Arizona councilman sits on principle

Times Staff Writer

It was an uncommon public gesture of dissent in the staid council chamber of this deeply conservative suburb of more than 400,000.

The City Council meeting opened with a brief prayer offered by a Baptist minister, and then six council members stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. The seventh, attorney Tom Rawles, remained seated. He refused to say the pledge, he later said, to protest the war in Iraq.

Rawles’ silence during the opening of the Jan. 22 council meeting has been talked about ever since -- in the shopping centers, bars and master-planned communities of Arizona’s third-largest city in the eastern end of Phoenix’s Valley of the Sun. He received so many death threats that the Mesa police briefly outfitted him with round-the-clock protection. Some outraged residents began talking about launching a recall, but last week decided against it, because Rawles does not intend to run for reelection.

Rawles has been taken aback that his critics are not opposed to his views on the war, but to his failure to say the pledge. Even in this conservative city that is 48% registered Republican and 26% Libertarian or independent, very few disagree with his belief that the United States should pull out of Iraq.


“Everyone feels that way,” said Alma Jones, a neighborhood leader and retired typesetter. “But the way he chose to express it is very childish.”

A lifelong conservative maverick, Rawles, 57, said that he wanted to make the most dramatic public gesture possible, and that it no longer made sense to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “Standing for the pledge and reciting the pledge is very much a public demonstration of support for what’s going on,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I’m disloyal to my country or that I don’t love my country.”

Rawles voted for George W. Bush in 2000, and he initially supported the invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein and root out weapons of mass destruction. But he soured on the effort by 2004 and supported another candidate in that presidential election. (He says he cannot recall whether he voted for Sen. John F. Kerry or the Libertarian nominee.) But it wasn’t until President Bush’s Jan. 10 speech laying out the rationale for sending 21,500 additional troops to Iraq that Rawles decided to make his views public.

Bush said in January that his previous Iraq policy was a “slow failure.” Rawles said he concluded: “This is just going to be a slower failure .... We’re wasting our time and we’re wasting American lives and we’re wasting American resources.”

Rawles has never been shy about taking unpopular stands -- in fact, his critics say he goes out of his way to find them. Long a GOP precinct committeeman, his first direct involvement in politics was in the 1980s, when he decided to run for Congress. But, after what he called “realistic assessments” of his prospects, he pulled out and signed on as chief of staff to the winning candidate, Republican John J. Rhodes III.

In 1992, Rawles successfully ran for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors on a platform of fiscal conservatism -- and was that board’s lone vote against a countywide tax to fund a baseball stadium for the Arizona Diamondbacks in downtown Phoenix.

After a failed effort to become the Republican or Libertarian candidate for governor, Rawles returned to his law practice. In 2004, he saw that his local councilman was seeking a third term in a possible violation of the city’s two-term limit. After suing to eliminate the incumbent from the ballot, Rawles narrowly won the election over a write-in candidate. On the council, he said, “given my philosophical bent, I tend to lose a lot of votes.”

His colleagues are not pleased with his Iraq protest.


“The Mesa City Council has work to do, and this is not a part of that,” Vice Mayor Claudia Walters said. “I respectfully disagree with the way he’s chosen to express this. If there is a lesson we should have learned from Vietnam ... it’s that whatever your feelings about what’s going on, we should support our troops.”

Rawles and others at the city say incoming e-mails and phone calls overwhelmingly express disapproval. Some were threatening enough to trigger the police bodyguards, but the guards were called off after 48 hours when the department decided the threats weren’t serious.

Even though there hasn’t been another council meeting since Jan. 22 -- the next is scheduled for Monday -- extra police follow Rawles to other public gatherings.

Many residents say making death threats is going too far but disagree strongly with Rawles’ sitting out the pledge. “I think we should be out of Iraq too, but that isn’t any reason to not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance,” said Buddy Fort, 73, a financial advisor. “Either you’re a patriotic citizen or not.”


Some say the controversy points to what they see as an overemphasis on reciting the pledge. “I took an oath to support the Constitution,” said retired Lt. Col. Donald Costello, 76, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War. “But every time I turn around I’m being asked to pledge allegiance to the flag.”

Rawles said he was dismayed that the reaction had turned into a debate about the pledge. “It’s disappointing. It’s not the matter of whether the war is right or wrong,” he said. “It’s like we’re in a time of war, so people have to walk in lock step and mouth a ritualistic pledge.”