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THE COUNCIL'S BROKEN PLAYWHEN THELDA WILLIAMS GOT THE TEAM TO PUNT ON GAY RIGHTS, CITY HALL KICKED OFF A WHOE NEW BALL GAME

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"Williams and Tribken are making a big point, in their language and even their body language, to differentiate themselves from one another," Peter Martori says. With Johnson presumably looking at higher office--possibly a run for governor or the U.S. Senate--some councilmembers may be preparing to lift their own careers to the next level. And, as the composition of the council has changed, some of the old coalitions have also been altered.

Many of those who deal with the council on a regular basis have noticed a subtle shift in the dynamics, as various councilmembers seem to step forward and test their strength. A good many observers read the June 16 vote--and the mayor's apparent exclusion from the back-channel negotiations that led to it--as a small rebellion against his power.

"Craig Tribken might see this all as a plot to harm his chances," one local Democrat says. "He thinks the whole thing was an attempt to embarrass him. It's ironic that he and Paul Johnson probably came out of this in better shape than anybody. If it was a plot to get either one of them, it backfired."
Charlie Harrison doesn't see how the June 16 breakdown helps any councilmembers' chances to advance. "I'm afraid it's just over for Skip and Thelda," he says. "The mayor comes out smelling like a rose, as usual."

But Johnson will admit that, for perhaps the first time in his tenure as mayor, he lost control of the council. Some, such as Frank Meliti, the president of the Arizona Coalition of Patriotic Societies and an outspoken opponent of the gay-rights amendment, see the mayor's failure as evidence of weakness. "He's wishy-washy and he ought to step down," Meliti says. "He's been playing both sides against the middle. We need a strong mayor, someone like Thelda Williams."

While Meliti, who doesn't shy away from using epithets such as "homo," may hold an extreme view of Johnson's effectiveness as a leader, others agree Johnson's once-firm grasp on the council may be slipping as various members begin to eye his job.

"They're all starting to jockey around for position and trying to nudge each other out of the way," Martori, one of the few council watchers willing to be quoted, says. "There's a leadership vacuum, and when you have a leadership vacuum, strange things happen."

Like what happened on June 16. Martori believes Williams proposed the motion to place the gay-rights amendment on the ballot in part to break away from the pack and distinguish herself as a leader. But while Martori thinks Williams' motion was a political mistake, former Mayor Goddard says it might have positioned her as a "sleeper" in the race.

"Whether you agree with her or not on putting it to a vote, she seized the leadership position away from other people who had customarily held it," Goddard says. "You don't hear anyone saying it was Skip's move."
Skip Rimsza is also sticking to his guns, saying he believes the council's action was appropriate and that his constituents support it. He, too, is often considered a likely candidate for mayor, but while he once seemed to be the mayor's hand-picked successor, observers say in recent months his once-warm relationship with Johnson has cooled.

Despite different party loyalties--Rimsza is a Republican, Johnson a Democrat--the two thirtysomething pols have much in common. Both are native Phoenicians from middle-class backgrounds with uncommon appetites for politics. Their friendship deepened during Johnson's tenure on the council, as the two men bonded during basketball games at the Renaissance Club near City Hall. Some trace the minor "rift" between Johnson and Rimsza to an embarrassing photo opportunity that the mayor participated in shortly after the controversy over the pots on the Squaw Peak Parkway erupted. Several sources say Rimsza invited the mayor to the scene of a symbolic pot-smashing--an episode that resulted in political embarrassment for both men.

There is evidence to suggest Rimsza may have played a key role in the June 16 vote that apparently took the mayor--and the three councilmembers who favored passage of the amendment--by surprise. Johnson says he thought a compromise might be worked out right up until the motion to send it to a public vote was made. Johnson had supported a compromise that exempted religious schools and businesses employing 50 or fewer people--a measure that would have exempted about 80 percent of the city's employers--but he was willing to bargain on the size of the companies to be exempted.

Calvin Goode, though he says he would prefer not to compromise on a human rights issue, had suggested that the exemption be limited to businesses that employ fewer than 15 people, a level suggested by federal statutes. Tribken had championed a proposal exempting businesses with fewer than 25 employees. Johnson says he thought Rimsza and John Nelson, who had both told him their primary concern was small business, would be willing to go along with a compromise. It wasn't until just before the meeting, sources say, when Rimsza and Nelson informed the mayor they would not agree to a compromise on the issue, that Johnson realized the prospects for passing a modified amendment were bleak.

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Philip Martin