Best Political Coward 2008 | State Representative Russell Pearce | People & Places | Phoenix

Around here, where political yella-bellies abound, picking the most egregious example of political poltroonery is rough work. After all, Arizona has a gutless attorney general who bends over when Sheriff Joe Arpaio institutes a bogus investigation of his office. And there's Arpaio himself, who wimped out of Guadalupe when the mayor there stood up to him, and who conceded Mesa to Police Chief George Gascón during the Sheriff's Office's anti-immigrant sweep in that city.

But nothing beats Mesa pantywaist Russell Pearce, a bigoted bully in the state Legislature who is used to getting his way. Pearce was looking to take on moderate Republican Jeff Flake this year for his District 6 Congressional seat, had an exploratory committee taking donations, and even started sporting a toupée in a lame attempt to compete with golden-boy Flake's toothy good looks. However, Russ' exploratory committee raised only about $24K, while Flake had a cool mil in the bank. And the state Republican Party was not enthusiastic about Russ' challenging the wildly popular Flake, so the big, bad Pearce pulled out. Um, wussed out is more like it. Since Pearce's term-limited out of the state House, he's running for the state Senate seat vacated by Karen Johnson. But if Russ'd been half the man he pretends to be, he would've stuck it out with Jeff Flake to begin with. In other words, look up the word "punk" in the dictionary, and (in a perfect world) you'd see a pic of Pearce.

Rumpled and occasionally gruff, Salvador Reza resembles at first glance some eccentric Chicano-studies professor, and if you let him, he can lecture with the best of them on the plight of indigenous peoples in the Americas. But Reza ain't no academic, unless you count his college as the struggle in the streets against the harassment and discrimination of undocumented workers. There he teaches regularly, usually with a bullhorn, all while going head-to-head with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, assorted Minutemen, and various other nativist numbskulls. Reza runs the Macehualli Work Center in north Phoenix, where he provides a place where jornaleros, or day laborers, can hook up with employers seeking short-term help.

The word macehualli means "those who deserve honor for their work," in Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztecs. And it is just that kind of honor and respect that Reza fights for regularly in civil rights marches, protests, and in speeches demanding same before the Legislature and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. Because he is both unafraid and unrelenting, Reza has become the man redneck nativists most love to hate. Hey, as far as we're concerned, you judge a man by his enemies. And if the toothless, ignorant KKK-wanna-bes spend every waking moment cursing Sal Reza, then you know he's doing something right. Keep doing your thing, Sal.

There's a list of public officials who've had the 'nads to stand up to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio: Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, Guadalupe Mayor Rebecca Jimenez, Governor Janet Napolitano. But nobody did it with the panache of Mesa Police Chief George Gascón. Fueled by the immigrant fire in his belly, the Latino chief (a naturalized U.S. citizen from Cuba) made sure Joe didn't have his usual media field day. Not on Gascón's turf! Gascón set up a Mesa command post at the same location as Joe was planning to set up his. There were so many Mesa cops in the area that Joe's forces were stymied into playing it straighter than they usually do. The former L.A. assistant chief forced the MCSO to do something it's unaccustomed to doing — act somewhat professional.

When Gascón emerged from his mobile command trailer on the first day of Joe's incursion (aimed at busting any brown-skinned person Joe's troopers could racially profile for such heinous crimes as a busted tail light or a cracked windshield), the handsome Gascón was cheered like a celebrity. He grinned and waved to an adoring crowd, as a few nativist goobers scowled nearby (funny how the trailer-trash brigade that cheers Joe on didn't have the spine to come out en masse to Mesa). Meanwhile the — ahem — "toughest sheriff in America" hid out like a little girl in his Wells Fargo Center office downtown — far, far away from the action. Joe (or more likely his legion of highly paid PR flacks) realized he would contrast way unfavorably with the tall, silver-haired, immaculately uniformed Gascón, that Joe's pot-bellied 76-year-old countenance would be upstaged.

And upstaged he was! This was no Joe Show, this was The George Show. To avoid sunburn from the movie-star glow of this real lawman, whiny ol' Joke had to cower in fear from afar.

Public opinion, from anybody with half a brain, began to go bad for Sheriff Joe Arpaio's immigrant "sweeps" after he took his forces into the tiny town of Guadalupe. Before, Joe had gone to places where the legal citizenry was more likely to be non-Hispanic. It made it less obvious that he was racially profiling. But when he sent his deputies into Guadalupe, it became clear to any rational person that he wasn't just targeting illegal aliens but anybody with brown skin. The reason is that the whole town is populated by Latinos and Yaqui Indians, and the vast majority of residents are longtime American citizens.

In fact, so many citizens were detained by MCSO deputies in the Guadalupe raid that there no longer was doubt that Arpaio's troops would violate anybody's civil rights if it meant nabbing a single undocumented worker. And stop U.S. citizens his deputies did — for cracked windshields, headlights allegedly too dim, wide turns, improper license-plate coverings . . . you name it. And many of the citizens detained complained to federal authorities, who'd already commenced an investigation.

But what sticks most in our mind about the Guadalupe raid was the bravery of a small-town public official, a mayor who wasn't afraid to stand up for what's right. Who wasn't afraid to tell the mighty Joe Arpaio that he and his brown-bashing brown-shirts weren't welcome in her town. New Times published a photo of Rebecca Jimenez, back to camera, politely telling off an infuriated Joe. Hair awry, teeth gritted, waving his finger menacingly in her face, he's telling the soft-spoken Jimenez that — if his anti-Latino sweeps won't be abided in Guadalupe — he would rescind the law-enforcement services the town pays the MCSO to perform! And he and the county Supes announced just before press time that the county will make good on the threat. (That's another million bucks out of county coffers, but what does Joe care as long as he can preen to ignorant racists before TV cameras?)

Arpaio's threat isn't the only one Jimenez received because of her heroic stance. Anonymous cowards have threatened the now former mayor's safety in phone calls and e-mails. Unlike others who've bucked Arpaio (officials who have state and city police forces to back them up), Jimenez had but the slingshot of her own convictions.

We didn't think much of Barack Obama's chances of becoming president before he arrived at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on January 30. Because of one major obstacle: He's black. But Obama's like a lot of rock stars we've seen in our time — you don't really get him until you witness him onstage. It was such an experience at the coliseum that afternoon, when upwards of 20,000 people showed up to take in the Illinois U.S. senator and first serious African-American presidential candidate. Caroline Kennedy was there, so was Governor Janet Napolitano — up there on the dais with Obama, surrounded by screaming fans as Stevie Wonder played on the P.A.

What struck us about Obama was his cool as he riffed with the audience for an hour or so. No notes, no jitters, no sweat. In fact, we wonder whether he even sweats when he famously plays basketball games with campaign staff. This day, he bantered about hope, change, kindness, toughness, inclusion of all Americans in the system (the usual stuff), but it wasn't what he said that mattered. It was the style in which he said it.

He was the kind of speaker who won over voters that day with his elegant tone, the kind of speaker who thrilled the converted with his movie-star orations, the kind of speaker who didn't threaten the older white folks in the audience. President 50 Cent he wouldn't be. Past black presidential candidates, like Jesse Jackson, come across as insufferable hotheads compared to him; John McCain comes across as an insufferable hothead next to him.

It was if he were having an after-dinner conversation with us over a glass of brandy and a cigar, only there were many thousands of us, from floor to rafters. We felt reassured that he was somebody of substance, a characteristic we had questioned of this first-term senator before that moment. By the time we'd left, if we hadn't been jaded members of the press who needed to maintain our (um) objectivity, we would've admitted that Obama seemed wise beyond his political years, that he had charisma unseen in presidential politics since Ronald Reagan or JFK. We came away from the rally with the unspoken sentiment that we wouldn't want to be John McCain. Even then, it was clear that Barack Hussein Obama (despite the unfortunate middle name) possesses something Arizona's experienced senior senator will never have: commanding flair.

Why is the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Honduras training the national police there on the county taxpayer's dime, with expenses reimbursed by RICO funds? To hear Sheriff Joe Arpaio tell it, the program — authored, planned and approved by his Chief Deputy David Hendershott — was a gesture of goodwill to the Honduran government, so that they would pony up millions of photos for the MCSO's facial-recognition data banks. At last count, the program's cost the county more than $157,000 in man-hours and RICO reimbursements. But there's more: Hendershott approved hundreds of thousands of dollars in purchases of facial-recognition technology from a county vendor with which he has unexplained ties. Hendershott even pitched the technology to a representative of the European Union, and has been caught traveling to China and staying in the same hotel as the CEO of this same county vendor while there.

Hendershott has denied over and over that he has any investments in Honduras or in the vendor's business. But that photo of Hendershott in Honduras, wearing a Panama hat and a Hawaiian shirt, as if he were in a remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau, tells a different story. That photo is emblematic of just how wacked the MCSO has become. Hendershott is at the epicenter of this corruption, a venal, power-mad Jabba the Hutt beholden to no one. Not even Joe Arpaio, whom he manipulates like a moth-eaten marionette. Hendershott is the real power behind Joe's throne. But if Joe loses in November, Hendershott'll have to account to another boss for all he's wrought. Wonder if they make striped pajamas in Hendy's size?

Since when does a developer need $97 million in incentives to build a shopping center in the swankiest part of town? Apparently, it's been since Thomas Klutznick & Company came to town, hands outstretched, and Phoenix promised the Chicago developer just that sum in exchange for a Nordstrom at the 51 and the 101. The deal was universally panned, from the halls of the State Legislature to the candidates' debates before the City Council. But nobody did anything about it — nobody, that is, until the Goldwater Institute decided to sue the city, arguing that the giveaway was unconstitutional.

The city fought back hard, and after winning on a district level, attempted to sock Goldwater for its attorney's fees. Fortunately, Maricopa Superior Court Judge Robert Miles denied that claim, calling it "inappropriate." And so the scrappy litigators at the Institute's Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation survived to fight another round, attempting to get the appeals court to do what the superior court would not. Win or lose, we love them for trying — and, hopefully, making the city think twice before it gives away a giant hunk of our sales tax dollars.

We do wonder how many people in the East Valley have even a remote idea what the Yiddish word schmuck means. (Um, rhymes with Venus.) And we want to know how many of you, well, schmucks out there actually voted for a guy because of his last name. That basically sums up Frank Schmuck's run for the house in Legislative District 20, which featured a whole lot of white and red signs emblazoned with SCHMUCK — THAT'S RIGHT! FRANK SCHMUCK. He didn't make it out of the primary (though we gotta say, he came darn close) but, hey, it's not like he wouldn't have been in good company if he'd won the race and headed to the state Capitol.

We always loved his work as a journalist — first as a longtime reporter for the Phoenix Gazette, then the Arizona Republic, where he did everything from cover D.C. to blow the coffin lid off the mortuary business in Phoenix — but we had to laugh when we heard, years ago, that Michael Murphy had left the paper for public relations.

Murphy's a lovable curmudgeon with a heart of gold — but the guy's a first-rate mumbler. That doesn't matter so much when you're the one asking the questions, but it can thwart your success when you're trying to make a point on TV or radio, on behalf of your employer. But Murphy's initial employer, the Arizona Department of Health Services, deserves some credit. Someone knew what they were doing. Murphy spoke up and spoke well on behalf of DHS for many years. We were sad to see him go this summer, because unlike a lot of flacks in this town, he takes his role seriously and always answered our requests in a timely and professional manner.

We wish him luck in his new gig as communications director for the Maricopa Integrated Health System. Now, that's a mouthful.

We've never had one word of complaint about Toni Maccarone. Throughout nine years as a public information officer for the Phoenix City Council, and then as the director of the city's public information office for the last seven years, Maccarone has been even-keeled, organized, and professional. In Phoenix, unlike other government entities we can think of, it never mattered that we'd recently written something nasty about city officials or that we were only sniffing around potentially embarrassing information and ignoring the "good" news: Maccarone made sure that the right records were provided — in a timely manner and without a touch of attitude — and that the proper officials were produced to take our questions, whether they liked it or not. So we were both happy for her and sorry for ourselves when we heard in September that she'd been promoted to serve as Phil Gordon's chief of staff. It couldn't happen to a nicer lady; we can only hope her yet-to-be-named replacement at the PIO is just as easy to work with.

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