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THE BADDEST CAT IN TOWNTHE AG CANDIDATES ARE ENOUGH TO SCARE ANYONE

"I'm always nice to Bob Corbin, because if there's one person in Arizona who can ruin your life, it's the attorney general."

This observation, made privately by one of the state's most powerful politicians, reveals how much the office has changed since the days when Arizona's attorney general did little more than dispatch a few earnest young barristers to advise state agencies on keeping their noses clean. Ever since the mid-Seventies, when then-Attorney General Bruce Babbitt persuaded the legislature to establish a state grand jury and let him chase land-fraud crooks, the prosecutorial powers of the attorney general have grown . . . and grown . . . and grown.

An attorney general inclined to make trouble for someone now has 250 lawyers with whom to do it. The bulk of the job remains the unglamorous toil of helping state agencies. But, thanks in large part to the bond between Corbin and retiring House Judiciary Chairman Jim Skelly, the office has expanded to criminal divisions for organized crime, drugs and fraud, as well as civil divisions in all sorts of novel areas of jurisdiction.

One result has been to transform the nature of campaigning for attorney general. "When people run for that office, they sound like they're running for sheriff," says lawyer Paul Eckstein, who co-prosecuted the impeachment of ex-Governor Evan Mecham. "The campaign rhetoric is like `I'm the meanest, biggest, baddest cat around.' Well, the job's a lot more complicated than that.

"And the bulk of the prosecutions are still done by county attorneys," he says. "The idea that being a prosecutor is the chief qualification for attorney general is nonsense, but that's what most of the candidates are focusing on."

Of the five serious contenders for the job (a sixth, Bernie Lumbert, is not an attorney), all but one are heavily into crime-bustin'. To listen to the hype, you'd think Dick Tracy was running for office.

The heat of campaigning has given rise to so much bull merde that it is almost impossible to straighten out all the distortions, misrepresentations and counteraccusations flying around. There is, for instance, the matter of Republican Grant Woods suggesting that little Jennifer Wilson, the victim of rapist-murderer Richard Bible, would be alive today if it weren't for the prisoner-release policies of Steve Twist, who is so far right he's frequently accused of being a neo-Nazi.

Woods now says he was misquoted by a reporter; Twist responds, "Bullshit. I was present when he said it." And so it goes.

What is true is that the Attorney General's Office has grown so much during Corbin's twelve years that its budget now exceeds the combined attorney-general budgets of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah. It's also true that this has made barely a dent on Arizona crime rates, which are still among the highest in the nation.

Yet, Arizonans love to vote for candidates who promise to throw all the criminals in jail. Under Corbin and Twist, the range of criminal laws expanded at an unprecedented rate and the jails filled to overflowing. But Louis Rhoads, state director for the American Civil Liberties Union, sounds a cautionary note:

"When the dictator [Nicolae] Ceausescu was killed this spring, it was reported that in the police state he created one in every thirty Romanians had spent time in jail," Rhoads says. The West was shocked; everyone voiced outrage.

"But in 1988, one in every 27 men in the U.S. was in prison, jail or under correctional supervision," he says, citing a recent study published in the ABA Journal. "We are rapidly reaching the point where there are more felons in the East Valley than there are Democrats.

"When you have laws creating sex police in schools, we are reaching the point where all manner of unusual behavior makes you a criminal," he says.

Rhoads daily handles the complaints of lawbreakers who are not monsters like Richard Bible, but little guys who screwed up, and he says, "There is an enormous reaction by people when they realize the criminal class is them."

So meet the people who want to be Arizona's next Dick Tracy.

MDRVSTEVE TWIST

A visit to the campaign headquarters of Steve Twist is rather like lunching at the county morgue. The atmosphere is chilly and the company, by and large, uncommunicative.

Maybe it has something to do with the most recent polls, which show Twist's early lead fading behind moderate Grant Woods and Mecham supporter David Eisenstein. Or maybe, as Twist's detractors would have it, it reveals something about the man himself.

Twist acts oblivious to the cheerless demeanor of his aides and gamely arranges himself in a casual slouch. Two hours later, he remains frozen in place, periodically exhaling tension in short sighs, like a steam engine at rest. If he knows any good jokes, he keeps them to himself.

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Kathleen Stanton