Autograph Hound

In 1987, Derrick Lee was selling roofs in Huntington Beach, California. He had no interest in politics. But he had this unemployed roommate. One day Lee noticed some help-wanted ads for paid petition circulators -- the folks you see outside the library and the supermarket who ask you to sign petitions to put issues like medical marijuana and tobacco taxes on the ballot.

"I figured, 'Hey, we've got rent coming up,'" Lee recalls. "I'm like, 'Eric, call one of those ads in the paper. I'll take you down there myself. You're gonna have a job, 'cause I'm not paying your rent again this month.'"

"... When I walked in with my roommate, the guy just assumed that I was there for a job, too. He said, 'You can get paid by the signature on this.' I envisioned looking out my window at all those people on the beach, and I was like, 'I am all over this.'"

Lee quit his job and started gathering signatures.

"I did it for about a month, then I thought, 'I can manage a group of people doing this. This looks easy.'" Kimball Petition Management, based in Thousand Oaks, and one of the country's largest petition companies, hired him as a crew chief; the next campaign cycle, Lee was promoted to area coordinator. By 1994, Kimball had him running the petition drive that put the tobacco-tax initiative on the ballot in Arizona (voters would approve it). Lee had married by then and his wife, Amy, was from Tempe. They settled here to start a family and a business: Lee Petition Management.

Lee doesn't remember the issues on that first ballot or how much he was paid per signature, and he lost track of his old roommate ages ago. Thinking back, he laughs at where he's landed. "I was really rude to people [who circulated petitions] in California before I ever went out and gathered," he admits.

Sitting in Bruegger's Bagels on Mill Avenue in Tempe one recent morning, Lee still looks like a twentysomething beach bum in jeans and a striped tee shirt; he recently streaked his dark hair with blond.

But Derrick Lee, now 35, is the father of four children under 6 and one of the most powerful political operators in the state.

Starting with the tobacco tax, Lee has been responsible for nearly every major statewide initiative that has found its way onto the Arizona ballot in the past several years. The same is true with county and city ballot questions and candidates ranging all the way from the governor down to school board members. Sure, once you're on the ballot, you've got to get yourself elected or your issue approved. But getting on the ballot is all but impossible, political observers agree, without the help of a professional. And in Arizona, Lee Petition Management has a virtual monopoly.

This campaign season alone, Lee will hire more than 100 people for an average of more than $1 per signature to collect more than 1.5 million signatures that will likely let Arizona voters act in November on initiatives affecting growth, drug laws, the state income tax, bilingual education, local telephone service and the use of tobacco-settlement funds. He's already got the signatures to qualify the Reform Party for the ballot, and he will work for many individual candidates.

"I feel like I am really blessed," Lee says, picking at his whole-wheat bagel. "I have more than enough work to do. I don't have to advertise. And I'm constantly turning down work, because I don't have the time to do it.

". . . The goal would be to have more coordinators trained so we can take on more and more work. Eventually, I'd like to retire and get out of it. I'm almost 36 years old, and I've already had campaigns where I'm eating Rolaids three or four times a night, I'm so stressed out over what's going on, you know? And everything's going well."

Phoenix political consultant Jason Rose has worked with Lee on several issues and has hired him for two current ones: a push in Coconino County to put the controversial Canyon Forest Village development project before voters and a proposed amendment to the Arizona Constitution to create an independent redistricting commission. Lee and Rose have been on opposite sides on at least one issue: Lee has collected signatures for groups that want to keep Wal-Mart Supercenters out of Mesa and Yuma; Wal-Mart is one of Rose's clients.

Lee's influence is impressive, Rose says. "No legislator has passed nearly as many measures as Derrick Lee has. No legislator could pass as many measures as Derrick Lee has. And no legislator, I would argue, could approach the impact of some of the measures that Derrick has qualified for the ballot."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.