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PFISTER FAMINE

It is early in the morning, and Jack Pfister is hunting for cream for his visitor's coffee. He is rustling around in an alcove that is a kitchen or a bathroom and that opens out of the north side of his large office. When he finds the cream--which is not really cream, but powdered Cremora in a foil packet--he rips the package open and stands over his visitor's coffee cup, rather slowly tapping the white dust into the dark brew and watching it sink to the bottom. The general manager of the Salt River Project and one of Arizona's most influential leaders appears to be deeply interested in this activity. He continues with it until the packet is empty.

He seats himself at the handsome conference table and begins, quietly and deferentially, to talk into a tape recorder about the ways in which he has wielded power for twenty years. Each time he finishes a sentence, his unemphatic, pleasing voice rises into a question, as though he is wondering whether he has been heard and understood.

"I never set out to be a leader?" he is saying. "I just don't really think in those terms? The Arizona Republic once did a story about leaders in the Valley, and I was one of seven or eight who consistently came out on everyone's lists? And that really startled me?"

He is as calm as he is self-deprecating--the people who know Jack Pfister will tell you he is nearly always calm--but he is not terribly comfortable when he is trying to comment upon his own career. Sometimes he hesitates or shoots a perplexed glance across the table. He has not sought out this interview and, although he is cordial, it is pretty clear that he would prefer to retire from the helm of SRP in July without being eulogized in the press.

He warms to the discussion, though, when it stops asking him to pat himself on the back and begins showing an interest in the methods he has used when, again and again, he has reconciled diverse interests in his self-appointed role as mediator on a range of crucial state and Valley projects. That is the skill that his admirers point out most consistently--an ability to bring varied interests to the bargaining table and help them to discover common ground.

They also say that, for two decades, he has been convincing entrenched powers to accept fairly radical ideas. Sometimes, these newfangled ideas have seemed at first glance to serve the community but to work against SRP, and yet Pfister has often been able to convince his board of directors to go along with them.

Observers say that he persuaded hidebound water czars to accept sweeping revisions in groundwater pumping regulations in 1980--regulations that forced members of the board of directors of the Salt River Project who are farmers to accept restrictions on irrigation. They say he was a key force behind the establishment of the Environmental Quality Act of '86 that legislated standards for water purity, and that set up a vast governmental bureaucracy for regulating pollution control to which SRP, as the state's largest water provider, is now subject. It was also Pfister who spearheaded water negotiations with Arizona Indian tribes, with the result that decades-old disagreements have been settled in two cases and a future water supply for Arizona cities and agriculture is beginning to be assured.

Some observers even say that he stood in the middle of the heated, swirling Orme Dam controversy in the early Eighties, and finally led SRP away from its support for the dam when it became clear to him that there were options that were less damaging to the environment. (Those who are not Pfister supporters say that he merely acquiesced to the environmentalists' triumph over Orme Dam, however, and none too readily.)

The list goes on and on. And it is November 1990, and Arizona has been without a governor since the mid-Eighties. It is a year or two after many of Arizona's most visible business leaders have been flushed down the economic drain and only days after the election has ushered into power a roster of yuppie turks, all of whom look lovely in expensive suits and none of whom have a history of being able to put deals together. It is very sobering in the middle of such a pronounced leadership crisis to consider that a seasoned negotiator like Pfister is choosing this moment to relinquish his hold on Valley affairs.

Pfister doesn't want to discuss whether he's irreplaceable, though. What does interest him is talking about the deliberate way that he has gone about learning to form complex agreements. The things he's saying are a little surprising; they do not sound very much like the bullying philosophies you might expect to hear from a captain of industry either, whose primary goal is to benefit his own company. In particular, they don't sound like the philosophies you might expect to hear from a captain of industry in Phoenix--the self-aggrandizing, ruthlessly hyperactive ones who have recently fallen from power and onto their own swords. The mannerly Pfister is a stark contrast to APS' Keith Turley, Circle K's Karl Eller, American Continental's Charlie Keating. Beyond that, he actually sounds like a New Age psychologist.

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Deborah Laake