THE BEST OF FIFE
As election day nears, so dawns the realization that by this time next week, we might not have Governor J. Fife Symington III to kick around anymore.
As a public service befitting the gravity of the occasion, New Times has marshaled its vast resources to reflect on what we and other publications have written, to take stock of all the governor and his faithful followers have done.
We're calling it "The Best of Fife," and we trust our readers will find it to be the definitive, mind-boggling guide to the Fife Years.
One of Fife's first official acts as governor was to stop answering questions posed by New Times writers. But if we could get him on the phone today and ask him one simple question, that question undoubtedly would be:
FIFE, HOW DID YOU GET AWAY WITH THIS SHIT?
Best Stuff That Happened on Fife's Watch
Best economic rebound: Fife's finances fluctuate faster than Oprah Winfrey's waistline. Fife was a god in the Phoenix real estate market in 1990, carrying a personal financial statement worth $12 million in his back pocket.
That wealth suddenly evaporated when the federal Resolution Trust Corporation decided to sue Fife and other Southwest Savings and Loan cronies for contributing to the $1 billion failure of the thrift. Fife was a member of the Southwest board from 1972 to 1984, a tenure that allowed him to arrange a $30 million investment from the S&L to purchase land and pay $13 million in predevelopment costs on the Camelback Esplanade project.
By January 1993, with RTC lawyers breathing down his back, Fife announced that he'd lost everything, becoming the state's only pauper with bodyguards and a $75,000 salary.
Never mind Fife's four family trust funds, which are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Or the slick real estate maneuvers that resulted in six-figure commissions for Fife when his Camelback Esplanade complex was sold earlier this year. Fife was broke. So the RTC settled its lawsuit against Symington in May, saying blood couldn't be squeezed from a turnip.
Surprise! The next thing you know, Fife finds enough spare change to pump $175,000 of his own money into his reelection campaign.
"For a while, I had less than zero," he told a Phoenix daily in July. "Now I'm doing okay."
Best attempted shakedown: Tapped out and caught in a costly crossfire between an RTC civil lawsuit and a federal criminal probe of his business dealings, Fife in January 1993 floated the idea of establishing a legal defense fund. Son of a guv Bob Fannin, a heavyweight lobbyist, was to be in charge of fund raising. After savage press reviews, the idea was dropped a week later.
Best use of "love loans": When Fife needed cash to fund his 1990 campaign, he stuck to the developer's No. 1 rule: Use Other People's Money. So he borrowed $1.3 million from his wife and mother, even though state campaign laws restricted loans to candidates to $550.
Once Democrats and the press squawked about the legality of the loans, Fife, with some help from Republican Attorney General Grant Woods, came up with a unique defense. The loans, Fife's spokesman Doug Cole said, weren't given to Fife to fund his campaign, even though documents clearly show that was the case.
"They were given because the governor asked them and because of the love of his mother for her son and the love of his wife for her husband," explained Cole.
Woods agreed, saying Fife had the right to borrow money from family members as long as the money was not used "to influence the outcome of the election."
One-point-three mil? Naaah!
As usual, Fife made money on the deal. He collected $115,907 in interest payments from the campaign stemming from the loans made by his wife and mother.
Fife claims he repaid the loans to his wife and mother during the last year, but refuses to show proof. Many wonder where he got the money, since he was telling the RTC he was broke.
Best personal protection: Fife doubled the size of the DPS security detail guarding him.
Best use of a state car: The DPS officers assigned to protect the governor and his family are supposed to be the elite of the elite. Yet two of the officers were chastised for using state time--and vehicles--to visit a female drug informant with whom both were romantically involved (they had met her before they were transferred to Fife's team). DPS was not eager to turn over reports detailing the incident and whited out most of what they did finally produce.
Best shadowy memo: The so-called Countershot memo surfaced in December 1991, two weeks after the RTC filed a civil suit against Fife and other Southwest Savings and Loan directors. The four-page missive purportedly details Fife's strategy to defend himself against the RTC civil charges as well as a plan to defuse a federal criminal probe (still ongoing) into his dealings with the ill-fated thrift.
The memo, which includes a "press friends" and "press enemies" list, contains detailed knowledge of the RTC suit that only a handful of people knew. While it appears to be authentic, the writer of the memo has never been identified and its complete contents have never been published.
But the memo became the focus of a U.S. Senate Banking Committee hearing in October 1992. Michigan Senator Don Riegle raised questions about one section that suggested "launch[ing] a pre-emptive political strike" against the FBI and Justice Department to derail the criminal probe into Fife's dealings with Southwest Savings.
Fife and his top aides deny writing the memo; they say it was fabricated in an attempt to harm the governor. Fife has accused the RTC of cooking up the memo, which was leaked to the Washington Post and Tribune Newspapers by an unknown source.
Best use of state retirement funds: Highballing appraisals and lowballing the tax man is one of Fife's favorite fiscal policies. He worked the technique perfectly in a development project that cost the Arizona State Retirement System $350,000 after he defaulted on a $975,000 real estate development loan in 1991.
Fife's office building at 1002 East Missouri fell $50,000 behind in loan payments by the end of 1991. Rather than foreclosing on the property, which was worth only $625,000, and seeking a judgment to collect the difference from the governor, Bank One, the investment adviser to the retirement system, opted to take back the property, absorb the loss and let Fife walk away from the debt.
The Missouri Avenue project not only shortchanged state pension fund members. Fife also slighted Maricopa County residents. In May 1987, the month Fife convinced the Retirement System to make the loan based on a $1.25 million appraisal, Fife told the Maricopa County Assessor's Office, which determines tax payments, that the property was worth only $432,357.
Best effort to spread the wealth of the state retirement system: Last year, John Stiteler, a real estate investment broker and member of the Arizona State Retirement System Board, conferred with Fife's No.1 crony, George Leckie, then began leaning on fellow board members to begin shunting state pension funds into Arizona investments. Board chairman Ronald Pelton blew the whistle on the risky buy-local movement; Pelton wound up resigning from the board in disgust.
Best use of Teamsters pension funds: What do you do when you owe the Teamsters $8.8 million? Anything they want.
While Fife has given the slip to Japanese banks and the RTC for untold millions, the Teamsters aren't satisfied to walk away empty-handed.
The union wants Fife and his wife, Ann, to make good on their personal guarantees to cover losses connected with Fife's disastrous Mercado development in downtown Phoenix. The union's pension fund lent Fife $10 million to build the Mexican-themed marketplace. Settlement negotiations have been ongoing for a year.
If having the Teamsters on your ass isn't enough, a federal grand jury probing Fife's business practices has subpoenaed documents related to the Mercado deal.
Best Keystone Kops routine: In the wake of a botched drug bust in southern Arizona, Fife, at the urging of staff member Gary Phelps, suspended Department of Public Safety Director Rick Ayars and deputy director Randy Serna. A week later, Fife reinstated Ayars and Serna and forced out Phelps, a former assistant DPS director himself. The state continued to pay Phelps for a month after his ouster.
Best populist move: Fearing that his chauffeured Lincoln Town Car cast an elitist image, Fife in May 1993 traded down to a new, chauffeured, four-wheel-drive Chevy Suburban, equipped with tinted windows, grille lights, cellular phone and police radios. Price tag: $30,000. When questioned by reporters, he said he'd chosen a "Car of the People." Best stonewall: In late June, state Democratic party honcho Steve Owens asked the Governor's Office for a host of public records--from computer files to calendars to phone logs--with the intention of demonstrating that state employees (specifically, members of the governor's staff) were running Fife's reelection campaign from the Ninth Floor. After months of terse correspondence and threats of lawsuits, Owens got what he asked for--sort of. Fife's staffers are "redacting huge amounts of information without any justification," Owens says. Luckily for Owens, there wasn't much attention to detail. "They whited out a lot of things, but they missed a few," the Democrat says with a chuckle.
Best bandwagon jump: Fife donned a gorilla suit in honor of the Phoenix Suns' 25th anniversary last year, surprising the Capitol press corps. After hugging Arizona Republic reporter Mary Jo Pitzl, the gorilla took off his mask and, according to an account in the daily press, thanked those assembled for "allowing me to expose my true instincts" and "letting me hug and kiss so much of the audience."
Best way to piss away the paltry tax cuts Fife's pushed through on the state level: He opposes the freeway tax and tobacco tax, and opposed the education tax (ACE initiative) and ValTrans tax, but Fife supports the Maricopa County baseball stadium sales tax, to the tune of $238 million.
Best guess as to why Fife supports the stadium tax: Jerry Colangelo, godfather of Valley basketball--and soon, he hopes, baseball--is a big Symington campaign contributor. Can you say, "Great seats?"
Best quickie: There were many fans of Fife's 100-day legislative sessions, particularly the big-business lobbyists who used the frenetic pace to ram through goodies for their clients. One longtime lobbyist described the 41st Legislature (the most recent) as "just like a candy store."
Legislators have to share in the blame for the tax cuts and/or regulatory relief they offered to mines, utilities and dog-track owners, but it was the governor who signed the bills.
While Fife brags about his $100 million tax break for middle-income Arizonans, Kay Jeffries, executive director of Common Cause, estimates the most recent legislative session alone cost those same Arizonans hundreds of millions of dollars in lost taxes from big business.
Best grandstanding: It's a tie! Grousing about murderer-cum-star ASU law student James Hamm was pretty bad--apparently, Fife doesn't believe the "Corrections" part of the Department of Corrections.
But equally galling was Fife's call for the impeachment of U.S. Judge Carl Muecke after the judge held Department of Corrections chief Sam Lewis in contempt for attempting to ban girlie mags from Arizona prisons. Muecke pointed out that Lewis violated the state's own pledge--a signature on a court order--allowing prisoners to read any magazine that didn't include instructions on weapon manufacturing.
Annoyed, Fife called for Muecke's impeachment, although the U.S. Constitution clearly states that such action can only be taken after the commission of high crimes and misdemeanors. And, as it turns out, maybe Fife has learned to believe in "Corrections": this fall he endorsed Scott Bundgaard, GOP candidate for Legislative District 19 and a convicted felon.
Best pretend vacation: Leia James, director of public relations for the tourism office, admitted to New Times in 1992 that a plaid-clad likeness of Fife was cut and pasted onto a photograph of the Grand Canyon. Presto! Fife Does Arizona, for an ad promoting a photo contest sponsored by the Arizona Department of Tourism. We know the governor prefers to take his vacations out of state.
Best patrician move: Lawmakers flew off the handle in 1991, when Fife and Ann jetted off to Santa Barbara for a vacation--at a cost of $5,000 to Arizona taxpayers. Seems the governor was testing a new plane for the state's fleet. The fleet already included another two-engine and two one-engine aircraft, but that wasn't enough. In the end, the Department of Public Safety plunked down $2 million for another plane, a used two-engine 1988 Beechcraft. The move was justified with the argument that the money came not from the DPS budget, but instead from shared funds from confiscations during federal drug investigations.
Best display of homophobia: Fife raised a ruckus last year when he heard Northern Arizona University was offering a new course, "Transsexualism and Society." He called it "an insult to taxpayers," and when he was informed that the instructor--Thurin (formerly Carmen) Schminke, a sociology graduate student and transsexual--wouldn't be paid, he complained that tax dollars would go to pay for "power, lights and room."
Fife must have nauseated even himself, because after a few days, he reversed his position.
Best foreign relations: When the state Department of Commerce selected Jorge Mejia to run the Arizona Trade Office in Mexico City, it wanted a man who understood the business philosophy of Arizona's chief executive--Fife. It picked the right guy.
Mejia quickly used his office to enrich his friends and family. He steered a $21,000 computer contract to a family friend, hired his son and niece to do telemarketing work and guided an accounting contract to a firm that employs his wife.
Mejia was simply following Fife's example. After all, Fife used the opportunity of a meeting with then-Mexican president Carlos Salinas in October 1993 to introduce a personal friend, Oregon businessman Brad Bishop, to Salinas. Bishop is "keenly interested in infrastructure investment in Mexico," Fife told the Mexican prez.
Bishop made sure he followed protocol by sending Mejia a $3,306 check several weeks later, purportedly to cover translation work done by a Mejia relative. Mejia's secretary blew the whistle on the Bishop check. She was fired.
Mejia, meanwhile, was given a raise in August and a one-year extension on his contract.
Best foreign relations, Part II: Japan's largest bank let Fife off the hook this year for more than $135 million in loans used to finance construction of the Camelback Esplanade.
The Esplanade turned out to be a $103 million financial disaster for the Japanese bank and a Japanese construction firm that invested $38 million in the development. But luckily for Fife, Dai Ichi Kangyo Bank never insisted that Fife fulfill his personal guarantee on the loan.
Four years ago, Fife proudly defended his business record during a Capitol Hill hearing. Fife lectured a skeptical Senator Howard Metzenbaum on how he put together the Esplanade deal and was willing to risk his fortune on the project. The centerpiece of Fife's spiel on investment in America was his willingness to lay it all on the line in the form of his personal guarantee to repay the Dai Ichi loan.
"What was your risk?" Metzenbaum asked Fife on February 7, 1991.
"The risk is called bankruptcy if we fail. We owe $135 million to a bank," Fife said in sworn testimony.
"But when you put this deal together, you invested no money," Metzenbaum said, referring to Fife's out-of-pocket investment of $216 into the Esplanade, which generated $8 million in developer fees for Fife's company. "Are you on the note for $135 million?"
"Yes," Fife said.
"Personally?" the senator asked.
"Yes. Yes, me and my partners are on the guarantee, and if you do not call that risk, I do not know what risk is," Fife responded.
So why did the bank let Fife off scot-free? Speculation centers on the possibility that Fife, if reelected, will give the bank La Paz County.
Best political payoff: Fife has long used the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand to keep track of his personal, business and campaign finances. In 1991, Coopers & Lybrand wanted a lucrative state contract to implement Fife's pet government cost-cutting program, Project SLIM.
Coopers' initial bid came on September 3, 1991, at $1.974 million, making it the highest of the five bids.
Enter Fife's close friend and 1990 campaign Pooh-Bah George Leckie, and Symington's longtime personal and business accountant and 1990 campaign treasurer John Yeoman, who is a tax accountant for Coopers.
In September 1991, Leckie was a member of the state procurement committee reviewing proposals for businesses seeking to win the Project SLIM contract.
In the week following Coopers' initial high bid, Leckie and Yeoman have several telephone conversations, even though Leckie had promised not to have contact with anyone from the bidding companies.
It's not known what the men discussed. But on September 9, 1991, when the final bids were due, Coopers lowered its bid by a stunning $400,000.
Coopers went from last in the bidding race to front-runner, and was awarded a $1.5 million contract. Leckie and Yeoman deny discussing the contract prior to Coopers' final bid.
But according to testimony in a civil lawsuit filed against the accounting firm in California, Coopers officials claim Leckie provided "the inside scoop" on the contract to Yeoman.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office declined to prosecute, saying there was no credible evidence showing that Leckie and Yeoman rigged the contract.
But a federal grand jury probing Fife's finances has asked for documents related to the Project SLIM contract. Attorney General Grant Woods also is reviewing the deal.
Best attempted freeway coup: When it became evident that urban freeway czars had fallen short--waaaaaaaaay short--in their estimate of how much money it would take to build the Valley's freeways, a group of community-minded individuals stepped in to selflessly save the day.
Actually, they were Fife cohorts Dick Mallery (a partner at Snell & Wilmer and close friend/adviser of the guv), Coopers & Lybrand and George Leckie. Mallery and Coopers & Lybrand (Leckie reportedly played a peripheral role in drumming up support) proposed the creation of VUE 2000, which stood for Valley Urban Expressways for the 21st Century and meant that drivers would pay 10 to 15 cents a mile in tolls, thus funding 160 miles of not-so-freeways.
Last year, the Phoenix Gazette reported that HDR Engineering Inc., Coopers & Lybrand and Snell & Wilmer had already dumped $500,000 into studying the feasibility of the nonprofit consortium that would "do the engineering, legal and financial work, and subcontract for construction on 50 projects worth about $50 million each."
Fifty million dollars each? That's what skeptics screamed, and VUE 2000 died a quiet death before anyone could do more than speculate about Fife's involvement.
Best of Fife's Cronies
Best girl Friday: Annette Alvarez and Fife met in the late Eighties. As she once told a reporter, "I was listening to a motivational tape. It said to take someone out to lunch that you admired and figure out how they got where they are." So she asked Fife, then a big-time developer, to lunch. Naturally, they dined at the Ritz-Carlton. "He was very gracious. . . . I think he was amused," Alvarez recalled.
From there Alvarez, whose previous experience included a stint in community relations at KTAR-AM, became the Symington campaign's press secretary. Upon Fife's election, she was made executive assistant for international relations, at a hefty salary of $60,000, plus expenses. In late 1989, employees of the Symington Company and Campaign '90 had gathered for a spiritual retreat. Participants were asked to write their man Fife a note to be enjoyed at the retreat. Some really threw themselves at the task, particularly Annette. New Times obtained a copy of the four-page letter--addressed to "My Dear Fife"--and printed excerpts in 1991:
"Your name is magic. . . . I don't know what I really feel for you. I do know I love you, and it will be forever, but I don't think it's the kind of love I'm looking for. . . . I don't want to live out any more secrets. I want to be free like the hummingbird you gave me. Bright, vibrant and free."
New Times also detailed Alvarez's failures at her state job, including bungling deals in Japan and Mexico that could have cost the state millions.
Fife and wife Ann denied rumors that swirled about Fife and Annette's relationship, but matters only got worse after the initial story broke. Fife and Annette booked adjoining hotel rooms on a business trip to New York, and double-dipped on some of the expenses. Then it was revealed that the Symington campaign had paid Uncle Sam $9,000 in back taxes owed by Alvarez.
Alvarez left the governor's staff in April 1992. She is now an international trade consultant. Rumors still swirl.
Best political baggage: George Leckie defines Fife's administration. Leckie managed Symington's '90 campaign, then became Fife's deputy chief of staff. In that position, Leckie demonstrated his sensitivity to state spending and political correctness by entertaining three top executives of North Star Steel (a Minnesota firm) on the links at the all-white Paradise Valley Country Club. Greens fees: $162; lunch: $60.75.
Leckie resigned from Symington's inner circle after he busted the governor's office budget. But he didn't travel far--he was named the co-chief of Project SLIM.
He left state government in 1992 after it was revealed that he had charged the state $1,336.23 for a trip to Hawaii he and his girlfriend took on the way back from state business in Japan. He 'fessed up, reimbursing the state and telling reporters, "Upon reflection, I didn't have any business [in Hawaii]." Again, he didn't go far. In 1993, then-state lottery director Bruce Mayberry threatened to revoke the performance bond of a contractor, GTECH, if it didn't agree to changes in its contract. A week later, Fife called Mayberry and asked him to transfer to another agency. Mayberry refused and was fired three months later. What was Leckie's role? He was GTECH's lobbyist.
Leckie's name came up again just last week, when state legislators revealed that he was a player in a damning audit of the Office of Tourism released recently. According to state Senator Patti Noland, Republican-Tucson, Leckie ordered the department to create a $30,000 job for an unnamed employee.
"I get blamed for almost everything," Leckie whined to a local daily. "If they can't find anybody else, they throw my name in."
We can't imagine why.
Best ideologue: In the mid-Eighties, Jay Heiler was one of the postpubescent Reaganites who took control of Arizona State University's State Press and got ASU a reputation as a Petri dish of conservative thought. Now it's the mid-Nineties, and Heiler's emerged as Fife's communications czar and philosophical salt lick. Heiler writes speeches, schmoozes the Capitol press corps (tries, at least) and comes up with policies that have made Symington the darling of the National Review set.
Best bully, er, we mean lawyer: John Dowd nailed Pete Rose and George Steinbrenner for Major League Baseball, defended Keating Fiver John McCain and tried to keep Cindy McCain's pill-popping out of the papers. He's Fife's 800-pound gorilla. In Lords of the Realm, a critically acclaimed account of Major League Baseball's labor history, author John Helyar describes Dowd as "a blunderbuss"--always messy, often inaccurate and occasionally lethal.
Dowd can be counted on to write threatening letters to any publication that dares to write anything negative about Symington, and has been known to fax the missives to competing reporters to keep them in line.
Commenting on Dowd's intimidation tactics, New Times executive editor Michael Lacey once wrote of Dowd and Symington, "These two respond to what they perceive as unjust criticism of the governor with legal violence the way victims of Tourette's syndrome bark: instinctively, loudly, helplessly."
That pretty much sums it up. Reporters and editors at publications from the Arizona Republic to Institutional Investor to the Washington Post collect horror stories of Dowd's browbeating. So far, though, he's kept Fife above water.
Best spin doctor: In 1992, political consultant Jay Smith offered stinging commentary on life in these United States, specifically as it relates to the RTC's pursuit of Fife. Smith told the Washington Post: "The RTC has been doing this to people all over America--they've been pilloried, sued, just because they were on the boards of S&Ls. This is more like Nazi Germany."
Best friend in Congress: John McCain. When Barbara Barrett announced that she intended to challenge Fife in September's Republican gubernatorial primary, she found herself face to face with Senator McCain, Friend of Fife and self-anointed enforcer of the Arizona Republican party.
"I told her [Barrett] there are consequences associated with causing other candidates to be defeated," McCain told New Times.
Fife and the senator share everything--from hair color to ideology (conservative) to counsel (John Dowd and Jay Smith) to staff (Symington chief of staff Wes Gullett came from the McCain camp).
Best invitation to organized crime: Fife originally named Mark Mazzie, a former employee of the City of Scottsdale, to be his liquor czar. But Mazzie took the job a little too seriously. He actually tried to enforce the law. That was annoying, but Mazzie really went too far when he tried to make the just-opened America West Arena comply with liquor regulations.
Phoenix Suns execs slam-dunked $2,000 into Fife's campaign coffers, and the governor canned Mazzie. Mazzie's replacement was Howard Adams, a former Phoenix councilmember dubbed "Mr. Inside" and "High Rise Howard" in the late Eighties because of his prodevelopment stance.
Upon his appointment to head the Liquor Department, he became known by employees as "Howard the Coward." In one of his first moves as director, he canceled the hearing that may have resulted in penalties against America West Arena.
Best Dan Quaylelike appointee: Sure, Jim Marsh came to the job of Commerce Department director with a background in business. Most notably, he was the leasing agent for one of Fife's biggest busts: the Mercado. But Marsh had the most important qualification of today's executive--he's a damn good golfer. Like, championship good.
Coincidentally, under Marsh, Commerce began to spend a lot of taxpayer dollars on golf-related items. Like, $2,850 for tickets and access badges for the Phoenix Open golf tournament. And like, at least $6,815 for golf balls and clubs purchased from Karsten Manufacturing, to be used as promotional material. And don't forget, like, $2,656 worth of golf caps, to tout the Arizona Film Commission.
While we're at it, we might as well mention a few other goodies Marsh and his employees bought. Like:
A $3,954.25 payment to Land's End, an upscale catalogue company, processed through the Department of Commerce under the governor's security code.
$17,508.08 to Marriott Desert Palm Springs hotel in Palm Desert, California, to promote filmmaking in Arizona. (This included $500 for flowers and a $5,737.31 bar bill.)
Marsh left Commerce last year to, like, pursue a career in real estate.
Best secretary since Rosemary Woods: Joyce Reibel was a loyal Symington Company employee for 11 years. Earlier this year, however, New Times acquired a memo written by her attorney, Ivan Mathew, documenting Reibel's admission that for years--along with picking up prescriptions and chauffeuring the Symington kids--she helped Fife doctor his financial statements. Mathew wrote the memo to summarize an interview Reibel had with the FBI prior to her testimony before a federal grand jury.
Best editor friend, if you don't like something a columnist wrote and want it completely rewritten, publicly humiliating the columnist, the newspaper and, generally, the institution of journalism: William P. "Bill" Cheshire. In a remarkably informative think piece published on a Sunday after the conclusion of 1993's legislative session, Arizona Republic political columnist Keven Willey offered up a midterm report card of Symington's work. The governor almost failed--six D's and a C. But Mommy (Symington staffers) ran to the principal (then-editorial-page editor Cheshire). The following Sunday, Fife emerged as a model student.
Cheshire did the regrading himself. "Some of the governor's homework papers had gotten shoved down behind the sofa cushions," he wrote, and awarded Symington three A's and a B-plus. (Cheshire knows his right-wing academics--former employers include ultraconservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms and the Moonie-run Washington Times.)
That must have been too much for even the Quayle-lovin' Republic, because shortly thereafter, Cheshire lost his editor's title and was demoted to columnist. Too bad for the Fife folks, who in Cheshire had a real insider friend at the R&G. Cheshire and Symington communications chief Jay Heiler are longtime pals. At one point, Cheshire tried to lure Heiler over to the Republic.
Best newspaper: Arizona Republic. In February 1992, the Washington Post contrasted the Mesa Tribune's "aggressive" reporting with that of its more flaccid counterpart to the west: "The governor . . . has found some sympathy in Phoenix's two conservative newspapers. One of them, the Republic, has furiously defended the governor, calling RTC actions 'McCarthyesque.'"
Of course, the Republic endorsed Fife for another term, putting the lie to its logo-rific "Saving Arizona's Children" campaign. (See: Best impersonation of Ebenezer Scrooge.)
Best political columnist: It's none other than John Kolbe, R-Gazette, the only columnist ever able to master the art of harrumphing in print. The scribe's little brother, Jim, is Arizona's congressman from District 5, and a Republican to boot. Nobody could be convinced to actually research any of Big John's pro-Fife harangues, so you'll just have to take our word for it.
Best impersonation of Duke Tully: It was the height of the Gulf War, and Fife was fighting his own battle to win a run-off against Terry Goddard and become Arizona's governor. So the Fife campaign dug up a photograph--for use in campaign literature and commercials--showing, as New Times put it in 1991, "Captain Symington in sunglasses and aviator gear, la Tom Cruise, standing next to the cockpit ladder of a Vietnam-era jet fighter." Problem is, Fife wasn't a fighter pilot--a detail Goddard fanciers quickly pointed out. They said Fife spent the Vietnam War in the safe haven of Thailand, where he was a paper pusher and air traffic controller. Symington campaigners told people that Fife "planned and implemented" search and rescue missions for downed Air Force fliers in Thailand, although one Symington staffer admitted to New Times, "I think the Bronze Star [which Symington received] was sort of an administrative thing." Best impersonation of Mother Teresa: Fife solemnly vowed in his 1990 campaign "Plan for Arizona": "Investing in children and families will come first on my list of concerns."
Best impersonation of Ebenezer Scrooge: In April, the Children's Action Alliance released a study claiming that the state's children are far worse off than they were Pre-Fife. As CAA head Carol Kamin put it, ". . . we are clearly moving in the wrong direction." According to the study, in the last four years, funding for child-care programs, child-abuse investigations and treatment money for juvenile courts all declined about 20 percent, when adjusted for inflation.
In the past two years, ten children in the care of the Department of Economic Security's Child "Protective" Services have died. An audit revealed that one-third of CPS' foster-care neglect and abuse claims hadn't been investigated.
Best impersonation of William J. Bennett: Fife's greatest personal legislative failure has been school vouchers. For years, he's tried to cram through the legislature a pilot program offering 2,000 kids vouchers of $1,500 each, so they can attend private school--just like Fife's children.
Except Fife's kids attend Phoenix Country Day School, annual tuition $10,000.
No matter. The National Education Association (dubbed National Extortion Association by conservatives) and the Arizona Education Association are scrambling, and Fife's gotten A's for effort from national school-choice fans like William J. Bennett--former Reagan education secretary, Bush drug czar and editor of The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories.
Best impersonation of James Watt: Fife's a rugged outdoorsman who regularly communes with nature. "I have the carcinoma to prove it," he's proudly told legislative leaders. But he's also a man of the United States Constitution, and for him the amendments du jour are the Fifth and 14th, which guarantee a person's right to private property. At the coaxing of national conservatives like James Watt and Ed Meese, Arizona conservatives like Fife and House Speaker Mark Killian are championing measures to restrict government enforcement of environmental regulations in the name of protecting property rights. The latest such measure comes in the form of Proposition 300, the Private Property Rights Protection Act. Head cheerleader: Fife.
Best impersonation of publicity hound Joe Arpaio: Fife on victims' rights. Fife's no match for Sheriff Joe when it comes to national media attention, but the governor gave Arpaio a run for his money when he made three appearances on America's Most Wanted and one on 20/20 to congratulate himself for keeping a rapist in prison and out of a home-arrest program.
Best impersonation of Charlton Heston: Fife on guns. The guv recently took it upon himself to challenge the Brady gun law. Fife also once waxed poetic about his marksmanship, after his DPS bodyguards treated him to a session of target practice.
Best impersonation of Strother Martin, the actor in Cool Hand Luke who utters that immortal line, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate": Two words: chain gang.
Best impersonation of The Spy Who Loved Fife: Annette Alvarez donned her espionage garb and headed for the Nosh-A-Rye deli on East Camelback in April 1992. Inside, former Fife business partner I. Jerome Hirsch was meeting with two FBI agents to discuss the financial ins and outs of Fife's Esplanade.
Agent Alvarez grabbed a booth near Hirsch and the FBI duo and proceeded to eavesdrop on the conversation. She approached Hirsch as he left and scolded him for talking to the FBI, saying she thought Hirsch was one of Fife's supporters.
Hirsch went public, claiming Fife had dispatched his minions to follow him around town and spy on his meetings with federal agents and newspaper reporters. Fife heavy-hitter attorney John Dowd says nobody was following Hirsch. It was just coincidence.
"He's just had the misfortune of being seen and overheard . . ." Dowd explained.
Best impersonation of a Kennedy: (See also: Best girl Friday.)
Best impersonation of fellow GOP candidate Sonny Bono: Last year, Fife and Ann did the karaoke thing at a fund raiser they hosted. The First Couple sang the Sonny and Cher hit "I Got You, Babe."
Best of Whatever
Best pedigree: J. Fife Symington III. What can we say? The guy's a Frick. Symington's great-grandfather, Henry Clay Frick, amassed one of America's great fortunes, then built a monument to himself in the form of the Frick Museum on the upper east side of Manhattan. Fife himself studied Dutch art history at Harvard, then brought the Ritz-Carlton to Phoenix and surrendered it to Japanese bankers.
Best drive-by by a Fife crony: After consuming four or five glasses of wine, George Leckie drove off into Paradise Valley and drove his Oldsmobile into not one, but two innocent bystanders on the night of March 15, 1988. He suffered minimal repercussions. His victims weren't so lucky. John Faust, on a bicycle at the time of his encounter with Leckie, was skinned up and bruised. Maria Torregrossa suffered internal bleeding. "That man saw me standing right in front of him, and he came at me with his car like I was a piece of nothing. I jumped out of the way, but he got me good," Torregrossa told New Times.
Leckie fled the scene, but Torregrossa got his license-plate number. With two eyewitnesses, Leckie seemed doomed. Miraculously, Leckie was able to plea-bargain the charges down to one misdemeanor charge of "failing to render aid." Both hit-and-run charges were dropped. He settled out of court with Torregrossa and Faust.
Perhaps Leckie should have heeded his own words, uttered in 1992 just days before New Times broke the story of the hit and run, but meant to describe the political missteps of the governor's staff:
"We have a tendency to put our foot on the accelerator before we hit the brakes."
Best contribution to liberalism: In early 1992, New Times reported Fife's claim that, as a college student vacationing on the Atlantic Coast, the broad-shouldered Fife rescued Bill Clinton from a "rip tide." The Washington Times reported the story, as well. New Times is still waiting for a call back from Symington to confirm the story. No one in the Clinton camp could recall such an occurrence, but geez, you'd think Bill would be buoyant.
Best payoff for saving Clinton's life: Pundits suggest that Bill Clinton's own vulnerability in the Whitewater affair made it politically impossible for the Clinton administration to give a green light to the criminal indictment of Symington on charges relating to his involvement in the failure of Southwest Savings and Loan Association. A grand jury is still reviewing Fife's personal finances.
Perhaps Fife recognizes this, as well. In his first display of compassion for a Democrat since pulling Clinton from the foamy brine, last January Symington said of the Whitewater furor, "I feel for anybody who's going through that kind of nonsense. We'll just have to see how it all filters out."
Best nickname: Hands down, "His Pale Badness" (New Times). Honorable mentions go to "The Fifester," "Sir Fire-a-Lot," "Vanilla Fife," "Jumpin' Jack Fife," "Fi-Fi," "Governor Three Sticks" (irate Native Americans), "J. Fife White Guy III" (Tucson Weekly).
Best physical description of "His Pale Badness": In a recent profile, wordsmith Charles Kelly of the Arizona Republic wrote, "Fife Symington, though his forebears are Scottish, has the white-blond hair, the bonfire eyebrows and the sun-flushed, translucent skin of a Teutonic knight."
Best thing that could happen to journalism in Arizona: Fife wins again!
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