Fife Symington comes by his “Comeback Kid” nickname honestly, having emerged from a tempestuous tenure as governor of Arizona in the 1990s — during which he was convicted of bank fraud and forced to resign, saw the conviction overturned on appeal and later was pardoned by President Bill Clinton after a seven-year legal battle. Symington, a scion of a storied American political family, then trained as a chef at Le Cordon Bleu and he now focuses his considerable energies on entrepreneurial ventures, volunteer work and behind-the-scenes Republican politics.
He’s also board chairman of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, which has had its own ups and downs, having been nearly destroyed by last year’s Jesusita Fire that briefly interrupted a years-long battle over its renovation plans.
Leslie Dinaberg: I read you were a trained chef. Is that something that was always a hobby?
Fife Symington: I never really thought seriously about getting into it but I decided you only live once and I’d better find out what goes on in the kitchen. It turned out that I loved it. … When I graduated from culinary school I went to work for a guy who was from Florence, Italy. He had a high-end gourmet restaurant in Phoenix — Franco’s. I worked there for a year, on the line, and then I became his pastry chef.
That’s the only way you really learn. … You can learn all the sauces and you think you’re really great. They pump you up. Well, it’s real deflation when you walk into your first job in a commercial kitchen.
LD: Having gone through all that training, do you appreciate restaurant meals more or less?
FS: More, because I know the effort that goes in behind it to put out a good meal. I really appreciate a good kitchen. I can spot a troubled kitchen pretty quickly, too.
LD: You were doing this in Phoenix after you had been governor?
LD: Did people recognize you?
FS: It’s really funny … I’m finishing my Cordon Bleu degree and the last block is eight weeks. You spend four weeks in a commercial kitchen producing for the public, which is exciting. For the last four weeks, you’re out in the front of the house waiting on tables and doing stuff.
So I walk up to this elderly couple who were celebrating their anniversary … I chatted with them and they were kind of looking at me, and they were about to give me the order and the old guy says, “Well, I’m sure you get this all the time, but you look like Fife Symington.”
And I didn’t say word, and he said, “And, of course, you don’t want to be Fife Symington.”
I smiled and didn’t say a word. And then the woman looks at me and looks at her husband and says, “Oh, my God, it’s the governor!”
It was really hilarious.
LD: You certainly don’t expect the governor to be your waiter.
FS: Yeah. Well there I am, I’m dressed in my whites and my black pants and serving the table. And then he says, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” And I just laughed. I said “Usually I tell people it’s my twin and I try to keep him out of trouble but that hasn’t worked.”
They were very gracious afterward but it was really funny.
LD: How long have you been in Santa Barbara?
FS: I’ve been coming here probably since the 1970s. My mother was born here in 1917. My grandfather was a paleontologist and he had digs up in the McKenzie River Valley (in Oregon). He was the guy who figured out that the camel was native to North America and migrated the other way across the land.
LD: How interesting.
Vital Stats: Fife Symington
Born: Aug. 12, 1945, in New York City, grew up in Maryland
Family: Wife Ann; five grown children, Fife, Scott, Whitney, Richard and Tom; and eight grandchildren
Civic Involvement: Board chairman, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Professional Accomplishments: Former governor of Arizona; trained chef and owner of Arizona Culinary Institute; partner in The Symington Group, a venture capital and political consulting firm; entrepreneur
Best Book You’ve Read Recently: Stieg Larsson’s series — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — and On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System by Henry M. Paulson
Little-Known Fact: “When I was 16 I was buried in an avalanche in Switzerland.”
FS: So they were up there on this dig that he had and they were coming up the coast … and my mother decided to arrive early. So my mother was born in Santa Barbara.
My great uncle, Bob McLean, used to own the Bulletin in Philadelphia and bought the Santa Barbara News-Press here in the early ‘60s. His nephew, my cousin, Stuart Taylor, was the editor/publisher of the News-Press before they sold it to The New York Times. I have a lot of family here over the years.
LD: How much time do you spend here?
FS: I commute every week. I’m here four days a week and I go back and forth to Phoenix. My wife, Ann, is a deacon ordained at All Saints By-the-Sea Episcopal Church. She stays here. I’m a commuter. … I’m at the mercy of US Airways when I don’t fly myself.
LD: You’re a pilot, too?
FS: I’ve been a pilot a long time, since 1966 when I got my license.
LD: I know you’re board president of the Botanic Garden. How did you get into that?
FS: My mother was a great horticulturalist, especially in roses. We had a wonderful garden at our farm in Maryland and she was in the hierarchy in the Garden Club of America in her heyday. “Early green” is what I like to describe my mom as. … My late father-in-law, John Pritzlaff, was involved with the Botanic Garden. Before he died, my mother-in-law asked me if I would be interested in sort of carrying on his legacy in the public garden. So I said, “Sure, I’d love to.”
It’s been a wonderful, peaceful undertaking. (Laughs) All for charity — it’s all for love.
It’s OK; it’s all going to work out. These things always work out.
LD: What’s the current status of the Botanic Garden?
FS: The most important thing is we go before the Board of Supervisors for the first time in our history on May 4. Up to this point, as you know, the garden has issued many plans and been almost harassed out of them by the neighbors over the years, so they never have ever been close to having an up-or-down public vote. This time we finally are going for an up-or-down vote.
I don’t know what will happen but at least we’ve gotten that far. It’s very important for the future of the garden to renovate its facilities and to build a few more. It’s a very modest plan, but there’s a very concentrated group that resists any changes. It’s just all about competing visions. Nothing new about that.
LD: Are there parallels between a political campaign and a campaign to get a project through the planning and development process?
FS: Well, when you look at the public process in Santa Barbara County and study what happened to the Coral Casino and Westmont College, it seems like every change ends up being a ferocious battle. So there are a lot of similarities to the political environment. When I went on the board, and then became chairman, the board wanted to move forward with the plan. I said, let me explain to you what this environment is going to look like. And with a fair amount of political experience and having never lost a political campaign, I felt like I could help. … I just painted the environment that you walk into and that’s the nature of the beast today. People draw for their guns and ask questions later. I just explained to them that we’re ready to handle that, and no attack will go unanswered. We will maintain the high road. We know what our mission is, so don’t be disconcerted by all the flak. Really, the whole game on the other side is to get us off our game and to prevent us from getting to a public vote. So if we stick together we’ll get there.
But it’s difficult. Everybody is contributing their time, their effort and their resources, and they are all a very distinguished board, and it’s been kind of difficult. But we feel good. We’re happy with where we are and our future is in the hands of the supervisors.
LD: It’s always interesting seeing how resistant people are to change.
FS: I think a case can be made that the positive side of it being a very difficult public process is that it slows things down. This is such a beautiful place, probably one of the most beautiful in the world. It would be wrecked in a year if you had the kind of rapid approval processes and the kind of open season for development that you have in Arizona.
So you can make a really good argument — and I buy into that — to keep a grip on it because otherwise Santa Barbara would be ruined. However, I think the opposition goes too far in certain instances, like the Coral Casino, where you have a guy (Four Seasons Biltmore Resort owner Ty Warner) who invested millions of dollars to renovate a facility that was just in deep decline. And, my gosh, I don’t think he’s ever going to see a return on his investment. It must have been an act of love, I don’t know.
So I think some opposition is valid, but in some instances like the garden … I don’t know if you’ve been up there and seen the working conditions that our employees have, but they’re deplorable. So it’s hard to hire talent and do our really important mission of conservation and research — the scientific side of the garden that nobody sees. We’re nationally recognized for that type of work and we need to improve our facilities and our education facilities.
LD: Would you consider getting back into politics?
FS: Well, some of my pals in Arizona are always trying to drag me back in. (Sen.) John McCain has been a good friend of mine for 30 years, a very good friend, and a couple of weeks ago he had a rally at Grand Canyon University with Scott Brown, the new senator from Massachusetts, and I emceed that event for him. We had about a thousand people there and we had a lot of fun. It really gets your juices flowing, you know, and it was really a good time.
… I’m proud of what Ann and I did in public office. We went in and had a program and got it all done. It didn’t end happily — ultimately, it ended happily — but, as you know, there was a hiccup along the way. But interestingly, although public service was something we wanted to do, it wasn’t something we wanted to do permanently. I never really considered it to be, well, this is the achievement of a lifetime.
I’m project-oriented and it was a project. It was time to go do something good for my state and give back. Now I’m into all kinds of other entrepreneurial pursuits and I also have eight grandchildren that I didn’t have before, and so my life has gone in a different direction. But I still have my trap lines in because I know everybody and I do fundraisers. In fact, one of the things is media training.
LD: For people running for office?
FS: Yes. I take them into a studio and I rough ‘em up and I teach them how to respond to their worst nightmare questions and put it up on TV. Then we sit down and we critique it, and then I put them through the drill again, because if you’re going to be on the public stage you have to know how to handle yourself.
I enjoy doing that and The Symington Group, which is my political and strategic consulting company. We have four partners and we basically help run campaigns or initiatives. Sometimes we oppose initiatives.
And we have a business side where we are involved in sort of ground-floor entrepreneurial activity. For instance, three years ago we founded IEG, the Independent Energy Group, and we decided that we wanted to get into solar energy. So we develop commercial solar-energy plants on rooftops and garages, and we’re doing a big project at Arizona State University now. We do a lot of different things.
LD: So you’re very involved in Arizona?
FS: Yes, in Arizona my civic contribution is I stay involved behind the scenes politically, and I know and am close to all the leadership and kind of keep my hand in on policy. When asked for advice, I give it freely so I still kind of enjoy that.
LD: Are you involved in California politics at all?
FS: It’s interesting that you asked that question because I’ve often reflected on the fact that Arizona is one-tenth the size of California, everything between California and Arizona is either one-tenth or 10 times. California’s budget deficit? Well, Arizona’s budget deficit is one-tenth and we’re in just as rough of shape. We’re like the little brother and many of the core problems that exist in California about governance are the same problems that we have in Arizona: A runaway initiative process that has basically been seized by special-interest spending groups that tends to drive state spending, and the loss of control over the general fund budget by the Legislature because of the initiatives.
Look at the mess; it’s a very dangerous road to go down when the Legislature in a state, and the executive, basically lose control over the general fund budget because of initiative-driven funding. It ultimately ends up being a disaster and that’s what is happening in California. You can only bob and weave so long, and issue IOUs and mortgage this property and do that, but eventually you just run out of running room and that’s happening in California. It’s happened in Arizona. The difference between the two states now is that the Legislature in Arizona has dealt decisively with the budget deficit and made the horrible cuts that had to be made to downsize government and manage it with the projected revenues. California’s Legislature, it seems to me, is still in denial and trying to avoid doing that. I’ve thought that it might be fun to get involved here, but frankly I don’t have time.
— Noozhawk contributor Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.