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RUNNING ON EMPTY

Miss Manners, the 1920s bible of Victorian etiquette for polite society, is quite clear on the subject of money.

"Never discuss money at the dinner table or in public, and especially not with strangers. Discussion of the ~`haves' and `have-nots': those who have met with fortune and those who have encountered financial difficulty, is not a topic for ladies and gentlemen," the book intones, strictly adhering to the Gatsbyesque maxim that if you must tell people what you're worth, you're clearly not worth enough.

It's an opinion J. Fife Symington III would seem to share.
Symington, born to wealth and bred to respect such social refinements, says his financial condition is not fair game for conversation. And the few who dare publicly broach the subject are viewed with the same disapproving eye he might normally reserve for dinner guests who drink from the finger bowl. It's simply not cricket.

Ironically, the same developer who shies away from financial questioning has been unwilling to make his business expertise the foundation of his campaign for governor. "What Arizona needs right now is a business mind," Symington told reporters as he kicked off his campaign. "The state needs a man who can provide experienced, professional fiscal management to pull it out of its economic crisis. I am that man."

While Symington is proud of his record as a real estate developer and believes his entrepreneurial spirit can revive Arizona's moribund economy, he adamantly refuses to answer inquiries about the details of that record. He responds to questions about his financial affairs--what his projects are worth, how they are faring in the market, whether his companies pay taxes--with petulance.

"I do development and I do politics. They're two separate things, and I try to keep them that way. And that's it," Symington says, dismissing the issue with a curt wave of the hand.

Symington wants it both ways--to run on the basis of a record he refuses to reveal. So far he has gotten away with this have-the-cake-and-eat-it-too style of campaigning. The state's largest daily newspapers have all but ignored the question of Symington's finances, preferring to take at face value his assertion that "everything is all right." Symington's pitch--that the proof of his success is visible on the city skyline--has apparently sold well on the political market. Six weeks before the election, he is the favorite over opponent Terry Goddard.

"I have built something," Symington says. "I can see, everyone can see, what we have built here just by looking around." It is a record that he says stands in stark contrast to that of Goddard, who has spent most of his adult life as a professional politician, insulated from the risks and Darwinian eat-or-be-eaten rigors of private enterprise.

For Symington, the difference between himself and Goddard is just that simple. While he has been out on the front lines of business, in good times and bad, wheeling, dealing, taking risks and producing a tangible product, Goddard has remained hiding inside the ivory tower of government, playing political parlor games.

But nowadays, his critics say, it is Symington who is hiding. And they claim it is a sense of fear, rather than a distaste for what he calls the "public striptease" that he says politicians are forced to perform for prying media, that prevents him from discussing his financial affairs.

The developer has built a high stonewall around the record of his financial situation, and as he moves into the final weeks of this prolonged campaign, he continues to crouch behind the parapets. But while we are denied the complete, unobstructed view of his business record--blocked by Symington's intransigence, legal barriers to private financial records and an unwillingness on the part of many in the Arizona business community to discuss the affairs of the man who may be the next governor--there are cracks and peepholes in the masonry through which we can see parts of the overall picture. Taken together, these vignettes paint a portrait of the developer's business life.

And that picture, combined with his continued refusal to dispel the persistent rumors of financial duress, points to one conclusion:

Fife Symington is in trouble.
Determining how much trouble is difficult. Some political and economic analysts say he is merely undergoing a series of minor financial setbacks brought on by a tough market and untimely decisions. Others speculate that the former Vietnam fighter pilot, who maintains that his business acumen will bring the state out of its "economic nose dive," is spinning wildly into a plunge of his own, as his real estate and development empire--battered by blows from a depressed market and weakened by poor management--literally comes apart beneath him.

Here is what we know:

* One of Symington's properties, the Missouri Court office complex at 16th Street and Missouri Avenue in Phoenix, was foreclosed in October after the building's investors (led by Symington, who was co-managing general partner of the project) defaulted on a $1.9 million loan. Several of the project's limited partners blame Symington for the building's failure and say that the developer sacrificed them to minimize his own losses and bolster his most ambitious project--the Camelback Esplanade. One partner accuses Symington of threatening to slap them with expensive and time-consuming lawsuits if they told their story.

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Darrin Hostetler