Even in Arizona, you do not normally get your aspirants for high public office on a grand-theft-auto rap. But last week, U.S. Senate front-runner Dick Mahoney was explaining to me how he had not stolen another man's truck. Startled into accounting for his behavior, Mahoney put his explanation together slowly, like the clumsily coagulating words of Texas Ranger outfielder Jose Canseco recounting how a routine pop fly bounced off his head and into the stands.

On the campaign trail, Dick Mahoney looks like a walking signboard for a blackthorn shillelagh or maybe a pub off of Dublin's Grafton Street. He possesses Gaelic wit, obvious intelligence, the gift for blarney, a small, upturned beezer and an Irishman's palpable lust for political advancement which, in Mahoney's particular case, is positively Shakespearean in its grandeur and sweep.

As he has in the past, Mahoney is running for office by complaining about corruption in politics and the evil of campaign contributions from special interests. This ethical high ground is not stage whispering with Mahoney; it is his raison d'àtre.

Critics scoff, claiming that Mahoney's position is naive enough to qualify for Barney the Dinosaur's school of electoral reform; however, to Mahoney's credit, he has rejected all PAC contributions. Furthermore, he has countless campaign-finance proposals--all brilliant, thank you very much--he'd like to see enacted for the betterment of the Republic.

Mahoney's twin planks consist of the holier-than-thou and smarter-than-you platform. Historically, this is a very tough act to pull off.

The shining Eagle Scout bit got Jesus stapled to pine boards. And as far as being brighter than the competition, look what it did for the popularity of Don King and Howard Cosell. On top of these inherent dangers, a politician who stakes out the self-righteous turf is forced to talk the talk and walk the walk. You cannot climb down from the pulpit and drive off in a stolen truck.

@body:In 1990, Mahoney challenged the incumbent secretary of state, Jim Shumway, in the Democratic primary. Billy Shields is a firefighter who, at the time, owned a 71 Chevy pickup.

Contacted about the details of his truck's entanglement with Mahoney, Shields was reluctant to talk. He agreed only to confirm particulars already leaked by Mahoney loyalists.

Mahoney, says Shields, wanted to borrow the truck in 1990 to put up campaign signs. But the two never talked, simply missing each other on the phone. In any event, Shields would not have lent Mahoney the truck. He'd spent $1,500 to rebuild the engine block, and at the time Mahoney wanted to borrow the truck, there was a leak in the radiator. If you drove the truck without constantly adding water, you'd burn up the engine.

You can imagine Shields' shock when he returned home and found his truck missing.

Billy's wife told him Mahoney had come by the house and grabbed the truck, after assuring her that he had her husband's permission.

Soon enough, Mahoney destroyed the engine in the 71 Chevy. He dumped the wreck on a shoulder of I-17.

Shields is a square guy and does not shoot Mahoney between his smiling Irish eyes. In fact, he even waits until after Mahoney wins the election to press Dick for the money.

Mahoney pleads poverty, according to Shields. Bill tells Dick he'll discount the cost of the $1,500 engine to $600 because the rebuilt was two years old when the politician drove off with the truck.

Even so, Mahoney avows that he cannot pay. He has so many campaign debts, claims the new secretary of state, that it will be another two years before he can pay back the $600.

Billy Shields resigned himself to the notion that his dealings with Dick Mahoney would have to be chalked up to a life lesson. He agreed to wait two years for his money. Today, nearly three years later, he has not seen a dime from Mahoney.

What's more, Mahoney now tells me there is no debt.
Here's how it stacks up.
Dick Mahoney needed something someone else had. So he took it.

Mahoney lied to Billy Shields' wife. He stole the truck. He drove the Chevy into the ground, overheated it, ignored the dashboard warning lights and welded the engine shut. Instead of doing the correct thing and having the truck towed to a garage (or at least back to the Shields residence), he abandoned the pickup on the freeway. He neglected to tell Billy, who owned the truck, or Billy's wife, from whom he swiped the truck, that anything was wrong. Then, for the next three years, Mahoney simply forgave himself the debt he owed after ruining another man's truck.

I call this a remarkable list of high misdemeanors and low personal felonies from a candidate who runs his campaigns preaching about financial ethics, public morality and the need for reform.

So I phoned Mahoney and asked if my information was accurate.
Mahoney replied that the incident happened so long ago--1990--that he did not remember.

Right away, I don't like this answer.
It does not slip your memory when you wreck a car. Particularly someone else's car.

I remember every single vehicle I've totaled. I remember what flew off. I remember what I hit. I remember how fast I was going when the steel started screaming and sparking. I remember what I was drinking. And I bet-your-first-born-child remember what it cost to reimburse the owners of the vehicles. Nor will I ever forget the facial tics that paraded across the countenances of these car owners as I tried to reconcile my version of events with the "facts" in the police reports.

Most of these episodes go back 20 years, and I remember them with total recall, even though I was occasionally unconscious moments before all hell broke loose in someone else's car.

These things make an impression.
So when Dick Mahoney told me that he'd forgotten about Billy Shields' 71 Chevy truck, I did not immediately hang up the phone thinking that our conversation was over. And sure enough, after several pregnant pauses on both sides of the line, the man's memory returned to him.

He said I was entirely mistaken.
Mahoney's story is that Billy Shields told him he could borrow the truck. The candidate then had the disabled vehicle towed back to Billy's house. And Dick and Billy are such good buddies that Shields told Mahoney to just flat forget about the cost.

Right away I don't care for this story, either.
When you're a well-to-do Ivy League boy from one of Arizona's grandest political families, and you blow up another guy's truck, and the victim actually works for a living, you pay that debt off.

That's not up for discussion if you carry yourself like a man.
Or, as Billy Shields expressed it: "I'll tell you something. I got a wife and four kids. We survived without his six hundred dollars, but that six hundred dollars meant something to me. Six hundred dollars is not nothing to sneeze at. I gave him room. I told him, 'Take the two years if you have to.'

"He just didn't come through on his end of the deal."
As for Mahoney's contention that he had Shields' permission to borrow the truck and had the crippled Chevy towed back to Billy's home--well, let's just say witnesses contradict the politician.

Pat Cantelme, the head of the firefighters' union, was with Shields in St. Louis when Mahoney phoned looking to borrow the truck. Cantelme took the call because Shields was gone, out of the hotel, on union business.

Shields did not return until late that evening, when Cantelme relayed Mahoney's request. Cantelme distinctly recalls that Shields did not want anyone to borrow the truck because of the radiator problem.

Of course, by that time, Mahoney had already made off with the truck.
I also talked to the campaign staffer in Mahoney's office who took the call from Shields when he returned to Phoenix and began making inquiries on the whereabouts of his truck. The ex-volunteer recalled having to break the news to the firefighter that his broken-down Chevy was on the side of the freeway.

Like other great men who readily envision their likenesses on postage stamps, Dick Mahoney can be a trifle insensitive to the needs of mere mortals.

"Did I pay him?" muses Mahoney about the firefighter. "No. Was there an agreement to pay? No. Billy Shields is a very good friend of mine. Billy's a buddy of mine. He was irritated. He was irritated for a day or two. This is not a big deal.

Wishing won't make it so. Because Ralph Nader-style abolitionists would just as soon we all drove Ford Escorts, it is easy to understand how "Moaning Mahoney" might miss the nuances at play here.

Billy Shields' 71 Chevy pickup represented something special to the man. Perhaps it wasn't the sort of tenderloin you'd find at a rare car auction; firefighters don't drag down that sort of bread. But neither was the truck a chili wagon. A 71 Chevy pickup is a cool ride. A 71 Chevy pickup says to one and all: The owner of this truck is not a mook.

Dick Mahoney made the mistake of trying to play Billy Shields for a chump.
Both men agree on one point: They have bumped into each other dozens of times since Mahoney ruined the Chevy. The truck has never been a topic of discussion between the two (other than the initial chitchat, when Shields claims Mahoney agreed to pay off the debt, albeit in a glacial time frame). Mahoney points to these encounters and says, if there was an obligation, surely Billy would have spoken up.

This convenient logic ignores the fact that the firefighter is Irish, too.
Billy Shields' position is that he shouldn't have to chase Dick Mahoney for the money.

And he's right.
"Every year, I see in the papers that Mahoney makes a big deal about rejecting his pay raise from the state," said Shields. "Every year he kicks back the $1,900 pay raise to Arizona and forgets about the $600 he owes me. Mahoney has enough with his $57,000-a-year salary."
To Billy Shields, who will see $57,000 only if a bank catches on fire, Mahoney's salary is a big number. And even Ted Kennedy could live on this kind of income if he never had to pay his debts.

Dick Mahoney has raised more than $300,000 to date from grassroots contributors to his Senate bid. He needs to dip into this fund, admit there's been a mistake and pay off his debt, with interest, to Billy Shields.

Otherwise, Mahoney's campaign stance of pious rectitude looks like the pose of a rich-boy nose-wipe. He could just as easily be a standup guy.

And he may yet. Following our interview, Mahoney tracked down the firefighter and acknowledged that he owed him $600. He promised to pay, though at press time, Shields still had not seen a nickel.

Perhaps the check is in the mail.
This sorry tale is not a scandal on the level of, say, J. Edgar Hoover lumbering into a pushup bra, a flimsy negligee and tall spike heels.

Mahoney needs to understand that his behavior is worse.


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