In Arizona's growth fight, advertising defined reality


The television ad showed a truck unloading a port-a-potty in the desert, while a family of four stood by with forlorn faces. A voice-over warned that if Arizona's growth-control initiative passed, a family wouldn't be able to get water or sewer for a new home outside the boundaries. As a youth walked into the port-a-potty, he yelled, "It's not fair!"

This ad, seen night after night in Tucson and Phoenix, did not match the wording of the initiative. Proposition 202 wouldn't have banned landowners from drilling wells or building sewer plants - it would have only prohibited delivery of public services outside growth boundaries.

But the opponents' $4.3 million ad campaign worked. The proposition failed nearly 70 to 30 percent (see story page 3), three months after polls showed almost 70 percent support.

The real estate industry supplied most of the advertising dollars, but opponents included the Arizona League of Cities and Towns, police and firefighters' associations in Tucson and Phoenix, the AFL-CIO and the state's farm bureau and cattlegrowers' association.

Independent Phoenix-area pollsters Bruce Merrill and Mike O'Neil agree, in O'Neil's words, that 202's defeat "shows what you can do if you have a huge pile of money." Merrill says the opponents' ads were crisp and to the point, clearly resonating with large segments of the public.

Mike Boyd, a Tucson-area county supervisor and opponent of 202, says the ads tapped into many Arizonans' dislike of statewide growth controls. "People in rural areas especially don't want to limit growth and don't want to have special interest groups tell them how to grow," he says.

Among the more controversial television ads:

A third-generation, Phoenix-area farmer warned that 202 wouldn't let him divide 80 acres among his three daughters. But the initiative contained no language banning land divisions, only a provision requiring rural subdividers to pave roads and install utilities.

- A Tucson-area sheriff warned viewers that growth boundaries would force inner-city neighborhoods to accept higher population densities * and an associated increase in crime. Several city and county planners disagreed, since the initiative contained no language requiring higher densities. Tucson Police Department statistics show no link between housing densities and crime rates; the highest-density neighborhood ranked 15th in crime-related police calls from Oct. 1999 to Sept. 2000.

- A roomful of happy lawyers caught money falling through the air, while a voice-over claimed that 202 would let out-of-state residents block local growth plans in the courts. Constitutional law specialists at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona disagree with the claim.

- Spencer Kamps, a spokesman for the anti-202 group that produced the ads, stands by their accuracy. He argues that the restrictions would have discouraged all but well-heeled developers from building outside growth boundaries. But proposition supporters didn't have much of a chance to question their opponents' claims, since they could afford only four television ads with their $859,000 budget.

In a society where the media defines reality, says pollster Bruce Merrill, the only reality about 202 was what partisans said and what the public perceived.

Tony Davis reports for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Tony Davis