October 7, 2004
A masked bandit brandishes two six-shooters above the words "highway robbery." Radio ads ask voters whether they should trust two millionaires with county transportation planning.
Complaints that both sides are misleading voters and violating campaign finance laws.
This has become the debate over Proposition 400, a $15.8 billion plan to deal with Maricopa County's transportation needs over the next 20 years. Voters will decide the measure Nov. 2.
Though observers on both sides have long talked about the plan's merits and shortcomings, the political debate over Proposition 400 has gotten hotter and nastier with each passing day. The latest example came with a new ad this week by Yes on 400, who referred to critics Fife Symington and David Thompson as "two millionaires looking out for themselves."
The No on 400 campaign said such a mention of the former Arizona governor and the former aerospace contractor is character assassination.
"It's obviously an example that we must be making an impact because they're stooping to this level of campaigning," said Camilla Strongin, a No on 400 spokeswoman.
The Yes on 400 campaign says it's fair to show who opposes the plan.
"When it's difficult to sort through competing facts, it is helpful to know who the facts come from," Yes on 400 spokesman Jay Thorne said. In particular, the group has targeted Symington, who Thorne said "has a track record of dishonesty with Arizona voters."
Both sides are bristling at recent claims the others have made. Some of the most contentious claims:
• A Yes on 400 charge that Symington "cut 83 miles of freeways in Maricopa County in 1995."
Strongin, who runs a political consulting firm with Symington, said the claim incorrectly portrays Symington as a freeway opponent. The governor did cut planned freeways, she notes, but only to prioritize construction of key freeways after massive cost overruns on a 1985 freeway plan.
"It basically saved the system," Strongin said. "It was widely viewed as a wonderful solution to a horrible problem at the time."
Symington's action sped development of the loops 101 and 202, she said.
• A Yes on 400 mailer that features poor quality photos of proposition opponents, but better photos of supporters. "Certainly they had access to better photos," Strongin said. "This is an indication of the desperation our opponents are feeling."
• A claim by No on 400 that light rail "only travels 15 mph and does not even reach major population centers."
Public documents estimate the average speed at 20 mph, and Thorne notes the rail line includes west Mesa, Tempe and downtown Phoenix. "Phoenix seems like a fairly major population center to me," Thorne said. "That's just careless rhetoric."
• A claim by No on 400 that Proposition 400 allocates $3 billion for light rail.
The plan sets aside $2.3 billion. "They only missed by $700 million," Thorne said.
• A claim by No on 400 that the proposition will build only 78 miles of new freeways. This is technically true, but Thorne insists its misleading. The plan will build 344 lane-miles of freeways. That includes new freeways and expansion of most existing freeways.
• A No on 400 mailing that includes snippets of a Tribune editorial. The clip contains criticism of light rail and backs freeway expansion, suggesting the newspaper opposes Proposition 400. However, the newspaper's editorial pages have endorsed Proposition 400, according to Bob Schuster, editorial page editor.
The acrimony will continue today with dueling announcements. Yes on 400 will have an event today where Gov. Janet Napolitano will stand next to Matt Salmon, her Republican challenger in the 2002 election, as the two proclaim support of the proposition.
The No on 400 group will announce details of initiatives against the already planned 20 miles of light rail in Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa.
That segment is set to be built regardless of Proposition 400, but No on 400 leader Thompson will detail efforts to stop construction. His group declined to discuss specifics on Wednesday.
Both sides have filed complaints with the Maricopa County Elections Department, including an allegation that the No on 400 campaign spent $10,000 or more on several occasions without disclosing the expense within the required 24 hours. No on 400 attorney Michael Mandell said the campaign has disclosed its expenses within legal guidelines.
That group in turn accused Yes on 400 of failing to disclose a $10,000 contribution on time and printing its name in type that's too small on mailings and a Web site. The type is supposed to be the same size as other text in the mailing, Mandell said, but it's smaller. The violation could lead to a fine of more than $1 million because of the number of fliers printed, Mandell said.
Thorne said the group acknowledged it failed to disclose one of many major donations in time because of a clerical error. The small type, he said, is common in campaigns and not a violation.
"The disclosure was clear and complete," Thorne said. "Voters have no trouble identifying who that piece came from."
Both sides have denied any wrongdoing on their part.