Democratic Doldrums

Will new leadership prove to be the life of the party?

With a little leadership and a little money, a political party can do many things. It can recruit candidates. It can provide volunteers to work phone banks and walk precincts. It can bombard voters with mailers. It can run an early voting program to secure ballots before election day.

The local Democratic Party hasn't proven itself too capable of any of those things. In fact, most successful elected officials regard party headquarters as little more than a joke.

Sure, things are tough all over for the Democrats. At the national level, Al Gore has vanished from the landscape since the presidential race and his subsequent legal challenges. Bill Clinton's last-minute pardon scandals tarred him. Clinton's favorite bagman, Terry McAuliffe, carries his own sleazy fundraising baggage into his new job heading the Democratic National Committee.

Statewide, Democrats have hit a low point, with only one congressional seat--Ed Pastor in District 2--and one statewide office--Attorney General Janet Napolitano, widely seen as the Democrats' best hope for winning the governor's seat in 2002.

Here in Pima County, considered a Democratic stronghold, the party still holds three out of five seats on the Pima County Board of Supervisors and a majority on the Tucson City Council. But the Dems have lost a council seat in each of the last two city elections and, with Ward 3 Councilman Jerry Anderson stepping down after one term, face a serious threat of losing another this fall.

At the precinct level in Pima County, Democrats have plenty of holes: The party has roughly 200 of a potential 1,700 committee leadership slots filled.

Clearly, Will Rogers was on to something when he said he wasn't a member of any organized party, he was a Democrat.

The challenge of getting the party in gear falls to David Bradley, the new chairman of the Pima County Democrats. Bradley, who works with troubled juveniles as director of La Paloma Family Services, says his priority is getting the party organized.

"What I'm trying to do is bring some basic business principles back to the party in terms of its operation," says Bradley, who explains getting well-intentioned volunteers to "walk in step" can be a considerable challenge. "Goal one: here's what bylaws say, this is why we operate, here's how we operate. I don't consider myself an ideologue who's trying to promote a particular point of view. I'm trying to set up an operation that's functional, which is easier said than done."

Bradley, 48, grew up in a conservative Republican Phoenix household and attended a seminary in Tucson during his high-school years. After graduation, he joined the U.S. Navy and earned a degree in psychology while in the service. When he left the Navy he returned to Tucson to start a new career, and registered as a Democrat. He says the political switch came partly as a result of his new field--working with troubled people forced him to think about the welfare of the down and out, and how rigid existing social systems worked to keep them down.

He served as a precinct committeeman and briefly considered a run for the state House of Representatives in 1990, eventually deferring to Herschella Horton, who was making a run for the House in District 14. Instead, he managed Horton's campaign.

He has run unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives twice, first in 1992 and again last year. His 2000 run was in District 9, which stretches from eastside Tucson south through Green Valley and into Sierra Vista. It's a heavily Republican district, with GOP voters outnumbering Democrats 48 percent to 33 percent. Still, Bradley ran a respectable campaign, losing to one of the Republicans, Green Valley golf professional Randy Graf, by only 2 percentage points.

He impressed some of his fellow Democrats so much that they recruited him to run for the county party chairman's spot. To hear the self-effacing Bradley tell the story, he wasn't all that excited about the prospect in the wake of his District 9 loss. "I kind of stumbled into this," says Bradley, who entered the race expecting to lose. To his own surprise, he won the top spot. Now he's concentrating on party organization.

BRADLEY'S FIRST BIG challenge is coming up this year in the city elections. For eight years, from 1989 to 1997, the Democrats had a lock on the City Council, holding all six seats and the mayor's office. The Democrats' advantage came from a 3-2 voter registration in Tucson, where council members are elected citywide. Disheartened by the numbers, the Republican Party rarely did much to recruit or help candidates, many of whom were embarrassingly clueless about city issues.

The cracks started when Ward 6 Council member Molly McKasson stepped down in 1997. Five Democrats jumped into a fractious primary to succeed her. Alison Hughes emerged as the nominee, but she had exhausted much of her campaign treasury winning the primary and lost to Republican Fred Ronstadt, who was boosted by both the family name and a strong get-out-the-vote effort by the GOP, particularly on the edges of the city where Republican precincts dominate.

Two years later, history repeated itself in the mayor's race. This time, McKasson won a fractious four-way primary, only to lose the race to Republican Bob Walkup. This time, some Democrats broke off to run an independent campaign which targeted McKasson with a series of hard negative ads.

"A number of Democrats are concerned over candidates who seem to place a single issue, such as growth, as the one and only thing they're really going to push and don't seem to see the need to deal with a whole lot of other problems," says Steve Emerine, the former Democratic Pima County assessor who co-chaired the effort.

"Molly McKasson is a nice lady, but growth was her issue, and it was growth above all," Emerine says. "I couldn't go along with that and apparently a lot of other Democrats couldn't either, because there was a pretty big crossover vote."

This year, Ward 6 is a different story. Up for re-election, Ronstadt has drawn a single, tough challenger in Democrat Gayle Hartmann, a local archaeologist who has long been involved in environmental and political issues. Hartmann has drawn a number of strong Democrats to her steering committee, already has raised more than $30,000, and applied for matching funds under the city's campaign-finance program.

But in Ward 3, long solid Democrat territory, the party may be in trouble. Councilman Jerry Anderson unexpectedly announced he would not seek re-election earlier this year, leading to a scramble for candidates. For a time, the only Democrat in the race was recent Safford transplant Bob Webb, a trailer-park manager who vowed to spend no more than $500 on his race.

Since then, three Democratic candidates have emerged: Paula Aboud, a former teacher who now works as a property manager; Vicki Hart, a longtime victims' rights advocate; and Don Vance, a local author. All three are making their first foray into running for office in the city, and all of them have a late start on campaign organizing and fundraising.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Kathleen Dunbar, who served one term in the state House of Representatives before losing her bid for the state Senate to the late Andy Nichols last year. Dunbar, who has name recognition, campaign experience, and strong Republican Party support, will be a formidable opponent.

The Ward 3 field is complicated with the entry of two minor-party candidates, Libertarian Jonathan Hoffman and Green Party nominee Ted O'Neill.

But the biggest threat to Democratic power in the city might be a proposed charter amendment to create non-partisan elections. The Southern Arizona Leadership Council, a group of wealthy area businessmen, proposes the charter change. It appears the City Council could put the amendment on the November ballot with a 4-3 vote, requiring the support of conservative Democrats Carol West and Shirley Scott.

Bradley remains unconcerned about the possibility of non-partisan elections. "I don't have my undies in a bundle about non-partisan elections being detrimental to promoting the party or party candidates," he says. "If persons running for the City Council have the least bit of ambition about other offices, I suspect they're going to make an effort to identify their party."

THE PICTURE BEYOND this year's city elections remains fuzzy as the recently created five-member state redistricting committee hammers out new legislative district boundaries. But most political observers see Pima County losing a legislative district when the lines are finalized.

Bradley thinks the state's new Clean Elections program, which provides public funding for campaigns, will make it easier to recruit candidates. But that already has proved to be a problem for Democrats, giving life to Green Party candidates who draw support away from the party's left wing. Last year the Greens' Katie Bolger ran such a strong campaign in midtown District 14, that she drew enough votes from Democrat Demitri Downing to allow Republican Ed Poelstra's victory in Democratic territory.

Bradley has no ready answer when asked about the problem that the Greens' growing strength presents for his party. It's an "ongoing challenge for both major political parties," he says. "How do you hold the center without giving up core beliefs?"

As his new committees work to improve the party's organization, Bradley says the next step is raising money. He says the county party currently has about $7,000 to $8,000 in the bank and enjoys monthly $1,200 contributions from the Nucleus Club, an inner circle within the county Democratic Party. He hopes to raise $100,000 for the 2002 election cycle.

Longtime Democrat Emerine says Democrats have a long way to go to catch up with the local Republican Party in organizational effectiveness and fund-raising, but he thinks Bradley is on the right track. "We'll always be behind in money," says Emerine. "But there's no reason we have to be behind in organization."

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