At Dick Mahoney's rambling, Spanish-style house in Encanto, there are some very noticeable things: a slightly disreputable gazebo in the backyard, a swimming pool filled with silt, and a pervasive air of altogether cheerful neglect. All his books are noticeable. But most noticeable of all is the poem.
"A Poem to Dick" was authored by one of Mahoney's sisters, and it is written in the dining room right onto one of the walls, in big letters. It seems as bold as a billboard.
Although perhaps that is only because the emphasis is on poetry right now, since Mahoney is quoting poetry. He is quoting it musically and with something akin to rapture, his head thrown back against a front room chair. He is spewing forth memorized verses by Charles Baudelaire, by Stephen Spender, as though there is nothing more important in the world to do on this campaign weekday than caress these sensuous words and consider them again. Sometimes, as with Baudelaire, he quotes first in French and then he translates a couple of lines at a time. His face is alight.
He even agrees to write down a couple of his own poems. "Do you read Spanish?" he wants to know. He happens to write Spanish sonnets. He copies down a couple of Spanish sonnets.
"John F. Kennedy felt that you could arrive at some understanding of life through poetry, and that is something that I have been interested in all my life," he is saying. "One of the weaknesses of my generation is that they are all cognitive, too pragmatic. They need to be more lyrical, emotional, gut-level."
It is not a predictable remark, but it is predictable that JFK would be referenced in it, since Mahoney brings up JFK quite a bit. He knew JFK personally through his father's political friendship with him. In '82, Dick wrote an excellent book about him that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He knew Robert Kennedy, too--even better. He knows other well-known people, including Mother Teresa, who arranged for him to adopt the Honduran child Molly, whose custody he now shares with ex-wife Mary Jo West.
He is so inspired by the famous people he has known and knows, and so garrulous about them, that it is rumored his campaign staffers have threatened to listen to his political speeches while propping bingo cards in their laps. Into the various squares on the card, the story goes, they would like to inscribe the names of JFK, RFK, Mother Teresa, Mo Udall, Stewart Udall, Bruce Babbitt and others who are most often mentioned. And then, as soon as Mahoney has dropped each of these names into his remarks, they would like to declare, "Bingo!"
It is an affectionate story, probably targeted as much toward Mahoney's irrepressible enthusiasms as toward his pretensions. Roger Burrell, an old high school friend of Mahoney's, muses that during their days together at Brophy Prep, "Some of the kids really looked up to him. And some people thought he was full of shit."
Burrell isn't one of the latter people, but they aren't difficult to find.
"I think some of his concerns and approaches to certain issues are a bit too esoteric to capture the imagination of the public," says someone who asked not to be identified, who has served with him on the board of Chicanos por la Causa, the nonprofit social services agency. "He was interested in building a nondenominational chapel in the Mercado. I was interested in feeding the belly and not the spirit."
Says Phoenix Gazette political columnist John Kolbe, "The Mahoney type [of progressive Democrat] is interested in [the poor and disadvantaged] the way you might be interested in a frog you can dissect. But they do not necessarily want to have them to dinner."
Anyone who is concentrating on the symptoms of pomposity may be missing the point of Dick Mahoney, however. The point, according to his plentiful friends and admirers, is that he has lived a rich and committed life, and that he has proven many times that he is willing to dedicate his energies to promoting changes that advance his beliefs but not necessarily his ego. The point is also that, more than any of the other young candidates, he is running a campaign based on vision and ideals instead of political realities. And that, so far, he has been able to transform ideals into a winning proposition.
One of his fans, Paul Eckstein, the managing partner of Brown & Bain law firm who is also considering a run at John McCain's Senate seat, believes that Mahoney's history of dedication to causes and his leadership abilities are the primary reason for the catty remarks that plague him. "Here you have this guy who seems to have everything--intelligence, he's well educated, he's energetic. And that is just too good to be true," Eckstein says. "I think there is just an awful lot of jealousy out there over this guy's talent."
The talent has been apparent since early in his life, and it has been given every opportunity to develop. Mahoney's story, in fact, is one about an uncanny match-up between temperament and training.
First of all, he was born into an activist tradition. His father William P. Mahoney was not only a former county attorney in Phoenix, but was the man who conceived and lead the court battles that during the Fifties eventually succeeded in desegregating Arizona's schools. William P. also campaigned for Kennedy in Arizona in 1960 and won the support of every Democratic delegate in the state for the young Massachusetts senator.
And William P. had inherited his social conscience from his father, a former Oatman miner turned state legislator, who was behind the reformation of Arizona child labor laws and the first minimum-wage law for women passed outside of New York state. The concern for the underdog that seeped into Dick Mahoney's veins had been steeping for generations.
Then there was the matter of Mahoney's education, some of which occurred informally at home. His friends from high school remember that there was no television in the house, but that there were obsessive conversations about politics held around the dinner table. There was a library that appeared to be limitless. Says Mahoney: "My parents taught us that what was unreal was material, and what was real was spiritual." They were the sort of parents who were aware of the power of ideas. "I have always believed that in each era, there are ideas that are about to be born and that are dying. If you can identify and articulate the ones that are needed, then you can bring about enormous improvement in people's lives," Mahoney says. "JFK knew this at age 22!"
He played football at Brophy, and then he shipped off to Princeton in '69, where he says that within a year he was the highest scorer in the Ivy League. He was also, immediately, a student at a highly unusual school, particularly within the milieu of the turbulent late Sixties.
Unusual in that the administration of Princeton adopted a positive approach to student unrest, with the result that there was never any real violence on the campus--which was the point. The administration actually encouraged its students to become politically involved in a constructive way. In 1970, the Movement to Elect a New Congress, a multicollege effort to oust congressmen whose politics were fueling the Vietnam War, became headquartered at Princeton, and students were exempted from classes in order that they might stump door-to-door. Mahoney had to choose between the Movement and sports. "That was it for me and football," he remembers.
His willingness to give up football had probably taken root during his freshman year, when he and a roommate had driven to Washington, D.C., to take part in that year's massive antiwar demonstration. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial in the fall of '69, in the middle of a crowd as large as 900,000, he became a believer in something larger than the sentiment that the war should end. He began to believe in unity. "It is impossible to describe the harmony and passion that existed among people," he says. "They weren't protesters. They were there because they felt very deeply and felt a common bond with anyone else who felt deeply. They were shoulder to shoulder and chest to chest.
"Then somebody said, `Peace,' in a normal speaking voice. People kept saying it again and again and again and again and it sounded like a hollow wind.
"That was a moment."
He immersed himself in the Movement to Elect a New Congress, he grew his hair down to his shoulders. He saw that, as a result of the Movement, seven new congressmen were elected whose horror at the war mirrored his own. He saw that "if you get enough people who are like-minded together, you can change things. You don't need money, because the Establishment is never as strong as it thinks it is and never as willing to go to the mat."
It is this belief, he says, that has allowed him to maintain a healthy dose of his Sixties idealism and continue to work to try to change the system--even though he doesn't always succeed.
He has thrown himself repeatedly into the grunt work of many local campaigns; he says he has been willing to work for candidates who possessed "enough gumption and idealism to cut across the grain," whether he believed they could possibly win or not. "Talk about the veteran of lost causes," he says with a laugh.
But he hasn't always lost. Local politicos remember that, in '84, he was very instrumental in salvaging what appeared to be a lost cause. Drafted forty days before the Democratic convention, he agreed to help spearhead a last-minute attempt to woo the Arizona Democratic delegation into the camp of Gary Hart. He and attorney Jim Walsh did it, too. Political consultant Alfredo Gutierrez, who headed the effort for Walter Mondale that was quite deeply entrenched before Mahoney and Walsh even got rolling, says, "This is a guy who can bring people together and inspire them. They out-organized us."
Within his own campaign for secretary of state, Mahoney's dogged belief in "changing the system" has also been greatly apparent. Says Gutierrez, "This is a passionate human being! He believes in the social perfectibility of mankind! It is hard to reach down and maintain that fire, but he is somebody in whom it remains much closer to the surface than in the rest of us."
He has refused PAC money and, because he can't afford much advertising as a result, has tramped door-to-door through small Arizona towns. He and his supporters have stood on street corners in the summer heat, holding up sequential signs, Burma Shave fashion. ("Tired of the same old baloney? Special interest groups? Government for sale? Then change it--Vote Mahoney!")
He says he has done the legwork because he needs to--because, as a professor at the American Graduate School of International Management and a political speech writer, he's not a wealthy fellow who can pour Symington sorts of bucks into his own campaign. But he says he has also done it, and has advocated other changes in the election tradition, because of principle.
"If you change elections, you change government, period," he says. "If you don't take PAC money, if you have same-day voter registration, if you have limited terms, government will change totally."
He claims that these ideas are what his campaign is really about--that, if elected, he will use his bully pulpit as the state's elections officer to push for election reforms. He would have you believe that his campaign for public office is not really about Dick Mahoney at all.
"Politics are self-serving, because there is one personality that is seeking office and other personalities that gravitate around it," he admits. "But the key thing that differentiates a selfish impulse from one that has large results is a dedication to an idea--beyond the candidate."
There are those who would respond to this kind of posturing with a word that Mahoney himself has recently revived: baloney. Some political observers suspect that Mahoney has simply aimed for the office of secretary of state because he sees it as a springboard to other things. They point it out sourly, as though ambition constitutes immorality in politics where it never has in the corporate world. Even fans like old high school friend Roger Burrell think Mahoney has big goals. He says, "I think he wants to prove himself in that position, and I would be surprised if he didn't run for a higher office at a later time." But Burrell differs with critics who see Mahoney as simply a gifted man on a power trip. "I think the political man in him drives him," he says. "I think the idea of what RFK stood for and the way he wanted to go out on a limb on racial issues and poverty issues--I think those things drive Dick.
"The Dick I saw in the Sixties was pretty much the Dick that I see now."
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.