creek," he says. "The initiative is doing exactly what it should do. If the Legislature isn't responsive, we should be going to the ballot like this. I'm really not quite as alarmed. If he thinks special-interest groups have nothing to do with what the Legislature does, he's crazy."
In recent Arizona political history, the Legislature and the people who elect its members have been oddly discordant. Legislators vote to legalize Freon and debate whether to mandate gun training in schools, while the people vote for campaign finance reform and health care for the poor. Arizona voters go to the polls to vote for measures the Legislature refuses to pass, initiatives such as medical marijuana (twice), and against measures the lawmakers do pass: tort reform and the so-called "takings law" that threatened the federal Endangered Species Act. In 1998, Arizona voters even approved the Voter Protection Act (another Lee Petition Management client), which prohibits the Legislature from tinkering with initiatives and referenda already approved by the people.
But Berman does agree with Broder that it takes a lot money to get on the ballot these days. While candidates have contribution limits, there are no such limits for initiatives.
And even when the outcomes are potentially good for the little guy, it's often all too apparent that some big guy's pockets are being lined. "Healthy Children, Healthy Families," an initiative headed for November's ballot that would use Arizona's share of the multistate tobacco settlement for health care, would obviously benefit the Arizona Hospital Association, one of its main funders. The initiative that would deregulate the local telephone business is actually the brain child of US West.
Business tycoons George Soros, John Sperling and Peter Lewis use the initiative process as their own private laboratory, funding campaigns around the country -- including Arizona's two medical marijuana initiatives -- to the tune of millions.
Getting an initiative passed is neither cheap nor easy. You've got to hire a campaign staff, fund a media campaign and find experts to write the proposed law. Pay for mailings, signs, phone banks. Strategize, spin, lobby. And before most of that occurs, one of the largest single expenses is signatures. Gone are the days when friendly neighbors walk door-to-door with petitions after work; even the Sierra Club, one of the best-organized grassroots interests around, has to supplement its volunteers' efforts with paid petition circulators.
In 1998, the Sierra Club learned a bitter lesson in the foibles of signature gathering. The group launched its anti-growth initiative late in March 1998, which gave it only five months to gather signatures. Although the group had budgeted some money to buy signatures, it fell far short because as the demand for signatures from different groups goes up, so does the price.
"Paid circulators will carry many petitions to make their time really worthwhile, and so when you're the low campaign on the totem pole in terms of the amount that you're paying . . . yours is the last one sometimes that they will ask people to sign," says Renee Guillory, campaign coordinator for the Citizens Growth Management Initiative, the Sierra Club's latest such effort.
This time has been different. The Sierra Club contracted with Lee Petition Management more than a year ago, and their petitions have been on the street -- with both paid and volunteer circulators -- ever since. They've already passed the number to get the measure on the ballot, but are continuing to collect, just to be safe. Guillory estimates the campaign will spend more than $65,000 for signatures.
So why is a campaign backed by the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters -- two of the strongest grassroots organizations in the country -- buying signatures?
"We do have a lot of dedicated volunteers who are willing to spend a lot of time on this, but the bottom line is that the requirements are such that you really can't do a campaign like this without relying on paid circulators," Guillory says. "Volunteers work and have other lives that they lead. . . . You're just not going to get the signature numbers you need by a weekend-volunteer effort."
Ironically, even Citizens for Clean Elections, the group that passed the initiative designed to take money out of the political process by publicly funding campaigns, paid Lee more than $50,000 for about half the signatures gathered during its 1998 campaign.
This year, it will take 101,762 valid signatures to make the Arizona ballot; they must be submitted to the secretary of state by July 6. A constitutional amendment will require 152,643 signatures.
The law on initiatives requires election officials in each county to check the veracity of 5 percent of signatures gathered in that county. (Candidate petitions are not routinely checked, but their accuracy can be challenged by an opponent.) Not only must an initiative-petition signer be a registered Arizona voter, the petition circulator must check "paid" or "volunteer" on each petition and fill out a document certifying that he or she is an Arizona resident with intent to remain in the state and eligible to register to vote and has not been convicted of a felony. Each petition must be notarized. Fail on any of these counts, and the petition -- and up to 15 signatures -- is tossed. Most campaigns buy an extra 60,000 signatures, just to be safe.
Derrick Lee says the requirements are onerous. Many states do not require petition circulators to be residents -- in fact, Lee regularly takes his Arizona employees on jobs in other states -- and many allow petitioners much more access to storefronts and other gathering spots. California allows circulators to gather signatures in malls. In Arizona, it's up to the discretion of the business owner.
"There's been no favors given to us, really. And every year it seems like there's something passed to make it more difficult," Lee says.
This year the Arizona Legislature considered a bill that would have required not only a particular number of signatures be gathered, but that they proportionally represent the voting populations of each county. It didn't pass.
A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down a requirement that Colorado petition circulators be registered voters in the state and wear badges identifying them as "paid," but Arizona's requirements are unaffected by the ruling.
Lee prides himself for a near-perfect record of qualifying candidates and issues for the ballot. "If they've got the money, they'll get on the ballot," he says.
Even Paul Johnson, the former Phoenix mayor and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate whose group hired Lee to help gather signatures for an open-primary initiative that failed to make the 1998 ballot, says Lee was not at fault in that case.
Lee does have a handful of petitioners who've pleaded guilty to forgery. Last year, two of his petitioners were sentenced to two years' probation and fines of $1,600 each. In 1997, one of his petitioners, Stephoun Averette, received a seven-year prison sentence for fraud and forgery in connection with signatures for a Scottsdale rezoning issue.
The petitioner may be the one going to prison, but it's Lee's reputation on the line. He takes responsibility for making sure each petition is perfect.
All of those requirements are part of the reason that Derrick Lee has a monopoly. The signature-gathering business can be lucrative, but it's demanding. Seasonal, too. Lee busts his butt during signature-gathering peaks and sells security systems during his downtime.
"It looks a lot easier than it really is," Lee says. "We've got copiers, we've got computers -- big computers. Two offices here [in metropolitan Phoenix]. An office staff of eight people. It's a massive undertaking."
Lee also has coordinators in Tucson, Flagstaff and Prescott, and considering that he's out of town for days at a time during his high season -- and often takes three days to return a call, if he returns it at all -- it's amazing that he gets the job done. But his clients say he does, and they keep coming back.
Lee refuses to disclose his income. Maricopa County records show he built his $250,000, 3,200-square-foot Gilbert home in 1996. "A lot of people think I'm rich. I wish I was," he says.
A computer-assisted review of the Arizona Secretary of State's campaign-finance database for the 1996 and 1998 election cycles revealed more than $1 million in payments to Lee Petition Management. And that figure (a conservative one) only reflects the money Lee took in for statewide initiatives in Arizona; it doesn't include the local, city and county issues he worked on, or his out-of-state jobs.
Derrick Lee's not the only one making good money. If they hustle, his signature gatherers can make hundreds of dollars a day. Signatures from a single registered voter can pull in $8 for a circulator carrying a half-dozen petitions. But the work is hard, and it's sporadic, so it tends to attract people who are unemployed in this time of record employment. Lee hires his circulators as independent contractors, so he doesn't have to deal with payroll taxes; as a result, he cannot train them.
So Lee's greatest task is maintaining his work force.
"The hiring procedure is sort of like throwing shit up on a wall and seeing what sticks," Lee says.
Consultant Bob Grossfeld puts it more delicately.
"When we are in a full-employment economy, you can't find people to do what is essentially the bottom-feeder work of politics, which is standing out on the corner or in front of a public building and trying to get people to sign a petition. It is very, very difficult to find those people.
"And for the most part, those individuals in a position to launch an initiative, to conceive of the public policy or to write the legal language and to get all of those other things started, have absolutely no contact with the individuals who are available to go out and stand on a street corner when it's 100 degrees or whatever and try and get signatures.
". . . I don't know how many degrees of separation there are between the honorary co-chair of an initiative drive and the guy standing out on the corner in a tee shirt getting signatures. I suspect it's more than two."
When it comes to gathering signatures, Austin Musgrove is as efficient as Martha Stewart is in the kitchen.
On a chilly March afternoon, Musgrove has staked out a prime spot near the entrance to the Fred Meyer supermarket at Gilbert and Baseline roads; the store manager has given his permission. Musgrove's got a card table and two folding chairs, as well as a padded office chair that barely holds his considerable bulk. He is wearing cowboy boots and a tie under his sweater; he's got inch-thick glasses and a pocketful of highlighters. He marks the title of each petition with a different color so his nearsighted eyes can keep track of them.
Today's collection includes "Healthy Children, Healthy Families," the redistricting commission, income-tax phaseout, drug policy changes and local phone deregulation (see accompanying story "Taking Initiative"). Musgrove refuses to tout the English-only initiative because he doesn't support it; he's not carrying the Sierra Club's initiative, which pays the least.
Musgrove says he used to be homeless but isn't anymore. He grew up all over the West and has always been interested in politics. He says he's studying for his master's degree in counseling and business administration.
"This is fun for me. I remember when I used to do stuff like this without pay," he says. "My father never had the opportunity to vote. The first time my mother voted she had to pay a polling tax in order to vote."
He's been outside Fred Meyer for about a week now. The people are nice; some say hello and buy him coffee. He seems to know about half the people who walk by. Musgrove says foreigners always stop and want to sign his petitions, but of course if they're not citizens or registered to vote here, they can't.
"Unfortunately, I also see apathy. There are a lot of Americans who just don't believe in the system. Don't register to vote, don't care about the vote and honestly believe the vote don't work."
He pauses as a man walks past the table.
"Are you registered to vote, sir?" Musgrove inquires.
"Would you like to take a moment to sign our initiative?"
The man pauses, and Musgrove immediately kicks it into high gear with the zeal of any car salesman -- one of his many former professions.
"Okay, we've got several over here today, starting with my favorite. Do you know where the tobacco sales tax is going? Neither do we. With this petition right here, we would like to direct that money towards health care and education. Now, these petitions are nonpartisan. In other words, when you put your name and information on it, you're not voting yes or no. All we're trying to do is be given the opportunity to get this on the November ballot and let Maricopa voters vote on it. C'mon around, have a seat. You can read through it."
In a stage whisper, Musgrove says: "And then the other good thing is, like this guy right here, they'll take a minute and read through it, because they want to have an understanding. Most people want to read something before they sign it. And then you have some people who know more about this issue than you do!"
Back to the prospect.
"This one right here deals with gerrymandering," Musgrove says. "That's when they can come in and change a district by rezoning it, move the boundaries, and they literally can change votes in that district."
If it passes, Musgrove explains, redistricting would be overseen by "a committee or . . . a group of people that aren't getting paid. In other words, I hate to say it, but we sure would hate to see our officials get paid for it. That's already happened with that Arizona Scam." (Better known as AzScam.)
The man signs Healthy Children, Healthy Families and skips some of the others, including the deregulation initiative, explaining that his sister works for US West.
"That's okay, too," Musgrove says as the guy walks away. "That's the good thing about America. You don't have to sign anything you don't want to."
He says he started gathering signatures for pay in 1980 in California, working on an automobile-insurance initiative. He also worked here in Arizona on the 1992 Martin Luther King holiday initiative and recruited people to go to the polls on Election Day.
With five petitions paying between 50 cents and $1.50 a signature, Musgrove says he's already made about $100 this afternoon, with a couple of hours to go. Not bad.
He first met Derrick Lee in 1994, when he answered an ad in the paper for signature gatherers.
"It said 'petitioner.' And when they said 'petitioner,' I already knew the terminology. At that time I was looking for something else to do part-time. Also I wanted something that didn't have a lot of pressure on it. Look at what we're doing right now. This isn't pressure."
A young woman with a toddler and a baby passes by.
"Hello, are you a registered voter? Could you take a minute to sign our initiatives? We're trying to get these five initiatives on the November ballot. Do you have telephone service?"
"Telephone?" She nods.
"Okay. We want US West to be deregulated. We think they have a monopoly. They're the only local phone company in the Valley. We'd like to see another phone company come in, give them a little competition, drive the prices down. This one right here we'd like to get on the ballot. It's called gerrymandering, redistricting. That's where they can go into a district, change the boundaries, and actually change the votes in that district. We'd like that practice to stop. This one right here deals with personal income at the state level, state taxes. We would like to phase it out over the next four years. In other words, tax the snowbirds! I live here, don't penalize me. See that snowbird just look at me real crazy? (He laughs, pointing at an elderly woman who is, in fact, staring.) Now, you remember, we broke away from England, you know, taxation without representation. And too much taxes -- you know, I work hard for my nickels and dimes and every time I turn around, there goes a quarter. And this one right here is probably the most popular one, because most people are aware that there is a tax on tobacco products. I do puff on cigars myself, and my concern is, where's this money going? So our legislators have let us know in the past that they're good about misdirecting funds, reappropriating them, putting them in something else. Basically, these are nonpartisan petitions, they're initiatives, your signature's not for, against or indifferent. We just wanna get the signatures so we can get them on the ballot and you can vote on it in November. Go ahead and have a seat."
"Okay, this right here deals with the marijuana. If you've got a terminal illness or something like cancer, you can get a prescription drug now for marijuana. It's called Marinol. Some people are for it, some people are against it. All we're trying to do is get it on the ballot and let everyone make their mark. And whichever one is the majority, that's the way we go with it. What's the baby's name?"
"Brandon." She starts signing.
A man stops at the table, asks what Musgrove's got, says he's already signed the Healthy Children petition.
Musgrove keeps going. "The one dealing with marijuana? Legal prescription? If you've got a terminal illness like cancer -- "
"Yeah, but you know what, we already passed that once, and we overturned it," the man says.
"Well, we're trying to do it one more time. You know how it is, you keep trying."
"Go ahead and have a seat."
Musgrove's biggest problem, he says, is that people keep walking off with his pens.
Three young African-American men walk by.
"What's up fellas? You all registered voters?"
One is, one isn't, but they all keep walking. No time, one calls over his shoulder.
"You all old enough? Now look, I'll be here 'til Saturday. Now we don't want Malcolm and Martin Luther King to turn over in their graves, brothers! We need to register to vote.
"Sometimes I get parental on 'em. Our youth today just don't understand -- "
Musgrove interrupts himself to stop an Asian woman as she walks by.
"Sushi. Make me one. I want you to make me a $3 plate of sushi," he tells her. They've obviously been through this schtick before. ". . . And give me a lot of ginger. Here, I'll give you the money. You go get it ready. Yes, c'mon, Sunny. I only want to spend $4. No more. Four dollars."
"What kind you like?"
"You mix it up. And remember, bring me more ginger -- you know, you know how I like it. Which one you like making? Make me a fresh one. 'Cause you know, I'm a black Japanese."
She runs the sushi bar inside Fred Meyer, he explains once she's gone.
"To me, this is a cakewalk, a gravy train," Musgrove says as he straightens his piles of petitions. "I don't have anybody over my back, telling me to pound, pound, pound, work hard."
A woman passes. "You registered to vote? My dear? Stop and see me on the way out."
"Sir? Are you a registered voter? Would you like to register?"
"Miss? Are you a registered voter? C'mon back here, girl. You did [sign already]? Okay, thank you."
"Young man? Are you registered to vote?"
"Have you signed my initiative?"
"C'mon over and let me give you the 911 on it, man. So you can make the good choice."
The man walks off.
"You come at 'em in a certain way," Musgrove says. "You don't want to offend them. Definitely, you don't want to run them into the store, so they tell the manager.
". . . You keep asking. It's a numbers game."
Sunny emerges from the store with a tray of California rolls. At least $8 worth of sushi, Musgrove figures.
"See? Being a petitioner ain't all bad," he says as he digs in. "Only bad part is, I cannot do these chopstick things. Guess I'll have to pick 'em up with my ol' crumbsnatchers."
A chat with Austin Musgrove may be highly entertaining, but don't consider it a civics lesson.
Too bad Musgrove doesn't know US West is funding that telephone deregulation initiative, or he might have gotten the brother of the US West employee to sign. Many of his interpretations of the petitions he's carrying are less than accurate.
For example, the drug-policy initiative isn't simply about prescribing marijuana in a pill. It would also redirect drug forfeiture funds to substance-abuse treatment programs, decrease penalties for small-time marijuana violations and increase penalties for major drug crimes.
And Healthy Children, Healthy Families does not seek to reallocate funds collected from the 1994 tobacco-tax increase, but rather from the multistate settlement reached recently with tobacco companies.
Musgrove isn't the only one who mixes up the facts. Wendy Deer started circulating petitions the last week of December, when she got laid off from her assembly-line job at a Mesa manufacturing firm. Deer says she had no interest in politics before she answered Lee's ad, but she's learned a lot in the past few months.
"This has really kind of opened my eyes to what is going on out there," she says. Plus, "it gets you out and you get to talk to a lot of people in a lot of different areas." She makes about $400 a week. A few weeks ago she worked the Chandler Ostrich Festival and spent most of her profits on food and a tee shirt, but it was a lot of fun.
Deer sounds like a carnival barker as she launches into her multi-petition pitch for a tall, middle-aged woman who stops one recent morning.
"Good morning! We have some initiatives to get on the ballot for November elections. One for Healthy Children, Healthy Families, where we want to provide health insurance for working uninsured parents and their children, strengthen KidsCare and also provide for Arizonans' health needs for the next 25 years through the tobacco-settlement money. On this one alone we need 100,000 signatures by July 1. Then we have one here for the abolishment of drugs, one for citizens growth management, one for the citizens' redistricting. The abolishment of taxes over the next four years, state income tax over the next four years, and just go to the state sales tax, as some of the states are now doing. And lastly, we have the phone initiative where we are trying to lower the phone bills by updating all the old phone regulations and putting rate caps on all the local phone services. This does not mean your long distance, this is just the local phone services."
Deer stops to take a breath. The woman tucks her half-finished crossword puzzle under her arm and, bending on one knee, picks up a pen. She finishes one, looks at the others.
"This one here's for drug abolishment," Deer says, holding up a clipboard.
"How do you intend to abolish drugs?" the woman asks.
"You tell me. I don't know. That is a very controversial, iffy issue. What we want to do is better educate the people that are out there doing them, stiffer fines and penalties for the felons that are out there pushing them, this type of thing. That's what we're after."
"It's not for dropping any sentences for drug users, right?"
"Doing what, now?"
"It's not abolishing any sentences for drug users?" the woman asks -- pen poised, ready to sign.
"No. No," Deer assures her.
But that's exactly what it would do -- at least, it's one of the things the drug policy initiative would do.
Jessica Funkhouser, director of elections services for the Arizona Secretary of State, says she knows of no provision in the state's election laws regarding misrepresentation of an issue, although she doesn't rule out the possibility that there could be a general criminal statute that could apply. The state does require that each petition be attached to a copy of the initiative itself, which Lee's petitioners do.
Because the circulators are independent contractors and he can't train them, Lee tells them to read the initiative and try not to get into any arguments.
"I know that with the number of people that are out there, there's probably some out there saying something that they probably shouldn't," he says, although he does hire someone to drive around town and observe the circulators in action.
"The only logical thing I can say is I think sometimes they just get it confused."
It is impossible to find Lee Petition Management unless you know where to look. Lee has the phone listed under his security business, First Safety, Inc., and there's no sign outside the office, near Broadway Road and Mill Avenue in Tempe. The only clue you're at the right place is a piece of paper posted on the door: "No Concealed Weapons, unless authorized by Lee Petition Management, Inc."
Inside are two rooms, a ramshackle tangle of tables and chairs and stacks of petitions. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 1 p.m., circulators are allowed to come in to submit petitions and claim their checks. When you turn in a pile, you sign the back of each petition and the office staffers flip through the petitions to be sure they look okay and notarize them. The clerks mark down how many signatures you have for each petition and write you a receipt. The signatures are spot-checked onsite; one of Lee's clients gave him a disc with the Maricopa County voter registration database. Two days later, circulators can pick up a check -- if the signatures checked out.
On a recent Friday, just before 1 p.m., Lee is on the phone in the office with his landlord. Apparently, there have been numerous complaints from other tenants that Lee's employees are loitering around the building, and the landlord wants him out.
Lee's having a bad day. He's just come back from a business trip to Wichita, and the phone messages are piled up, as usual. Rain's predicted for the weekend, a circulator's nightmare. Some county official called this morning; they don't want him using that voter registration disc. They say he's using it for a commercial purpose when it's for non-commercial use. And last week, a California petition firm, Progressive Campaigns, moved in down the street to start circulating petitions for the one Arizona initiative Lee won't handle, Healthy Arizona 2, a competitor of the Healthy Children, Healthy Families initiative. A sign on the wall offers a $500 reward for any of Lee's petition gatherers caught taking bonuses for collecting both Healthy Children, Healthy Families and Healthy Arizona 2 signatures at the same time.
Mark Osterloh, a Tucson physician and political activist who is Healthy Arizona 2's chief proponent, tried to hire Lee to circulate petitions. But Lee says he was retained by Healthy Children, Healthy Families months before Osterloh approached him, and he won't carry competing initiatives. Osterloh actually stood outside Lee's Phoenix and Tempe offices, holding a sign advertising for petitioners, trying to lure Lee's workers away, but with only one petition for them to carry, it was difficult to recruit.
Now Lee's getting kicked out of his office, at the height of signature season. But he is incredibly solicitous with his landlord on the phone, says he totally understands, no problem.
He hangs up, tells everyone they're moving next week, back to a former location on McDowell, and turns to John Irvine, one of his office managers: "Put a stop payment on that check. Fuck him."
A few minutes later, the circulators start arriving; Lee disappears to make phone calls. The circulators are a disparate group -- a gussied up, middle-aged blonde with a fur collar; a guy with dreadlocks down his back; a sweet, older gentleman in a baseball cap who just made $674 in four days, working four hours a day outside the Department of Motor Vehicles in Mesa.
The elderly gent, Max, is asked the secret to successful circulating. "Dress appropriately. Look well. Basically, you're selling yourself."
Max's biggest dilemma, he says, is what to do with the talkers. Talkers take up your time, but never sign.
Mel, one of Lee's best gatherers, smiles a gap-toothed grin and advises: "Get in their face!"
Irvine, who's worked with Lee since 1994, describes his job duties this way: "Well, I guess my official title is notary. Assistant manager. Clerk. Wet nurse, priest, judge, jury."
He takes the petitions and yells at those waiting to quiet down when it gets too loud. The worst part, Irvine admits, is the smell. One circulator smelled so bad, he says, "we finally told him, 'If you can't take a bath at least once a week, don't come in the office.' His petitions look like he slept on them, and a lot of times I just won't take them."
Lee emerges from the back room and Irvine offers him a pile of petitions. The circulator watches sheepishly. Lee flips through them, looking at the signatures, shaking his head. "This is bullshit," he tells the guy, who says he doesn't know what Lee's talking about. Lee never uses the word "forgery," just keeps shaking his head and using the word 'bullshit.' Write him a receipt, Lee tells Irvine, but he says he doubts the signatures will check out.
In jeans and a faded polo shirt, at first glance Lee mixes in with the circulators waiting to collect checks. Lee points to brochures posted on the wall advertising a women's expo and some festivals this weekend and says to one guy, "Work these events this weekend, man!"
"If Mother Nature lets me," the man replies.
"No excuses!" Lee says, an obvious mock threat. He gets along with these guys, who tease him about his newly streaked hair. He tells them he used to be a punk rocker. Close to the truth, he says; he used to play guitar in a band. As the day wears on, someone says something about needing a drink.
"I don't drink," Lee replies. "I should, but I don't."
Lee's Mormon. Is he religious? "Yeah, I guess. I try to be."
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He says his religion guides him in choosing which initiatives he'll take on. He gives himself a lot of leeway, saying the only two issues he absolutely won't do are pro-abortion and pro-right to die.
Ultimately, Lee says, he's only putting the measures on the ballot.
"The people have a right to vote on this stuff. Put it before the voters and let the voters vote their conscience. Who am I to try to decide whether a person should vote on it or not vote on it?"
Contact Amy Silverman at 602-229-8443 or online at email@example.com