Who Wants a Lap-Dog Press? Your Gov
Rose Mofford wants a capitol press corps that will sit up, roll over and play dead.
And those who refuse to play good little lap dogs? She has unilaterally decided that she won't consider them reporters. Right now she's got two on her version of the "nonperson" list made so memorable by ousted Governor Evan Mecham: Larry Lopez of the Associated Press and me.
The governor, who has spent the last year avoiding the press--and avoiding saying anything meaningful--is accelerating her campaign to guarantee only good news about her administration. Her press aide Vada Manager announced last Thursday at a meeting with the media that Mofford intends to exercise veto power over who is designated by the capitol press corps as a "pool" reporter to cover her when she goes on out-of-town trips. Manager said "it is unlikely" the governor would allow Lopez or me to fly with her.
The idea of the pool is nothing unique. Public officials across the nation, from the president on down, will ask the press to designate a single person to cover trips where there is only limited seating. The pool reporter then files a report which all other reporters can use.
Mofford flies around the state in a small, twin-engine plane owned by the Department of Public Safety. She says she's willing to take reporters along--as long as she gets to choose who goes and who doesn't, a power not even exercised by the president.
By Monday morning, Phoenix radio stations were reporting on the governor's new policy and were running angry responses from New Times editor Jana Bommersbach, who blasted the governor for having such little regard for freedom of the press. The governor, who was clearly unprepared for the public outcry, cornered KTAR reporter Bob Scott Monday morning. Scott had run the first report on the policy. "Vada Manager does not speak for Rose Mofford," she told Scott.
By Monday afternoon, the $62,500-a-year Manager was meeting with the press to "clarify" the policy, decrying "the nonsense about issuing a directive or ban." As Manager told my boss, "There has not been a ban." But when asked to elaborate, he again admitted Mofford wants to exercise veto power over the press: "If the press nominates Howie [for the press pool], I'll go to the governor and it's up to her. The governor has to make that choice, yes or no." She's hated Lopez since she first got into office, since he wrote how she had violated state financial disclosure laws by failing to list property she owns. Lopez also had the temerity to point out that Mofford argued she didn't really understand what had to be listed on the forms despite the fact that, as secretary of state, she was in charge of reviewing such forms from all state officials.
Lopez also dug up the fact Mofford, as secretary of state, spent more than $50,000 of state funds on gifts for various visiting dignitaries despite repeated claims over the years that the money for these gewgaws came out of her own pocket. Out-of-state journalists last year considered his efforts valuable enough to name Lopez one of three finalists for Arizona's Journalist of the Year.
Mofford has made no secret she's unhappy with New Times coverage of her activities--or, more specifically, her lack of activity--since she became governor. Several times we've printed stories noting how the Empress Wears No Clothes: That her major activities are ribbon cutting, glad-handing and attending Cactus League baseball games; that she's unable to think on her feet when asked about policy issues; and that she's been clumsy in dealing with legislative leaders, including those of her own party. Manager insisted, however, that it's not a question of bad coverage from this paper. Instead, he argues, I'm not properly respectful.
For example, Mofford didn't like being questioned about her position on an income tax windfall being debated by the legislature earlier this year. I repeatedly asked if she wanted the money returned to taxpayers or put into the general fund to balance the budget. Other reporters were asking the same question. In the space of five minutes, she flip-flopped three times on where she stood. With the governor clearly befuddled, Manager backed her into the elevator at the state capitol. I kept trying to get a clear answer and yet again, she waffled. "Governor, that's no answer," I told her as the elevator doors were closing.
Manager also was visibly angry that I once asked--using the title given the governor by a doctor who serves on her medical malpractice committee--how the "Great White Mother" was that day.
For the last year, Mofford has refused all requests by New Times for interviews. That has forced me to corner her at public functions to get responses on various state issues. Mofford doesn't like that either, and at times has been clearly miffed at being forced to respond to questions she doesn't want asked.
Mofford also refused to release to New Times her complete schedule of activities, saying we'd have to settle for the sketchy list she hands to all the media. We're not the only newspaper angry with so little information about the governor's comings and goings, to say nothing about the complete lack of information on whom she's meeting with privately.
Press frustrations finally boiled over last month when Manager suddenly announced there had been an assassination attempt on the governor's life while she was having lunch in Florence. What really happened is a former Pinal County attorney, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, had the bad luck to show up at a restaurant where Mofford was dining. He took his unloaded gun in with him, preferring not to leave the antique in his truck. Within minutes, security guards from the Department of Public Safety realized this was no assassination attempt. But it took hours for the press to get the real story from Manager.
More galling than Manager's misinformation was the fact that the governor's official schedule for that day said she was in the office. That's why there were no reporters with her. In fact, Mofford's official schedules for months now have been virtually useless, reporting to the press that she's in the office--except when she's out at some ceremonial function.
Last week Manager promised better schedules. But that doesn't mean that the press--or the public--is going to find out what the state's chief executive is really up to. "She will continue to respect the privacy of private individuals," Manager said. Those "private individuals" include lobbyists and other special interests who are trying to get Mofford to sign or veto a specific piece of legislation. Mofford doesn't think it's the public's business who is whispering into her ear.
And those "private individuals" also include people with whom the governor meets in an effort to raise money for the 1990 campaign, Manager acknowledged.
The governor's pronouncement on which reporters are acceptable to her puts her in the same league as her ousted predecessor. Mecham, upset with some of the writings of Gazette columnist John Kolbe, simply declared him a "nonperson" and refused to answer any of his questions. The press was outraged and bemused, even having Nonperson buttons printed up.
AP bureau chief Gavin Scott says he's not willing to stand by and watch Lopez reduced to a nonperson. "We cannot have the governor or anyone else telling us how to assign our staff," he said last week.
Scott said allowing the governor to get away with this kind of tactic would have a chilling effect on how the media cover the governor when she does something bad. "A reporter may say, `Well, gee, if I write that story, I won't be allowed to be in the next press pool or cover the governor's office,'" and may be tempted not to write the story to stay in the governor's good graces.
The capitol press corps met a month ago with Manager and chief of staff George Cunningham to vent its frustrations over Mofford's inaccessibility. That meeting was an off-the-record gripe session. The two officials promised to take the concerns to the governor and get back to the media with her answers. Those answers came last week as Mofford's advisers unveiled her new press policy. Manager and Cunningham assumed this meeting, too, would be off-the-record. But New Times alone objected, saying the discussion of the governor's press policies directly affected the public's right to know.
There were other revelations from that meeting. Mofford doesn't think she has to notify anyone when a top aide or state official resigns.
"One thing you've got to understand about the governor," explained Manager. "She has tremendous loyalty to her staff." What that means in practice is the staffers get to decide exactly how they want their leaving played.
We got a sample of that earlier this month when long-time Mofford confidante Karen Scates decided to call it quits. Scates, who earned $72,500 a year as a special assistant to the governor, didn't want the press notified. Instead, she wanted to leak her plans to leave to Republic columnist Keven Willey, possibly in hopes of getting a sympathetic piece in the Sunday paper. At the very least, she didn't want anyone to rehash the long-standing and bitter power struggle between her and Cunningham, which she apparently lost.
But Gazette reporter Mike Murphy got wind of Scates' flight from the ninth floor early and ran a front-page piece in his Saturday paper. That left Willey--who had written only a few terse lines anyway--with a nonscoop.
The reporters, who want easy access to the news, also had requested regular press conferences. Mofford's response? Forget it. Well, reporters asked, what about when there are major events, such as when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the abortion case earlier this summer? "She did issue a statement," Manager responded, citing a one-paragraph release that said very little--and that came nine hours after reporters first asked for the governor's reaction.
Mofford's press policy is a preview of what the public is likely to see--and not see--of the state's chief executive in the 1990 campaign. Cunningham admitted as much to reporters when they first complained about her inaccessibility, saying the "current plan" was to have Mofford keep a low profile. They'd rather not have her out there, answering difficult questions in front of TV cameras. What little the public will see of Mofford will come from carefully staged and scripted speeches, ribbon cuttings and interviews with selected friendly reporters.
Cunningham also made another telling statement about how Mofford intends to keep reporters in line. "You get more with honey than with the sting," he intoned. The message was clear: If you're nice to the governor, we'll make it easy for you to keep covering her and give you scoops. But if you're not willing to play along, we'll do everything possible to keep you from finding out about what little the governor is doing or thinking.
Whether Cunningham's threat has any effect will depend on whether the largely docile members of the capitol press corps are willing to work for the news or want to continue to be spoonfed lap dogs.
GEORGIA'S UDALL PROBLEM When Georgia Staton announces later this month she wants to be Arizona's next attorney general, she'd like to have Congressman Mo Udall at her side.
But Udall, a well-respected Democrat who consistently wins by large margins, won't be anywhere in sight. Aides say the congressman simply has a policy of not endorsing anyone before a primary. But Udall reticence may have its roots in genetics.
The Udall clan includes a number of attorneys. One of them is Stephen Udall who is the Apache County attorney. And the thought of stepping up to become the state's top prosecutor has crossed his mind.
"I really haven't given a lot of thought to the matter although I have been approached," Udall says. Does he want to run? "I don't know how noncommittal I can be," he responds.
But he clearly considers himself qualified. More to the point, he thinks voters ought to choose someone who has been an elected county attorney. "I'd much rather have someone who is prosecution-oriented and has shown that through their efforts in office than somebody who just comes flopping in off the street to use the position to step somewhere else," Udall says. "That scares the crap out of me."
Udall's musings aren't good news for Staton, who lost out in her efforts last year to become Maricopa County attorney. Since that time she has been on the political circuit, speaking to Democratic groups across the state to improve her name identification. That's something she'll need if she has to wage a primary battle against someone whose family name is as well-known as Babbitt or Goldwater.
JUSTICE AIN'T CHEAP The Phoenix City Council hopes it can do with money what it couldn't do legislatively: Slow the number of appeals it hears from the Board of Adjustment.
Councilmembers will decide next week if those disappointed by the board's decisions will have to pay $500 for a new hearing before the council. There currently is no charge for the appeal.
The role of the Board of Adjustment is to determine when property owners can get a variance from city zoning regulations. Since 1934, when Phoenix established its own board, anyone who did not like a decision could take the case to Superior Court.
All that changed last year when NeuroCare convinced the Board of Adjustment to allow it to locate a group home on North Central Avenue for people recovering from head injuries. Rather than risk a time-consuming--and potentially losing--appeal to the courts, the homeowners instead leaned on state Representative Jane Hull to change the law.
Hull shoved through a bill allowing disgruntled homeowners to petition the city council for review of any board decisions.
With Hull's new law in place, the Phoenix City Council, led by local Councilmember Howard Adams, then voted 5-4 to deny NeuroCare the necessary permit.
Despite that vote, the council has since had a change of heart and doesn't want to be dragged into these fights. Last session they lobbied to repeal the law. But state lawmakers didn't want to deal with the issue.
Now comes the move to charge for appeals. Dave Richert, the city's zoning officer, says appeals involve a lot of work justifying the fee.
Homeowner activist Peter Martori isn't pleased. "I don't know what the logic is behind it," he says. "It seems to me to be an intentional deterrent to appeal. My sense is the council doesn't want to hear them.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.