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A conversation with Sargent is rarely linear, though it's hard to understand how some columnists and talk-show hosts have found her dull. A simple question--How did you get started in politics?--pulls her far afield, brushing her up against the divergent views of feminism held by the late Millicent Fenwick and academic pop-culture critic Camille Paglia and finally snaking back to the present campaign. It's not a sound bite, but it's not the rambling of a stupid person, either.
"Schopenhauer said when you look back on your life, at the skein of life, you see that everything has been connected," she says. "The first time I was interested in politics, which I didn't really realize was politics, was when I was 5 or 6 years old. We lived outside of Jackson [Mississippi]. It wasn't the country, but we lived outside the city limits. A neighbor was running for supervisor. We'd say, 'Mr. Culley's going politicking today. Mr. Culley, can we go politicking with you?'
"He had little cards printed up, and he would go into town and drive to the end of a street. We'd ride on the running boards. It was so exciting. We'd get off and run down each side of the street and go put one of his cards on the doors."
Sargent cast her first vote for the eggheaded Adlai Stevenson, but it wasn't until she married Henry Sargent--an old friend whom she'd known all her life--and moved to Phoenix in 1978 that she began to become involved with social issues.
"When I first came here, I want to tell you something, this place was not good," she says. "It was so stifling. And then Terry [Goddard] was the first time I saw somebody was out there trying to change something, to do something about it."
Goddard asked Sargent, whom he had met through her work in the community, to manage his campaign headquarters during his "nonpartisan" race for mayor in 1983 against GOP legislator Pete Dunn.
"That was at a time when I was fighting for my own identity," she says. "I mean, here I was a corporate wife, and I wanted to do something. I asked Henry, 'What would you do if Terry Goddard asked me to work on his campaign?' And he said, 'Oh, he isn't going to ask you.' And I said, 'Why do you say that?' And he said, 'Well, because I work for APS.'"
But Goddard did ask, and Claire agreed. Henry, a lifelong Republican until he changed his registration to vote for Claire in the primary, says he went into the office of his boss, Keith Turley, and told him he had some good news and some bad news. "The good news is Claire has a job," Henry said. "The bad news is she's working on Terry Goddard's campaign."
Sargent says she sees similarities between Goddard's first mayoral race and her Senate campaign.
"Nobody gave Terry a chance. It's the same way they feel about my race," she says. "He started out 30 points behind. The week before the election, we knew that it had turned. It was a palpable thing in the air. It's a wonderful thing. I know the same thing about my campaign--this campaign." Sargent does tend to go on. "I keep expounding," she says. "They all tell me, 'Claire, just answer the question and don't expound so much.'" Apparently, that tendency has caused some Democrats to privately wonder whether she's bright enough to serve in the Senate. Phoenix Gazette columnist John Kolbe, generally an apologist for Republicans, recently ripped her as "hopelessly puzzled."
"The stupidity question really begs back to the stereotype of women," Michael Walter says. "When Kolbe comes out and says Claire's ignorant, it fits the stereotype of women. I think McCain and his staff recognize this. You can play on the 'she's a shrill bitch' theme."
That strategy, Sargent contends, will backfire, because she's not stupid and she's not shrill, and John McCain, try as he may, cannot help but be patronizing. In a debate setting, Sargent theorizes, his smugness might turn off voters.
"He just doesn't get it," she says. "He doesn't know how to not do it. He just doesn't understand that his attitude is offensive; he doesn't understand that he's doing something wrong. It's like all those male senators questioning Anita Hill--none of them understood."
She claims that evidence of McCain's "patronizing smugness" surfaced during exchanges between the two on local talk radio during the primary campaign. In August both Spangrud and Sargent charged in to attack the senator after Newsweek magazine seemed to suggest McCain may have "winked at" the sexual shenanigans of Navy pilots attending the Tailhook Association conventions. Both Democrats sent out press releases charging McCain with complicity in the 1991 incident, even though the senator had been one of the first to call for an investigation of the scandal. Later, McCain produced a statement from Naval Lieutenant Paula Coughlin, the female pilot who first went public with charges of sexual harassment, that expressed her confidence in him.
While Spangrud backed off after McCain answered the charges, Sargent still talks about the Tailhook incident. She says McCain's insistence that he was unaware of the misconduct at the raucous conventions strains credibility, and she points out that no local news organization had mentioned McCain's attendance at the convention until she brought it up. (McCain did not attend the infamous 1991 convention.)