The politics of growth


Note: this is one of several feature stories in this issue about the 2002 election.

You think you have a lot to decide this November? Slip into the ballot booth with Arizona's voters.

Then you can vote for a ballot initiative that would require the state police to hand out marijuana for free.

You can vote for an initiative to let Indian casinos - which reportedly already make $1 billion a year on slot machines - expand into poker and blackjack.

You can vote for a second gambling initiative that negates the first, letting tribes add roulette and craps. And you can vote for a third initiative that negates both of the others, letting Anglo-owned horse tracks add slot machines.

In fact, if you're an Arizona voter, you can weigh in on 14 initiatives and every elected state office, from mine inspector to governor, along with two new congressional seats. Everything is up for grabs.

But if you think you have it tough, paging through the issues and the races, pity the candidates. They face a wildly incohesive populace, including 1.4 million people who speak a language other than English at home (mostly Hispanics, some Native Americans), 1 million adults with no more than a high-school education, 700,000 people over 65 years old, 305,000 Mormons, 100,000 National Rifle Association members and more than a few members of Earth First! and the Center for Biological Diversity.

This will be a tough crowd to please.

The most crucial race is for governor. The last time Arizona had a reasonable, effective governor was 15 and a half years ago, when a guy named Bruce Babbitt was finishing his time in the office.

Since then, Arizona has had a string of four governors short-circuited by their extremism, corruption or lack of vision. Arizona has become the West's most incompetently run state.

It's true for many reasons, but underlying all the other problems is population growth. No other state has felt the pressures of growth and development as Arizona has, and the growth has exploded not just the communities, but also the politics.

Perhaps this November, Arizona's voters can begin to put it all back together.

Leadership in a time of change

In 1940, Arizona was mostly unoccupied desert. In the West, its population ranked ahead of only Wyoming and Nevada. Politically, it was run by agriculture and mining, and whether or not you agreed with that, it was stable and reasonably competent.

But try to maintain political stability around this: Since 1940, the West has grown faster than any other region, but Arizona has outpaced almost every other Western state. Its population has raced past those of New Mexico, Montana, Idaho, each of the Dakotas, Utah, Oregon and Colorado. With 5.4 million people today, Arizona will soon pass Washington to become the West's second-most populous state, behind only the uncatchable monster, California.

So many newcomers, regardless of who they are, tear the social fabric and any sense of the land and community. Arizona has become more urban and suburban, more transient, barely rooted at all: For every three people who move to Arizona these days, two move out.

Amid this kind of churning, the growth machine, with its money and power, can easily take control. Developers, builders, Realtors and their friends elbow their way into government. Concerns about traffic jams, air pollution, disappearing rivers and wildlife and native plants, and a full array of overloaded government services, all fall by the wayside.

Still, Bruce Babbitt showed that even in the face of relentless growth, strong leadership can keep the government working for the people and the land. Born into an Arizona ranching family, Babbitt went off to Notre Dame and Harvard, came back with degrees in geology and law, served as Arizona's attorney general, then as governor from 1978 to 1987.

During Babbitt's tenure as governor, the state's population leapt by about 600,000. A Democrat environmentalist, he had to deal with a conservative Republican Legislature. He set the record for gubernatorial vetoes, yet he was able to reach agreement on important issues. He hashed out a model groundwater management plan in the desert, created the state Superfund program and buffer zones for pesticide spraying. He also put together Arizona's first significant program for health care for the indigent.

"Babbitt was a crafty, laid-back governor," says David Berman, a political science professor at Arizona State University. "Someone once said, if Babbitt faced a swamp full of alligators, he wouldn't wade in and fight them. He would drain the swamp."

But when Babbitt left the state to become Bill Clinton's secretary of the Interior, he left behind a void in leadership - a void into which the growth machine was quick to roll.

Developers take charge

With a wealthy developer running as an independent, the 1986 governor's race fractured three ways. Evan Mecham, a right-wing Pontiac dealer, won, despite getting only 40 percent of the votes.

Gov. Mecham rapidly self-destructed. He was quickly pegged as a racist for his cracks about "wetbacks" and "pickaninnies," and charged with mishandling money. The Legislature finally impeached him in 1988, before a recall election could be held.

Mecham's secretary of State, Rose Mofford, ascended to the governor's office to serve out his term. She'd hired on with state government at age 17, a career bureaucrat. A Democratic placeholder, she mostly allowed the Legislature and lobbyists to run things.

The next governor's election, in 1990, went to a commercial real estate developer from Maryland, J. Fife Symington III. A Republican, Symington couldn't outrun the shady development deals he made prior to his election. While governor, he was sued several times in major business disputes and targeted by a criminal investigation. He won re-election anyway in 1994, then finally quit the job in 1997, when a federal jury convicted him of seven counts of fraud. (Later, he got his conviction overturned on what many saw as a technicality, and was saved from further court battles by a pardon from President Clinton.)

With Symington out of the picture, another secretary of State climbed into the governor's seat - Republican Jane Hull. Using her few months in the office as leverage, Hull proceeded to get elected governor in 1998, with her campaign finances run by one of the state's biggest developers. As Hull's term winds down, she has proven to be no improvement over Symington, other than the fact that she hasn't been indicted.

From Mecham to Hull, this string of governors has turned Arizona's whole government apparatus toward feeding growth. They appointed pro-development, pro-industry people to power in key state agencies, including the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, the Arizona State Land Department, the Arizona Department of Water Resources. They steered agency policy and strangled conservation efforts with budget cuts.

And they worked with the Legislature to pass anti-conservation laws, some of which are unconstitutional and even ludicrous.

Too bad for small animals

Some of the greatest hits from the Arizona governors' Hall of Shame:

-- In 1995, when an international treaty banned Freon and other chlorofluorocarbons (chemicals that perforate the Earth's ozone shield, which protects against ultraviolet radiation), Gov. Symington insisted the world's scientists were wrong. Without Freon, he noted, air-conditioning would be more expensive. So Symington and the Legislature passed a law saying it's fine to use Freon in Arizona. The law is use-less, because the feds enforce the treaty anyway.

-- Symington once offered to shoot Mexican spotted owls, which are under federal protection as a threatened species (HCN, 2/12/01: Owl things considered), saying they look better stuffed and mounted. Hull has ridiculed the idea of protecting wildlife, saying "jobs are more important than small animals."

-- To ward off a citizens' initiative for statewide planning, Hull and the Legislature put toothless measures on the ballot in 1998 and 2000, promoted by millions of dollars from developers. The so-called "Growing Smarter" initiatives passed, with no set impact fees on developments, no standards for local planning, and a ban on establishing any urban growth boundaries (HCN, 11/20/00: In Arizona's growth fight).

-- As metro Phoenix gnaws into the desert, its air quality has violated the federal Clean Air Act for more than a decade. Asthmatics, the elderly and infants feel it the most. The state resists the federal standards, wheedling extensions while doing the minimum to clean up car exhaust and industrial pollution.

-- The state land department, managing about 9 million acres, refuses to participate in most efforts to preserve open space, while pushing sales of state land to developers (HCN, 7/30/01: Not in our backyard).

-- State officials reject hydrogeology, claiming groundwater pumping has no impact on rivers or streams. Arizona is probably the only Western state to try to shrug off any responsibility for its "navigable waterways," leaving its waterways and riverbeds to the private sector, which makes the gravel mines happy.

Throwing fits

But more than conservation, Arizona has a problem with incompetence.

With little discussion, for instance, two years ago Hull and the Legislature made a gesture toward addressing air pollution. They passed a law offering hefty tax refunds to people who buy or modify vehicles to burn cleaner fuels such as propane.

But the law didn't require the drivers to actually use the cleaner fuels - they could just mount a small tank of propane on the vehicle and still burn gasoline. Car buyers recognized a gold rush: More than 28,000 people and businesses applied, getting state money to buy gas-guzzling Suburbans, vans, pickups, even motor homes. At one point, the state's payout averaged $22,000 per vehicle. The bills are still being sifted through, with estimates of the total hit ranging from $120 million to $500 million - 50 times more than the state's analysts predicted.

Arizona also pays exorbitantly to defend itself from lawsuits - lawsuits the state often loses. Public-interest and conservation groups have repeatedly sued and won on water issues, air pollution and state land leases. They've sued over school desegregation, school funding, prison management, mental health care for the poor. In 1997, the Phoenix tabloid New Times asked the state attorney general's office how many citizen lawsuits it was fighting; the answer was 40.

The state government also pays by making itself irrelevant. "Arizona has less power due to its extremism," says Kieran Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity, which is headquartered in Tucson and operates around the West. The group uses lawsuits to force conservation on the 42 percent of Arizona that is federal land (HCN, 3/30/98: , A bare-knuckled trio).

"Virtually every federal environmental issue in Arizona is run by the feds with almost no regard for the state, because the governors have taken themselves out of the game," Suckling says. "Arizona governors have done nothing but yell and scream and throw fits."

In other states, governors sit at the table, negotiating. In Arizona, the negotiations pretty much stopped when Bruce Babbitt left.

"One of our complaints about Hull is, she won't listen to anyone who disagrees with her administration. She just shuts you out - you become invisible," says Sandy Bahr, the Sierra Club's lobbyist in Arizona. "Politicians who have leadership skills include people who have differing views. It's something essential government is supposed to do - the very nature of government."

A chance for change

A lot rides on this November's election, says Carolyn Campbell, who heads the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection - 41 Tucson groups, including environmentalists, neighborhood associations, and scientific societies for native plants and reptiles. Campbell has seen recent governors try to crush her coalition's efforts to save some desert from metro Tucson's sprawl.

Depending on which of the two leading candidates for governor gets elected this time, Campbell says, "the difference could be night and day."

The Republican candidate, Matt Salmon, is in the tradition of Symington and Hull: He's a right-wing Republican, endorsed by the Arizona Association of Realtors, the homebuilders, and the Arizona Associated General Contractors. He served as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, then worked for US West.

Salmon represented Arizona in the U.S. House from 1994 to 2000, where he fought taxes and was tough on sex crimes against children. But the League of Conservation voters gave Salmon very low marks in Congress, saying he voted wrong on everything from national monuments to mining, logging and water quality.

When asked about Arizona's growth, Salmon calls for better freeways, and he mentions that one of the good effects of growth is that Arizona now has a good pro baseball team. His campaign staff is stocked with holdovers from Gov. Symington's staff. On Christian radio, Salmon has vowed to "reclaim (Arizona's government) in the name of God."

Salmon, much to the relief of many Arizonans, has a tough race ahead of him.

His opponent, Janet Napolitano, is a moderate Democrat. She has the endorsement of the Arizona League of Conservation Voters, as well as organizations for teachers, social workers and labor. Her background is in civil rights law. She was a Clinton appointee to be U.S. Attorney for Arizona beginning in 1993, then won election as state attorney general in 1998. As a prosecutor, she's been an advocate for consumers and abused and neglected kids.

On the growth issues, Napolitano calls for the state to take a stronger role in planning, and seeks more emphasis on mass transportation and a switch to the cleaner diesel fuels now required in California. She vows to make "a reasonable portion" of state land available for conservation efforts, and to allow local governments to regulate Arizona's infamous "wildcat subdivisions," which have no paved roads, sewers or community water systems (HCN, 4/24/00: Wildcat subdivisions).

Napolitano also has a sense of humor. She told The Arizona Republic one of her first acts as governor would be to eliminate an agency called the Office for Excellence in Government - "because we know they are not doing their job."

Republicans now hold a slight edge in Arizona, about 41 percent to the Democrats' 36 percent, among voters declaring party affiliation. But Napolitano is expected to attract moderate Republicans, and polls show her in a dead heat with Salmon, with about 15 percent of the voters still undecided, and 5 percent declaring they'll vote for an Independent candidate, Richard Mahoney, who defected from the Democrats.

Of course, the candidates hardly mention the word "environment" - the word itself has become untouchable in Arizona politics. Instead, Napolitano and Salmon talk money. Most states have budget crises, due to the downturn in the economy, but in Arizona it's worse. With 120 new tax loopholes woven by legislators and signed by governors in the Hall of Shame, it's predicted Arizona's budget will need to be cut by $1 billion next year. Outgoing Gov. Hull says even if all state agencies were eliminated, it wouldn't balance the books. But her math has been wrong before.

Conservationist Campbell is optimistic about the state's future, however, because she thinks enough voters are fed up. She's met with Napolitano several times and says the Democrat "is very supportive of our issues." As the race comes down to the wire, though, Campbell admits, "I can't get my hopes up too high. Because we keep getting our hopes dashed again and again."


Ray Ring, HCN Northern Rockies editor, lived in Arizona from 1979 to 1994.

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