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.

We used to make fun of the Republic, constantly. It was so boring, so ridiculously provincial, so . . . mainstream. But this year, we have to admit, we stopped sneering and started worrying. The paper's parent company, Gannett, has been hemorrhaging money, and we've seen the results in a series of editorial cuts that have sent the paper's best staffers heading for the exits. For a while, it seemed like everybody was fleeing to jobs in public relations (Judy Nichols, Robbie Sherwood, Mark Shaffer, Chris Fiscus). Now the rest of them seem to be headed to the unemployment line. The paper's far-from-generous buyout package netted another 28 losses last month, and among the casualties were some of our favorite people: Chuck Kelly, who led the Republic's Don Bolles investigation and was known as a great wordsmith and all-around nice guy. Norm Frauenheim, considered one of the country's top boxing writers. Richard DeUriarte, an avuncular presence who moderated political debates all over the Valley and used to be the paper's Public Advocate. We have to admit, had we known they were going, we might have appreciated the Republic a little more while they were there. The paper simply won't be the same without them — and for once, we mean that in a completely non-snarky, non-sneering way.

He sits on the Arizona Corporation Commission. She sits over the Maricopa County Superior Court, as chief presiding judge. Together, they run the world. Well, not quite, but damn close. As top judge, Barbara's taken no prisoners (at least, not where some less-favored colleagues are concerned) and she's earned her reputation as hard-nosed, but fair (at least most of the time). Bill is also a lawyer — in fact, he once served as Chief Presiding Judge of Chandler Municipal Court. No big deal compared with his wife's lofty digs as the big cheese at the county courthouse, but who's comparing? Bill resigned from his judgeship in the mid-'80s to run for political office; the moderate Republican served for many years in the Arizona legislature, and now on the board that regulates power, among other things. Will Mrs. Mundell follow in Mr.'s footsteps? Barbara insists she's not headed for life in public office or, perhaps, a slot as an appellate judge. In fact, she insists to pals that she'll quit public life in about two years, when her time as the chief is up. We hope someone can change her mind.

Never thought we'd say that, did you? We've been tormenting the over-caffeinated Gordon from just about the minute he was elected five years ago — and we were hardly all that enthusiastic about his re-coronation last fall. But something amazing happened on César Chávez Day: Mayor Gordon found his voice. To us, a good politician isn't one who triangulates or tries to scrape up a majority or panders to the racist jerks who increasingly dominate the political discussion here in Arizona. A good politician leads. And with his eloquent denunciation of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and racial profiling, Gordon did just that.

We used to haunt the library on a regular basis. Then, the Internet came along. So, sadly, when we hoofed it over one evening this summer, we were hard-pressed to recall the last time we'd crossed the hallowed threshold of our city's main book drag.

If you haven't been lately, either, let us tell you: The clientele has changed. We don't want to be rude, but let us just say that we were likely the only ones in the library actually doing research that night. Which might be why the library staff pounced on us when we approached the reference desk with a question about some 20-year-old congressional hearing testimony.

In the end, it took three librarians to solve our conundrum. That included a particularly energetic Swedish (we think) woman who put off her smoking break to practically dance through the aisles, searching for just the right volume, then pulling the microfiche, feeding it into the machine and even finding the corresponding day's newspaper, just in case that offered any additional information.

It did, and we left Burton Barr with a renewed respect for the library sciences. The World Wide Web did not, in fact, kill the library star. Not yet, anyway.

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