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What the Devil won't tell you

Ally Miller's tales of enemies, real and imagined

When they are all out to get you, you can't be too careful

Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller may survive the political and legal challenges facing her in light of revelations, first broken by the TucsonSentinel.com, that she used personal email accounts seeking greater secrecy from prying county eyes. But man, do those emails paint a portrait of politician consumed by paranoia.

Southern Arizona voters have proven unwilling to fire elected incumbents. The last county supervisor to lose was Ed Moore, in 1996, and he tore up relationships with the Democratic and Republican parties, finally being ousted as an independent. Jim Kolbe served in Congress from 1985 to 2007. Raul Grijalva has been in the U.S. House only since 2003, but has held one elected office or another since 1974. City voters have been slightly more apt to take down incumbents: Nina Trasoff, Fred Ronstadt, Kathleen Dunbar and Roy Laos have been among the bipartisan victims of electoral losses on the City Council.

However, Miller could not have handed her political foes a better-tied noose. She has tied it and fitted it entirely by herself, in failing to handle what could've been a go-nowhere story about one of her inexperienced staffers starting a sham news website under a fake name. Miller's great gift is her ability to make enemies of the right people in order to win favor among conservatives.

Her tragic flaw seems to be her ability to imagine enemies that she doesn't have and underestimate those she has made.

I'm sure she views me as her enemy. I'm really not. Mostly, I feel bad for her. Seeing the world as that hostile must make life very difficult. Emails obtained by the Sentinel show her driven underground by her fears. It's sad, actually.

Those emails came from inside what had been her closest circle. It's a circle that keeps changing as she runs off staff at a breathtaking pace.

Particularly harmful to Miller is the kind of scandal she is tempting. The circumstances seem to mirror those of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who is being sued by the conservative/anti-Clinton organization "Freedom Watch" over allegations that the former Secretary of State used her personal email server to get around the Freedom of Information Act.

That makes it hard for local Republicans to wildly trash talk about Clinton and then present defenses of Miller. Early social media chatter seems to suggest that many Republicans aren't running to Miller's defense, and some are holding her to the same standards as they are Clinton.

Miller's emails, revealed by TucsonSentinel.com last week, show the District 1 Republican telling her staff they must operate in a "more secretive" manner. The county, she was convinced, was hacking her account using keystroke recognition. Um. The county doesn't have to hack Miller's account. County emails are prehacked because the Information Technology Department keeps a record of everything. It's all public record. There are no secrets. That's the law.

July 14, 2013

"I am positive they are reading our emails ... they could very easily (and legally[her words]) use a keystroke recorder to get the password" to email accounts. "They can use that to record anything you type and see what the password is."

If operating with a clear intent to be "more secretive" fits the legal definition of evading public records laws, then it's up to a prosecutor to decide if Miller faces criminal charges.

Miller's circumstances are different from Clinton's obviously. Miller wasn't handling classified information concerning the national security of the United States. She was, literally, trying to make sure Ray Carroll didn't take credit for a resolution supporting a charity for pets — and by pets,  I mean "woof." 

Nov. 11, 2013

I just saw ray's fb post and he s collecting donations for any animal charity ... his resolution is on agenda ... so he is stealing our fundraising idea ... We can't save things on the cmputer [sic] or they will be a step ahead of us.

Ahh ... "they ...." The fabled "them." They are always after credit for those leash donations. For this she called Carroll the "scum of the earth" in a private email to staff. 

Republicans don't have to defend Miller to hold the seat. Miller now faces a primary challenger in John Winchester, so local Republicans have an option. Winchester, who's not exactly a liberal, now has campaign advertising copy, custom-written by Miller.

If she is building enemies from within the conservative movement, then that becomes a problem because Lord knows she sees them everywhere else. Imagining enemies tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Enemy 1: The media

Let's deal up front with the notion that everyone uses personal email accounts to do county business.

Maybe so, but not everyone lies about them in a legal reply to a legal request for records. Miller did that in response to a public records request of her correspondence possibly related to a member of her staff setting up a sham news website. She told Board Clerk Robin Brigode, who ushers records requests through the process, that she didn't use her personal account for county business. So the press filing the records searches had no business seeing any of her private emails. Ooops. The press had copies of private emails between Miller and her staff in which they conducted official county business. Miller even repeated her assertions after TucsonSentinel.com's reports about some of those emails were published last month.

Miller's supporters will no doubt blame the liberal media for "going after" Pima County's highest ranking conservative. If things were reversed, liberals would be hesitant to run off their highest-ranking local representative. Yet in neither the real or hypothetical case is the press to blame.

Reporters filed the records searches only after Miller refused to discuss the website issue with them. That's her right. Records searches are the media's right (the public's right, to be precise) and they've been pulling on that tiny thread as it unravels, and unravels and unravels. What? Beat reporters are supposed to stop? Why would they?

Miller made an early decision to treat the press as the enemy and in conservative political circles, that's a good enemy to have. It's just that good reporters learn to protect sources, even from themselves. The press has a beast to feed and that — believe it or not folks — is the most powerful bias in journalism. When Miller decided to ice out various media, she left them with no relationship to protect.

Yes, reporters often protect sources they have to watchdog. It may be maddening but it's how the job is done. Reporters often walk a tightrope, holding a source accountable and maintaining a relationship. I've had to calm down politicos about their colleagues, walk them through consequences, ask them if they really meant that because it sounds like X and withhold salacious gossip from the public.

What's confounding is that politicians like Ally Miller aren't a strange occurrence — not in their pure form — and they are good for democracy. They are agent provocateurs. They are contrarians. They aren't going to go along to get along and start with skepticism about just what it is their colleagues are doing. Reporters actually like them because monoliths are difficult (and boring) to cover.

Miller digging in her heels, asking tough questions and even throwing the occasional bomb makes the press's job easier. They're quote machines. Early Steve Kozachik played this role and had great relations with the media. Supervisor Ray Carroll has off and on served this role and also got along splendidly with the press.

We're back at Miller's constituency and how they take great pleasure in feeling afflicted by a media they don't control. Fine. Wonderful. It's a political boon to make them an enemy.

But staffers?

Enemy 2: Her staff

Miller arrived on the Pima County Board of Supervisors as part of the Tea Party wave to serve an institution that had become a rubber stamp of sorts for County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. I don't have to assume that Huckelberry is corrupt or evil to know that someone casting suspicious glances his way keeps the whole county leadership apparatus on its collective toes.

And leading that charge ahead of an inspired army of believers suspicious of big government and bloated bureaucracy, she could have led the fun office.

Instead she ran the closed office. From the first days of her term, she ran an office concerned with who was out to get her.

This from the Sentinel report:

Mark Brazier, a Miller campaign advisor who was among her initial staffers until he was fired after less than two months in her office in 2013, said the supervisor "was kind of paranoid about stuff."

"She made us close the door to the office, because she was so paranoid that someone would hear something," he said.

Brazier said he was ready to quit after just weeks in his post because he was concerned about how Miller ran her office.

"I thought we were going to look at data and make determinations based on facts and figures," he said Thursday. "Instead, she was worried about which group was 'against her.'"

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Yeah, a disgruntled fired staffer. That's fine but Miller doesn't have a single pissed-off former staffer. They all are. She has more of them than she has current staff. It's one thing to have an "evil ex." Most people have one. It's another to hear on a first date, "all my exes are evil."

Turnover among supervisors' staffs tends to be very low. The gig is one of the few available in the limited spoils system of local government and many of them get paid more than $50,000 per year. That's good money in local politics. So a supervisor and top staffer tend to be synonymous with one another. Leslie Nixon and Sharon Bronson; Keith Bagwell and Richard Elias; Scott Egan and Ray Carroll; Jennifer Eckstrom and Ramon Valadez — all spent years side by side, Frick and Fracking their way from issue to issue. Reuben Reyes and Glenn Miller followed Raul Grijalva to Congress and took top gigs on his much larger staff.

Miller has hired more than a dozen people in three and a half years. Ever know a pleasant boss presiding over that kind of turnover? Me neither.

Those former staffers haven't given up the conservative cause and started screaming "I'm with Hillary." Her former chef of staff, Jeannie Davis, for one is actively supporting Marla Closen's conservative challenge to replace Carroll. She still believes. But she ain't exactly breaking her old boss' fall. They don't have to be enemies to keep the old emails. When the Sentinel asked Davis if she had any emails sent from Miller's private account ... well, by golly, Davis did and provided them along this quote.

"It's disappointing she would lie about using her personal email address for county business and in the process put her current and former staff in this unfortunate position."

Other former staffers have also turned over emails, and provided comments about working for Miller.

Enemies don't have to attack. They just have to lay in wait ... out of disappointment of course.

Miller in the role as naysayer, bullshit-caller and truth-teller is going to have a hard time making friends. She should try to keep the few that she's got.

Enemy 3: Colleagues

And let's look at the enemies she chose to make from the minute she decided to run.

There was a saying during my three years covering the 11th floor: "No permanent friends and no permanent enemies." Supervisors wanting to get anything done need to count to three votes. There are five of them. With just five elected supervisors, each needed to preserve as many paths to three votes as possible. Then-Republican-Supervisor Mike Boyd may go to war with Grijalva one week but then each may need the other the next. Oh, and damn straight this list includes County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

Agent provocateurs like Miller are going to make enemies out of the powers that be over legit disagreements. When that happens, don't be shocked when those enemies pounce.

Miller was dragging her heels on public records request made by the press, and attempting to ask for more money to provide copies than was allowed under state law and county policy.

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So the issue went to the Board for discussion. Typically legal advice is done behind closed doors in executive session. The Board though decided to have the discussion in public knowing it would make Miller look bad. She left the meeting in a snit. Did she expect her enemies to treat her with kid gloves?

Ask yourself, Friends of Ally, would she have done any different to Bronson or Carroll, if she held the gavel?

She also seemed to completely underestimate the power Huckelberry wields. Go ahead and be his adversary but realize that he has the power to ask for investigations. He has the power to hand that request to the media. He has the power to cut in a thousand ways.

If Miller assumed from the get-go that Huckelberry would be out to get her, she should have anticipated how he could hurt her. That ain't me, that's straight up Sun Tzu "know your enemy better than he knows himself."

Enemies 4: To be decided

If Miller is going to make powerful enemies without, she should have inspired loyalty within her ranks. That's true of everyone. A small, tight-knit platoon of provocateurs can do great damage to the most powerful machines. It just needs to be well-led.

If she is going to draw the concentric circles of "us" versus "them" so tight it fits only "me" against "everyone," then she's going to have a bumpy ride.

Miller might very well survive this fiasco. Hey, she might actually come out ahead. Voters may very well put her in charge, if two candidates she's backing pick up seats. The other candidate in the District 4 primary, John Backer, would have to knock off Republican car dealer Steve Christy and Closen (who's had a falling out with Miller), and Kim DeMarco would have to beat incumbent Board Chair Sharon Bronson in District 3's general election. A sure thing? Not even close, but don't say the word "unlikely" in a year when the zombie apocalypse seems to voters a legitimate alternative to the current state of affairs.

Even if that happens, Miller faces problems. Will Backer, Closen or DeMarco be better at inspiring followers and building bridges? She could find herself again, locking her door and seeing enemies everywhere. Then she's just a lady bitching about who gets credit for helping a pet charity.

Her enemies are every bit as much within as without. 

Paranoia. It isn't political. It's personal.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Miller at a June meeting of the Board of Supervisors.

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