Balls in the Air

Page 5 of 9

"To me, it was a godsend," Romley recalls. "Getting my kids made me realize, it's not just about Rick anymore. I had to pull myself together, because I had to take care of those kids. When you have a terrible tragedy that affects every part of your life, it's hard. But having other responsibilities, well, I just couldn't throw the kids away."

Physically, it was rigorous: "When you have no knees, you can't bend over like a real person. We became great buddies trying to figure it out. One day, I was carrying Aaron when he was still a baby, and I fell. Somehow, I twisted myself around and he landed on my chest instead of me on him. It hurt. But we laughed."

Romley continued to adjust. He opened a small clothing store in the mid-1970s with his sister Peggy, but he wanted to earn a college diploma.

He did so in 1974, earning a business management degree with honors from ASU.

Romley's uncle Elias was urging him to consider becoming a lawyer. Romley decided to go for it, and won his law degree from ASU in 1982.

Romley soon landed a job as a prosecutor for the City of Phoenix. "I just wanted to be a normal guy," he recalls, "making ends meet for my family."

Paul Ahler remembers befriending the man with the cane who showed up to work downtown.

"He came in determined, and I saw his work ethic from the start," says Ahler, who will be leaving his job as chief deputy when Romley's term ends December 31.

He says he didn't learn for more than a year why Romley walked with such difficulty.

"In those days, there were few accommodations for the handicapped, but Rick never asked for anything," Ahler says. "Finally, I asked him. He said he'd stepped on a land mine. Then he went on with his business."

Within a few years, Romley moved over to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. County Attorney Tom Collins soon moved the young prosecutor into a mid-management position as chief of the child-support-collection unit.

Romley's time in child support was controversial, as he tried to implement major changes in what had been an ineffectual unit. Some underlings swore by him. But others swore at him, dubbing him "Rommel," after the World War II German general.

After a time, Romley moved over to run the drug unit, which afforded him public recognition during the cyclical mid-1980s wave of "tough-on-dopers" sentiment.

By that time, Romley finally had found a new life partner. A friend had introduced him to his future wife, Carol, in 1984, and the two single parents instantly connected.

"I hated being single, hated it," Romley says. "You're out there on the prowl, but you just want someone to be alone with, spend time with. But making the match is hard."

Carol had been a working single mom of a teenage son, Darin, for about five years when she met Romley. He still was raising his boys, also teenagers.

"He took my son to breakfast by himself and asked for permission to marry me," says Carol, an articulate woman with unyielding loyalty to her husband.

The couple got married in July 1985, and she moved into his home in north central Phoenix.

"Here I was, the new woman in the house, but Rick had everything so regimented that I didn't have to worry about anything," Carol Romley says. "He's a proud man. Macho. And that's probably why he's walking. He says people don't know what they have inside of themselves until they dig deep."

In early 1988, Tom Collins announced he wouldn't be seeking reelection. The race was wide open, with several well-known Valley lawyers interested in the post.

Romley, a Republican, announced his own candidacy fairly late in the game.

"I'd never been to a political meeting in my life," he says. "I was so dumb. And I won. I don't really know how."

As badly as he wanted to win, Romley never mentioned during his first political race that he was a decorated war veteran who had been wounded in action.

"Not my thing," is all he'll say about that.

Romley won a tough Republican primary, and squeaked past the formidable Georgia Staton in the general election.

It would be the only truly contested political race of his 16-year run.

Rick Romley stepped into a legal and political thicket in his first years in office.

First came AzScam, the biggest political corruption case in Arizona history.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin