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FEELING GOOD ABOUT STIRRING THINGS UP

Dick Mahoney is relaxed. His left leg rests over the arm of a chair in the living room of his Encanto Park home.

Mahoney seems at ease with himself. He has no regrets over his hard-fought campaign for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. Sam Coppersmith holds a margin so paper-thin that it required a recount.

Most politicians would second-guess themselves for the rest of their careers. They would agonize over statewide vote totals, pondering helplessly over strategic moves that might have snatched victory from defeat.

Did he say something that alienated just enough voters to cost him the election? Might he at some point have made a gesture that had the power to win over the disaffected?

Mahoney, however, would do nothing differently. He is at peace. Any wounds from the Coppersmith imbroglio no longer smart. At least, that's what Mahoney maintains.

Even during his tenure as secretary of state, Mahoney kept up with his teaching career at the Thunderbird School, and he will go on with that. He was educated at Princeton and holds a doctorate in international political economy from Johns Hopkins University.

Mahoney became something of a legend at the Arizona State University law school, where he sailed through courses without attending classes. It was at a time when he was also writing his doctoral dissertation.

"I will not have to reinvent myself like so many other politicians must after defeat," he says.

Mahoney is something of a neatness freak. The crease in his tan slacks is faultless. He wears a forest-green dress shirt and tie. He looks around the room and gestures with one hand.

"We used the house for campaign headquarters, and things got really trashed," Mahoney says. "They are just getting back to order."

Mahoney invites his visitor to look around. The single-story house on the tree-lined street has been the object of numerous rehab projects over the nine years in which he has lived in it. New floors, kitchen, skylights.

Far from being "trashed," the place seems ready for a photographic team from Architectural Digest to come through the front door. It is spotless. Not one thing is out of place. There are no signs that it was ever inhabited by a team of volunteer campaign workers.

On an antique writing desk in a corner of the room are volumes of poems. Walt Whitman, Wilfrid Owen, Rainer Maria Rilke are there. So are the memoirs of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. They are arranged side by side, ready for quick reference. Perhaps it is significant that all of Mahoney's poets are romantics and rebels.

At this point, he was in the dark as to the final outcome of the election. He was at least a week away from knowing if he had been struck by a political miracle.

But he is clearly not counting on it. Paul Eckstein, his campaign chairman, has warned him not to expect Coppersmith's slim lead to disappear. So, for now, Mahoney wears the mantle of his defeat lightly.

He knows how to accept defeats gracefully. There was the night when he was speaking to a group and spotted his former wife in the audience. He saluted her by saying he had given her the best year (sic) of his life.

Mahoney is like the tourist who took a very expensive and strenuous vacation to a faraway land, where nobody spoke English and the food was indigestible. The journey was fascinating. He would not, however, undertake it again anytime in the near future.

"These days, political campaigns are not the fun they used to be," Mahoney says. "Inevitably, they all turn into death marches.

"There are too many handlers. They are too busy orchestrating stuff they want to get on television for maximum punch.

"Much of the bankruptcy of this entire enterprise has to do with these mercenaries, media consultants and pollsters. They give every candidate a sameness, a defensiveness.

"They also give a campaign a certain level of ferocity, because these guys all keep telling their candidate he has to go negative. It doesn't matter to them how far ahead their man may be.

"Suppose we had this philosophy among our airlines. Delta would be saying that United has caused 25,000 deaths over the last 20 years."

Mahoney laughs.
"Hell, everybody would be riding buses."
Mahoney walked to the beat of his own drum. He hired only two paid campaign workers and accepted no contributions from political-action groups.

On the other hand, Coppersmith, as the duly anointed successor to incumbent Dennis DeConcini, was rolling in PAC money. Mahoney estimates Coppersmith spent $930,000 on television time alone.

Mahoney and his people did their own TV commercials, and they proved the most original of the campaign.

 

The most memorable was the scene of Mahoney walking along a street with a shovel and a wheelbarrow, cleaning up horse droppings.

It stemmed from a stunt Mahoney attempted during the Fourth of July Parade in Prescott. On the spur of the moment, he rented a wheelbarrow and began shoveling at the tail end of the parade. The crowd loved it. The symbolism was delicious to behold.

When Mahoney passed the reviewing stand, his shoveling activities were duly noted by former congressman Sam Steiger, who was sitting with a microphone at the ready.

Steiger announced to the crowd, "Here comes our secretary of state, Dick Mahoney. He has finally found his true vocation, picking up where other politicians leave off."

The horse-manure stunt was such a hit that Mahoney decided to risk filming it for a campaign commercial at a later parade in Tucson.

"We knew it would be a risk," he explains, "but we also understood it was something that could either make the campaign or break it."

Mahoney did another commercial, which he calls "The Flying Mustache," in which the distinctive appendage on Coppersmith's upper lip keeps flying on and off his face to denote his frequent change of positions. The ad is totally irreverent, but its message--that Coppersmith was nothing more than a political opportunist--came through clearly.

"Coppersmith gave me a wide berth after that began appearing," Mahoney says with a chuckle. "I think he was afraid if he got too close, I'd smack him."

Mahoney shakes his head.
"You know, I intended to run for governor rather than for the Senate seat."

But his father, William Mahoney, the former U.S. ambassador to Ghana during the John F. Kennedy administration, talked him out of it.

"He convinced me that being governor was a hopeless office for a Democrat. You would have to contend not only with two predominantly Republican lawmaking bodies, but there would also be the fact that you would be in such close quarters with the press."

With his decision to run for the Senate made, Mahoney went to DeConcini and announced his intention to run for the seat then held by the senator.

At this point, DeConcini had not revealed his intention to step down. DeConcini reacted as though Mahoney's move was a threat.

"To say the very least, Dennis wasn't pleased," Mahoney says, laughing and shaking his head for emphasis. "And his unhappiness continued."

In fact, when DeConcini finally announced he was stepping down, he went out of his way to hurt Mahoney's chances.

"I'm here to announce that I'm running for secretary of state," DeConcini said facetiously to his followers.

DeConcini went on to complain about what he perceived to be Mahoney's ingratitude.

"I've been a friend of his family for years. His sister has worked for me for 17 years and still does."

And then DeConcini added what he hoped would be the final nail in Mahoney's coffin.

"I don't think Mahoney would be a strong candidate, and I don't think I could vote for him."

Here was DeConcini, who was leaving the U.S. Senate with a personal fortune valued at $25 million, trying to destroy the chances of a candidate who was virtually without funds. In a way, it was a fitting end to the career of a discredited politician who had sold his soul to Charlie Keating and others of his ilk.

Mahoney shook his head at the memory.
"My sister still works for Dennis," he says. "She stayed neutral in the campaign. She went to Dennis and told him that she supported her brother, but that as long as she worked for Dennis, she would work as hard as she could.

"To his credit, he told her he understood that and was confident of her loyalty."

Mahoney is a rebel by heritage. His grandfather, William Mahoney, came to Arizona after being a union organizer for the Western Federation of Miners in Colorado.

"There was a warrant for his arrest and a contract on his head arranged by the Pinkertons when he came here in 1899. He served in the second and third legislatures and wrote the first rights bill for women. He lived to be 86, and I knew him well.

"When my grandfather got married, the best man was Governor George Hunt."
It was Hunt who in 1916 became engaged in a race for governor so close that his opponent, Tom Campbell, was first declared the winner. Campbell had already taken office by the time the recount showed that Hunt was the actual winner.

But Mahoney is not counting on that happening in his case.
"I admit that on election night, like 8,000 jackasses before me, I thought I was the winner. But it's over. It was worth doing. It was worth disturbing the peace, stirring things up."

 

Mahoney shakes his head ruefully.
"But it sure as hell isn't worth it in terms of some lifelong plan. Stick with it too long and you become like Job.


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