Hold Back the Don?

If you believe what you've read about Donald Harris, he's little more than a loudmouth crackpot out for retribution --and maybe a little tail on the side. The Democratic candidate for Maricopa County Attorney has barreled through his campaign without an endorsement from his party, dodging accusations that he's a loose cannon and a womanizer. Okay, so he called former governor Bruce Babbitt a "liar" and a "criminal," and announced himself the most eligible bachelor in the county on Primary Night (causing his Republican opponent, Andrew Thomas, to launch his spoofy "Win a Date With Don Harris!" Web site). But Harris, who briefly held the office of County Attorney in 1976, seems to have voters on his side despite what he likes to call his "outspoken ways." He prevailed in the September 7 primary, beating out Democrat Jonathan Warshaw, a deputy county attorney who ran with endorsements from Governor Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Terry Goddard. Harris doesn't need official endorsements, he says, because voters love him for the very reason that local politicians shy away from backing him: "I speak my mind, and that's what people want."

New Times: You've been quoted as saying that this campaign has been the "worst goddamned experience of my life."

Donald Harris: It's been a disappointment to me to read some of the things that have been written in the paper that aren't true. I was naive, perhaps, in the political arena. I thought [the campaign] was going to be about myself as a candidate against another candidate. He chose not to do it that way, and it got ugly, which carried forward into the general election.

NT: According to Arizona Republic editorial writer Phil Boas, you told the editorial board there would be "scores to settle" should you be elected. With whom?

Harris: That was in the context of "Nobody in this community is going to get away with anything in white collar crime." Other people have floated through in the last few years under the current administration. I was talking about cleaning up the community. It was an emotional thing. I had some things to get off my chest.

NT: Did you really take your war medals down there with you?

Harris: I brought a bag with my medals from Vietnam. I had Charitable Work citations, I had my Man of the Year award from the University of Arizona, and it was to make a point: I said, "When you wrote the endorsement for my opponent, you wrote that I have a lot of baggage. This is the baggage I have with me today. I've carried it with me most of my life. Before I answer any questions today, I want you to tell me what baggage you were talking about. I'm not a drinker, I've never hit a woman, I'm a decorated Marine officer. What does 'baggage' mean?"

NT: Andrew Thomas demanded that you either release the names of those you've targeted for retribution or withdraw from the race. What did you tell him?

Harris: I didn't know about that.

NT: You didn't read that in the Republic?

Harris: (Laughs.) No, sir. I never saw it.

NT: Boas wrote that you told the editorial board they'd just saved you $15,000 in psychiatric fees.

Harris: I did say that. I knew I wasn't going to get their endorsement. It's going to snow in Phoenix before I'll get their endorsement. I knew that going in, so I said, "Thank you for letting me vent." I meant it!

NT: Why do I want to vote for you?

Harris: Leadership and experience -- the most important attributes you can bring to an office. I ran a civil affairs unit in Vietnam. I handled funds, I sent out medical teams to treat local people, I distributed food to the natives. A lot of Vietnamese people are born with deviated septums. I started Operation Harelip. We would fly children into Saigon; three days later they'd come back with a whole new lip.

NT: That's very nice of you. But how does that . . .

Harris: It gives you leadership ability. Do you know what's wrong with [the County Attorney's] Office?

NT: Track lighting?

Harris: No. A lack of leadership. And morale is really low. When I was appointed County Attorney in 1976, the people were happier, they respected the office. I started a program where there were enhanced penalties if an officer was assaulted in the performance of his duties. Prisoners were locked up on entry of guilt, not out for months waiting to be sentenced.

NT: You were also pulled off the Don Bolles murder investigation at that time.

Harris: I wasn't pulled off it. Bruce Babbitt wanted that case. He said he did it because "Harris opened his mouth" about the case. It was a lie. So when I said that at a debate, the old-line Democrats turned on me because I attacked Bruce Babbitt.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela