Barry Aarons earned a tough-guy reputation when he served as Governor J. Fife Symington III's director of legislative affairs. He even kept a bullwhip and handcuffs in his office.
But now, Aarons' aggressive nature has cost him his job as director of public policy at U S West Communications. Earlier this month, Aarons says, he was asked to leave the company, and he agreed.
Aarons joined U S West (then Mountain Bell) in 1978. He took a two-year leave of absence to work for Symington, returning to U S West in December 1994.
Aarons insists he's a victim of downsizing, but admits his take-no-prisoners style of lobbying and politicking doesn't jibe with U S West's corporate culture.
Political insiders say Aarons' ultimate downfall came late last year, when U S West executives discovered their lobbyist was behind an antihomosexual hit piece directed at mayoral candidate Skip Rimsza. The brochure was created on behalf of candidate Thelda Williams, but was paid for by a group called the Community Independent Expenditure Committee. The group was chaired by Ron Gawlitta, a Phoenix Republican perhaps best known for his unsuccessful antigay campaign against City Councilman Craig Tribken in 1993.
But it was Aarons who wrote the text of the hit piece:
In its September 7th edition Echo magazine, the journal of gay and lesbian culture, gave its '... hands down endorsement ...' to Skip Rimsza for Mayor.
In making the endorsement the magazine noted the following:
On December 18, 1991, Phoenix City Councilwoman Thelda Williams voted against a measure which would have made lesbians and gay men a protected class.
Skip Rimsza voted yes.
On June 16, 1992, Phoenix City Councilwoman Thelda Williams voted for a measure sending the question of protected class status for gay men and lesbians to the ballot to be decided by the voters.
Skip Rimsza voted no.
Think about that:
Thelda Williams trusted the voters of Phoenix to decide the question of protected class status for lesbians and gay men.
Skip Rimsza didn't trust the voters--BUT now Skip is asking for the voters to trust him.
Thelda Williams trusted the voters then.
She deserves the voters' trust NOW.
VOTE FOR THELDA WILLIAMS.
SHE'S EARNED THE VOTERS' TRUST.
The hit piece never was mailed. Preview copies made their way to Rimsza campaign staffers, who read the fine print at the bottom of the mailing, which revealed the committee's top three contributors: state Republican chair Dodie Londen; Budweiser distributor, and Cindy McCain's father, Jim Hensley; and Hensley and Company president Bob Delgado.
The three were pressured to convince the committee to trash the piece, which they did quickly.
Gawlitta admits that Londen, Hensley and Delgado had not been made aware of the text of the mailing. At the time, Williams told Echo that she, too, was unaware of the mailing, and that she was glad it was never released.
Aarons was reportedly the brains behind the hit piece, even bragging to other Williams supporters that he'd come up with the "silver bullet."
In an interview with New Times, Aarons admits, "I did some writing. The thing wasn't sent out, for a variety of reasons, and that's the end of it."
But that wasn't the end of it.
US West has a progressive, nationally recognized antidiscrimination policy that includes equal rights for gays. Aarons and other political insiders say that after the election, Rimsza called US West CEO Wayne Alcott and told him of Aarons' involvement in the hit piece.
Alcott says he received no such call from Rimsza. Rimszadid not respond to a request for an interview. Furthermore, Alcott denies that the incident contributed to US West's request that Aarons resign.
He says, "From my perspective, what Barry does on his own time politically is, you know, his business." Aarons was simply downsized out of US West's public affairs division, says Alcott, who praises Aarons' work at the company.
But Aarons agrees that the hit-piece incident probably contributed to his dismissal.
Aarons says, "I can cite ahalf a dozen little things--of which that is one--that are typical of a certain style of the way that I operate that is no more held in vogue at U S West. But there wasn't any particular thing that they said--'You did this, and therefore we don't want you anymore.' That didn't occur."
State Representative Susan Gerard, a Republican from Phoenix, says she's shocked that Aarons would write a homophobic hit piece.
She says, "I thought he had a little bit of integrity. That's too bad.
"Many of us had been given the impression that Barry was kind of the clean one, and that it was [Symington staffers Wes] Gullett and [Chuck] Coughlin and [Jay] Heiler who did the dirty stuff."
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Aarons says he will stay at U S West for a couple of months; details of his severance package are still being worked out, and he's exploring employment options.
He says he's proud of his work for the utility, and isn't ashamed of his style.
"I know one way to do my job, and that is to be aggressive and to advocate for whomever I am representing," he says.
Even Gerard, who says she didn't always trust Aarons when they worked together, concedes, "He's a smart man. He knows the issues. He really was a good lobbyist, and it's been something that has been missing from the ninth floor [the Governor's Office] since he left.