Arizona: Harvesting a bumper crop of bombast

 

Recent Arizona history has provided us with plenty of grimly entertaining political characters: Used-car salesman Evan Mecham's first act on being elected governor in 1987 was refusing to sign into law Martin Luther King Day. Less than two years later, he was impeached by the state Senate. Current Gov. Fife Symington isn't in danger of impeachment, but he is in danger of incarceration - the bankrupt real estate developer was recently indicted for S & L fraud.

Arizona's 6th District Republican congressman, former TV sports broadcaster J.D. Hayworth, fits right in with these notables.

In two years in office, the freshman congressman has anchored more mid-session shouting matches than anyone can remember. He also drew attention by sleeping in his congressional office (he claims it was to save money) and by taking to the floor of the House to deliver rambling, disconnected bits of anti-Democratic vitriol - at 4 a.m., with no one in the place except a C-Span camera crew. In one especially impassioned diatribe, he offered Contract With America policy gambits on welfare, Medicaid and the environment - without a single neoconservative, liberal, or anyone else in the chamber. Hayworth's taped passion play drew sneers from Democrats.

His re-election campaign hasn't been free of controversy, either. In August, he had the embarrassing task of firing one staffer who forged the congressman's name on some campaign documents, a violation of state election rules. Democrats tried to get his name off the ballot over the flap, but failed.

His politics aren't that out of step with either the 104th Congress or those of the mostly Republican 6th District, which sprawls from the conservative suburbs of Phoenix across cotton farms and ranches to Utah and New Mexico.

Although the district also encompasses Indian reservations, their Democratic leanings are usually offset by low voter turnout (see story page 7).

Hayworth voted to increase funding for the construction of logging roads, expand salvage timber sales, open wildlife refuges to hunting and fishing, soften clean water standards, and prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from studying the greenhouse effect. But Hayworth's personal antics have taken a toll: Recent polls show him running at about 40 percent in local approval ratings.

Even worse, the Democrats have fielded a strong candidate to face him: a longtime Arizona political operator, Phoenix attorney Steve Owens. The former head of the state's Democratic Party and former chief of staff to then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore has been placed at the head of a slick, well-financed campaign. While Owens hasn't focused on his own strong environmental leanings, he often snipes at Hayworth's less-than-stellar environmental voting record.

But Hayworth is undaunted. In a debate with Owens earlier this month, Hayworth taunted his opponent for supporting the creation of the new national monument in Utah.

Although Owens lacks Hayworth's camera-ready bombastics, Arizona voters know him from years in state politics. And television advertisements (paid for by the AFL-CIO) showing a grinning Hayworth next to House Speaker Newt Gingrich may be doing damage to the incumbent in a district that appears to be looking left as November draws near.

Dave Plank writes from Phoenix, Arizona.

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- Brown air could lead to greener state politics

This article is part of a feature package - about the 1996 election - that includes these other articles:

- Greens prune their message to win the West's voters

- Colorado: Environment wielded like a hammer in tight Senate race

- Utah: A liberal wilderness lover may prevail

- Montana: A scrappy Republican tries to cut down a green Democrat

- California: A 28-year-old talks the talk to green voters

- Montana: For veteran Baucus, it seems to be in the bag

- Washington: Greens storm the suburbs

- Nevada: Who hates nuclear waste most?