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IN THE LONG TRADITION OF CORPORATE SPOKESMEN, SAY HELLO TO JOE

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The impact has been especially harsh for Southwest Gas, which recently sued the commission to overturn a decision giving the utility less than one fifth the rate hike it had sought, says Foster Corwith, first vice president for research at Dean Witter Reynolds Incorporated in New York City. "The action of the commission in the most recent rate case so damaged prospects for Southwest Gas that I don't think we can even count on dividends being maintained," Corwith says. "The rate decision also was directly responsible for the company's debt rating being downgraded to BBB-, just one step above speculative [junk bond] debt."

Corwith predicts that Southwest Gas customers ultimately will pay the price for the commission's actions now, because the lowered bond rating means the utility will have to pay higher interest rates any time it must borrow money to expand or improve its system.

It is less easy to draw conclusions about the commission's impact on other big Arizona utilities. Utility analysts say the financial problems of APS and TEP cannot be laid at the commission's door, but result instead from mistakes by company management.

US West, the phone company, has lost little from the rate cut it was forced to take, but this is mainly because Arizona represents only 14 percent of the utility's customer base, analysts say. However, Wall Street experts agree with company officials that the rate rulings don't allow the company enough money to invest in new technology that, in other states, has led to lower costs and rate reductions.

Perhaps the most revealing comment about Weeks and the impact of reformers on the corporation commission comes from Dennis Steinberg, the PacifiCorp vice president who helped design that company's takeover effort of PinWest earlier this year. Asked why PacifiCorp was not more hesitant to get involved with a regulatory agency that Arizona utilities consider "politicized" and "anti-industry," Steinberg replies, "We had heard the stories and we were concerned, so one of my first jobs was to go through every one of the rate cases handled by the present commission and to determine if the decisions made sense, or if they seemed based, perhaps, on other considerations.

"I looked at literally thousands of pages of documents and my determination, and what I reported to my bosses, was that the decisions reflected sound logic and a businesslike attitude," Steinberg says. "I felt this was a commission we could work with."

THE ODDEST THING about the race for corporation commissioner is how miscast the main actors are. Somehow, in American politics, the challenger is always expected to be feisty and pugnacious, while the incumbent is made ponderous by success and the trappings of office.

In this case, however, the characters have been reversed, which is only one of the peculiar things about the candidacy of Joe Castillo. Castillo assures campaign audiences that he is "independent" and "outspoken." But he was so loyal to management during his long association with Arizona Public Service Company that one former APS insider says, "We always felt we could count on the shareholders association to toe the party line."

Castillo says, "With me, what you see is what you get," yet he has recast his political identity more times in the past ten years than most people do in a lifetime.

What can be seen, at present, is a soft-spoken man, reasonably successful as a small-business man, who has fought whatever battles he faced as a Hispanic Republican with a minimum of public fanfare. "I was professional about it, I didn't scream and shout, and they respected me for it," says Castillo, describing one such bout, when he challenged the failure of the Arizona Republican party to include any Hispanics in its delegation to the 1988 national convention in New Orleans. (Castillo did not succeed in getting a Hispanic added to the delegation, but says he won reforms that will ensure future representation.)

His political involvement includes providing campaign support for a range of conservative Republicans, such as Fred Koory and Burton Kruglick, who ran unsuccessfully for governor and mayor, respectively. Castillo also was appointed by former Governor Evan Mecham to the board of the Arizona State Hospital.

Castillo, a high school graduate and native of Tucson, built a blueprint and drafting supply business from scratch. Two of Castillo's grown sons help run the business, Astro Blueprint & Supply Company, enabling him to campaign almost full-time.

"I'm steady, dependable, and I've been a fiscal conservative forever," Castillo says, and he believes these qualities are in short supply on the Arizona Corporation Commission. "By me being elected, there would be a change in attitude on the commission. Whether it's true or not, people feel [Weeks and Jennings] are antibusiness and anti-industry.

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Kathleen Stanton