VOUCHING FOR ALSTON
I rang the doorbell at Senator Alston's house in the 4100 block of West Cheery Lynn Road the other day, and was greeted by the tumultuous sounds of three dogs, two of them quite small but all yapping away at a great rate.
Promptly, the door was opened by one of Senator Alston's campaign workers. She quickly shushed the trio of canine warriors into another room. The dogs were identified to me as Kitty Dukakis, a Tibetan terrier; Willie Clinton, a mutt of indeterminate origin; and a portly chow, known simply as Andrew. Senator Alston's elderly cat, Walter Mondale, did not make it to the door with the greeting party. As you might have suspected from the names of Senator Alston's pets, she is a Democrat.
Senator Lela Alston, 52, has been in the Arizona Senate for 18 years, but is leaving the legislature to seek election to the job of state superintendent of public instruction. She is running her campaign out of the home in which she has lived since 1961.
"Lela's on the phone doing an interview with a Safford radio station," the campaign worker said. "But she says it's all right for you to go right on into her office and listen."
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I was led past several campaign workers and into a tiny office off the dining room where Senator Alston, dressed in a white blouse and red skirt, was on the phone with someone named Bob Hardy of KVNA-AM.
In her office was an IBM computer, a printer, a copying machine and a telephone with several incoming lines. Other materials pertaining to the campaign were filed neatly on bookshelves along one wall. As she spoke, other telephone lines kept ringing. Each was picked up on the first ring by a volunteer in the other room.
By necessity, Senator Alston is running a low-budget campaign. There are no paid consultants and no money for television ads.
Senator Alston was finding it difficult to get her message across. Like many radio interviewers who become smitten by the sound of their own voices, the man on the other end of the phone was doing the lion's share of the talking.
He was apparently pressing Senator Alston on the value of the Republican-sponsored voucher programs, which have turned out to be the crux of the campaign. If passed by the state legislature, vouchers will make it possible for children of the middle class to get $1,500 from the public school system to help defray their tuition at private schools.
This idea has been promoted by the Republicans, most notably Governor J. Fife Symington III and Lisa Graham, Senator Alston's opponent.
Senator Alston, who has taught in the Arizona public school system for nearly 30 years, spoke about vouchers from her heart.
"We cannot improve the schools of Arizona by taking money out of them and giving it to private schools," she said. "Children who are hungry, tired and afraid simply cannot learn. Many of our best teachers are forced to spend their time as social workers and referees. That must stop."
The radio interview ended. Senator Alston thanked the radio man for his interest and put the phone down.
"How big is this vouchers issue?" I asked.
Senator Alston smiled.
"In a way," she said, "it's a stealth issue. Nobody really wants vouchers except Symington, who is trying to placate the far-right wing of his party. They were clever about this. At first, it was supposed to benefit poor kids and send them to private schools. However, when the legislature got through with the bill, they had removed all mention of underprivileged kids. What they want now is to help the wealthy get a subsidy for their children's tuition in private schools, like Phoenix Country Day and Brophy Prep.
"I'm adamantly opposed. Spending money in this manner would only weaken the educational system in our state. No other state has passed it. Voters over in California defeated it when it went on the ballot. Conservative forces all over the country are trying to get it passed here in Arizona as sort of a foot in the door."
Senator Alston is currently trailing in the polls. But there is a large bloc of undecided voters. She believes that a big turnout for Eddie Basha in the governor's race would help. Also, having been on the ballot for the past nine elections as a legislative candidate gives her invaluable name recognition.
Whatever happens, there will be no regrets for Lela Alston about giving up her post as minority whip of the Arizona Senate.
"The legislature is a pretty dismal place these days," she says. "Very nasty. The people in leadership roles have no respect for anyone who holds a differing opinion. In the old days, we used to fight like hell, but we also had a regard for each other on a personal level, and a respect for ideas. That's no longer the case."
She looks back nostalgically to the days when Burton Barr held sway at the Arizona State Capitol and ran everything from an aisle seat in the House of Representatives. She even remembers former governor Evan Mecham fondly. This is despite the fact that Barr and Mecham were Republicans.
"People would come rushing into my office all the time asking if I had heard the latest bizarre thing that Mecham had said or done. I could never believe it at first, but it always turned out that he actually had said or done the most outrageous thing.
"Those were sad days when they held the impeachment proceedings. That changed the whole atmosphere. And then it got even worse with AzScam. Now the place will never be the same again."
I had wondered how Senator Alston's message would play in the arena. So I went to watch her in a minidebate with her opponent at the Soroptimist Club downtown.
Lisa Graham, 35, is a Stanford graduate who majored in speech pathology. During her two terms in the state House of Representatives, she became the darling of the Republican far right.
The small room atop a downtown bank building was packed with well-dressed matrons who sipped politely on their tall glasses of iced tea. Judging by their initial reactions to the introductions, this was a predominantly Republican group.
To the Soroptimists, Senator Alston was a Democrat, and from the west side, someone who had attended Phoenix Union High School and the University of Arizona. That she had been instrumental in the construction of the west-side campus of ASU gave Alston no cachet in this group.
Representative Graham of Scottsdale was all bright and shiny. She is a clone of all those freshly scrubbed political hard-liners who gave us first Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan.
Representative Graham spoke enthusiastically about what vouchers could do for Arizona.
Alston pulled no punches:
"I am opposed to vouchers," she said. "I believe they are unconstitutional, for one thing. If someone sues, we will be in court spending millions to defend it. That's all money that should be spent on our children."
This was not a message the Soroptimists particularly wanted to hear. Their enthusiasm was restrained.
Lela Alston's message does not please the well-to-do, because it will prevent them from reaching into the pockets of the poor for tuition subsidies for their offspring.
Her message infuriates the rich and encourages the poor. Three cheers for Lela Alston.