Furious George

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He lived and ran hotels in places other people dream of visiting: Cape Cod and Key Biscayne, where he presided over some of Miami's swankiest beach getaways.

In January 1979, Zraket accepted an invitation to Arizona to look at a piece of property on Scottsdale Road that some business partners wanted to turn into a hotel.

Several trips later, while in town for business, Zraket stepped outside.

"I could smell the desert. It was beautiful," he says. "The air was so clean. The switch went. I said, 'I'm moving here.' The commitment was made."

He went back to Miami, talked to his wife and daughter, Alexis, and by Christmas they had moved.

After several years, Zraket segued from hotel management into consulting. It was on a trip to Tucson in 1989 that he discovered the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. The largest gathering of its kind, the event draws thousands of exhibitors and more than 50,000 people worldwide every year for two weeks.

Zraket and his wife founded Atrium Productions, and have run one of the show's vendor sites ever since. They work from home, a spacious house with a pool, a circular gravel driveway and a scenic view of the McDowell mountains.

"I am not part of the grind anymore," he says proudly. "I have no alarm clock next to my bed."

He sets his own hours, shuns early morning meetings and spends months each year preparing for the February show in Tucson.

It's obvious that Zraket doesn't need the $1,384 he makes every month as an elected official. What's not obvious at first is why he would choose to endure the pitfalls of public office, especially after 51 years spent working a daily job.

The question isn't easily answered. For such a colorful background, George Zraket is deceivingly plain.

He's neither tall nor short, with a crescent-shaped halo of pink scalp and bushy eyebrows that make him resemble a fleshed-out Gene Siskel, the famed movie critic from the Chicago Tribune.

He appears equally comfortable in faded work pants as he does a suit. He still owns his 1977 Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon.

It's his personality and his presence that set Zraket apart.

He can't sit still when he talks. Either his hands, his face or his entire body is constantly morphing, mutating wildly into gestures both comic and absurd. His eyebrows arch, his mouth twists.

"Zraaaaaaaaaaket!" he growls, mimicking those people he knows mutter his name with dripping venom.

One minute he's telling a story so detailed that he recalls the specific ordinance number of a particular agenda item from years past. The next he's bouncing off a plush leather sofa in his office to pick up a newspaper clipping.

With high camp, he reads the words of Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts in January describing the looming political battle between the good old boys of Scottsdale past and the new regime it seeks to unseat.

"The empire is back and taking aim at one of the leaders of the rebellion," Roberts wrote. "Their rallying cry: a return to civility, which is empire-speak for 'get rid of that bigmouth, George Zraket.'"

It's a classic story of good versus evil, and as told by Zraket it becomes Star Wars.

The SAC PAC, as he calls the chamber's new political action committee, is the Empire, trying to build a partisan Death Star council to enact its will. Zraket himself is Luke Skywalker, a naive farm boy enlisted to battle the forces of darkness with a ragtag following of freedom fighters.

A look of glee spreads across his features.

It's 6:30 at night. He's been talking for more than three hours about various votes, issues and the extreme personalities he has encountered. In the kitchen, Carol is cooking dinner. When he leaves his office, still talking a mile a minute, still gesturing, she doesn't flinch.

It's just George.

A person's take on politics often can range from apathetic to obsessive, but rarely does someone make it seem like this much fun.

At first, Zraket was just a casual observer. He kept up with city government by reading newspapers and magazines when he moved to Scottsdale.

Even though he was friends with some of the city's highest-profile power players, including Herb Drinkwater and Sam and Richard Campana, he knew them mostly in a social context.

That began to change in 1984 with a simple city council decision to allow a property in his neighborhood off Cattletrack Road to be rezoned for use as a business.

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John W. Allman