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Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch . . . lobbyists try to bushwhack buyers of faulty homes

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There was no opposition at the hearing. Fannin, et al., had done their job well, keeping the bill so quiet that prospective opponents hadn't heard about it. Amazingly, it sailed through committee, then passed the full Senate, 22-8, before anyone noticed. Then a story popped up in a daily newspaper, and Eric Sachrison called Judith Connell, a veteran lobbyist but not a hired gun of Fannin's caliber. She signed on as a lobbyist for "Homeowners for Quality Housing," and, along with lobbyists for homeowner associations, fought the bill in the House.

Connell was not optimistic, recalling, "I thought at the time, because it had already passed the Senate, it was a Mack truck heading on for its destination. It looked like it was going to sail through."

She knew she had to kill the bill in the House, or risk it becoming law. Some of Governor Jane Dee Hull's best friends are homebuilders (Phil Dion, CEO of Del Webb, chaired Hull's campaign finance committee). "We did not want a bill getting to her," Connell says of Hull.

In her time at the Capitol, Connell has represented a number of groups, including Arizona Right to Life and the Healthy Arizona Coalition. Recently, she represented the Arizona Biltmore Estates and Villages Association in its effort to preserve the Adobe Golf Course from development. She now represents Rio Salado Crossing, the massive football stadium project.

Instead of using money and influence to get what her client wants, Connell uses a rather novel approach--the self-described "political grassroots specialist" goes public. She launched a letter-writing-phone-calling-fax-sending-e-mailing campaign, urging homeowners to contact their elected representatives and make noise about SB1401.

It worked. At the House, SB1401 first landed in the lap of Phoenix Representative Barry Wong, chairman of the House Committee on Economic Development, International Trade and Tourism. After speaking with the opposition, Wong refused to hear the bill.

"It's a David and Goliath thing. The individual homeowner is already at a disadvantage as one person versus the huge company," Wong says now.

Wong says he warned Representative Bill McGibbon, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who also refused to hear the bill.

Fannin and Co. were undeterred.
By Connell's count, different versions of the bill popped up a half-dozen times before the end of the session. In the waning days, she recalls, House Speaker Jeff Groscost announced that if Fannin could come up with the 31 votes necessary for passage in the House, he'd bypass the routine committee process and let the bill come to the floor, attached as a rider to a bill passed out of a conference committee.

But Fannin never got the votes.

Barry Wong almost paid the price for defying a Super Lobbyist and his client. On September 3, just five days before the primary, he received a certified letter from the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, including a postcard they mailed to Republicans in his district--the site, by the way, of one of the most heated primary battles in the state. Incumbents Wong and Sue Gerard faced perennial challenger Jerry Harris.

The postcard reiterated the Arizona Republic's endorsement of Harris and Gerard, and quoted the paper: "Barry Wong . . . has been something of a disappointment . . . he has often been indecisive and exhibits a lack of consistent principles. . . ."

The mailing cost the homebuilders association $5,832. It was legal, but Wong was peeved.

Wong has taken his time returning a call from Spencer Kamps, the homebuilders' full-time lobbyist. He says he's waiting for a call from Connie Wilhelm-Garcia, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona.

Of Wilhelm-Garcia, Wong says, "She's made no direct overtures to try to talk to me. Instead, she sends someone who's second or third in line. That tells me they're not very interested in making amends."

Wilhelm-Garcia says Wong's inaction on SB1401 was not her group's sole motivation for the mailing. She sees it as pro-Gerard and Harris, not anti-Wong.

In any event, Wilhelm-Garcia says, the homebuilders will not reintroduce their immunity act this year. Instead, she says, the group's bill--authored by the homebuilders' lobbyists--would merely require homeowner associations to include homeowners in the decision-making process before filing lawsuits on their behalf and to take other steps to keep homeowners informed.

"It won't have anything to do with what we did last year at all," Wilhelm-Garcia promises.

Senate Bill 1401 was a rare case in which a Super Lobbyist was outgunned by citizens' groups. Barry Wong gets credit for making a consumer-friendly issue, but it wasn't so hard: He had lobbyists like Judith Connell outlining the arguments and lining up the opponents.

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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.