He's Got a Lot of Baggage

What do high-profile political campaigns and misplaced luggage have in common?

Nothing--and that's why Griffin Merkel is smiling.
In September 1994, Merkel's political consulting firm, Griffin and Associates, helped manage the campaigns of three congressional candidates, a Phoenix mayoral hopeful, and bids for the Arizona Corporation Commission and state Legislature.

Merkel's clients won every race except the legislative bid, and it appeared as though he was well on his way to becoming the next James Carville--albeit Republican and without the Cajun drawl--of the political scene.

This year, Merkel has four new clients--but they're not running, they're flying.

While most longtime political operatives gone cold turkey would be aching for a quick fix--a hit piece, a press conference, an editorial board meeting, a bullet poll--in the middle of a campaign season, Merkel can barely keep from grinning, even around the French dip and pasta salad he's eating for lunch.

That's because Merkel tossed his political aspirations aside last year, and picked up some late airline luggage. Literally. He bought a fledgling company, Systems Express, whose sole purpose is to deliver late luggage on behalf of airlines--in Merkel's case, Southwest, USAir, Alaska and United.

At the time of purchase, the company's inventory consisted of cellular phones, beepers and a hand cart. "It's kinda a lot of blue sky there," Merkel admits.

But the blue sky is turning increasingly green. Systems Express grosses about $10,000 a month--far more than Merkel ever made working on campaigns.

Even Merkel's mother, Florence, who until recently worked in the Mesa office of U.S. Representative J.D. Hayworth, has given up politics for American Tourister. She keeps her son's books and delivers luggage part-time.

Like James Carville, Griffin Merkel's early campaigning years were sprinkled with defeat. He got his first taste of politics in 1982 at Arizona State University, where one of his professors, Bruce Merrill, encouraged Merkel to work for Dean Sellers, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate. Sellers lost to Pete Dunn in the primary, but Merkel was hooked.

By 1987, Merkel was a field representative for the Republican National Committee, managing congressional and legislative races in Florida, Virginia and Georgia.

He is quick to mention that he took on challenging races--trying to unseat a 16-year incumbent, for example--to explain a rather spotty election rate in the early years.

Merkel's luck finally changed when he returned to Arizona in the early Nineties and went to work for the Arizona Republican party, eventually as executive director. He led a successful campaign to return control of the Arizona Senate to the Republicans, moved to a public relations job at the Senate, and then created Griffin and Associates in 1994.

The income associated with Systems Express is only part of the pleasure for Merkel, who hated the stress associated with campaigns. Now, he says, his only midnight calls are from airlines.

"That's a breeze compared to a midnight call from a candidate. . . . 'I got caught drunk driving--now what do I do?'