On Art Hamilton's first day in the Arizona House of Representatives, as he tells the story, the speaker of the House, Stan Akers, looked straight at him, leaned to his microphone, and started whistling "Dixie" over the House sound system.
Hamilton was watching from the gallery, not from the floor. He was elected to office in November 1972, but when the session began in January 1973, he was nine days too young to serve, nine days short of the required 25 years, and so his seat was declared vacant by the House credential committee. On his 25th birthday, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors appointed him to fill his own vacancy. He has been there since.
In Eastern or Midwestern cities, people would have taken to the streets in outrage over the affront, given the blatantly ethnic makeup of politics there.
In an Eastern or a Midwestern state, Art Hamilton might have been governor by now or congressman, given his intelligence and eloquence, his innate understanding of which buttons to push and which egos to stroke, his knowledge of issues and process, his map to where the bodies are buried, and his inordinate talent for maintaining churchly good manners throughout.
He likes to quote poetry--Rudyard Kipling--and Scripture, and sometimes it's hard to tell when he's reciting and when he's ad-libbing.
"On the days I have my best triumphs, I see my clay feet," he says. "On the days my clay feet are just kind of bulging out there, I see some majesty in what I am allowed to do for a living. I become philosophical."
In another state, Art Hamilton might have been expected to be an African-American advocate, first and foremost. Even here, early in his political career, he was accused of not being black enough.
"I am incredibly cognizant of my own ethnicity, of the need to push the program forward, raise the banner," he says. "But I'm also--I hope--smart enough to know where I live and how you get things done."
Oh yes, he's smart enough.
He emerged immediately as a leader in the House of Representatives and after eight years was elected minority leader, a post he still holds. He is nationally known as a past president of the National Conference of State Legislators.
He memorized the House rules of order and is notorious for being able to stop a bill dead in its tracks on procedural grounds.
"He is as conversant on deregulation of electricity and groundwater law and the funding formula for education as he is on inner-city or African-American issues," says former state senator Alfredo Gutierrez, who began his political career the same year as Hamilton. "He long ago transcended anyone's opinion of him.
"If you go back to the end of every session since 1986, you will find a Legislature that has come to a complete halt, in which neither side will speak to each other. They can't get the budget resolved, they can't get the university funded. And you'll find that it's Art Hamilton who brings the body together," Gutierrez says.
He stepped forward in the impeachment of Evan Mecham, in the fight for Martin Luther King Day. And he was a target in 1991's AzScam sting operation in which the Phoenix Police Department and Maricopa County Attorney's Office dangled money in front of legislators to see who could be bought. Hamilton did not take the bait. And last spring, in the heat and passion of the school finance debate, the temper that he usually keeps locked up in old-fashioned manners burst loose and he shoved a House aide. When Hamilton was dragged before an ethics hearing, his accusers came off looking like fools, and even conservative Republican news columnists admitted that he was a model of "dignity, eloquence and, most relevant, consistent respect for the rules and traditions of the institution."
He is both loved and feared for his quick tongue. He can be a verbal Cuisinart that without ever resorting to profanity can slice and dice and, says his House ally and close friend Robert McLendon, "carve whoever is questioning him into tiny pieces and leave them in a pile on the floor of the House."
Even those on the other side of the aisle respect his good humor.
Chuck Coughlin, a former Symington aide who is now a lobbyist, recalls approaching Hamilton for Democratic votes in favor of the Rio Salado football stadium. Hamilton replied that he had not yet heard any Democrats express any interest in the project, and Coughlin offered to change that situation. He had Eddie Basha call Hamilton.
The next day, as Coughlin watched from the House gallery, Hamilton rose to speak during discussion of the issue and turned toward Coughlin.
"I promised Chuck Coughlin that I would support this bill if I got a call from a Democrat, and I made that promise knowing that Chuck doesn't know any Democrats," he said. "Lo and behold, I got a call from Eddie Basha today, so I encourage everybody in the Democratic caucus to support this bill just to support the fact that Chuck knows a Democrat."
Hamilton's inability to return phone calls is legendary. He suffers from diabetes, and his son worries that he doesn't watch his health as diligently as he should. He has wrestled with his personal life: He has married and divorced five times, and neither he nor his family can or will say why.
He is so controlled that even minor lapses in judgment fill him with anguish. He still agonizes over a joke gone bad early in his career when he and another legislator bantered during a debate over prostitution laws. The other legislator asked, contentiously, if it would constitute prostitution if a woman withheld favors from her husband unless he bought her a fur coat.
"Well, I don't know," Hamilton shot back. "Where I come from, we really can't afford fur coats, we just buy dresses."
As he drove home, he heard the exchange as a talk-radio sound bite. He got a call from his mother, who was outraged, and she asked him if he thought his sisters could be bought off with new dresses. It seems a trivial joke, but it still embarrasses him.
Hamilton's daughter April describes him as being the exact same man at home that he is on the House floor: controlled.
The political buzz, however, is that Hamilton has been slowly losing the iron grip he once had on the Democratic caucus, his ability to cajole or coerce the votes he needed.
"By his mere presence, he has the ability to intimidate someone," says former legislator Ruben Ortega. He knew "where all the balls were and where they would be in six months," Ortega continues. "When he first came in, he knew which buttons had to be pushed to get the caucus where it had to be at a certain time."
But those days are gone, and more and more Democrats have strayed from the herd, making them easy prey for the Republican majority.
"I could say in the last couple years when I served with him, his foresight was diminished, the ability to know where the Legislature was going to be," Ortega says.
"Once you lose the ability to say 'I control 22 votes,' and in fact there are four maverick Democrats and you negotiate separately with them, you lose any leverage you have as minority leader."
That unity will be even more diminished by state legislation that limits terms for state officeholders. Hamilton is running for secretary of state; the fact that his term would run out in the year 2000 influenced his decision to do so.
"When term limits hits the deck here, it's going to be a very interesting scenario," says Chuck Coughlin, "because the institution runs on institutional knowledge and the relationships that develop. Who you trust and who you don't trust. Where you get information and how it moves along the process has a lot to do with seniority. When that begins to disappear, I think you'll find a more chaotic body."
As a minority party representative, it is virtually impossible to pass legislation. Instead, that representative can subtly change the direction of bills by dragging feet and begging questions. As such, Hamilton has been a formidable obstacle to the Republican majority, but Coughlin still says, "I'm not convinced that it's an altogether good thing that you lose people like Art."
Because the state Legislature is regarded as an entry point for up-and-coming politicians, Hamilton's terminal term of office in the House has been interpreted by wonks as a sign of his lack of ambition.
"I've always felt that the House of Representatives was a place to aspire to," he says. "I never thought that you ought to get demerits because you didn't see it as a stop on the road somewhere. I thought it was a good place to be. Not necessarily a destination, but a good place to be."
And now that he has to leave, he's casting about for a political role to play--or perhaps testing the statewide waters should he choose to run for higher office later--like senator.
But the campaign for secretary of state is uphill. Hamilton is facing the incumbent Betsey Bayless. He is outgunned financially three to one. There are about 97,000 more registered Republicans in the state than registered Democrats, and so that is how many crossover votes he'll need to win.
In addition, there is an unpredictable moron-vote factor, the people who wouldn't vote for a Democrat versus the people who wouldn't vote for a woman; the people who wouldn't vote for a black man versus the white guilt liberals.
Whether a black man can win statewide election in Arizona is a tricky question.
"A black man will be elected to statewide office," says Representative Herschella Horton, who constitutes one quarter of the four-person black caucus.
"Art Hamilton's election will say more about Arizona than any other election out there," says Paul Johnson, the Democratic candidate for governor. "It'll almost be a passing of some bad things if they elect him."
And if they don't?
"Same old Arizona."
For the moment, Art Hamilton's eyebrows are stuck in the up position.
He's attending a luncheon for the Democratic cell in Green Valley, a retirement community south of Tucson, and two sprightly retirees are spiritedly discussing their eccentric neighbors, the paranoid threatening to kill his neighbors, the codger who attacked a passerby with a shovel because he thought he was trespassing, and the stories are made funnier because Green Valley is such a peacefully bourgeois burg.
Why campaign at a retirement village? Because retirees are well-off, well-informed, and they vote.
Hamilton has spent his career in Maricopa County, and, in fact, he has never lived outside of his legislative district, and so one of his campaign challenges is to make himself known in the rest of the state.
He has been surprised at being recognized in places as far from Phoenix as Snowflake, but then he has a distinctive appearance and he takes advantage of it.
Just after lunch, he makes his entrance at the Green Valley public library, where he is to make a small campaign speech to the local Democratic club. He is, of course, the only African American in the room. He has a bearlike girth. He radiates presence. And so when he enters the room, all eyes turn immediately.
He follows his entrance with a disarming remark, literally. As he walked in, he had noticed a sign saying "No weapons allowed in the library," and so he quips, "I saw this sign; what do you do here?"
Then, to answer his own question, he says, "This must be the room where the politicians speak."
The scant gathering titters in appreciation. Hamilton knows how to work an audience.
"There's always enough energy in a room," he says. "You feed on that."
He will address others as "Mr." or "Mrs." in a formal, old-fashioned manner that expresses warmth and respect and distance all at the same time.
His speech is smooth and stock. He hits the classic heroes--John Kennedy, Martin Luther King--then updates by describing a meeting with Nelson Mandela while on a trip to South Africa.
Why does he want to be secretary of state? he asks the audience. Because he'd be the chief election officer in Arizona, because he wants to increase voter registration and make politically stagnant legislative districts competitive again.
"We have districts that are so skewed that the primary becomes the election," he tells them.
Later he expands on the idea for New Times.
"I think Arizona makes a real mistake if we become such a one-party state that we really don't have competitive elections because you end up with extremists on one side or the other who end up controlling the mechanisms," he says. "The fact that you end up with--with all due respect--[former Symington henchman] Kurt Davis on the Board of Regents, or how you end up with where the state is on things like Kids Care. The governor actually reduced the size of her request for Kids Care because the right wing in this state thought that Kids Care was Hillary Care."
When former House speaker Jane Hull ran for secretary of state in 1994, Hamilton suggested to reporters that perhaps she really had her eye on the "job above." Symington's legal future was already in doubt, and there was speculation that he might be forced out of office. Hamilton claims that he tried to convince then-incumbent secretary of state Democrat Dick Mahoney to forget about running for Congress and stand for reelection with the likelihood of becoming governor.
He denies that he has the same strategy in mind as he campaigns for the same office.
"I don't anticipate, whether it's Johnson or Hull, that they would not be around in the year 2002 to run for reelection," he says. "I really don't run in anticipation that there's going to be a vacancy and that I'm going to become governor that way."
Privately, he admits that he is running for secretary of state partly by process of elimination.
Although he knows plenty about education legislation, he is not a teacher and doesn't think he's prepared to be superintendent of public instruction. He's not a lawyer and so he wouldn't be attorney general. He's not an accountant and so he wouldn't be treasurer. And after 29 years as an employee of Salt River Project, a run for corporation commission, whose job, among other things, is to oversee public utilities, would appear a conflict of interest.
"I think people would be turned off by the very idea of it, and I certainly didn't want to have to defend it," he says.
As for running for governor, he says, "To be absolutely honest, I've always considered being governor--at least an initial run for office--a reach too far for me."
One Democratic ally laments that Hamilton's skills as an advocate would be wasted in a secretary's job. Paul Johnson says that if he and Hamilton were both elected, he would use the secretary of state in the nontraditional role as a lobbyist to work the Legislature because of his connections there.
Running for statewide office is something Hamilton says he has always wanted to do.
"I'm probably a cycle or two behind where I thought I'd be," he says.
But the specter of term limits has pushed his decision. He could run for his House seat one more time, which would put him out of office in the year 2000, but then he would have to wait two years with his star fading from political view, until the state offices opened again.
If he loses the secretary of state election--a possibility he refuses to concede--he could sit out the two-year cycle and then start his House career anew.
"They say you should never say never, but this is one time I would say never," he claims. He wants to move on.
Democrats have trouble raising money in Arizona as a rule--with AG candidate Janet Napolitano the exception that proves the rule.
According to Hamilton's most recent campaign finance report, he has raised $71,655 to Betsey Bayless's $247,541, and as the campaign heads into the sprint toward November, he has $23,531 cash on hand to Bayless's $90,076. Hamilton's campaign manager, Ben Johnson, says pledges account for another $40,000 to $50,000.
The buzz in Democratic circles is that Hamilton's profile has been so low that he is hardly registering on the initial, as-yet-unreleased, polls, and even some Democrats wonder when he will come out in the open and start campaigning in earnest.
Ben Johnson claims the campaign has been trying to conserve money and that there was no need for wasteful spending when Hamilton was running unopposed in the primaries.
"It doesn't do me any good to tell people in August who Art Hamilton is when they're going to be inundated by candidates and names for the next month and a half," Johnson says. "You have to be frugal about that."
Other Dems disagree. Senator Chris Cummiskey says, "If you wait until the week after the primary, you're at a disadvantage that's hard to get out of.
"Art is the most eloquent orator and policy individual in the party," Cummiskey continues. "But unless he's in an opportunity where people are going to see him firsthand, the campaign's going to have to take on a number of different elements, and that means television, radio, direct mail. I think he's probably waiting to try and use his limited resources in the last weeks of the campaign."
Bayless, as an incumbent Republican, can piggyback on Jane Hull's campaign, sharing campaign headquarters and campaign appearances. And she's got the superior financial firepower.
"Can you bring in the dollars to get your message up on television and radio in those last few weeks or to respond to the hits that may come from the opposition?" Cummiskey asks. "If you don't have those dollars in place for the media buys, it's very difficult to overcome."
Art Hamilton grew up in the shadow of the state capitol, one of 12 children. He was born 50 years ago in what is now Phoenix Memorial Hospital. His father drove a street sweeper for the City of Phoenix, and his mother did custodial work and later operated an elevator at the capitol building. When he was 4 or 5, the family moved out of the housing projects and into a house in an integrated neighborhood on West Madison Street.
It was a pivotal time in civil rights. Hamilton attended segregated schools until 1954, when they were outlawed in Arizona.
"Truly, I don't remember a lot about discrimination towards me," he says, but his father and his brothers and sisters had tales to tell.
Returning from World War II, Hamilton's father was stationed at Luke Air Force Base, and he and his comrades, even in uniform, could not eat in restaurants on Grand Avenue. Instead, they would have to go to the back doors and buy sandwiches to eat in their cars.
Hamilton's older brothers and sisters told of being kept out of theaters and not being allowed to swim in the municipal pool except on Saturdays--after which the pool would be drained and refilled with clean water.
His neighborhood on Madison was an American idyll, where someone would stand up for you or tell your mama, depending on which side of trouble you were on. There were no sidewalks, and when the Hamilton kids got skates for Christmas, they'd walk to the capitol on Sundays, where the guards would let them skate for a few hours before making a show of running them off.
Young Arthur would walk across the railroad yards to sit on the courthouse steps downtown and watch the men in suits go by.
"I was always struck with how amicable things seemed in terms of downtown," he says. "And yet at the same time, how very far away I lived, even though it was only a half a mile."
Hamilton attended Carl Hayden High School and was elected class president. Then, at the height of the Vietnam war, he and six buddies tried to enlist in the military. Hamilton had been a high school athlete, and so he was shocked when they rejected him for health reasons; he had a staple in his knee from a football injury. His buddies were accepted and shipped out.
So Hamilton enrolled at Phoenix College, where he says he spent more time playing baseball and football than studying. But when he was 19, his life went off track. His girlfriend, Rita Bagley, got pregnant, so Hamilton got married, dropped out of college and found jobs making doughnuts and driving a pie truck and later working in a warehouse.
In 1968, one of Hamilton's sisters called him to tell him about a jobs program aimed at minority neighborhoods. He applied, and in short order he was working for Salt River Project, first as a clerk and then as a zanjero, a ditch rider, essentially an in-the-field customer service representative.
But he wanted a job "inside," as he put it, something in public relations, and he applied as jobs opened only to be turned down because he lacked a college degree. And so he joined Toastmasters International, the public speaking club, and turned his natural gift for spinning a yarn into a talent for spinning a speech. In his first two years, he placed in regional speaking competitions. And he got his job inside.
No sooner did he start in SRP public relations than he announced that he was running for one of two legislative seats open in the newly created 22nd district, which encompasses much of southwest Phoenix, including some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Its population is mixed, 52 percent Hispanic, 35 percent Anglo, and a little more than 8 percent African American.
"They [his bosses at SRP] couldn't help but chuckle at the bravado of this young man, who had been offered a job in public relations and, rather than taking the job and saying thank you, had the temerity to bring up the fact that he was running for the Legislature, a job that obviously he wasn't going to get," Hamilton says now.
He was not old enough to run, but didn't want to wait.
"The district was solid Democratic," he says. "Had I chosen to wait two years to run, I would have faced a Democratic incumbent in the primary to get a seat. There would not be another occasion when both seats would be open without an incumbent. This was the political wisdom from a 24-year-old."
Only after he was elected did anyone take notice that he was underage. Then, as now, the House was overwhelmingly Republican, and so they gleefully blocked his taking his seat. On January 19, 1973, his 25th birthday, Hamilton went downtown to meet with Bob Corbin, who was then a county supervisor, and was appointed on the spot to take the seat. He will be there until the end of this December.
By then, Hamilton's first marriage had fallen apart, he claims, because his wife and father-in-law thought she had married beneath her station. She left him. His run for the Legislature had been to prove that he was worthy.
"It was the fuel I burned to get there," he says.
It didn't get her back, but it placed him in the Legislature for a quarter century.
An enigma: Hamilton is a churchgoing man. He can quote Scripture. His pastor talks about his deep spiritual side. His integrity is legendary. He doesn't hesitate to say what he believes is right and wrong. He has the same striving for self-improvement that his father beat into his head, and he expects the same of others. He is puritanically old-fashioned with regard to his children.
"He's never said a curse word in front of me, he's never had a drink in front of me and my brother as long as I remember, and I'm 30 years old," says his daughter April.
And though he only had custody of his children for a few years, he's been a constant presence in their lives, even flying to San Diego to attend his son's high school football games. He dotes on his grandchildren, takes them to McDonald's, swings the pinatas at their birthday parties. He has bought them savings bonds toward their college educations for every month since they were born.
"I wanted to be Brother Cleaver," he says. "I wanted to have Wally and the Beav and June."
Yet despite that moral conservatism, he has been no poster child for family values. He has married and divorced five times. There is no hint of scandal in the public record, and what is to be learned of those marriages Hamilton lets out in skeleton outline.
Shortly after his first marriage broke up, he fathered a child out of wedlock. He married a third woman, posthaste, and left her, then married and divorced again.
His fourth wife, Latrisa Booker, he describes as the love of his life, but he left her, too, out of impatience, he claims, and then tried to get back together with her. She died of heart problems before they could remarry.
His fifth wife left him in 1993, tired of travel and late-night calls.
"She thought the job took far too much and paid back far too little," he offers as explanation. "It looks glamorous; it just wasn't glamorous up close. She thought I spent an inordinate amount of time between trying to satisfy SRP and being a legislator."
Such admissions are about as far as Hamilton goes into his private life.
Even his children claim not to know the secrets of his heart.
"He always portrays himself as this rock that can't never be penetrated," says his son Alexander. But occasionally his sensitive side slips through in unguarded moments.
"Some people have a face in private and a face in public," says April. "My father's not like that." At home he wears the same mask, equal parts joviality and sternness.
"If there was some pain, I wouldn't know where it would be from or where it could come from because he's not the type of man who expresses his feelings," says Alexander.
Hamilton was perceived as somewhat of an anomaly in the black community when he began life in the Legislature. Establishment blacks looked askance because he didn't have a college degree, and street blacks thought he spoke too well to communicate with them.
"Much of my early career I struggled with black people suggesting that I really wasn't black enough," he says, without offering further details.
The '70s were militant times.
"I do believe that there are people who picked up a brick and tossed it through a window who probably accomplished more in that afternoon than I did in five years," he says. "That really wasn't my lot. I guess what I'm really saying is there are days I would have loved to be born in Chicago, that I would have liked to have whatever limited skills I have to apply them someplace where I was in the majority politically or maybe ethnically. I have always wondered, Lord, what in the world was on your mind when you let me be born in Phoenix, Arizona, to ply my trade here? At the end of 26 years--with some considerable exceptions--I think I did the job the best I could do and tried to serve the folks well."
Indeed. Alfredo Gutierrez says, "The first thing he had to transcend at the Legislature was who people perceived him to be--liberal, African American from a southwest Phoenix district, and people assumed an extremely limited agenda: poverty, inner-city issues. And then very quickly he was debating the groundwater code and doing so in a compelling fashion, and people had to listen."
He came under the tutelage of Burton Barr, longtime leader of the Republican majority. During his fourth term, he was elected minority leader.
"His persuasiveness, his compelling nature, the integrity he was demonstrating, the leadership he was demonstrating were such that he could bring votes together," Gutierrez continues. "By his second term, he was clearly designated by his peers as someone who could bring consensus to an otherwise diverse political situation."
Others thought he was too consensual. Former legislator Renz Jennings (whose term as corporation commissioner ends at the end of the year) says, "There were times when I wanted him to take a more aggressive partisan stand than he did."
Instead, Hamilton was trying to balance the needs of the urban and rural members of the caucus. He moves easily between parties, can always get into offices and be listened to, knows how to play the poker hand of politics.
"I used to enjoy when he would stand up and instruct Mark Killian, who was then speaker of the House, that he wasn't following the rules," says Sandy Bahr, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club.
Still, minority legislators, even minority leaders, do not get to set policy so much as act as checks and balances against the policy set by the majority. As one Republican puts it, the majority has to deal with all issues, but the minority gets to pick and choose its fights.
Hamilton chose to fight to increase funding for bilingual education and to restore civil rights to felons who serve their time. He worked on the revamped criminal code, and helped get bridges built over the Salt River after the devastating floods of the 1970s when traffic was virtually halted. This last he describes as "one of the things that I'm proudest of that people now take for granted."
"This gang," he continues, referring to the current Legislature, "should that situation have occurred on their watch, that they ought to take state resources and help do the job of the city? . . . We've reached the point where any tax increase, no matter how trivial, no matter how worthy, is viewed with disdain."
He fought for Martin Luther King Day, before it was about the Super Bowl, as one wag put it.
And although he was in the forefront of Evan Mecham's impeachment as governor, he has rethought his role, perhaps in light of the current presidential skirmishes.
"We tried to handle it as if it were a judicial process, and I think in doing that, we really served the worst of all possible worlds. We were damn poor judges and prosecutors and didn't behave very well as politicians."
Mecham still holds a grudge against Hamilton. Mecham claims he rescinded Martin Luther King Day in Arizona under pressure from the state attorney general, because it had been decreed by an earlier governor and not legislated. Only the Legislature can declare paid holidays because they involve state monies paid to state employees who take it as a paid day off.
"Art came out and really ripped on me," Mecham says. "I was a racist bigot."
Mecham had not helped his image by claiming that blacks called their own children "pickaninnies."
"We have subsequently seen the state under Fife Symington sink far below anything Evan Mecham ever would have contemplated doing," says Hamilton.
"Evan Mecham, at his absolute worst, disagreed with almost everything I said or stood for, but he understood everything I said to him. Nothing I said ever penetrated Fife Symington. It hit that blue-blood glass wall and it just bounced off. . . . I gave up after a couple of years with Fife because Fife not only didn't hear it, he didn't want to hear it."
He had gone to Symington, for example, to convince him that schoolteachers needed cost-of-living raises to help them cope with inflation, but Symington rejected the notion as just more moneygrubbing.
In 1990, County Attorney Rick Romley and Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega (not former Representative Ruben Ortega) set out to learn how honest the state's politicians were. They hired a mole named Joseph Stedino who posed as a Vegas wise guy who wanted to open a casino in Yuma and was willing to spread around as much money as necessary to do so.
Eighteen legislators, lobbyists and political consultants took the bait and were subsequently indicted. Hamilton was high on the list of politicos to entrap. In his book What's In It for Me, Stedino refers to Hamilton as "the big Kahuna," and as "one who got away."
Fellow legislators had pressed Hamilton to meet with Stedino, and on three occasions, Hamilton refused because he smelled a rat. It's not uncommon for businessmen to approach legislators on various issues and for them to be willing to spend money on those issues. But in this case, Hamilton recalls, he heard about the money before he heard what the issue was.
Finally, his curiosity and his friends' pressures got the better of him, and he agreed to the meeting. Still smelling a setup, two hours before, Hamilton insisted on changing the venue.
"I made up my mind the day I made the appointment that I would never meet him where he wanted to meet," Hamilton says. "I can't tell you why. I just didn't."
Stedino protested; Hamilton insisted they meet in the office of political consultant Rick DeGraw (who now serves as his campaign treasurer) or there would be no meeting. Stedino came wearing a wire.
"I met with Stedino because people I cared about convinced me that this was something I ought to do," Hamilton says, "that it would be helpful to the overall effort, but I knew instinctively that it wasn't the right thing to do. I pushed past all those alarms, everything that told me no because I tried to convince myself that ultimately the end would justify the means. That's why I felt burdened by AzScam."
Some of the AzScam targets took money from Stedino; Stedino knew enough about Hamilton's personality not to offer it directly to him. The eventual insinuation was that Stedino would give money to the Democrats without going through channels, and the Dems, including Hamilton, would divvy it up to the races they thought needed it.
In his book, Stedino describes his meeting with Hamilton as promising; in fact, according to the transcripts of that meeting, Hamilton barely got a word in edgewise, and when he managed to string together more than two sentences, it was to tell Stedino that he was not personally opposed to gaming but that Stedino would have a hard time selling the idea to various interest groups in the state.
Representative Bobby Raymond, one of the sting victims who wanted to turn states' evidence, claimed that after Stedino left, Hamilton had participated in conversations in which the remaining players conspired to spend money Stedino had to offer. The sting's video cameras trained on the parking lot outside DeGraw's office suggested otherwise.
"What saved me was that Stedino went out to his car to talk to [another player], and as they were talking, three to five minutes after the meeting, I show up in the parking lot to get in my vehicle," says Hamilton. "They concluded it was impossible that I could have been in this meeting which Mr. Raymond suggested occurred when three minutes after Stedino exited, I also exited and was gone. So the meeting at which I allegedly conspired to break the law could not have occurred and didn't occur."
But it broke his trust of the system.
"AzScam changed my life forever because it absolutely destroyed my internal security system," he says. "It forever destroyed the comfort zone I had built. It was probably a good thing. But it made service there more stressful and more tiresome."
What would have made Hamilton such a big catch in AzScam is his rock-solid reputation for ethical behavior. Which is not to say that he does not get questioned.
One of the questioners is former governor Evan Mecham.
"He's very much an establishment politician," Mecham says. "He works for one of the big centers of political power, SRP. He's a paid lobbyist, so to speak, their man inside on the public payroll. But you better believe he does exactly what SRP wants him to do. By Arizona standards, it's just run-of-the-mill stuff."
Hamilton shrugs off the allegation.
An SRP official says, "It would not be the first time Evan Mecham misspoke."
Renz Jennings, outgoing corporation commissioner, says, "I've never seen any evidence of that."
And House majority leader Lori Daniels, who in April hauled Hamilton before an ethics hearing, says, "That's laughable to me that anyone would make that comment. First of all, you don't question Mr. Hamilton's ethics because whatever tricks he plays, it's always within the rules. Yes, he does play hard-core politics. That's his job. But do SRP's bidding? I have never seen it."
In fact, Hamilton had taken issue with Governor Symington's first lame attempt to resolve the school finance debate because it shifted too much tax burden off of public utilities--and SRP is a public utility--and onto taxpayers.
Hamilton has taken leave from SRP while he campaigns for secretary of state. His title there is Special Projects Representative, and it involves more brainstorming and gladhanding than office work. He does policy analysis, makes up lists of contacts, and acts as a liaison to minority charities, among other tasks. Much of his work is done over the phone or on a laptop computer. He stops in at the SRP "shop" twice a week. His salary of $58,000 a year is prorated to adjust for his hours spent in the House and his legislative salary. His speaking skills are of great value, and it doesn't hurt SRP's goodwill that when Art Hamilton speaks on deregulation for SRP that he is also an important politician, and when he speaks to the Urban League that he is also the state's most prominent African American. Art Hamilton at his best is, by definition, an impressive performance.
Lori Daniels, perhaps, questioned the ethics of Art Hamilton at his worst, after a now notorious back-office shove when Hamilton lost his temper in front of an aide to House Speaker Jeff Groscost during the penultimate battles of the school finance debate this past spring.
"One of the living legacies of Fife Symington is going to be the negative things he did to public education," Hamilton says. "I truly believe that he set out to destroy the public education system in this state under the guise of making it better. His ideas about lean and mean schools, if they weren't being made by the governor of the state, would have been laughable."
The Legislature Hamilton accuses of forever tinkering with the education system to make it more cumbersome, installing and deleting pet peeves without any great plan.
Symington and his cronies had dug in their heels against a state Supreme Court order to devise a more equitable system for paying to build schools. Even with Symington gone, the Legislature struggled to come to constitutionally acceptable terms before the final court deadline. And on April 6, 1998, the pros and cons were within a scant few votes of passing a capital finance bill.
Democrats and Republicans were split over whether bonding should still be allowed in an equitable school finance system. In an apparent flip-flop of roles, the Republicans wanted to exclude bonding and the Democrats wanted to include it. Ultimately, it was excluded, which prompted the Senate to install a clause allowing school districts to opt out of the finance system altogether and issue bonds, a move that the state Supreme Court ultimately struck down.
Democrat Kathi Foster was a holdout, undecided whether to vote with her caucus or with the Republicans, and after two weeks of being pushed and shoved between the two sides, she says, "At one point, I had broken out in hives and was vomiting in the bathroom."
At issue was a promise the Republicans had made that would benefit a school district within Foster's legislative district.
That evening, Richard Bark, an aide to speaker Groscost, came onto the floor and whispered into her ear that she had a phone call from her husband on a phone in the speaker's office.
"I have never gotten a call in the speaker's office," she says, but her husband was having health problems and so she went to see. When she got to Groscost's office, there was no phone call.
Hamilton and Representative Robert McLendon, meanwhile, went looking for Foster, and not finding her in the hall, figured out where she might be.
Hamilton pushed open the door to Groscost's office and saw Foster on the phone and asked if she was all right.
Bark stepped up and quipped that Foster was not being held hostage.
Hamilton was exhausted and angry. But he was also acting with the knowledge that Foster had been lobbied relentlessly to the point of tears, that she had come to Hamilton's office to ask him to be a go-between and a shield in her dealings with Groscost. Now she had been tricked into coming to Groscost's office.
"He was basically looking after one of his brood," says McLendon.
Hamilton asked Bark to leave the room, and Bark refused, saying that it was his work station. Then Hamilton grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him.
"I shoved him pretty hard," he says.
Lisa Keegan later testified that given Hamilton's strength and size, she wondered if Bark would end up in the bookcase on the other side of the room.
Shortly, Hamilton returned to Groscost's office and apologized to Bark. The two shook hands and the issue seemed resolved. But then Republicans seized the rare opportunity to embarrass a Democratic stalwart and candidate for statewide office.
Lori Daniels now insists that she called Hamilton before the House ethics committee because Bark was threatening to accuse Hamilton of assault.
"It was a Catch-22 proposition," she says. "Either I could go to an ethics hearing, or that staff member was going to file criminal charges."
The hearing was rushed to April 8, and when the committee refused Hamilton's request to have an attorney present, he stormed out. Foster and McLendon ultimately refused to testify as well.
Nonetheless, the next day, the committee overwhelmingly agreed to drop the case.
Republicans and Democrats alike flooded the letters pages in the daily newspapers brimmed with letters of support for Hamilton.
But in victory, Hamilton found defeat.
"Again I let myself be vulnerable, and I let my caucus be vulnerable because I lost my temper," he says.
Art Hamilton will have to pull a bigger coup to win the secretary of state race. In January he will be gone from the Legislature. He won't speculate on where he'll go because he won't concede any chance that he'll lose his election. He's never lost one before.
He told New Times that he wouldn't reclaim his seat in the Legislature. He would consider a federal appointment in Phoenix, but not a federal appointment based in Washington, D.C. Congress is out, he says, because with two-year terms, congressmen spend more time running for office than following an agenda. But U.S. senator? That, he admits, would be worth pursuing. But first he has a House term to finish and a tough campaign for secretary of state.
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Kathi Foster waxes philosophic on Hamilton's career in the minority.
"The man's been there half his life," she says. "And you know what? This is a man who for all those years and all the great things he's done, he's never had an opportunity to chair a committee, to really pass legislation, to be in any kind of real leadership position. That has to be frustrating for a man of his intelligence."
Hamilton refuses to comment on what he might have done. He summons up a verse from Max Ehrmann's "Desiderata."
"Do not compare yourself to others, for you will become vain or bitter, for always there are greater or lesser persons than yourself."
Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org