The Bench Warmer and the Straggler
The morning's newspapers have nuked him, and Paul Johnson is dealing with the fallout.
On a warm morning in early October, Johnson's tall, lanky body is folded into the passenger seat of a speeding red Honda Passport. He juggles two different cellular phones and a pager with his driver, who tries to steer the car and answer Johnson's phone calls at the same time. Johnson is hurrying to make a campaign appearance in Tucson, but he's in constant communication with his campaign workers in both Phoenix and Tucson, discussing the recent attacks he's taken from the state's media.
Outside the window, hundreds of ostriches living in the shadow of Picacho Peak zip by in a blur.
The state's newspapers have denounced Johnson as a desperate candidate, hopelessly behind in the polls, who has leveled a scurrilous charge against a sitting governor. Three days earlier, Johnson had lobbed a bomb in an otherwise somnambulent public television debate: Governor Jane Hull had taken campaign money from Las Vegas developers who needed Arizona water to survive. Johnson had suggested that Nevada was negotiating a deal for Arizona water with Hull, and Las Vegas developers and other Nevadans had given her $31,000 in campaign contributions to grease the wheels.
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With varying degress of acrimony, the media blasted Johnson, condemning him for gambling his candidacy and his political future on a bogus charge. His plan has backfired, and now he's had it, says the state's largest newspaper.
For once, his 13-month gubernatorial bid against Hull is front-page news and the talk of the state.
Johnson loves it.
Months of dreary campaigning unnoticed in backwater districts have been replaced with an incessant daily press clamoring for details and documents and sound bites.
"God, I love a campaign," he utters between phone calls, sounding like the youthful (he's 39) climber he's sometimes criticized for being. And, as if to reinforce the image, he takes out pieces of red licorice from the plastic tub between his feet, offering some all around.
The boyish-looking former Phoenix mayor, father of two sons and a native of Sunnyslope, has gambled hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money on his campaign, cash that came from the sale of his ownership in a telecommunications business. He has put $700,000 into the campaign; another $650,000 has come from contributors. Johnson says he's spent his own money to avoid the complications of taking more cash from special interests; his critics say he'd take it if he could get it.
His driver, who goes by the unlikely name Cal Sunshine, hands him a phone so Johnson can speak to his campaign consultant, David Steele.
Johnson complains to Steele that Nevada officials are trying to convince Arizona reporters they want none of Arizona's water--after previously telling Nevada reporters they desperately need some of Arizona's share.
"They were 15,000 acre-feet under what they need, and lo and behold today they have enough? Bullshit," Johnson says.
Throughout the morning, Johnson and Steele will debate whether to hold a press conference to announce their latest evidence raising questions about Hull and water rights. In the meantime, they have to scramble to find that evidence. Johnson makes multiple calls, instructing his troops to locate a particular retired water lawyer who might agree to appear with him at the press conference. He recruits another attorney to begin researching water law. Other calls confirm for Johnson that a Yuma Democrat, Herb Guenther, has agreed to go on record about his knowledge of discussions between the two states--discussions Hull had denied were going on. (Johnson's elation over Guenther's help would be short-lived. Guenther recalled talks that occurred under the Symington administration, which didn't help Johnson's argument.)
It's clear Johnson thinks he's seized on the stratagem that will reverse his fortunes and thrust his poll numbers higher. He excitedly passes on to Steele something an attorney has just told him: "If you can show Hull's not telling the truth, I think she's done."
"She's done." Johnson says it with gravity, and it's clear he wants to believe it. You can almost see the reverie going through his mind as a look of seriousness washes over the normally jocular candidate. It's tempting to imagine the panorama of a full-blown Jane Hull nose-dive playing out in his mind: the headlines, the accusations, the shame, the concession speech. But soon enough, it's over, and reality sinks in.
She's done? Is Johnson insane?
Hull seems all but assured of election next week, with Johnson trailing badly in the polls. She's raised more than $1.8 million for the campaign, none of it her own. Libertarian candidate Kat Gallant and Reform Party candidate Scott Malcolmson have added inimitably to several debates, but should have little effect on the outcome.
Hull's challengers have been unable to dent her lead. Despite her considerable record as a friend to lobbyists, insurance companies and developers, she's managed to recast herself as a moderate, unbeholden to the special interests that have filled her campaign chest.
If people have short memories about the Iron Lady of the Legislature--a nickname Hull acquired in 14 years as a legislator with a reputation for toughness--they seem to have very long memories about her Democratic challenger. Paul Johnson has repeatedly brought up Hull's changing political stances, citing Hull's record whenever he can and issuing elaborate, multimillion-dollar policy proposals nearly every day. Yet despite his solid abilities as a speaker and his grasp of wonkish political minutiae, Johnson has had trouble generating fervent support even within his own party. Some constituencies that would normally flock to a Democratic challenger express reservations about Johnson, remembering previous campaign tactics that turned them off as well as his centrist attempts, as Phoenix mayor, to bring together coalitions in ways that alienated them.
Meanwhile, Hull is on a juggernaut, having pushed through moderate legislation that has pleased many Arizonans. But perhaps more important, she's helped make former governor J. Fife Symington III's conviction of fraud charges seem a distant memory. Environmentalists and other critics may complain that Hull's policies are no better, but at least no one's calling for her impeachment. And for a Republican Arizona governor, that's saying something.
Hull's Las Vegas confab may have raised legitimate questions about her fund-raising activities, but it didn't translate into a boost for Johnson.
After Johnson's gamble, polls soon showed that he hadn't gained anything from it. He still trailed badly, and ASU pollster Bruce Merrill pronounced Johnson's campaign all but dead.
But as Cal Sunshine drives him around Tucson, Johnson hasn't yet given up on the story, and he works the phones at a feverish pace. Sunshine consults a map, trying to find the meeting place where Johnson is supposed to conduct a pro-choice press conference.
The two of them joke about Johnson somehow working the water issue into his speech about abortion rights.
"I could do the story of my wife," Johnson says, referring to the story of her giving birth to their first son, a staple of his stump speech.
He practices it for Sunshine's benefit.
"I remember when her water broke. Speaking of water . . ."
Jane Hull catches herself. She was telling her audience that it's been a year now since she became governor, but she was about to say that she had "ascended" to her post. "I don't like to use that word," she says.
It's a populist moment in an otherwise patrician setting. Hull has ascended to the Arizona Club, a tony restaurant nearly at the top of the Bank One building in downtown Phoenix, to give a speech to a gathering of business people who seem receptive to her claim that Arizona has proven "the Republican theory" that cutting taxes results in a stronger economy.
With a smoky, halting voice, she gives an uninspiring speech, as if she were a low-level bureaucrat delivering a report on quarterly earnings rather than the captain of the ship of state. She's not a great speaker, and political observers say her campaign has been smart to keep Hull from having to make many televised orations. It makes good political sense to keep the popular incumbent under wraps, but there's another reason she's better off not running for microphones--flashes of her previous persona tend to emerge when she's holding forth.
Hull was the first woman to serve as Arizona's Speaker of the House, and her fellow legislators called her the Iron Lady, partly for biting, off-the-cuff remarks, but mostly for a steely resolve that could bring the Legislature to a grinding halt until she got her way.
In her speech to the business people, that irascible quality only emerges once or twice. Talking about state spending on schools, for example, the 63-year-old says three times that she's for "basic education," without explaining exactly what she means. But she adds a testy coda: "I don't think schools are there to entertain the little darlings."
For just a moment, she sounds like a mean principal looking for a fourth-grader to spank.
Her treatment of fourth-graders and other little darlings, however, is the centerpiece of her campaign.
When Hull took over as governor last September, she was not well known. Could she handle the job?
She inherited an inequitable school funding system that had bedeviled lawmakers for years. The state Supreme Court had threatened to shut down the schools unless lawmakers found a way to get more money to poor districts in bad need of capital improvements. Symington failed to devise a plan that the courts would accept. When Hull's proposal, StudentsFIRST, passed court muster in the spring, Hull, too, seemed to have passed a major test.
Districts had been raising funds for new schools through revenue bonds backed by property taxes. Districts in wealthier areas raised more money than poorer areas. StudentsFIRST replaced that system with one paid for with state general funds--a state treasury bolstered by a $500 million budget surplus.
Johnson criticizes Hull for the plan, saying that needed improvements will soon prove too heavy a burden for the general fund, especially if the economy slumps and tax revenues decline. He warns that StudentsFIRST could prove the worst thing to happen to Arizona education.
Hull smartly resists coming back with economic forecasts of her own. Instead, she appeals to a public that has grown weary of the debate: Does Johnson really want the state to go through the whole mess again, she asks?
So Hull gets credit for saving the state from one of its biggest headaches. But, says Democratic state Senator Pete Rios, the public forgets Hull was part of the reason the problem lasted as long as it did.
"In 1991, when Democrats were in control of the Senate, we wanted to take the bull by the horns," Rios says. "We wanted to bring equalization to the districts. We asked the House to join in, we said let's create a committee. She [as Speaker of the House] declined at that point. And that was it. It was our attempt to get started. And that was 1991. It took another seven years before it got resolved."
Like Rios, some look at Hull's first year as governor and find it hard to reconcile with her performance as Speaker of the House. Who shows up after the election? The moderate governor who, unlike Symington, will at least talk with environmentalists, who makes AIDS funding a budget line item for the first time, who takes advantage of federal dollars to extend health care to low-income children?
Or the conservative legislator who supported a constitutional amendment to ban all forms of abortion, who favored insurers over consumers, who voted to make schools teach evolution as a theory rather than a fact?
Asked about her stand on abortion, for example, which has gone from staunchly opposing a woman's right to choose to a lukewarm support for it, Hull tells New Times: "I think it's always hard to pin me down."
She's voted to require parental consent in the cases involving minors, and she says a Johnson commercial is correct when it cites her 1981 support for a constitutional amendment that would have banned all forms of abortion in Arizona. "It didn't get through the Senate, and I think I strongly suspected that it wouldn't," she says.
When an initiative banning abortion came before the voters in 1992, Hull was very public in opposing it. "I think we are all appalled by abortion . . . but I will say that I think the discussion should hinge more on abstinence, parental responsibility and on family planning."
Archival news reports do pin down several other highlights of Hull's legislative career:
Elected to the House in 1978, Hull became speaker in 1989, moving up from majority leader, the No. 2 spot. She aligned herself with moderates but pleased the right wing by giving her old post to a conservative.
She takes credit for this year's $180 million in tax breaks ($100 million in vehicle license tax cuts, $50 million in income taxes, and $30 million in corporate and property taxes), but as speaker she presided over three major tax increases in the tougher economic years of 1988 to 1990.
In 1984, Hull voted against equalizing pay for women working in state and local governments. Three years earlier, she had supported a bill that would have limited state-subsidized day care, saying, "We have women in bikinis at the pool while their children are in day care."
A 1982 remark is often quoted, when she suggested that swamp coolers at a state prison might break down. "That might get rid of some of our prison population."
Asked to elaborate, she did: "Suffocate them to death. I really believe if we made it harder on them, they wouldn't be there."
She told New Times later that the remark was made in jest to relieve the frustration of dealing with the corrections budget, but it won her respect from legislators who liked her toughness even if they didn't think suffocating prisoners was a good idea.
Hull favored legislation that would have made it mandatory to teach evolution as a theory rather than a fact, then changed her mind. She also supported prayer in schools, and had several battles with teachers unions, co-sponsoring legislation that would have made it illegal for public employees (including teachers) to strike. The bill passed the House but didn't get through the Senate; another attempt was vetoed by then-governor Bruce Babbitt. Hull tried yet a third time and was successful in getting a referendum on the ballot, but voters turned it down.
Hull was speaker during two of the most contentious upheavals in the Legislature's history--the AzScam sting and Governor Evan Mecham's impeachment. In both episodes, Hull earned high marks from the press, particularly when she became one of the first legislators to call for Mecham's resignation. The ire of Mecham loyalists eventually soured Hull on the job. "I'm tired of the fights. I can't stand the meanness anymore," she said as she stepped down in 1992.
A year later, she resigned her House seat to run for Secretary of State, a quieter post that took her away from the legislative infighting. As secretary, she put election records on-line, making it easier for voters to keep an eye on candidates' campaign money. It wasn't the sort of work that generated much press attention, and the Iron Lady began to fade from memories.
Instead, Hull seemed deliberately to nurture an image of dullness and quiet integrity--exactly what the electorate seemed to want after Symington's ouster.
Still, Hull, like Symington, has not escaped the image of someone who lets special interests dictate her politics.
In 1987, she sponsored a bill--written by developers--that would have weakened enforcement of the state's groundwater laws. When asked about it, Hull told reporters: "Frankly, I've barely read it."
Other times, Hull sponsored bills written by lobbyists that would have helped specific industries or even, in one case, a lone credit union. Some questioned her attempts to cap malpractice awards, which could have directly benefited her husband Terry, an obstetrician.
Even in her short stint as governor, her record suggests that she continues to reward political cronies and fund raisers.
In December, Hull appointed two old political allies, former legislators Chris Herstam and Jack Jewett, to the state Board of Regents, making it all Republican for the first time. They aren't paid, but Herstam and Jewett sit on a board with immense power, overseeing a university budget of $2.5 billion.
Hull named Gary Trujillo, who helped raise campaign cash for her in the Hispanic community, to the board that will oversee school spending under StudentsFIRST. That has drawn an angry response from state Senator Mary Hartley, a Democrat who has fought the Republican majority on education issues. Hartley objected because Trujillo's only experience in education is a short stint as a school board member. "Where was this guy when we were spending all of those months dealing with this problem?" Hartley complains.
Hull says she finds Hartley's concerns "unbelievably insulting." Trujillo, she says, was from South Phoenix and had been appointed to a school board at only 21, then left for Harvard University. Trujillo didn't return a phone call for this story.
"To me there was nobody more perfect than a successful person who comes from the [underfunded] districts who's a self-made man and is willing to spend the time and energy," Hull says. "I could not have thought of a better person to chair that."
How different is the state under Hull? Environmentalist attorney Jeff Bouma says it's hard to tell.
"She doesn't say much, so it's tough to gauge where she's going. But from what she has said and done, the Symington effect on the environment still seems to be in place," says Bouma. He was alarmed to read Hull's comments on the Endangered Species Act reported in a Sierra Vista paper. Giving a speech at the Governor's Rural Development Conference on September 11, Hull said, "Some day the federal government will realize jobs are more important than small animals," and added: "Mining and lumbering are not the end of civilization." The paper reported that Hull got rousing applause for her remarks.
Still, Bouma says, Hull treats him better than Symington ever did. "At least with Jane Hull, I know I can sit down with her staff and make my thoughts known. So there's hope, I guess."
"I'll talk to anybody," says Hull. "And I'll listen to their complaints. And some of them are certainly valid. We've had problems with [the Department of Environmental Quality] from the hour it was formed."
Other activists also say that, in reality, Hull has changed little about state government since she took over from Symington, largely because she has kept in place key department heads.
Donna Hamm is known for taking on the Department of Corrections over its treatment of prisoners. Hamm says not much has changed under Hull, particularly since she's kept Terry Stewart, a Symington appointee, in the director's seat. Under Stewart, she says, inmates still have inadequate access to courts and substandard medical care, and their families are unfairly hit with exorbitant telephone costs. However, like Bouma, Hamm says she's found the Hull administration doesn't shut her out the way Symington did.
Only scheduling difficulties, she says, have kept her from meeting willing Hull staffers. "Certainly that is an encouragement," she says, but adds, "My fear is that I don't want to waste my time or theirs if they're just going to pat me on the head and send me out the door as a happy constituent."
If Hull hasn't entirely won over environmentalists and prisoner advocates, Johnson is having his own troubles with other groups.
Tonight, on his October road trip to Tucson, he's just having problems attracting any kind of crowd. Cal Sunshine has shuttled Johnson around to various appearances, and now he's driven Johnson to a private fund raiser at a large home in Tucson. Someone, however, has apparently forgotten to invite guests.
A mere six people mill about in an immaculate living room, arguing over why more people hadn't shown up.
Johnson doesn't seem fazed. It isn't the first time that day that turnout on one of his campaign stops has been disappointing. He puts on a determined face, sits down with the handful of attendees, and gives them the same treatment he does a roomful.
Whether to a single person or an entire room, Johnson's ready to delineate issues and policies in remarkable detail. And always with intensity. "I gotta tell ya," he says almost incessantly, trying to emphasize how important his next statement is going to be, even if it's not really very significant at all.
Quiz him on an issue, and Johnson has a ready response. Not only about his plan to equalize school funding or rein in HMOs or end school violence. He'll also tell you why Jane Hull's ideas aren't as good.
So why isn't he doing better, even among Democrats?
If the public suffers some amnesia when it comes to Hull's extensive legislative career, voters seem to have long memories about Paul Johnson.
"June 16, 1992. I'll never forget that date," says Jeff Ofstedahl, the former manager of Echo magazine and a well-known gay activist. That's the day 5,000 citizens showed up to watch the Phoenix City Council make a decision on a controversial ordinance that would have extended protection from discrimination to gay city employees. It was the largest crowd ever to show up at a city council meeting. Ofstedahl watched in disgust as the Johnson-led council decided to put off a vote rather than face the ire of various factions of attendees. Eventually, Johnson pushed through a watered-down version of the ordinance (and he gives Ofstedahl credit for helping to make it happen). But many in the gay community still harbor misgivings about the former mayor.
Johnson has worked hard to attract the gay vote, a constituency that's generally supportive of Democrats. Last week, after Johnson had attended numerous gay functions and pledged to seek nondiscriminatory benefits for domestic partners, Echo and the Arizona Human Rights Forum endorsed him.
Ofstedahl says Johnson only recently won his support. He'd leaned toward Hull after the governor approved half a million dollars in state spending for AIDS victims and made it a regular budget item, the first governor to do so, he says. But her unwillingness to fill out questionnaires from gay organizations and her silence on such issues as domestic-partner benefits made Ofstedahl reconsider.
Johnson has had to work equally hard to capture other support that Democrats normally rely on. Some of it no doubt is due to Hull's strength as an incumbent who has worked for moderate legislation. But some Democrats say they just don't like Paul Johnson.
"I think a lot of Democrats, those that follow politics, are still upset about his behavior in the last election," says a Democrat active in the party. "To people not in politics, he just looks like a climber."
Four years ago, Johnson entered the gubernatorial primary only six months before election day and, playing catch-up against Terry Goddard and Eddie Basha, hit Basha with a negative ad that backfired. As a member of the state Board of Education, in 1989 Basha defended the board's right to restore licenses to teachers convicted of felonies. Johnson suggested that meant Basha favored convicted felons--even child molesters--in the classroom.
Basha responded with an emotional ad, saying he was shocked by Johnson's attack: "You know, Paul, some things are more important than your political career. Like our children . . ." Basha came off as a man who wasn't running for the sheer enjoyment of it; when things got dirty, he took it hard. That single ad, Democrat insiders say, probably won Basha the 1994 primary.
Despite his impressive ability to talk policy from morning to night (and perhaps because of it), Johnson still too easily resembles the candidate who runs out of a love for the fight itself, who enjoys a scrap over something as arcane as river water allocations.
The result: Even when he's right, he can't shake the perception that he's a pure strategist, hitting Hull just to gain traction in the polls.
Eight years ago, he had a different reputation: for taking political risks and making them pay off.
He'd defied expectations by becoming mayor of Phoenix at the age of 30, pulling off a surprising coup by leapfrogging over more veteran councilmembers for the post.
After five years as a councilman, Johnson realized he could put together the votes for mayor in 1990 when councilman Skip Rimsza, a Republican, agreed to back him.
Johnson details the behind-the-scenes scheming that got him the mayor's seat in a self-published autobiography he had printed last month. It's titled, appropriately enough, Longshot.
It opens with a scene from Johnson's mayoral days, when he had met with the visiting Archbishop of Canterbury who, before the two emerged to meet the press, let Johnson know his fly was open.
It's a nice piece of self-deprecating humor, but it also sets a slightly maudlin tone for the piece, reminding the reader that at one time, Johnson hobnobbed with such personages when he was a popular public official. We get Johnson, the populist, fighting fires and doing police work and climbing into roach-infested sewers as part of his "Operation Occupation." It's a gimmick he continues to use in his race for governor, working the jobs of working-class Arizonans to score points as a politician who cares.
We also see the consensus-builder who convinced the city to beef up curfew laws and persuaded the council, despite its pro-gun leanings, to pass a law prohibiting children from carrying firearms.
Like Hull, Johnson led during tough economic times. The former mayor says it's the reason he's considered a conservative Democrat; in a stronger economy, he would have been labeled a "traditional" Democrat. But Johnson's coziness with the business community is still remembered by the public and helps to undermine him when he attacks Hull for her connections to special interests.
When Johnson left the mayor's office, the press lauded his tenure, calling him "a good mayor in tough times," and chiding him for only one black mark--his pet project, Forestry for Phoenix.
Launched by Johnson, Forestry for Phoenix intended to plant a million trees in the city between 1990 and 1995, mostly with private contributions. But nearly $500,000 in city and federal funds were misused by the nonprofit group, which had been staffed with Johnson friends and political allies. A city audit found that the program had spent lavishly on its officials but couldn't prove that it had planted as many trees as it claimed. Johnson cut off city funding to the program when the audit was made public.
If Johnson's a long shot today, it's probably of his own doing. In 1994, he walked away from the mayor's office--with no strong competitor--to enter a three-way primary race for governor.
It was bad timing. He left office early but joined a campaign late. He launched negative ads that backfired, and he lost. Four years later, his timing is lousy again, going up against a popular incumbent when the economy is strong.
In Longshot, Johnson laments the way he worded his Basha ads. But observers figured Johnson, trailing badly against Hull, would try something similar. At an October 4 televised debate, Johnson proved them right.
In September, Governor Hull experienced a minor bump in her smooth ride to Election Day.
The Mesa Tribune reported that Hull had taken $3,000 from gaming interests at a July 15 Las Vegas fund raiser. Sensing an opportunity to derail Hull, Johnson criticized her for taking the gaming money (she says publicly that she's morally opposed to gambling). Johnson says an angry Phil Dion, CEO of Del Webb Corporation and chairman of Hull's finance committee, called Johnson and told him to stop harping on the story.
Johnson contends Dion told him the fund raiser, which actually raised more than $31,000 and which Dion himself had set up, wasn't about the few gaming people there, who happened to be Dion's personal friends. "He told me the fund raiser was about Las Vegas developers and their need for water," Johnson says.
Dion deferred questions about the call to a spokesman, who says the Del Webb CEO doesn't want to talk about it.
Dion followed up with a letter to Johnson that included a list of the contributors at the fund raiser. It was that information Johnson used to attack Hull at an October 4 public television debate.
Johnson criticized Hull for accepting money from developers in Las Vegas, an area desperate for more water, just as "staff discussions" between the two states over water were occurring.
But reporters hounded Johnson for more detail: Was he suggesting that Hull had negotiated some sort of backroom deal as a quid pro quo for the $31,000? Where was his proof? How could he slam Hull for taking money from out-of-state interests when every governor does it?
As the pressure on Johnson mounted, he made a major misstep. He claimed that Del Webb owned a 4,700-acre parcel south of Las Vegas that the company couldn't build on without Arizona water. Reporters quickly found that wasn't true. In fact, construction was already proceeding on the development.
A check of Nevada state land records, however, shows that, while Del Webb's Henderson project may not have been held up by a lack of water, other developments are--including some owned by people who wrote checks to Hull at her Nevada fund raiser.
For the past decade, southern Nevada officials have been concerned that the area's spectacular growth would use up the state's allocation of Colorado River water, and have looked for ways to supplement it. In 1996, to protect its unused share of river water, which both California and Nevada had been taking, Arizona began pumping that water into underground aquifers. By now, the arcane intricacies of "water banking," a subject maybe a dozen water-policy nerds knew anything about before last month, has been debated ad nauseam, with Hull's camp arguing that she has little to do with it. In drought years or in future times when development forces the state to use up its allocation, Arizona can get back its banked water--make a withdrawal, as it were--by drawing it straight from the Colorado River in credit for what it had pumped into the ground earlier.
Nevada, meanwhile, is hoping that Arizona will see fit to bank some of that surplus water for Nevada (at Nevada's expense), so the parched northern neighbor can withdraw a similar amount straight from the river. But that sort of interstate transaction can't happen without federal approval. The feds--specifically the Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt--oversee the "Law of the River," and will decide soon if water banking between states can happen.
In the meantime, Nevada officials have proceeded on two fronts as the state's water supply has diminished. First, they've been making nice with Arizona officials, hoping that after the feds give the green light to water banking, Arizona commissions staffed with Hull appointees will also agree to it.
Southern Nevada officials also have taken fairly draconian measures to keep from giving up too much of the state's dwindling water supply too soon.
They've done so by making developers take risks that Arizona developers don't face: Nevada land barons know that acreage they purchase may never have water, according to the rules of southern Nevada water districts amended seven years ago in response to concern about water shortages, says George Jacobi, Engineering Services Division Manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
Landowners can get water commitments for commercial properties, for example, after infrastructure, buildings and occupancy licenses have already been put in place. So a developer can potentially invest millions of dollars and be ready for a tenant to move and still not have a guarantee from the water district for a single drop of water.
That's a mighty risk, and one developers would rather not face. As long as Nevada has only eight more years of firm supplies, however, those rules will likely stay in place.
Any developer with vacant land in southern Nevada has no guarantee that his land will ever get water. Take Boyd Gaming, for example, the company that owns the Stardust Hotel. A check of Clark County records shows that Boyd also owns dozens of vacant parcels of land--none of which, according to water district rules, has a commitment for water.
Greenspun Industries is another local landowner with many waterless vacant lots.
A record search of Del Webb and its many subsidiaries, meanwhile, turned up no less than 118 vacant parcels of land in its possession in Clark County.
Without water commitments, each of these large landowners has an interest in southern Nevada's water supply being bolstered, and at present the state is, in fact, seeking cooperation from the state of Arizona to fill that need.
On July 15, Del Webb CEO Phil Dion brought together many of these land and utility interests to meet Governor Hull at a Las Vegas fund raiser.
And the owners of those bone-dry land parcels lined up to hand over cash to Jane Hull.
Boyd Gaming CEO William Boyd contributed $500 to Hull's campaign.
Boyd president Donald Snyder also coughed up $500.
Robert Boughner, Boyd Gaming senior executive vice president, threw in another $500.
Greenspun Industries president Philip Peckman wrote his own check for $500.
Del Webb subsidiary Lewis Homes sent Robert and Scott Lewis, who each pitched in $500. Various Del Webb Sun City representatives forked over $2,360.
"Nevada has been very up-front with us for the last eight to 10 years," says an Arizona water-policy expert who asked not be named. "They're out of water. They need water and want to take it out of Arizona's allotment.
"Phil Dion and the others at the fund raiser may not understand the Secretary of the Interior's role [which is far more crucial than Hull's]. But I have no doubt that the people in that room thought that money would get them more water."
Governor Hull has vehemently denied that those contributions, however, would ever persuade her to give up rights to Arizona's water, which is a neat use of semantics. What Johnson had (badly) tried to describe was the potential use of surplus Arizona water by the state of Nevada. Talks have been under way for several years between the two states about banking that surplus water for Nevada's use--two Nevada senatorial candidates even endorsed the water-banking talks in a debate televised the very night Johnson hit Hull with his initial accusation.
But Hull has repeatedly denied that she's negotiating away rights to Arizona's river allocation--which is a separate issue.
It's as if Johnson had accused Hull of taking cash from Las Vegas bigwigs who wanted her to lend them use of the state plane, and Hull had answered that she would never sell the state plane to anyone.
"[Johnson's] backed off from immediate accusations that he knew nothing about to finding out a little bit about what's going on, which is very typical of the way he's run his campaign," complains Hull.
But she acknowledges that Arizona and Nevada have held meetings about Nevada getting some of Arizona's water. "The water-banking legislation passed when I wasn't there," Hull says. "There are meetings, I guess, which I didn't know, either, until he brought up the subject. There are water-banking meetings held every month."
Hull stresses, however, that the need for federal approval, the existence of surplus water and other variables keep her from having much to do with the process. She says she simply couldn't do favors for contributors, which is what Johnson implied in the first place.
If there was a political opportunity in Hull's acceptance of Las Vegas money, Johnson wasn't able to capitalize on it.
Still, Johnson says he's not done with the issue. This week he'll begin new television ads hammering Hull on her tie to the Las Vegas money.
He believes that Hull should have known about the water meetings. "That scares me even more than if [she] had known about them. We not only ought to be looking at Mrs. Hull, we ought to be taking a very hard look at those people around Mrs. Hull and what they want."
Contact Tony Ortega at his online address: email@example.com
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