Rick Renzi leaves a mixed legacy

Flagstaff, AZ – In one of his early interviews with KNAU, Congressman Rick Renzi spoke candidly and prophetically about the media's coverage of politicians.

RENZI: It's weird because when somebody starts drilling into the merits of the issue or the content all of a sudden all of the evil and good you're either great or evil and you never really are you're never great and you're never evil. And you start drilling into it you start to see the components and why was the decision made this way and why did this individual decide to go that way.

When Rick Renzi first ran in 2002, Congressional District-One, as we know it today, was new. The map was redrawn to encompass all of rural northern Arizona for the first time.

Renzi was from Virginia but was a Northern Arizona University alumnus. He was known for saying he bleeds blue and gold. He defeated George Cordova by a small margin. NAU political science chair Fred Solop says Renzi ran a negative campaign.

SOLOP: Rick Renzi went after George Cordova and impuned him for illegal business practices essentially insinuated there was corruption and if George Cordova was corrupt in business he's going to be corrupt in Washington. So Rick Renzi comes into office not very well known but throwing around the mud essentially saying he's the more ethical candidate.

Solop says Renzi had a legacy of negative campaigning. The National Republican Party helped pay for the attack ads against Paul Babbitt in 2004 and against Ellen Simon two years later.

While he made a lot of enemies across the aisle, he also amassed a lot of support in the district. Northern Arizona, especially rural areas, hadn't seen much in the way of federal dollars prior to Renzi's time in office.

On election night in 2004 Renzi won on a landslide. He gave his victory speech to conservative supporters in Prescott.

RENZI: We came here to Yavapai County where real Americans reside where our way of life we're not confused about what's right and what's wrong about where moral values are still real!

Renzi is known for his anti-abortion stance. He often talked about his 12 children. He is also known for his ties to the military. His father is a retired Army general, and Rick Renzi was a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq. When the House of Representatives supported a resolution that would decrease troops in Iraq a year and a half ago, Renzi spoke out against it.

RENZI: The language undermines our battlefield plans. It fails to offer any alternatives. It offers no hope, encourages no victory and contains no solutions. Mr. Speaker, this resolution is a cruel message to our brave soldiers on the front lines and it undermines their fighting spirit and morale.

Renzi visited U-S soldiers in Iraq and supported legislation that would give them better health coverage. He also helped fund transportation and housing projects across the district.

Despite that, NAU's Fred Solop says Renzi's legacy is still a mixed bag.

SOLOP: He has a legacy as an unknown. He was accused of being an outsider really having a home in Virginia. But many people remember he brought money into the district and see him as an effective congressional representative.

Hope MacDonald Lonetree is one of those people. The Navajo Nation Councilwoman says Renzi visited all of the tribe's chapters, listened to their needs and went back to Washington and worked to improve the reservation.

LONETREE: Our district was neglected for decades. And I can't remember a congressman who worked harder for us. When we look at new health facilities that he was responsible for funding that immediately is something we attach his name to. When we look at some of the new equipment, and awareness and priority he put on public safety we'll remember him for that as well as driving on new paved roads. Are you driving on one of those newly paved roads right now? (laughs) Yes, as a matter of fact, yes.

Lonetree says the next congressman or woman has big shoes to fill. In 2006, Renzi's last election, he won more than 50 percent of the vote on the Navajo Reservation - a long ways from 2002 when he won less than 10 percent.

NAU's Fred Solop points out while some will remember the money he funneled into the district, others will remember the money he allegedly used to help himself and his friends.

SOLOP: When we go back to the original campaign we see Rick Renzi was accusing his opponent of illegal business practices. But now we know or we believe and we'll find out in Rick Renzi's trial that Rick Renzi was conducting illegal activities and funneling insurance premiums into his campaign so it's quite the irony.

Renzi first came under suspicion two years ago when the FBI started investigating whether he pressured landowners to buy a piece of land owned by his former business partner, who was also a major backer of Renzi's campaign.

In February of this year he was indicted on 35 counts including money laundering, wire fraud, extortion and allegations he embezzled 400 thousand dollars from his own insurance company to pay for his first campaign.

Renzi refused to resign because he says he's innocent. His next court date is scheduled for later this month in Tucson.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.