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The Devilish Deeds of John Kaites

By now, Arizona Republicans have chosen either Tom McGovern or John Kaites as their candidate for attorney general in November's election. Either way, John Kaites' political star has fallen. If McGovern won, the deed is done. If, by some twist of wacky Arizona electoral fate, Kaites pulled this thing off...
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By now, Arizona Republicans have chosen either Tom McGovern or John Kaites as their candidate for attorney general in November's election.

Either way, John Kaites' political star has fallen. If McGovern won, the deed is done. If, by some twist of wacky Arizona electoral fate, Kaites pulled this thing off and won the primary, Democrat Janet Napolitano will smoosh him like a bug.

Kaites' political career bottomed out Wednesday, September 2, the day his campaign aired a commercial so nasty, so malicious, so totally misleading, it could compete with George Bush's Willie Horton spot for space in local high school civics textbooks, chapter heading: "Dirty Politics."

Politics aside, the Kaites commercial was so heinous it could cost him his credentials to practice law, if Tom McGovern pursues charges through the state bar. McGovern is also considering suing for defamation of character.

If you were near a television late last week, you probably saw the ad, which Kaites pulled over the weekend. The commercial depicts the normally clean-shaven, suit-wearing Tom McGovern in a beard and orange prison togs, behind bars. "Tom has a record--not as a prosecutor, but as a criminal," the viewers are told.

By now most of Arizona is familiar with Kaites' warm folktale about his opponent's early bout with the law.

It's lifted from a 15-year-old Sea Isle, New Jersey, police report that details McGovern's arrest for possession of an air pistol and a car ashtray smeared with pot residue. But Kaites conveniently deletes the part where the charges are almost immediately dropped and McGovern is completely exonerated.

Kaites knows that part. It's in the police report and it's in all the newspaper stories that have been written about the 1983 case. Tom McGovern was never prosecuted. He was never convicted. He never admitted guilt. He never served time. And although he spent that night in jail, he was out early the next morning--scarcely enough time to grow a five o'clock shadow.

Tom McGovern isn't a criminal.
But that didn't stop John Kaites and his consultants--HighGround Inc.'s Chuck Coughlin and Wes Gullett--from trying to make him look like one. In February, around the time Kaites announced his candidacy for AG, copies of the police report were floated to the local media. The Tribune's Mark Flatten bit. Kaites staffers circulated copies of the Flatten story, and Kaites mentioned it at low-profile campaign events.

A week out, with polls putting McGovern 12 points ahead, Kaites dropped the bomb.

And blew his credibility to smithereens.

John Kaites is a stooge. He wanted to be attorney general so badly that he let Arizona's most devilish political duo, Coughlin and Gullett, put their mark on him.

On Thursday, September 3, the day after the premiere of "Bearded Tom," the Maricopa County Republican district chairmen held an executive committee meeting and considered a resolution to censure HighGround Inc. for its role in the commercial.

In the end, the county Republicans watered down their resolution to simply condemn negative campaigning, but the message is still loud and clear: This time Chuck Coughlin and Wes Gullett had gone too far.

First as staffers for Governor Fife Symington (Gullett also worked for U.S. Senator John McCain) and now as political consultants, these two have earned a reputation for nasty campaigning.

For example, in 1996, Coughlin launched a campaign on behalf of client Del Webb to get a parcel of commercial land near Red Mountain in Mesa rezoned as residential. Coughlin ran newspaper ads showing pollution-spewing smokestacks on factories superimposed on Red Mountain, with the tag, "Factories, not Families."

The heavy-handed tactic backfired, and Del Webb lost.
But Coughlin and Gullett have had many successes, particularly while working for Symington and McCain, two politicians who beat the odds to overcome lousy reputations and win reelection, using the sledgehammer approach.

A Republican insider who has firsthand experience with the HighGround Inc. methodology says Coughlin and Gullett make the mistake of thinking any candidate can win that way.

"They manage to convince people to go much further than they would like to go, and they do that because Symington and McCain have been very successful at doing that. But only Symington and McCain can do it; other people can't pull that off. It takes a certain kind of person to pull off that kind of caustic rhetoric," says the insider. "And you have to admit, those two guys pulled it off. Yeah, sure, they made a lot of enemies in the process, sure they were looked down upon a little bit. But Symington could have gotten away with this without looking like Kaites right now."

In fact, Symington won his first term as governor using a commercial similar to "Bearded Tom" to defeat Terry Goddard in the 1991 run-off.

Back in February 1991, Symington had been way behind in the polls; Goddard had been attacking his business record. During the campaign's final days, Symington released a TV commercial that muddied Goddard. The ad accused Goddard of breaking a campaign finance law, and showed bars slamming in his face.

Symington won. Credit for the ad goes to longtime Symington media consultant Jay Smith. But the lesson wasn't lost on Coughlin and Gullett, who employed similar tactics when they started working for Symington. And this year's "Bearded Tom" commercial bears the imprint of the 1991 Goddard smear.

Echoing other local pundits, the Republican insider says Kaites bowed to HighGround's pressure when he decided to run with "Bearded Tom."

"I know Kaites didn't want to do it," the insider says. "He held them off for a long time. They wanted to go negative right away."

Former Symington chief of staff Jay Heiler, now a McGovern consultant, says Kaites should be held accountable for his campaign's actions.

"Everybody wants to blame Gullett and Coughlin," says Heiler--who's reportedly no fan of either man, although he refuses to say as much, "but you know, there's only one lawyer in this deal with him and it's him. John Kaites is the only legal mind brought to bear on this campaign strategy going on here." Heiler concludes that no matter how persuasive his consultants were, Kaites has to take ultimate responsibility for everything his campaign does.

John Kaites did not return calls for this column. Earlier in the campaign, he announced he would not speak to New Times, per the advice of his campaign advisers, Coughlin and Gullett.

In the eyes of many Republicans, John Kaites went from Party Boy to Public Enemy No. 1 in 30 seconds--the length of his "Bearded Tom" spot.

The commercial went up Wednesday, September 2. The McGovern campaign first heard about it at 7:30 that morning from a reporter. By midafternoon, McGovern and his entourage--including AG Grant Woods, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Tom's teary-eyed wife, Carol--were crashing a Kaites press conference, demanding that Kaites sign an affidavit swearing he'd never tried marijuana.

McGovern, who had already signed, practically chased Kaites out of his own press conference, waving the affidavit at him. Kaites never signed; later that day, a campaign aide admitted Kaites had smoked pot once in high school.

McGovern consultant Jason Rose, who had arrived at the press conference holding a mysterious-looking three-ring binder--empty, but designed to look like it was stuffed with opposition research--admits it was just a hunch.

"We had nothing. We had zero," Rose says. "We rolled the dice and guessed correctly."

Even without the affidavit trick--which Rose says was Grant Woods' idea--Kaites looked bad. Overnight, Republicans turned on him. The day after the press conference, Thursday, September 3, about 500 political movers and shakers packed a room at the Arizona Biltmore to hear Texas Governor George W. Bush speak at a fund raiser for Governor Jane Dee Hull.

It should have been John Kaites' crowd. He's worked it for years, attending party functions, schmoozing the insiders. But those who were there say Kaites kept to the corner while McGovern gripped and grinned and reveled in his new popularity.

A Republican who was there and asked to remain anonymous says he was planning to vote for Kaites until he saw the commercial--then he immediately sent in his vote-by-mail ballot, with McGovern's name checked off.

He says he noticed the Kaites chill-out at the Bush event. "He was visibly uncomfortable being there. He was not working the room. He stood outside in the foyer at the end of the event, pretty much by himself," he recalls, while McGovern "was inside, still, yakking away."

At one point, the anonymous Republican says, Kaites leaned over to a friend and whispered, "This is the worst thing I've ever done."

But in public, Kaites kept his campaign armor on. That evening, he and McGovern taped a debate on Channel 10, the local Fox affiliate. McGovern, who spent most of the campaign teasing Kaites about his days as a TV weatherman and calling him "Buster Bad Ass" and "The Caped Crusader" because of his tough stand on crime, couldn't resist a dig. During a commercial break, Rose recalls, McGovern leaned over and said, "So, John, how does it feel to have run for seven years and come up just a little bit short?"

The commercial ended before Kaites could respond.

Contact Amy Silverman at her online address: [email protected]

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