Symington's Exit Roils Arizona GOP

Resignation opens doors for Democrats, hurts business-oriented Republicans.

At the zenith of his political career, Arizona Gov. Fife Symington basked in the glow of a state economy that outpaced the national average and was the envy of any governor.

Governor Symington prided himself as the epitome of the can-do, business-oriented politician of the 1990s who cut taxes yet still produced state surpluses year after year. The two-term governor was even regarded as a rising star in national Republican ranks.

But today at 5 p.m., Symington will resign the governorship - and perhaps eventually go to jail - in the wake of seven felony convictions for financial irregularities. His forced exit is shaking up state politics - and could be a cactus prick to the GOP nationwide.

For one thing, Symington's departure will embolden Democrats in their bid to take over the governorship at a time when the region has been edging away from its traditional Republican roots.

His conviction, too, could raise doubts about those who have emphasized a business-savvy approach to government. It will give Democrats a retort to Republican charges of ethical weakness in Washington.

"The fact that he gets nailed on the very thing he was supposed to be an expert in - you bet it hurts the party," says Rob Melnick, director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

Symington, a Maryland-bred great-grandson of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, rode into office boasting of his success as a developer while others around him were going bankrupt in the real-estate crash of the late 1980s.

It was later revealed during the 17-week trial that he was able to keep afloat during hard times not solely by skill, but also through loans from his mother. In 1995, he too declared bankruptcy.

On Wednesday a jury convicted him on seven counts of lying about his wealth on financial statements given to lenders from 1986 to 1991. The $200 million in loans he received helped his struggling development business. The jury deadlocked on 11 other counts and acquitted him on three. His lawyers plan to appeal.

Symington hands over the reins to Secretary of State Jane Dee Hull. On Nov. 10 at formal sentencing, he will find out if he will spend time in prison and be fined as much as $6.25 million.

A time of temptation

Mr. Melnick doesn't excuse Symington, but he does point out that the early 1980s were a go-go era for Arizona developers. Profits were so big that many were enticed into a headlong dash for cash - and a nonchalant attitude toward banking laws.

"Lots of developers were doing the things Symington did," Melnick says. "If the governor had been in the dry-cleaning business, he might still be governor."

Still, #it is the second time in a decade that an Arizona Republican governor has been removed from office. In 1988, Gov. Evan Mecham was impeached, though he was later acquitted of accepting illegal campaign donations.

But few think Symington's exit will destroy the state Republican Party, especially in the short term.

"I think there will be a sigh of relief in many parts of the party" now that the year-old question of Symington's fate is decided, says Phoenix pollster Earl de Berge.

The elevation of Mrs. Hull, regarded by many as a highly capable moderate, brings the party back to the political center.

Democrats gain in region

For Arizona, and the Southwest region as a whole, however, Symington's removal may continue to open doors for Democrats in a part of the country that has moved away from its GOP moorings. Part of the change stems from the demographic shift in recent decades that has brought moderate and liberal voters - both from the East and from Latin America - to the Southwest.

Arizona voted Democratic in the 1996 presidential election for the first time since Harry Truman was elected in 1948.

Nationally, Symington's exit makes it harder for the GOP to argue - including in the case of Vice President Al Gore and President Clinton - that "the Democrats' malfeasance was worse than anything the Republicans ever did," argues William Schneider, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

If in coming campaigns, Republicans try to skewer Democrats on ethical grounds, he says, "the Democrats will have two words: Fife Symington."

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