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Johnson's Waterloo?

Big Red is back. Governor Jane Hull shed her Granny Hull get-up and came out swinging last week after her Democratic challenger, Paul Johnson, accused her of taking campaign cash from Nevada developers thirsty for Arizona's water.

Hull has a 30-point lead in the polls. She could have scoffed at the charge, as she has at the rest of Johnson's barbs, and gone back to counting her contributions and cooing over her grandkids. But she dropped the Granny Hull gimmick in a flash. Developers, water attorneys, even the guy Johnson cited as his inside source on the supposed secret water negotiations disavowed Johnson's accusations.

Hull held a press conference and called Johnson "a piece of whatever."
You go, girl.
Johnson did nothing to help his cause. I've seldom seen sloppier campaigning. Johnson himself has taken money from Vegas developers, and had gone so far this summer as to write a letter requesting money from Del Webb, whose CEO, Phil Dion, had hosted the now-infamous Las Vegas fund raiser for Hull on July 15. (For the record, Dion, who also happens to be the chairman of Hull's finance committee, spurned Johnson's request for cash, although Johnson had received a couple of small contributions from individual Del Webb employees earlier in the campaign.) And contrary to Johnson's claims, Del Webb says it's building a 12,000-home development near Henderson, Nevada, without Arizona water.

More important, Johnson hasn't delivered the goods. He hasn't offered up any proof that Hull and Nevada water interests are plotting. Herb Guenther--who is a Democratic candidate for the state Senate, a Yuma-area water official and Johnson's so-called source--told the press that Arizona and Nevada water officials haven't met in a year, since before Hull was governor. Proposals that would have Arizona sell water to Nevada were floated during the Symington administration.

Of Guenther's remarks, Johnson now says, "I knew exactly what Herb Guenther was going to say, but I guess I didn't set the expectation exactly right of the reporters."

And Johnson sticks by his original gripe. "I don't have a problem with her [Hull] meeting with them [the Nevada contributors]. I don't have a problem with her building up relationships. That's good stuff. It should happen. We do need to talk. You need to talk to everybody involved in the process. But it changed the minute she took a check."

Johnson says he never claimed there was a quid pro quo between Hull's acceptance of contributions and Nevada's purchase of Arizona water. He says he doesn't need to demonstrate one to prove his point--that Nevada will soon be out of water (and it will) and developers like Del Webb depend upon water to build their homes and turn profits (and they do) is enough to demonstrate that Hull may not have Arizona's best interests in mind.

That said, the Johnson campaign came on way too strong with way too little. The empty onslaught continued this week in the form of television commercials in which Johnson vows that if he's elected governor, Nevada won't get one drop of Arizona's water.

As one Arizona political consultant puts it, "They're doing it like somehow this is Chinatown, and Paul Johnson is Jack Nicholson. Give me a break."

By now, the local press has labeled Johnson's political career--not to mention his chances at becoming governor--DOA.

Paul Johnson's political aspirations may be DOA, but his charge shouldn't be. The irony is that for all his fumbling, Johnson has hit on one of the most important political issues in Arizona--water--and he raises legitimate concerns about our governor's interests in protecting that commodity.

Jane Hull knows that. Why else would she shoo her grandkids and don the Big Red costume?

As is often the case in political debates, neither candidate has a tenable position.

Jane Hull is wrong when she says it is ludicrous to imagine that Nevadans--including developers and Kenny Guinn, the state's Republican nominee for governor and a former Del Webb board member--would contribute $31,000 to her campaign with the goal of currying favor so they can get more Arizona water for less money.

Does she think they just want to be friends?
But Paul Johnson is equally wrong when he says we should never, ever consider selling Nevada a drop of water. That is a naive statement, a political ploy, and one that could jeopardize a delicate, bipartisan process that took years to negotiate and is designed to protect Arizona from losing a lot of water to California by selling a little bit to Nevada.

Some history: The state's founders did one thing right--they protected Arizona's water. From the state's earliest days, our leaders demanded a lion's share of water from the Colorado River--2.8 million acre-feet a year. (An acre-foot covers an acre to the depth of one foot, 326,000 gallons--enough to meet the needs of two average households for a year.)

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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.