A METEORIC DESCENTTHE TOUGH TASK OF UNDERSTANDING CAROLYN WALKER | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona


At her first court appearance after she became famous for a new reason, Senator Carolyn Walker enraged the public that had once adored her. She said hardly a word as she did so. Standing tall in a jewel-green suit, she allowed the wavy-haired Richard Gierloff to request that she be...
Share this:

At her first court appearance after she became famous for a new reason, Senator Carolyn Walker enraged the public that had once adored her.

She said hardly a word as she did so. Standing tall in a jewel-green suit, she allowed the wavy-haired Richard Gierloff to request that she be declared indigent and that he, Gierloff, be appointed by the court as her attorney. At the time of her arrest on charges of money laundering and taking nearly $26,000 in bribes, Walker's combined salaries from the Arizona State Legislature and her full-time job at U S West Communications were more than $47,000.

Even more rankling than her declaration of poverty and her request for special counsel, however, was Walker's seeming belief that she had a right to a large defense staff. Through Gierloff, she petitioned the court for two lawyers, a secretary, an investigator, expert witnesses and extra office supplies, all from the pockets of taxpayers. To a state reeling from the blow of yet another crippling government scandal, Walker's cheek seemed unbelievable.

When Walker and Gierloff had finished, they swept wordlessly past a wall of reporters. The senator's haughty expression as she moved toward the elevators was reminiscent of Leona Helmsley's at her own trial. Walker's face was stained with so much disdain that Phoenix Gazette columnist John Kolbe mused aloud, "She is such a smirker, isn't she?"

Within the space of a few minutes, Carolyn Walker had claimed the spot at the top of the most-hated list of AzScam defendants. She left behind her in the courthouse hallway an impression of arrogance that embittered a public already startled by her expressions of greed.

"Tony, you'll have me for a friend for the rest of your life if you want me," she had told undercover agent "J. Anthony Vincent" on the occasion of their first meeting, when she had pocketed $5,000 out of the more than $25,000 she would eventually take from him. "I like the good life and I'm trying to position myself that I can live the good life and have more money." Her statements, along with her eagerness to actually hug Vincent at the conclusion of a transaction, were plastered all over town in the form of transcripts and videotapes, by a police department very eager to show off its handiwork.

For days and weeks after word of her demands in court hit the newspapers, you could hardly go anywhere in Arizona without hearing, "How about that Carolyn Walker?"

And yet the public had misunderstood. Gierloff, who has been replaced at Walker's side by attorney Murray Miller, says now that the unorthodox proposals made in court were entirely his idea. "I understood that there would be some adverse reactions to the requests because people don't understand what makes this case different," he admits.

He launches into a tirade about the shocking amount of money the state has available to squander on "sting" operations and the voluminous cases it is able to mount against defendants like Carolyn Walker as a result. A case that involves 214 videotapes, he suggests, is more than one man can fight alone.

As he speaks, it becomes clear that Walker's defense and the behavior of the police who created the "sting" represented a crusade for Gierloff and that Walker was pulled along in his wake.

When Walker couldn't pay Gierloff and the court would not declare her indigent, Gierloff begged off, saying he could not afford to continue to work free. But the damage had been done by then, and Walker already had an image problem.

It is a familiar feeling for Walker, who according to friends often feels misunderstood, even when she isn't.

She felt misunderstood a few years ago, when she was scolded in the press for supporting a bill that provided a big financial break for her longtime employer, U S West. She was unable to perceive at the time that refusing to disqualify herself from the vote gave the appearance of a conflict of interest. Friends remember that she kept insisting, "Anyone who knows me knows I am not a toady for U S West."

They remember that the basis of her inability to get along with House minority leader Art Hamilton, who could have been a natural ally on behalf of the black constituency they both represent, stemmed from the feeling she was misunderstood. She thought that Hamilton, who is enormously popular and powerful at the legislature, did not give her her due and that his own contributions were overestimated by the voters.

Close friends say, in fact, that Walker can have a difficult time understanding that she has done anything wrong when she feels accused. Perhaps this is the inner conflict that has resulted in the impression on the part of a few legislators that she is hostile and touchy. "She's an angry back-bencher. She is always simmering," says one senator who has worked with her. "Sometimes she is unnecessarily rude to people, pushy and suspicious. I think she feels cheated by the world."

But it is the worst thing anyone will say. No one, not even her critics, seems to have perceived her as dishonest in the years before AzScam. To many, in fact, she was the farthest thing from dishonest--she was a hero of the people. It was so true in the black community, where she was a primary role model among black women, that the sense of betrayal runs deep there.

Late last month, the city's black newspaper, the Arizona Informant, called upon her to resign.

Pastor Warren Stewart, a garrulous spokesperson for the black community, does not even reply when he is asked over the telephone about community support for Walker. The silence extends until it becomes uncomfortable. Finally he says, "Any more questions?"

The shock and outrage stem from the fact that Walker's life has not appeared to be about greed. It has been about struggle and single parenthood and a particular moment of political serendipity when it seemed that all her dreams could come true.

She was born Carolyn Ann Jones 42 years ago, and she grew up in Yuma. She attended Phoenix College in 1967 and the University of Phoenix twenty years later, but her records indicate that she never graduated. (Walker herself refused to be interviewed for this article.) She married Eugene Walker on Christmas Day in 1968. They were divorced in '71, while she was pregnant with Shawna, her only child. According to court records, Eugene was earning $200 a week then, and was ordered to pay $75 a month in child support. Carolyn's own salary was less than $300 a month, and it apparently didn't go very far: She delayed paying the bills incurred by Shawna's birth until the hospital sued.

The first couple of years after the divorce, Eugene came through with about $100. After that he never paid any child support at all, despite his bettering fortunes. When Carolyn finally took him back to court in '88, he was a foreman for Universal Roofing earning $16 an hour. After a protracted court battle, Carolyn was awarded more than $27,000 in unpaid child support and interest.

Friends say that the only good thing Eugene ever did for Carolyn was give her Shawna, but that it was a lot. Walker has appeared to be devoted to her daughter, to the point that she came up with the money to send Shawna to DePauw University, a pricey private school in Indiana, for the girl's first year at college. The money didn't hold out, though, and Shawna returned to Arizona last year. "If you were to ask me, `Why would Carolyn not have taken a bribe?,' I would have said because she would never have let Shawna see this kind of behavior," says a family friend.

Walker told others that she became fascinated with politics at a young age. Since she went to the statehouse in '82, she has certainly made it clear that politics is her life. She was a climber.

After four years in the House, she became the first black woman ever to serve in the Senate. She and Senator Lela Alston--the other Democratic female senator--marched on behalf of Martin Luther King Jr. Day the first year they worked together, and established a bond that day that had to do with common interests and perhaps an understanding of their exalted positions. Alston remembers that, following the march, she and Walker retired to the Compass Room at the top of the Hyatt Regency. It's a restaurant that moves in a circle, and the two women possessively watched their city spin by beneath them. Alston pointed out her life's landmarks. They were at the pinnacle of the world.

Walker didn't stand out at the legislature right away. Some peers say that she doesn't have the charisma, the warm knack of relating, that turns legislators into leaders. They term her an "average" member. Others like former Senator John Hays, who chaired the health committee she served on, describe her as conscientious, well-informed and unlikely to manipulate committee meetings into a forum for espousing her own views.

Nearly everyone in Arizona can remember the moments when her anonymity was surrendered. Throughout the impeachment proceedings of Governor Evan Mecham, she surfaced as a Senate member unlikely to pander to a bigot. She asked intelligent questions at the trial, and then good fortune smiled on her in a magnificent way.

As the vote was taken a slow voice at a time, it fell to Walker--the Senate's sole black member--to cast the deciding lot. For seconds after she had ousted the chief executive who had rushed to cancel the King holiday as one of his first acts in office, the irony was so overpowering that it seemed Walker had impeached Mecham all alone.

Her political future was changed after that. Friends remember that appearing in public with her became an event, that people streamed over to her constantly in recognition and a spirit of congratulations. She began to take a higher profile in office, to be known for her concern for children and with domestic violence. She sponsored a spousal-rape bill that passed and that for the first time made it a crime in Arizona for a man to rape his own wife. She sponsored many other bills last year that had to do with battering and protection for women. These were unpopular issues that affected poor people, to whom she became something of an idol, particularly in her own community, where undereducated women can feel powerless.

Friends remember that she was always searching for a better way to make a living than her job in public relations at U S West. She wanted more freedom--financial freedom and the freedom of time that would allow her to vigorously pursue her political career. She was interested in a seat in Congress and discussed it freely. Alston wonders aloud whether Walker's ambition for Senate leadership--she became the majority whip this year--was motivated by a desire to remain close to the issue of reapportionment, wherein the drawing of new congressional district boundaries would determine who could run for Arizona's new seat in Washington, D.C.

She began to talk about her involvement with a recording company in the fall of '89. Friends remember that she was hoping for a success that would bring her the freedom she felt she needed. In the fall of '90, she was given Vincent's name and number by Senator Alan Stephens, and she gave Vincent a call. Before those two were through with each other, she had asked Vincent for $750,000 to invest in her recording company, and had explored the possibility of having a gift shop business in his casinos.

According to transcripts, she also told Vincent that she needed more money to wage an effective primary campaign. It's a difficult claim to believe. Walker's opponent in the primary was Elizabeth Ajamie-Boyer, an unknown nurse whose entire campaign chest totaled less than $2,000. Walker's own postprimary financial statement shows that she had collected and spent close to $34,000 during the same time period. (She reported only $440 of the more than $25,000 from Vincent, which police say she received in September, before the primary.) She defeated Ajamie-Boyer three to one.

WHEN WALKER WAS first accused of being an AzScam ringleader, many people in the black community did not believe it. This was because, in the neighborhoods where the police have routinely accused blacks of crimes they haven't committed, arrests don't carry much moral weight. It's true in all American cities and it is certainly true in Phoenix, where during the Eighties a black kid named Standley Wesley was shot in the back by police officers who tried to cover it up. Where Ric Rankins was knocked unconscious last year in a senselessly violent wrestling match at Smitty's, and where he died while Phoenix police lost precious time handcuffing him instead of reviving him.

Prayers that sought to know why the police had targeted Walker were offered up at Tanner Chapel AME Church, a black congregation in downtown Phoenix. The evidence that has convinced the rest of the state that Walker betrayed the public trust was accepted only reluctantly among her own.

"There are some very strong feelings in the community," says the CEO of the Arizona Informant, Cloves Campbell. "We did some soul-searching before we called for her resignation. But what we have seen and what we have heard requires that a person go ahead and resign."

Walker's fall was a terrible blow for the black community as it continues to struggle against the kind of prejudice that has kept Arizona from getting behind a King holiday. Says a political observer, "The black community has a right to its own degree of vengeance. Walker, even more than Hamilton, gave the impression that she was headed for higher office."

The word on the street is that the prosecutor's office will not allow the four principal AzScam defendants--

Walker, Don Kenney, Sue Laybe, and Bobby Raymond--to escape their crimes without serving prison time. "Carolyn is going to prison and I think she knows that," says a family friend. He goes on, "I don't know if Shawna knows that. She is just a nineteen-year-old who thinks her mother can do anything."

To a state reeling from the blow of yet another crippling government scandal, Walker's cheek seemed unbelievable.

"I think she feels cheated by the world," one senator says of Carolyn Walker.

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Phoenix New Times has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.