THE OLD DEMOCRAT answers the phone at state party headquarters. He takes a message for party chairman Mark Fleischer.
Ask Fleischer, says the caller, what is the future of the Arizona Democratic Party?
The old man chuckles. "Sorry, I just had to laugh at the question," he says, adding an answer of his own. "Remember that old song from the Eighties, 'The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades'?"
His optimism seems reasonable, considering recent Arizona history. Democratic voter registration has risen. In 1996, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win here since Harry Truman. This past summer, the Republican governor left office in disgrace.
When he sits down for coffee a few weeks later, Fleischer wholeheartedly shares his receptionist's assessment. On the table is a USA Today with an article and a picture featuring U.S. Senator John McCain.
Fleischer says he's confident his candidate, a Democratic lawyer who's spent the past 10 years out of the country, will beat McCain next fall.
Prominent Arizona Democrats--state Representative Ken Cheuvront, party trustee Paul Eckstein, party booster Barry Dill--all are convinced, they say, that the Dems will run the victory lap come next November.
Even national party leaders are clucking about the opportunities here.
Michelle Kucera, deputy press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, says, "There seems to be a new growth market for Democrats in Arizona." Democrats are flying higher, she says, than they have been for decades. The DNC operative is likely looking back to the 1974 election when Dems swept the state with the victories of Governor Raul Castro, Secretary of State Wesley Bolin and Attorney General Bruce Babbitt, thanks partly to Richard Nixon's convenient demolition of the Republican Party.
But Kucera--like the others--is wearing rose-colored glasses. If DNC operatives had 20/20 vision, they'd be tucking away their checkbooks and heading to more Democrat-friendly turf--like, say, Orange County.
The Democrats' jolly demeanor is skimpy cover for the reality that the Arizona Democratic Party has no clothes.
Next November Arizonans will elect a governor and U.S. senator, along with six congressmen, a corporation commissioner, secretary of state and attorney general. Odds are, the Dems will lose nearly every race.
Despite the Clinton victory and despite the Symington conviction and despite anything short of a really bad hair day for Jane Hull, 1998 will be disastrous for Arizona Democrats.
Amy Silverman is a staff writer for the Phoenix New Times, where this article originally appeared.
JUST FOUR YEARS ago, Republicans in Congress faced a situation as dire as that facing the Arizona Democratic Party. A Democrat sat in the White House. The GOP hadn't controlled the U.S. House of Representatives in decades, and was in constant danger of losing control of the Senate.
Then House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich strode forward clutching his Contract With America. He teamed his charismatic leadership style and bold, attractive message with a strong organization, and, BAM! The Republicans were in.
Gingrich raised a lot of cash, too, but the fate of the Arizona Democrats is not just about money. The national Democratic Party can pour endless resources into the state party effort, but it won't make a difference unless Arizona Dems can scrounge up the same crucial components of success that Gingrich did: organization, message and appealing politicos. Right now, on those three pitches, the party's batting zero.
That bright light that local Dems see in the distance is optical illusion, St. Elmo's fire. The only reason Democrats in Arizona need sunglasses right now is to protect them from seeing reality.
Or to hide behind.
Bill Clinton won in Arizona because he had the three ingredients that make a political recipe successful. The most pro-business Democratic candidate since Kennedy, Clinton had a message that appealed to fiscally conservative Arizonans. His topnotch campaign organization also benefited from a momentary breakup in the state's GOP, which split its affections among Phil Gramm, Steve Forbes and Bob Dole. And Clinton had curb appeal--people liked him.
But the appeal stopped with him. For proof of the Arizona Democratic Party's organizational shambles, look no further than Clinton's 1996 victory. It had no coattails.
Unable to attach to Clinton's popularity, the party lost its majority on the state Corporation Commission for the first time in more than a decade.
And despite record contributions from labor unions, Steve Owens still managed to lose his bid to unseat one of Washington's biggest lightweights, Representative J.D. Hayworth.
Asked to elaborate on the party's standing in the aftermath of the Clinton victory, Barry Dill--who led Clinton's Arizona effort--dons his own rose-colored glasses and looks for something good to say.
"The Arizona Democratic Party has moved rapidly up the priority list of the national party organization. And that provides great strength in resources," Dill says.
How much were they getting?
How much will they get?
Don't know. But, says Dill, "Any increase over zero is a vast improvement."
What about the continued infighting in the Arizona Democratic Party?
"Parties don't anoint candidates anymore. That's a perception that went out in the Sixties."
Okay. But what about that the only big win last year for the Arizona Democratic Party was the Clinton win?
"Parties in general are in decline, so this story is not about [Arizona] Democrats, who I think are redefining themselves."
How will the Democrats fare against Governor Jane Hull next year?
"The issues that will determine the outcome of the 1998 gubernatorial election, in my opinion, have not occurred yet."
Good dodge. Then he adds: "The public in general doesn't give a rat's behind about next November's election."
Far from buoyed by last year's unexpected win, the Arizona Democratic Party has been left reeling in its aftermath, unable to connect with its registered voters, whose numbers nearly equal those of the GOP.
Arizona Dems began 1997 by electing Mark Fleischer--a virtually unknown bit player--to be party chair. Fleischer's greatest accomplishment in Arizona politics has been his windmill-tilting bid to unseat Republican legislator Ernie Baird.
He wouldn't appear to be the John Henry that the Dems need to build the machinery of a strong party, but no one else wanted the job.
Under Fleischer, the Democrats have done little to combat the traditional dilemmas of being the minority party, a party whose "pinto" members are more likely to vote for Republicans than Democrats, and whose legislative and congressional districts have gerrymandered them into oblivion. Embryonic efforts to redistrict are afoot, but that would require the cooperation of the GOP, which has nothing to gain by playing along.
One longtime party operative describes his fellow Arizona Democrats as "professional victims."
"The state Democratic Party on a staff level is the only organization I can think of where it's as if they're being rewarded for losing," he says, referring to Melodee Jackson, who, despite abject failure, has continued serving as the party's executive director for eight long, tortured years.
The state party is renowned for its chaotic, bungled operation. It's not unheard of for Jackson--who should be strategizing and brainstorming--to be left with the task of arranging hotel accommodations at national party conventions.
The Maricopa County operation is equally inept. In September, Jackson memoed party leaders that at county headquarters, she'd noticed copies of highly confidential party information displayed in the lobby right beside the standard party brochures and voter-registration forms. "Specifically," she noted, "the 1996 three-page recap that contains detailed information on funds received and spent, targeted voters and overall strategy and tactics. Also on the rack was a three-page detailed vote-at-home timeline and a two-page overview of the components of the 1998 effort."
Most of the Arizona Democrats who are critical of the party refuse to be named. But some members admit up-front that the organization is not all it could be. State Senator Chris Cummiskey says the current malaise isn't new. He recalls that in 1990, far from being coached in his run for office, he was originally discouraged by party leaders when he announced his intention to run for the state Legislature in central Phoenix's District 25.
"At the time, Sue Laybe was the one Democrat, and the party took the position basically that two Democrats couldn't win in 25," Cummiskey recalls.
But he ran anyway, and won. Today that district is represented by three Democrats and is one of the few Democratic strongholds in the state.
Cummiskey agrees that 1998 is all but hopeless for statewide office-seekers. "It's a fairly bleak picture," he says. He's looking ahead to 2000 and 2002, hoping he can help his party cultivate candidates to run for the lower offices--school board, for example--Republicans have traditionally used as launching pads for higher posts.
Another Democrat is more blunt. Susan Segal, who worked on Terry Goddard's and Eddie Basha's gubernatorial campaigns in 1994 and would have worked for Basha in '98, is disgusted by what she sees as the party's inability to get past petty infighting.
Segal says, "The [Arizona] Democratic Party is in terrible shape. It's not reaching out to the people. It's so tied up in partisan politics that they forget what the message is that the people of Arizona want them to convey."
It's too late for 1998, Segal says. She, for one, refuses to support Paul Johnson because he did not support her candidate, Eddie Basha, in the 1994 general election.
"People will never forgive Paul Johnson for what he didn't do for Basha after the primary," Segal says. "I think the damage is done. I think voter turnout for the Dems [in 1998] is going to be the worst ever."
EVEN IF ARIZONA Dems could get their act together, it's not certain they'd have anything to say. Ironically, they've lost their message to the Republicans.
Ever since Gingrich swept Republicans into control of Congress in 1994, Arizona Democrats have been sitting around, licking their wounds.
It's understandable that the Dems couldn't resist the Gingrich assault--other more established state parties were similarly swamped by the right wing in '94. But the perplexing part is that Arizona Democrats were unable to coalesce and craft a moderate agenda that could go up against the Republicans, like other Democrats did in California and Michigan, for example. Having missed their opportunity, Arizona Dems have been co-opted by moderate Republicans, who have launched their own reform movement. Amazingly, the Arizona GOP has such breadth that its tent houses conservatives and liberals, sinners and saints, all in the same party.
So when Fife Symington was convicted and resigned, instead of walking in as reformers, the Democrats lay there in their torpor. No one was there to lead the charge against the pro-business hierarchy. Instead of standing as the reform party, it's ceded that ground to moderate Republicans like Governor Jane Hull.
Hull's message: Fix the education and mental-health crises; spend the state surplus responsibly; improve environmental controls; continue fiscal growth, but not at the expense of the underclass--that should be the Democrats' message.
Instead, the Democrats have none, or, more precisely, one that sounds amazingly like Jane Hull, the sitting Republican governor.
Says Dem candidate Paul Johnson, "We will focus on common-sense improvements in education like cutting class sizes and reducing college tuition, getting both tough and smart about stopping crime, as well as opening up our political system to make sure we have government by the people, not by the special interests."
Susan Segal grudgingly admits that Hull has stepped onto what should be the Democrats' turf.
"Whatever you want to say about Jane, Jane's caught on to the bandwagon," says Segal. "I mean, if some of the things that Jane was doing were being done by a Democrat, people would say 'tax-and-spend liberal.' She's doing things to help kids, she's trying to find a solution for education."
Segal says that in trying to plan Eddie Basha's 1998 strategy--before he dropped out of the race--she and a few others were pushing for an agenda that would eliminate new taxes and refund the state budget surplus to the people.
The idea didn't go over, she says.
"Everybody was wincing," Segal recalls. "Until they get off of this tax-and-spend-liberal mode, they're not going to win any race."
The Democrats have no message. They have no organization. What's left? A knight on a charger? That's what the political analysts say.
"It either takes a very charismatic candidate to cross party lines," says local pollster and Arizona State University professor Bruce Merrill, "or burning issues."
CHARISMA. WILLIAM Safire calls it "political sex appeal." The word entered the political lexicon when John F. Kennedy met television--the rest is history.
Charisma kicks ass when you have nothing else. It's helped push countless candidates with spurious agendas into power. Without his charm, how could Ronald Reagan have won the support of the Reagan Democrats for his welfare schemes for the wealthy?
More than one political analyst has concluded that what the Arizona Democrats need most right now is a JFK or a Bill Bradley--someone so charismatic that Democrats will turn out to vote and Republicans will cross party lines.
One figure in Arizona Democratic political history had charisma in spades--Mo Udall, who represented the state's Congressional District 2 for 30 years.
Upon his illness-related retirement in 1991, The New York Times wrote of Udall, "An old-fashioned liberal from a conservative state, he used wit, modesty and argument to win over constituents and colleagues alike."
Even some recent Arizona Democrats have won on their charm--when ideology and organizational strength would have pointed at defeat.
Liberal Democrat Carol Carpenter was twice elected by conservative Republican Sun City to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. Voters in the moderate Republican Congressional District 1 sent Democratic lawyer Sam Coppersmith to Washington. Bruce Babbitt. Dennis DeConcini. Rose Mofford. Carl Hayden. All popular Democrats elected to statewide offices in Arizona.
Today in discussions with party strategists, academics, elected officials and political gadflies, seven names come up again and again as the Democrats with the best chance at success in 1998. Collectively, they're about as sexy as, well, a jackass.
Paul Johnson, former mayor of Phoenix and the Democratic front-runner for next year's gubernatorial nomination.
Art Hamilton, longtime minority leader of the state House of Representatives, likely to run for secretary of state.
Janet Napolitano, who last year resigned as U.S. attorney to run for state attorney general.
Terry Goddard, the party's perennial also-ran, who hasn't held office since the Eighties.
Eddie Basha, who lost the governor's race to Fife Symington in 1994.
Ed Ranger, whose name is floated as the man who will beat the unbeatable U.S. Senator John McCain.
Of the six, three have lost their most recent elections; two are unlikely to run at all. Together they can only add up to defeat for Arizona Democrats in 1998. Characterized by their flaws, here are the brightest hopes of the party:
THE VOID: PAUL JOHNSONPAUL JOHNSON OUGHT to appeal to Bill Clinton's voters. He's firmly rooted in blue-collar tradition. His mother's a bartender; dad's in construction. Johnson dropped out of college to support his wife and child, and became a successful contractor. He also got involved in civic affairs, and at 30 became the youngest mayor in Phoenix history.
Politically, he resembles Clinton: moderate on social issues, but fiscally conservative.
At 38, Paul Johnson, who after 11 years in public life still looks like a rookie, bats a thousand--until he opens his mouth.
That became evident in 1994, when Johnson ran for governor and haplessly tried to sell his leaden catch phrase, "a hammer and a hug," to a puzzled electorate. He didn't get past the primary--nobody knew what he was talking about.
As one Democratic insider puts it, Johnson was overprogrammed, overdirected to the extent that his message got lost in his dense rhetoric. Johnson has been viewed as something of a political marvel for his rapid ascent through the ranks at Phoenix City Hall. He leapfrogged ahead of a half-dozen contenders to rise from councilman to mayor almost overnight. In reality, the insider says, Johnson isn't at all politically savvy and doesn't really stand for anything; he just had the right backers.
"People think that for some reason he's some big political guru type, but the fact is that [then-city councilman] Skip Rimsza came to him months before and said, 'I'm going to support you.' That was his ace in the hole. He just built everything around that. He's not political. He's a policy guy."
Johnson has had ideas, but he's never been able to effectively "hammer" them into a message that could get him elected.
His lack of message was underlined by his generic campaign commercials in 1994. He spent half a million dollars to run ads that were cribbed from another candidate represented by his consultant, Joe Slade White.
In the ad, Johnson speaks about how he's challenged special interests--both the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association--and concludes:
"I'm Paul Johnson. What do special interests have to fear from a 35-year-old husband and father of two young boys?
A Michigan state senator--who also lost her primary that year--asked the same question, shot against the same bluish-black background:
"I'm Debbie Stabenow. What do the powerful special interests have to fear from a 44-year-old mom with two teenagers?
Even Paul Johnson's biggest fans say Jane Hull has nothing to fear from him.
This go-round, Johnson has some good ideas. Too bad Hull has the same ideas.
Johnson's problem is endemic to the party. The Democrats--and, least of all, Johnson--have no new message. They're hoping they can push Hull to the right, but short of that, she's co-opted their turf.
Bruce Merrill asks, "If their message is the same and their issues are basically the same--and frankly, they will be--then why would a Republican cross over?"
About the only issue where Johnson breaks with Hull is abortion, and even that is cloudy. Hull does not identify herself as purely pro-life or pro-choice. If she's able to walk that thin line, she can deflect that issue.
THE BURNOUT: ART HAMILTONART HAMILTON HAS announced he will challenge Secretary of State Betsey Bayless next year. Hamilton is a dynamite orator, a powerfully built African American from South Phoenix who oozes charisma.
Or at least, he used to ooze charisma. Hamilton has been the minority leader of the state House of Representatives for the past 17 years, but no one's heard from the guy in nearly a decade.
Seven years ago, the future, in fact, looked bright for Hamilton.
Thanks to a concerted effort by Impact '90--a campaign group whose goal was to take over one house of the Arizona Legislature--the Democrats won a majority in the state Senate in November 1990.
It was an historic time, with an amazing group of up-and-coming Democrats poised to fill higher offices. Then came a string of events that devastated the party, leaving only a handful of war-weary officeholders like Hamilton.
First came AzScam, the political-corruption sting that nabbed politicians from both sides of the aisle. Harried from office were Democrats Sue Laybe, Carolyn Walker and Jesus "Chuy" Higuera, among others. Some left in disgust, others remained and got quiet. Hamilton continued in office, but it has become obvious, over the years, that the episode has depleted him.
Then followed pressure from the right in the Symington years. As Democrats in the Legislature increasingly became nonentities, then came Representative Sue Gerard and her group of moderate Republicans known as the Sue Nation. When Democrats refused to join forces with the Sue Nation, they became obsolete.
Hamilton has had a hard time putting together a strong minority because his allies in both houses keep leaving the Legislature with hopes of greater success. Rising stars like Chuck Blanchard, Lela Alston, Pete Rios, Karan English and Alan Stephans left the Legislature to run for higher office. They all lost, and only one--Rios--has returned to the Legislature. And now the battle-worn Hamilton is likely leaving to become the first African-American candidate to run for statewide office in Arizona.
THE FEMINIST: JANET NAPOLITANOIN THE STATE of Jane Hull and Rose Mofford, Janet Napolitano has a lot to learn. First, she should adopt Margaret Thatcher's political philosophy: A woman seeking office should accept conventional social values and behave like a lady. And then Napolitano should get a new hairdo.
Napolitano is probably the smartest, savviest pol of this lot. She'd make a great candidate in, say, Massachusetts. But she's got the wrong profile to run for office in stodgy Arizona.
A New Mexico-born lawyer appointed by Clinton as U.S. attorney in 1992, she resigned the office this fall to run for state attorney general. Alas, Napolitano's best-known claim to fame is as counsel to Anita Hill during then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings. That puts her on the wrong side of conventional sexual politics in Arizona, where Hill represents the worst extremes of feminism.
Napolitano showed some political savvy by first emerging as a rumored candidate for governor. After she'd lured myriad bloodthirsty journalists to her press conference, she dashed their hopes of a bitch fight with the news that she was focused on the attorney general slot.
Leave it to the sociologists to understand why, but feminism hasn't caught on here in politics. Look at the legions of feminist candidates who have met failure: Carolyn Warner, Claire Sargent, Karan English and more. Then look at the few women who have managed to win high office here: Hull, Mofford and a handful of others who were safe choices.
Napolitano may succeed at playing down her feminist reputation enough to get elected, but it's also possible that her history will speak louder than her campaign message and land her in defeat.
She's got a shot, albeit long, at attorney general. But she wouldn't have had a prayer against Jane Hull.
THE BLEEDING-HEART LIBERAL: TERRY GODDARDTHE "L" WORD has always been the nastiest word in Arizona politics. In Terry Goddard's case, "L" doesn't only stand for liberal. It stands for loser. Goddard is touted as one of the most desirable Dems around, but the reality is that, after two runs for governor, he hasn't held public office in this decade.
Narrowly defeated in a run-off against Fife Symington in 1991, Goddard, the son of a former governor, lost the 1994 gubernatorial primary. The four-term Phoenix mayor has spent the past several years heading up the local office of the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.
Goddard's record in office--while admirable in many ways--is not the stuff that wins elections in Arizona. A knee-jerk idealist, he championed historic preservation and arts funding. Projects built while he was mayor range from the successful Arizona Center to the disastrous Mercado to the hideous Patriots Square Park. His original plans for the new City Hall building were far grander than what his successors finally built. All of that cost money.
Two initiatives Goddard supported would cost a lot, as well: ValTrans and the Arizona Citizens for Education initiative; the former would have funded a light-rail system, the latter, billions for public education. Both have been criticized by his opponents as far-fetched and ill-conceived.
THE WIMP: EDDIE BASHATHE LEADER OF a weak minority party has to have gonads. After years on the sidelines, grocery tycoon Eddie Basha decided to enter politics at the top, seizing the gubernatorial nomination in 1994--but he backed out of the game.
Basha, best-known in political circles for his years on the Arizona Board of Regents, in 1994 made a run for governor and, much to everyone's surprise--Basha himself was no exception--he won his party's nomination.
The day after the primary, Basha was almost 40 points ahead of incumbent Governor Fife Symington. But he managed to lose the race.
Basha refused to say anything negative about his opponent. Instead, he sat back while Symington slaughtered him. By race's end, the centrist Basha was primarily known as a proponent of gay marriage and runaway spending.
Pollster Bruce Merrill, who counts Basha as a good friend, says, "Eddie ran the most incompetent campaign I have seen in the years I've been doing it."
Merrill remembers that he heard from Basha a few times during the general campaign. Basha couldn't understand why he was slipping in the polls. Merrill recalls telling Basha to attack Symington's business record and record in office. "[Eddie] would say, 'Well, Bruce, if that's what you gotta do, then I guess I'm not going to win.'"
Merrill adds, "I don't admire Eddie for that. He shouldn't have gotten into the goddamn game, if he didn't understand the game that was being played out there."
Despite his bruising defeat, Basha announced months ago that he would run again for governor. The Basha campaign staff made it known in political circles that it was counting on Symington's acquittal on felony charges in federal court this summer--or at least a mistrial. Basha wasn't counting on having to run against his old friend Jane Hull. Like Johnson, Basha would have had difficulty coming up with a dramatically different message from Hull's. And if he refused to attack Symington, who was not a friend, how would he fare on the campaign trail against Hull?
The first clue that Basha hadn't toughened up came when Symington was convicted, and Basha sentimentally announced his stand that Symington shouldn't have to serve jail time.
In the end, Basha wimped out totally. He dropped out of the race, and canceled his $3 million pledge to the Democratic campaign for governor. With little more than a year to go, the Dems were in disarray. They didn't have enough time to recruit another big leaguer, and so resigned themselves to a Johnson candidacy.
THE PHANTOM: ED RANGERED RANGER IS supposedly the man who will beat the unbeatable U.S. Senator John McCain--the guy with a war chest of millions and name recognition through the roof.
Oh, you never heard of Ranger? That's the problem. Like Claire Sargent in 1992, Ranger looks to be a sacrificial lamb, a place-holder, a candidate who doesn't mind losing to let the party save face. He's somebody, anybody, a name on a campaign sticker, a warm body to toss into the ring against McCain.
Ranger's name has appeared only once in the Arizona Republic since 1992, and then only as an aside in a story about McCain. He has created a campaign committee, and is raising money, but has yet to put out a campaign biography. His Web site is still under construction.
The mystery candidate's brother Pete is running the campaign for now. He supplied a thumbnail on the candidate: Ed Ranger, 37 and single, grew up in Phoenix. He has a law degree from Arizona State University and another from a Mexican law school; until recently, Ranger ran his own environmental law firm in Mexico.
Ranger moved home recently to be near his family, and run against McCain, Pete says. He's spent the past few months traveling the state.
Tune in next year for more information.
FOR A PARTY that has historically counted on its personalities, rather than strong party machinery, this brood constitutes an embarrassing--and crucial--drought. With scant voter appeal, scarcely a clear message amongst them and a charm deficit that could span the Grand Canyon, this group is an ill fit for good-ol'-boy, conservative, tell-it-like-it-is Arizona. If the Democrats are to survive, somebody's got to generate interest, contributions and votes. It's not likely to be these folks.
Meanwhile, the Arizona GOP isn't saddled with custom-fitting its own low-wattage crew to its constituency. Instead, the Republicans can rely on a historically strong organization and their recent penchant for co-opting all of the strong campaign messages around. Under those circumstances, bringing in a candidate with charisma is like bringing a sandwich to a picnic.
The irony is that, in the beginning, Arizona was a one-party state--Democratic. There were so many Democrats, says ASU's Bruce Merrill, that when Arizona applied for statehood in 1912, state and church leaders had to scramble to come up with Republicans to satisfy legislation requiring a two-party state.
Merrill says, "The Mormon bishops called their congregations together and stood in the front and said, 'Everybody sitting on the right of the aisle is a Republican and everybody sitting on the left side is a Democrat.'" Now Arizona is a one-party state again.
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