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Monday, July 05, 2004

Power struggle leaves bad taste

Power struggle leaves bad taste
Richard

Ruelas
Republic columnist
Jul. 5, 2004 12:00 AM

It was supposed to be a triumphant day for George "Rusty" Childress. The voter initiative he championed, one that would deny state services to undocumented immigrants, was on its way to the ballot. Stacks of boxes containing petition signatures were outside the state Capitol, awaiting a news conference.

But Childress was not there. He was in court, waiting to see if a judge would find him in contempt.

Over the past 18 months, Childress had turned from a businessman to an activist in the anti-illegal immigration movement. He was one of the forces behind Protect Arizona Now, an initiative that looked like it was going to bulldoze its way into the lawbooks.

But on Tuesday, Childress sat in a Maricopa County Superior Court, facing off against the chairwoman of the committee, Kathy McKee. What had been a unified, if misguided, effort to curb Arizona's illegal immigration problem had swirled into a nasty internal struggle for power.

Childress had been treasurer of Protect Arizona Now until he was fired by McKee. She then took him to court, wondering if he was holding back petition signatures or campaign money. After a two-hour hearing, Judge Ruth Hilliard determined Childress had done nothing wrong. Upon hearing the ruling, McKee gathered up her documents and hurried out of the courtroom. Childress stood by a table, shook his head and grimaced.

"It's like wow, we actually had a swinging chance at this," Childress said during an interview in the office of his auto dealership. "I don't know if I would put myself out there again any time soon."

Childress' first foray into elective politics started with a concern about his dealership. He wondered why more people in the area weren't buying vehicles from him. He asked the principal of the elementary school near his business for marketing advice. She told him that most of her students come from poor families, and more than half are here illegally.

"That's the first time I ever heard that we have a high-density concentration of the illegal immigrant population," said Childress, whose dealership has been at the same spot for nearly 30 years, on Camelback Road, east of Interstate 17.

Childress had been active in the Westwood neighborhood with anti-gang and anti-graffiti efforts. He and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon developed Kids Street, turning the block behind his dealership into a park, since there wasn't one around for children. But he did not realize the neighborhood was changing under his feet. "I had blinders on and didn't see it," Childress said.

He talked to police. He talked to nearby business owners. He did some research on the Internet. It all prompted him to write a guest column for The Arizona Republic headlined "Illegal arrivals draining Arizona." It ran in March 2003.

In response, he received an e-mail from McKee. She told him she belonged to a group that was considering a ballot initiative to deny state services to undocumented immigrants and to prevent people here illegally from voting.

Childress went to a few meetings of the group and liked McKee's passion.

"She seemed driven, committed," Childress said. "She is certainly one of very few people who are not so resigned about how things are in government."

McKee moved to Arizona four years ago. The vegetarian, who works as a medical transcriber, was originally concerned about environmental issues. But worry about growth and water usage turned into worry about the increasing numbers of undocumented immigrants. She also noticed "so many ethnic-sounding names" in crime reports on the news.

McKee asked if Childress would be the group's treasurer. He agreed.

The group needed someone to chair it. Childress urged McKee to take the reins. She reluctantly agreed.

The Protect Arizona Now movement then received support from two state legislators, Randy Graf and Russell Pearce, and from Randy Pullen, a candidate for Phoenix mayor who was to become a Republican Party official. The three formed an advisory executive committee.

The movement received another boost when a poll taken last fall showed the measure had support of nearly 70 percent of voters. There was strength in numbers.

The group began getting volunteers to collect the 122,000 signatures required to make the ballot. With the overwhelming support, it seemed like it would be easy.

"I was probably naive certainly, but also overly optimistic," Childress said. "What do I know about collecting 100,000 signatures?"

But in a few months time, it became apparent that it wasn't going to happen with just volunteers. Protect Arizona Now was going to have to hire professional signature collectors.

McKee contacted a national group, Federation for American Immigration Reform, and it agreed to help out.

That's when the trouble began.

McKee wanted FAIR to cut a check so she could hire her own collectors. FAIR said it would hire a California company it normally used and deliver the signatures by the July 1 deadline.

To Childress, it didn't matter how the signatures were collected. But McKee saw FAIR's involvement as trouble. She wanted to have more control over the signatures. She called the initiative the "the human child I never had" and didn't want to see its fate rest with outsiders. She became suspicious of the others in the committee, who agreed to work with FAIR.

"Why would I want to turn over something I built to these people?" McKee said. "I'm not going to let my assassins take over."

In February, she disbanded the executive committee, ending the official roles of Pearce, Graf and Pullen. In a March e-mail, she wrote that "Russell and Randy are just common back-stabbing politicians."

A few weeks later, McKee fired Childress as treasurer.

Childress says he still supports the initiative, but he's unsure of what to do. He says he's "gun-shy" about helping, "if that help is misconstrued."

His worries have some merit.

On Thursday, McKee turned in the signatures to the Secretary of State's office. Pearce and Pullen also showed up in the lobby and spoke to reporters.

As she left the Executive Tower at the state Capitol, McKee fumed that Pearce and Pullen were "up there acting like (they're) part of PAN." She discussed taking them to court, as well.

Back in his office, Childress leaned back from his desk and put his hands behind his head. "In the beginning, it seemed like certainly a way to send a message to elected officials that you're concerned about an issue," he said. "This internal stuff, it certainly takes the fun out of it."

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