Back in 1990, Arizonans witnessed a drawn-out fight for governor between two rising-stars: Fife Symington and Terry Goddard.
Time magazine said of the contenders: “With his Jay Rockefeller looks, Jack Kennedy charm and squeaky-clean politics (he now refuses PAC money), Goddard has Democratic presidential hopeful written all over him.” Calling Symington “the hope of the Republican middle,” the article described him as having “the looks of a golf pro and the bankroll of a developer.”
Today, nearly 20 years later, some are contemplating a repeat in 2010 of that infamous campaign.
As first reported by the Yellow Sheet Report, Symington has thrown himself back into the fray. The Republican is considering another bid for the state’s top office – more than a decade after being forced to resign. And not only is he eying the possibility, but with most Democrats expecting Goddard, the Arizona attorney general, to be their candidate two decades after his unsuccessful 1990/1991 run, Symington, a political consultant, says he’d “probably take great delight” taking on his old rival.
“As I’ve watched this budget drama unfold and watched the state continue to deteriorate … I’ve been giving serious consideration to running again,” Symington said. “I’m definitely looking at it in a positive light, which frankly comes as a surprise.”
Eight months after inheriting the governorship, Jan Brewer increasingly is bumping heads with her own party. And Symington is voicing the frustration of many conservatives.
“I just don’t understand how we can have a Republican governor who is at such odds with the Legislature and legislative leadership,” Symington said. “She’s also intent on increasing taxes.”
The former governor described Brewer’s veto of the permanent repeal of the state property tax as “something you just don’t do in the worst recession in the history of this state, or at least our lifetime…..
There’s a tremendous group of people who are hungering for leadership and decisive leadership.”
Symington also talked up a potential run back in 2005. But he ultimately stayed out of the 2006 campaign, saying at the time, “I’ve done that…. I don’t want to run for governor again.” Those were different times. Janet Napolitano, the popular Democrat incumbent, was seeking re-election, and Symington was only eight years out of office.
Now, Symington says the calls are pouring in encouraging him to try his hand at reclaiming the Governor’s Office. And supporters are hoping that time has healed his wounded reputation. The 12-year anniversary of Symington’s resignation, following his 1997 conviction for bank fraud, is this month. The conviction was later overturned on appeal because it was determined that the judge in the original trial had erred in dismissing a juror. Before the matter was ultimately settled, President Clinton pardoned Symington.
“I’ve been praised and condemned and kicked around and survived really just an unbelievable struggle,” Symington said.
Brewer’s tensions with fellow Republicans and her unwillingness to say any more than she’s “leaning” toward seeking to stay in office, has prompted a number of Republicans to look at a bid, including Paradise Valley Mayor Vernon Parker and possibly state Treasurer Dean Martin or Secretary of State Ken Bennett, whom Brewer appointed.
Asked about Symington’s potential bid this week, Brewer said it’s too soon to start speculating.
“There’s a lot of people out there stirring the pot, if you will, making comments,” she said. “We have a long time to determine who’s going to be in that race. And a lot of times in a lot of gubernatorial races, there’s a lot of people out there rattling the saber.”
The possibility of a Brewer-Symington primary has put many Republicans in the awkward spot of having to hold off on taking sides. Privately, many long for the Symington years, when the Republican governor pushed through tax cuts and worked more smoothly with GOP legislators.
Not everyone is on board, though.
Chris Herstam, Symington’s one-time chief of staff, is skeptical about his old boss’ chances. Herstam called Symington “very bright, articulate and an experienced former governor.”
“But his past business and financial problems will always politically haunt him,” said Herstam. “As an incumbent governor, Jan Brewer would still be the favorite in a Republican primary.”
Democratic strategist Carol Zimmerman was blunter.
“He’s a criminal,” Zimmerman said. “In my mind and I think in many voters minds, there’s a lot of jobs that require integrity and honesty and governor is certainly one of them. I don’t think he’s proved that he is either honest or has integrity.”
Then there’s the possibly of a sequel of that intense 1990 race.
When Goddard and Symington faced off in 1990, Symington prevailed by only about 4,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast. With write-in Max Hawkins drawing 10,000 votes, neither candidate had 50 percent plus 1 – a new requirement at the time in response to the 1986 election in which Evan Mecham won a three-way race with less than 40 percent of the vote.
That meant the two candidates faced off again in a February 1991 runoff election, with Symington pulling in 52 percent of the vote and beating Goddard by more than 44,000 votes. As a result of the drawn out process, the state later reverted back to standard voting procedures.
Back then, the two men were rising stars. But today, it’s as if they’re both back at square one.
Goddard ran for governor a second time, losing in the Democratic primary to Eddie Basha in 1994. Symington won two races before being forced out of office following his felony conviction – but he talks as if he yearns for the fight again.
“I’ve always approached political races with a lack of concern about winning or losing,” Symington said. “It’s too important a time to almost, in effect, forfeit the office to the opposition because their economic philosophy will just continue to push Arizona downward.”
Even though he served as governor for seven years, Symington described himself in the interview as “a complete outsider.”
“I’m totally against what’s going on,” he said. “And I think that this will be the year the voters will embrace an outsider, an authentic outsider who has seasoned private-sector experience.”
Zimmerman, a Democrat, isn’t sure she wants to see the ‘90 campaign played out again. While she said she’ll support Goddard, she questions his viability, too.
“We’re recycling,” she said. “That doesn’t speak well for our state, on either side, if people feel this is the best we can do.”
- Reporters Jeremy Duda and Jim Small contributed to this story.