A lot of Democrats are shaking their heads at Fife Symington’s gumption: How could the criminally indicted former governor-turned-pastry-chef believe he could defeat the popular Janet Napolitano in 2006?
Symington said Friday he is considering a bid for the Republican nomination for governor, in case both Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., and former Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley don’t run.
"It’s the humor du jour," said Bob Grossfeld, a Scottsdale-based Democratic political consultant.
But Jim Pederson, chairman of the state Democratic Party, isn’t smiling. He said Symington would be a tough challenger, despite the 1997 federal criminal trial that forced Symington to resign only nine months into his second term.
Symington is the only Republican seriously considering a bid for governor who has run a statewide campaign, much less winning the top office twice. Many in the Republican Party remained faithful while Symington’s conviction was overturned on appeal and then-President Bill Clinton delivered a pardon before federal prosecutors could decide whether to go to trial again.
"He has the heart and soul of the very conservative wing of the Republican Party, particularly in Maricopa County," Pederson said. "We know how hard those people can work. If you have them on your side, it’s going to be a formidable force."
Symington has worked to reinvent his image since 1997 while keeping his toes in politics. He graduated from culinary school in Scottsdale and became a partner in an Italian restaurant in Phoenix’s Biltmore Fashion Park. He has used his status as a former governor to attend State of the State speeches by Napolitano and her predecessor, Jane Hull, who replaced Symington when he resigned.
Last year, Symington launched a political consulting firm that led a losing campaign against extending the county half-cent sales tax for transportation.
Now, Symington says he could convince voters the courts actually vindicated him on the criminal charges for bank and wire fraud, related to his former career as a Phoenix real estate developer.
Hayworth or Romley would be great candidates for governor, Symington said. But Hayworth hasn’t announced his intentions, and some Republicans worry Romley might not have statewide appeal.
"It’s vital that Janet not be given a pass in ’06," Symington said. "Quite frankly, I’m proud of my record and I think it trumps her record."
Symington said he will decide by June whether to run.
Napolitano’s press secretary Jeanine L’Ecuyer declined to comment on a possible Symington challenge, saying the governor is focusing on her job at this point and not on the 2006 election.