I have to hand it to him. All these years, I thought Fife Symington was just another low-level hustler with an Ivy League veneer. I never figured him to possess either the gall or the imagination to become a real character.

Now my hat's off to him. J. Fife Symington III has demonstrated he is a major player.

Forget about Ev Mecham. He was a piker compared to Fife. Ev was a car dealer who thought in terms of Pontiacs. Fife is a Harvard guy. He thinks skyscrapers. Ev had an automobile showroom on the west side. Fife has the Esplanade, including a Ritz-Carlton hotel, at the corner of 24th Street and Camelback, and a string of shops called the Mercado in the heart of downtown.

Ev had a protocol fund which he raised by putting the arm on lobbyists and wealthy businessmen.

When this bit of chicanery became public knowledge, everyone was outraged. They wanted to throw Ev out of office. One of the first voices raised was that of J. Fife Symington III.

Fife was offended by Ev. He considered Mecham to be a crass lowlife. Fife figured Arizona deserved a better man for that august office.

"My qualifications for the job are obvious," Fife told voters. "I am a successful real estate developer who has remained solvent while all around me are being wiped out."
So after a close battle with Terry Goddard, another Harvard man, Fife emerged from a run-off election as our governor. The way Fife raised the money for that late drive was a strategy drawn directly from his own peculiar style book. Call it, if you will, a "Fifedom."

A Fifedom is a move that is patently illegal on the surface. But it is one on which Fife puts such a spin that he convinces himself and everyone around him that it's perfectly legal and natural.

In Arizona there is a law that precludes candidates from raising more than small donations from individual and corporate supporters. The reason for this is obvious. It has everything to do with good government.

In the last month of his campaign for governor, Fife borrowed $1.5 million from his wife and his mother. It was this money that fueled his late television-advertising drive. Without it Goddard would have won the election.

Fife's explanation was that the loan wasn't political. It was given for political reasons, but "out of love." And so, in Fife's eyes, it was legal.

Some people actually bought it. But even at that time, Fife's financial life was falling apart. He wasn't making his payments. His creditors were at his heels.

One of the first things Fife did upon taking office was to plan a quick trip to Japan.

Fife brought his own entourage with him. He assured us that he was going to Japan to drum up business for Arizona.

Have you heard anything about Toshiba or Sony opening a plant here? Is there any word about a new assembly line for Toyota or Honda?

It turns out that the most important thing Fife did on that trip was to visit with the Japanese lenders who backed Fife's continually troubled play at the Esplanade. It wouldn't look good for the sitting governor's Esplanade project to turn sour.

Fife worked so hard in Japan that it became necessary for him to stop over in Hawaii on the way back for rest and relaxation. Accompanying him was Annette Alvarez, the fine-looking young woman with the high school education who Fife had appointed his foreign-affairs chief.

Rest easy. Fife didn't spend taxpayers' money for that jaunt. The money came from Ev Mecham's protocol fund, which the state had impounded. That move proved to me, if not to Mecham, that Fife has a sense of humor. But now the wheel has finally turned full circle on Fife. And it is time for a final Fifedom.

He wants to set up his own legal defense fund to pay his legal bills from the government, which is suing him for millions of dollars.

"This is illegal," shout the do-gooders. "The people who donate will be lobbyists and businessmen who want to curry favor with the governor."
Fife has an answer for them.
"How could they possibly think that?" Fife says. "Everybody knows I'm an honest man. Nobody can buy me."
Who knows, it may even be true that Symington can't be bought. But there's a whole gang of creditors who will tell you he never pays his bills, either.

My guess is that Symington's battle with the federal government has reached the point where it has become necessary for him to hide his assets.

When Charlie Keating reached that stage, his house payments were made by mysterious friends. Our governor hopes to do about the same thing with a list of contributors.

Once again, Arizona has a man on the Ninth Floor who is twisting slowly in the wind.

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Tom Fitzpatrick