State of the Party

Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Jim Pederson makes a lot of promises. Can he deliver?

Jim Pederson has been chairman of the state Democratic Party for only a few months, but he's already making a lot of promises.

Standing before a small room full of party faithful at a luncheon event, Pederson draws thunderous rounds of applause as he reveals his plans.

Those plans include electing at least three--and he's hoping for four--Arizona Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002, as well as gaining ground in the state Legislature and with other statewide offices.

"We're not only going to win our fair share of elections next year, in 2002, but it's going to be a Democratic year," he vows. "Wouldn't we be proud if we sent three additional Democrats to Washington to work for us? Wouldn't we be proud if we made the difference in a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives?"

Pederson certainly is optimistic, given the current political landscape. Democrats hold only one of the six congressional seats and one of nine statewide offices. The party is outnumbered 24 to 36 in the state House of Representatives. The only bright spot is the state Senate, where Democrats hold a 15-15 tie with Republicans--and that was a lucky break that might have turned out differently, had former Speaker of the House Jeff Groscost not lost in heavily Republican District 30 following his role in the state's $200 million alternate-fuel fiasco last year.

Pederson acknowledges the current sad state of affairs for his party. Republicans, he tells the crowd, "have out-hustled us, out-organized us, they've certainly raised a heck of a lot more money than we have."

But that, he says, is going to change. He says the party is now concentrating on organization: recruiting candidates, raising money and preparing an aggressive early-ballot program. "I think most of the voters in Arizona are with us on the issues," he says. "What's so frustrating is that we haven't been able to translate that into the kinds of things we need to do if the state's going to advance."

Pederson's optimism rubs off on some local Democrats. "I think the enthusiasm he seems to generate both in Phoenix and on his visits down here is good," says Steve Emerine, a former Pima County assessor and journalist who now works as a public relations consultant. "Obviously, he's going to have to raise the money and start to produce some results, but it's encouraging to see a guy who has a plan and who has the energy to go out and sell it."

There's no denying Pederson's energy, which he freely uses to blast the opposition. He complains that Republicans have neglected a host of problems facing the state in the arenas of education, health care and the environment. "I think that's for one reason and one reason only: because they haven't had significant opposition," Pederson says. "A political party, if it doesn't have opposition, it kind of swings to the extremes. What brings a party to the middle of the road is an election, because that's where most of the people are."

Pederson has a long background in the political arena. With a father who was city manager of Casa Grande, Pederson grew up in the shadow of government. He attended the UA, earning an undergraduate degree in political science in 1965 and a masters in public administration in '67. He remembers the '60s as a turbulent time, but "underneath that turmoil there was a strong sense in that younger generation of public service, of doing the right thing. I got caught up in that a little bit. Maybe a career in city government would be the way to go."

After an internship with the City of Tucson, Pederson landed a job as an administrative assistant for the city of Phoenix's Office of Research and Budget. "I found out something very early about myself: I don't work well in bureaucratic environments," Pederson says. "I'm too impatient." He soon managed a transfer to the mayor's office, where he worked as an aide. "I loved that job," he recalls. "I got out in community, was allowed to work on my own, be my own boss and I thrived."

But when his boss was defeated in the next election, Pederson had a choice between returning to the research and budget office or changing careers. He decided on the latter, jumping on the U.S. Senate campaign of Sam Grossman. "I had the time of my life," he says. "I thought I knew this state because I'd been born and raised here, but you never learn a state as well as when you're involved in a political campaign."

Unfortunately for Pederson, Grossman lost the race. But the candidate offered him a job with his commercial real estate company. He would eventually spend a few years working for Westcor before forming his own development company in 1983.

Although Pederson dabbled in the background of campaigns, he maintained a low profile until last year, when he emerged as the big-bucks benefactor behind Proposition 106, which transferred the power of drawing legislative and congressional boundaries from the Legislature to a five-member panel. Pederson contributed more than $650,000 to the campaign and, while he says he "had no idea I was going to contribute that much money to it," he calls it "the best investment I've made in my entire life."

"I used to get up in the morning and read the paper and just boil over," Pederson says of the redistricting "antics" going on at the Legislature.

He's hopeful that the new district lines, combined with the state's new Clean Elections program, which provides public funding for political campaigns for qualifying candidates, will strengthen the Democrats' position.

But Pederson knows that won't be nearly enough to turn the Democratic Party around. He's begun an aggressive fundraising campaign for the party. A recent event in Phoenix with U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut raised about $100,000. Last year's event brought in about one-tenth of that.

Pederson has also been back to Washington to raise money. His hope to tap those rich veins is one reason he's opposed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform effort in the U.S. Senate. If that bill became law, it would curtail the unlimited soft money contributions Pederson is counting on to build the state party. And he freely admits the party needs a lot of strengthening.

"The party has kind of been dismissed with, 'Oh yeah, it's out there, I'm a Democrat, but its never done anything for me so I can safely ignore it,' " says Pederson. "A year from now, you're not going to be able to safely ignore the party. I don't say that in a negative sense, I say it in a very positive sense. It's going to be there to help the candidates, it's going to be there for candidate recruitment, it's going to be there in registration, it's going be there in terms of recruiting Washington dollars coming to the state and helping us out."