Payson Mayor Ignores Limits

Bob Edwards' outsized resume mingles ambition and controversy

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Here's the thing about Bob Edwards.

He has no proper sense of his own limits.

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Bob Edwards at a recent meeting.

He's like a man on fire, not knowing. So he walks around setting off the underbrush and wondering why everyone else is coughing.

Consider his entry into politics.

No, not the way he rose up out of retirement on a pillar of flame to smite the developers and the water stealers and the Good Old Boys to single-handedly reform growth, politics and civic virtue in the quiet little town in which he'd decided to retire.

Certainly, Edwards has burned through Payson politics like a crown fire in the past couple of years, leaping from issue to issue in the treetops. He played a leading role in the adoption of growth limits, set up task forces that bypass the council to report directly to him and have drawn more than 150 people into politics, started a dozen initiatives and taken credit for anything not nailed securely down, sicced his "posse" of passionate citizen activists on foolish foes and dominated the political agenda through relentless effort, force of personality and a sometimes maddening refusal to accept defeat.

He has become the fundamental issue in the current election, having recruited two candidates who largely agree with him when it comes to key issues in hopes of creating a four-vote majority on the council, a reflection of his impatience with the occasional disagreements with other councilors. He has cajoled and bludgeoned opponents on the council, threatening to unleash his "posse" of supporters and suggested people who disagree with him act from dark motives.

But Edwards' slashing, brilliant, contentious domination of the Payson political scene is really just the latest chapter in an outsized life, littered with tilted windmills, slain dragons and sputtering enemies.

So to understand Edwards' role on the local scene, you have to go back to his entry into politics -- a completely foolish and unrealistic effort when he was no more than a brash kid with an engineering degree to get elected as a Republican in a union town in Michigan where the Democrats had a four- or five-to-one registration advantage.

Oddly enough, his early life holds only hints of the extravagant and unrealistic ambition that would ultimately grab him by the throat. His father was already 57 when Edwards was born, the manager of a feed store in upper Michigan who was quiet, but unbending.

"He never laid a hand on us, never raised his voice, but he had a code and it just wasn't comfortable to be outside that code," recalls Edwards.

So Edwards started work in the feed store at 13 and worked like the dickens the rest of his life, driving pickup trucks to make deliveries when he was just a kid, earning his Eagle Scout badge -- sprinting from one accomplishment to the next to make sure the shadow of his father's disapproval never rested on him for a moment.

He says he got elected junior and senior class president in high school through some sort of happenstance. "I became president without knowing how I became president -- it was that code of my father that you don't take advantage of people," he says now.

But seeing the ambition and drive and almost-wounded tenacity of the rest of his life, it seems that the need was coiled tight, even then.

Still, for a moment in there -- it seemed like perhaps his life would take a conventional path after all. The family didn't have money for college, but Michigan then was really a subsidiary of General Motors -- so Edwards applied to the General Motors Institute, which offered an engineering degree coupled with a GM job that paid all the costs. He applied, following a path trod by his brothers.

"It was an endurance course," he recalls, but he loved it -- the competition and the rigor.

"Engineers have chips in their heads, it makes you a little weird," he says. And he was good at it, logical and driven. But it never really touched him. "I had the aptitude, but not the interest."

He graduated in 1962 and set to work making Buicks, designing dashboard switches and brakes and transmissions.

But then a neighbor of his got mad about something or another and resolved to run for the state legislature as a Republican in a Democratic district. Edwards volunteered to be his campaign manager. They came within 81 votes -- the best a Republican had done in that district in living memory.

And in the process -- Edwards got bit: He had the political bug.

Politics is perfect for a driven idealist, with an insatiable need to lead, to serve, to win. It calls on all your powers -- harnessing inspiration and bloodlust in equal measure. You can slaughter dragons in righteous anger, make deals and seduce a whole city.

So Edwards did it again the next time the cycle rolled around -- but this time he was the candidate. He got beat -- worse than before because a presidential election boosted turnout by 3,000 -- making the registration disadvantage insurmountable.

A sensible man would have shaken his head, licked his wounds, made some sarcastic comment -- and gone back to designing dashboard switches.

But here's the thing about Bob Edwards: He has no proper sense of his own limits.

So he spent two years preparing the ground -- and darned if he didn't run again, this time against the popular mayor of a town of 180,000 trying to make the jump to the legislature.

Edwards rang 16,000 doorbells, trying to appeal to the blue-collar rank and file behind the backs of the big wheel, disconnected, Democrat-endorsing union bosses.

And to the surprise of just about everyone, Edwards got elected to the Michigan state house in 1970, in a district of 80,000 souls.

Now life handed the brash young dragon slayer a crash course in reality.

"You go in there thinking you actually have a vote," he recalls. "But you either join the club or don't' join the club. I didn't join. I would never be in the legislature again. You're basically just there, turning in bills that are useless," the cannon-fodder vote orchestrated by the wired-up legislative leadership.

So after a frustrating three terms with uphill re-election battles guaranteed in the still-Democratic district, Edwards quit the legislature in disgust to become a real estate broker and set up his own real estate management firm.

But tragedy intervened.

Along the way he'd gotten married and had four kids. His daughter was a gleaming spirit and her father's jogging buddy. She was driving home one bright afternoon in 1984 when the woman driver in the approaching lane somehow passed out. The cars met head on and Edwards' daughter was pulled from the wreckage with severe brain injuries. She lingered on life support for several days, before Edwards made the hardest decision of his life. They disconnected the machines and his daughter died at the age of 16.

"You go through a series of emotions," says Edwards, the shadow of that old grief still fresh on his face. "I found myself thinking, ‘why are we trying to do so much when life is so fragile?'"

But in surviving it, he realized that none of the things he had thought were hard before really counted. "Nothing can be worse than that," he says.

So when the governor, who he'd known in his legislative days, asked Edwards to run the most unwieldy, inefficient, demoralized department in the state government -- Edwards agreed. The employment department had 3,000 employees, a $160 million budget and a $1.5 billion trust fund. It was a haven for political hacks and lousy customer service. At most offices, clients formed lines around the block, says Edwards.

"It was the laughingstock of the state and a political dumping ground," he says.

Edwards sat down with the employee union to negotiate a joint effort to reform the department. His strategy was to empower the scattered office managers to clean up their own offices by giving them enhanced authority and budget incentives to enact reforms.

Although he says he cut costs, morale improved and wait times for clients dropped dramatically. But six years into his turn-around plan, he got into a tangle -- another theme of Edwards' tempestuous life story. Someone in the state bureaucracy cooked up a deal with a computer vendor and Edwards found himself asked to sign a contract for an overhaul of the computer system he was convinced would be a boondoggle. The fix was in. Edward quit, rather than sign, according to him.

"The political system generates people who aren't about doing what's right, they're about enhancing their position," he says.

So Edwards went back to his real estate management business, which he'd been running on the side all along.

So finally, Edwards began casting about for a place where he could slow down, take it easy and retire in peace. He and his wife visited her parents in Phoenix, but after all his years in the Michigan woods, the hot expanses of asphalt in the Valley didn't appeal to him.

Then he discovered Payson -- perfect.

They bought a lot, built a house. After his mother-in-law died, his father-in-law developed Alzheimer's -- so the older man lived with them for two years until he died.

And for about three months, Bob Edwards actually retired.

But then people in his homeowners association got upset about a proposed adjoining development. Naturally enough, Edwards started organizing the opposition. Next thing you know, he was thundering and fuming about growth and groundwater. And naturally enough, he ran for council -- although he was a newcomer in a town with a hard core of lifetime residents.

Naturally enough, he won -- and he's been running ever since -- tearing up the scenery, turning disagreements into epics, drawing hosts of people into town government, putting his stamp on everything that creeps, crawls or charges through the doors of town hall.

Now he faces a strong challenge from Kenny Evans, a man with an equally outsized resume.

Naturally enough, Edwards depicts it as a titanic struggle for the future of the town, suggesting Evans represents an embittered and revenge-minded old guard scheming to wrench power back from Edwards and his supporters, who in his view, represent citizen involvement, open meetings, smart growth and a modern and efficient way of doing things.

Edwards, in essence -- wants to save Payson from itself.

And there's no telling how that will come out.

He has, after all, no good grasp of his own limits.

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