Sam I Am

There's a story going around Scottsdale that Mayor Sam Campana is scared of the desert. That's how slow-growth detractors explain Campana's support for zoning changes they don't like. Sam's a city girl, likes the bright lights, they say. Now what kind of boss is that for "The West's Most Western Town"?

Dismissing Campana is tempting. She is, after all, the mayor who single-fingeredly knocked out Jay Leno's joke writers by phoning 911 for road directions. Also the one who stowed pricey borrowed jewelry on her car seat and temporarily lost it to a smash-and-grabber. And she was the councilmember whose scrambled credit-card accounting system seemed like something Lucy Ricardo thought up.

Brief as those episodes were, they've branded Campana a bit of a dingbat, guilty of governing while blonde. On the floor of city council meetings, they continue to fuel distracted mumblings: "Dumb blonde." "Scared of the desert."

She did start public life as the peppy and obedient wife of a Scottsdale city councilman. And she is of Scottsdale with its whipped-and-sprayed chiffon hairdos, its overaccessorized fashions, its clubby politeness and at-all-costs civility. But Campana is different, too, as witnessed by the stuff that puts her in the headlines. She's a little, er, unregulated for modern Scottsdale. And Sam Campana isn't afraid of the desert, she says, offering to show you the scars she has on her leg from a cantankerous baby javelina.

Dismissing Campana would be a mistake, if for no other reason than she's got friends with swag, and a history of clout in high places. In her 1996 mayoral campaign, she raised more money by a mile--$225,000--than any other candidate in Scottsdale history, and most of it came from developers. The previous record had been $75,000 in 1992, set by buckaroo-mayor Herb Drinkwater, whose enormous popularity precluded more spending.

Campana's got political alliances all over state and local government, and when she ran for mayor, an impressive array of Valley political talent lined up to work on her campaign. Able to prevail upon the sometimes dueling dray horses of the Republican party for endorsements and favors, Campana says she helped convince Fife Symington to set up the Arizona Preserve Initiative, and then snagged a political endorsement from Fife rival Grant Woods. A founding member of Scottsdale's Las Rancheras Republican women's group, she counts on the support of such prominent female Republicans as Jane Hull and state representatives Carolyn Allen and Robin Shaw.

She's one of the state's foremost arts advocates, and is an estimable political power who is one part social butterfly, one part steely boss and one part process-oriented, touchy-feely, new age bureaucrat. Campana served on the Scottsdale City Council from 1986 to 1994 and is now starting her third year at its helm. Whatever Scottsdale is at the moment, Campana's fingerprints are all over it. To some, that's a legacy; to others, it's evidence.

It's all a matter of how you look at it.
And how you look at it matters a lot to Sam Campana. She works overtime to make you see it her way. And she trusts in her practiced ability to make you understand.

She'll respond loquaciously to almost any criticism you can throw at her, diligently spinning the facts into something that the public can stomach, or politely professing her own ignorance, which, in a politician, is refreshing--even if it's not believable. If public policy is Sam Campana's religion, then dialogue, public discourse and communication are her sacraments, some would say, her utensils. And the implicit message is: "I am what I am," often harboring the testy subtext, "but I'm right."

In her eagerness to admit and explain away her problems, occasionally she'll spin right into a brand-new faux pas. A reporter was surprised the night Campana phoned to answer routine questions and wound up savaging an adversary.

She spins on and on with the beaming confidence of an ace baton twirler (which she once was) whose wand has just gone airborne. Meanwhile, a Scottsdale city council run-off election looms. Slated for May 19, the race has sent Campana into a hyper-spin cycle, even though she hasn't endorsed anyone. But endorsement is just a word--Mayor Sam knows that if the wrong team wins, her political world could easily be spun right off its axis.

Sam Campana, who turned 50 in February, is not likely to be overlooked in a crowd. She's nearly basketball tall. And her blond prettiness is either girlish or motherly, depending on the angle. Today her nails are polished fiery red, and she's decked out in a deep blue knit dress with a weighty-looking bunch of gold chains around her neck. When she first ran for council, she says, she wore delicate flowery dresses, later turned to business suits and now prefers this softer, less tailored look. It favors her as she cruises the reception area outside her city hall office.