Right Time for Sargent?

Look out, McCain. There's a woman after you.

On the other end of the telephone that Ferd Haverly's holding, there's a photographer who wants some time with Haverly's boss, U.S. Senate hopeful Claire Sargent. As press secretary, Haverly knows it is his job to find and maintain the proper balance between cooperation and circumspection.

He knows that for Sargent to have a chance against well-financed Republican incumbent John McCain, she needs all the free media she can get. On the other hand, Haverly understands that every photo opportunity also carries some risk. And Haverly, who in real life is the publisher of the little left-wing-activist newspaper The Current, wants as much control as possible.

"I'm not going to let him anywhere near her house," he says, cradling the receiver. "Did you see that story in the [Arizona] Business Gazette? I don't want her standing in front of a baby grand again--gawd, that was awful. They wrote that they vacation in Europe, that they don't stay anyplace without room service."

In the photographs that accompanied the Business Gazette story, Sargent was photographed with her husband, an Arizona Public Service Company executive, in their Central Avenue condominium, standing on hardwood floors in front of the Steinway and tightly packed bookcases. Haverly prefers to have his candidate perceived as something other than a handsomely attired upper-middle-class woman with fresh-cut flowers on her piano and original oil paintings on her walls. To defeat McCain, Sargent must register on the electorate's collective consciousness as an agent of change, and so her campaign must find a way to exploit her Otherness. Pictures of a nice lady smiling out from genteel circumstances won't be helpful in establishing a populist persona.

Neither will having a candidate who is likely to say whatever pops into her head, and who, without irony, will quote Woody Allen to a reporter. Claire Sargent is capable of announcing support for a national health plan she's unable to describe. After flying off to Washington, D.C., to "grovel"--that's her word--for money from political action committees, she announces that campaign reform is among her highest priorities. Based on results of the September 8 primary, she seems to do better the less she campaigns.

And people at Sargent's campaign headquarters have learned you cannot control this candidate, you can only hope to contain her. It doesn't matter what she's supposed to say. She says what she says. Sometimes it works.

Last week, at a D.C. fund raiser, Sargent answered a question about whether gender should be a factor by saying, "I think it's about time we voted for senators with breasts. We've been voting for boobs long enough." The national media latched onto it, much to her campaign staff's delight.

Her candor has worked for her locally, as well. Michael Walter, an unpaid volunteer on the Sargent campaign, says he decided to work for her after she supplied him with a refreshingly blunt answer.

"I asked her what her stand on abortion was," Walter recalls. "She looked me in the eye and said, 'If you want one, get one.'"

A lot of mainstream Democrats, however, bemoan Sargent's victory over Truman Spangrud in the September 8 primary. They say it's a shame that a real opportunity to defeat the incumbent has been blown on such a lightweight, someone whom one leading Democrat even calls the "Ev Mecham of the left."

"She's liable to say anything, to do anything," the prominent Democrat sighs. "And she's way liberal. She's bright and she's funny, but she's a loose cannon."

Of course, Sargent won her primary race without much help from the Democratic establishment, and she doesn't seem to need them now.

For all their gnashing of teeth, she's the nominee, the only Democrat with a chance to unseat John McCain.

Former POW McCain seemed vulnerable after his conspicuous fealty to savings-and-loan bandit Charles Keating was revealed in 1989. But McCain apparently had enough money and name recognition to deter many "big-name" Democrats--people like Hattie Babbitt, Paul Eckstein, Janet Napolitano, Bill French and Frank Gordon--from making the Democratic primary. And the national GOP has deemed him worthy of rehabilitation. In May President George Bush attended a $1,500-a-plate fund raiser for McCain. In August Arizona's junior senator flew with Bush on Air Force One to the GOP's national convention in Houston. At the senator's behest, President Bush even granted a brief interview to a Valley radio station. While McCain was originally scheduled to deliver a short address early in the convention week, Bush allegedly was so impressed with the senator's speech that McCain's slot was extended and shifted to the climactic final evening.

In any other political year, it might be possible to dismiss Sargent's run for the U.S. Senate as quixotic. But in the wake of last October's Clarence Thomas confirmation-hearing side show at the Senate, 11 women have survived the primaries and are still in the running for Senate seats. Many pundits and talking heads view the viable candidacies of Democratic women such as Carol Moseley Braun in Illinois, Lynn Yeakel in Pennsylvania, and Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein in California as evidence of a "Year of the Woman."

Sargent acknowledges the importance of timing to her campaign. To beat McCain, she says, everything will have to "break right." And so far it has, sweeping her up in the Zeitgeist.

"I am the right person, at this time, to be running against John McCain," she says. "Not last year, not next year, not six years from now. But I feel like I am the person for today who needs to be running, that I am the perfect person to run against him. It has to do with the timing, with the times. It has to do with me being a woman, being the age I am. I just think that it's going to work. There's something that's going on in America."

In a normal year, the 58-year-old Sargent probably wouldn't have gotten past retired Air Force general Spangrud in the primary. Spangrud, brother of prominent Democrat Marcia Weeks, had a year's head start and the backing of most of the old-line Democratic establishment. Only two of the state's daily newspapers--the Scottsdale Progress and the Yuma Daily Sun--endorsed Sargent. And Spangrud outspent her almost 2 to 1.

With his career military service and air of quiet competence, Spangrud was seen by many as the perfect foil to McCain. On the stump, he was well-spoken and detail-oriented, while Sargent often seemed scattered and vague. While Sargent's campaign organization largely comprised amateurs who'd never worked for a candidate before, Spangrud's seemed well-organized, particularly in rural and southern areas of the state.

And on Election Day, Sargent cleaned Spangrud's clock, outpolling him by nearly 30,000 votes statewide and beating him in every county. When the dust cleared, Claire Sargent was the Democrats' nominee by the near-landslide margin of more than 13 percent of the vote.

In the days after the September 8 primary, there was some residual antipathy. Throughout the campaign, the candidates hammered each other, with Sargent calling Spangrud an anachronistic opportunist and a "cold warrior looking through a rearview mirror at the status quo of yesterday" who is "joined at the hip with the military-industrial complex." Both said during the primary they would support the other in the general election, but Spangrud now says only that he is "considering" endorsing her. He is still upset over a tabloid attacking him as a carpetbagger that was mailed to voters in the Tucson area days before the election. He won't comment on Sargent's race against McCain.

On election night, Spangrud speculated that, in a race in which both candidates lacked enough money to build name recognition, voters defaulted to the woman. Sargent didn't win, he insisted, because of her grasp of the issues.

"There are six reasons why she won," another prominent Spangrud supporter says. "C-L-A-I-R-E."

Similarly, Marcia Weeks, Spangrud's sister and a longtime figure in the state's Democratic party who, as a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, is currently the highest-ranking elected woman in the state, says she believes Sargent's gender worked for her while her brother's name worked against him.

"I hate to say it, but in a race where neither candidate has the money to get their name out, it comes down to things like that," Weeks says. "And 'Truman Spangrud' isn't the easiest name. I think a lot of people, in this climate, would vote for the woman just to give her a chance, just to shake things up."

That sentiment irks Weeks, who says, "When you're a woman and you've been working the system and working hard to get elected, taking your defeats, taking your wins, and you say, 'God, they're actually voting for me because I'm a qualified candidate and I'm a woman,' what am I supposed to think when a woman is elected just because she's a woman?"

Janet Napolitano, a Phoenix attorney who had considered running against McCain, says she doesn't believe Sargent can be elected on the "gender bump" alone.

"I think Claire Sargent will get elected if she can show the voters she stands for change and if she can show the voters what the change is," Napolitano says, choosing her words carefully. "If, in the Year of the Woman, she can take advantage of [her gender], then I give her credit for it. But I also deeply admire and respect and look forward to the continuing careers of Arizona women who've come up through more traditional means."

Weeks, who urged her brother to run when it became apparent no big names were about to enter the Democratic primary, says she is frankly baffled by the result.

"We had ten times the better candidate, and ten times the better organization, and she still won," Weeks says. "You hate to think that people were voting on the basis of something as stupid as which candidate had the easier name, but I don't know how else you can explain it."

Sargent agrees her gender probably helped with voters unfamiliar with either candidate. But she's not apologizing.

She admits she is not as detail-oriented as Spangrud or as facile with figures. It's not an important issue for her, she says, because senators have staffs to write position papers and to study documents. "I'm not a budget technician," she said time and time again during the primary race, a mantra to which Spangrud developed an economical riposte: "But I am."

Though she says the terms "liberal" and "conservative" are no longer useful ways to describe political philosophy, Sargent's impulses are do-goodishly liberal. And despite the brave attempts of the rumpled, drowsy-looking Haverly to cast her as a woman of the people, she possesses an air of rarefied civility that might uncharitably be read as noblesse oblige. That observation would irritate Sargent, who insists that she is, before all else, "a democrat with a small 'd'" who bristles at what she perceives as the arrogance of Washington insiders.

"They're so insulated, and people who are around that all the time, the lobbyists, the people that need favors, they're there kowtowing to these people," she says. "They're treated like Caesar. I don't fit the mold of what these people's mindset of what a senator is. I never will. I'm not that kind of a person."

Nevertheless, Claire Sargent, the natural aristocrat, admits she is in politics because she can afford to be. There is little risk connected to her charge at this particular windmill. Her husband, Henry, is an executive with Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, the parent company of APS. His annual salary has been reported at more than $400,000 per year, but Claire was raised not to talk about how much money one makes. Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy were rich men who empathized with the underdog, she says.

She has not built a career of conquest. She is a self-described "community activist" able to move ahead with her life even if John McCain rolls over her like General Norman Schwarzkopf through Iraq.

"The other people who looked at this race and decided not to run, well, my circumstances are different than some of them," she says. "It's a bit riskier for them. There's a lot of people whose jobs would be in jeopardy, whose reputations would be in jeopardy, but I don't have to worry about anything like that. I can always go back to being Claire."

In a normal year, Sargent's fuzzy approach to issues, her lack of government experience, her gender and even her candor might all work against her. She admits that during the primary campaign she sometimes spoke before thinking, and that her command of details was not always sure.

"I want to tell everybody everything," Sargent says. "I'll probably still make the same mistakes in the general election. I've never done this before. This is really on-the-job training."

After she was criticized for being vague, she released a 31-page document that cited her positions on issues as diverse (and arguably irrelevant) as the decriminalization of marijuana (she's for it) and voluntary school prayer (she thinks it could be problematic). During the campaign, she told a crowd in Yuma that she was in favor of handgun control. Still, she got the local newspaper's endorsement, apparently because the editors liked her commitment to Arizona and were suspicious of her opponent's Washington connections.

Sargent knows some consider her rampant position-taking politically naive. Why take a public stand on an issue that could only be used against you?

"I think the reason I maybe overcompensate [on issues] is because I decided people would always know what I believed," she says. "I would be clear, and I would fight for what I stand for. I don't want people to think that I'm going to change my mind because someone disagrees with me."

A former Spangrud campaign worker points out that Sargent did better in rural areas of the state she neglected during the campaign. Part of her campaign handlers' strategy, he complains, was to bring Sargent late to forums and panels so she wouldn't have much of a chance to say much of anything. It is interesting to note that Sargent won her biggest victories in Cochise and Apache counties, areas where she hardly campaigned at all.

"We were in there five or six times," the Spangrud worker says, "and a lot of times she just barely made an appearance and she just killed us there. They were running a stealth campaign."

Marc O'Hara, Sargent's campaign manager, denies the campaign employed that strategy. He says his philosophy is "to let Claire be Claire." That means, he says, allowing her to talk to people, to engage them in conversations rather than having her spew rote answers. And that's how she campaigns, a tall woman plunging into crowds, often bending her neck down so her face is just inches from the face she is talking, or, more often, listening, to. She declares herself a "people person," and that's where she comes off best. Her laughter is genuine and easy; she enjoys it.

"That's why I love Marc," Sargent says. "He tells me, 'Do whatever you have to do, but be yourself.' That's the only way I can do it. That's why McCain thinks that he wants to debate me. And he will. But I'm not a debater. And I wasn't a budget expert. A senator has a staff to figure out what the details are. I have the big picture; I'll work out the details about how to get there."

Sargent says she found O'Hara, a 33-year-old San Franciscan, through her son, Gordon Hensley, an executive with the Bush-Quayle campaign. She says when she was thinking about getting into the race, she asked Hensley to suggest a consultant. He led her to Mark McKinnon, an Austin, Texas, political consultant who did some media work for her campaign. McKinnon in turn recommended O'Hara, whom he had worked with during Al Gore's 1984 campaign for the Senate.

O'Hara, who joined Sargent's campaign in June, says he isn't concerned by the campaign's lack of support among traditional Democrats.

"I had dinner with Jim Rausch [campaign manager for District 6 congressional candidate Karan English]," O'Hara says, "and I asked him who held the record for pissing off the Democratic establishment. He said he did. I told him I was going to break it. And I did."

Since there is no huge political machine in Arizona, Sargent campaign aide Michael Walter says, someone like Doug Wead (English's GOP opponent) can show up and win a primary. And someone like Claire Sargent can stand a chance.

As unorthodox and raw as her campaign apparatus may be, Sargent's upset chances and fund-raising prospects improved after former governor Ev Mecham entered the race as an independent. She is hopeful that postprimary polls showing her trailing McCain by only ten points (and with Mecham holding onto 10 percent) will pry open some tight wallets.

Since the primary, she has been engaged in almost nonstop fund raising, making two trips to Washington to seek contributions from various political action committees. She says she'll have to raise between $800,000 and $1 million for the general election, and she expects McCain to outspend her by at least 3 to 1. (He spent $2,228,498 to put away Richard Kimball in 1986.) For the primary, Sargent raised about $80,000, with $20,000 of that in the form of loans from her personal funds.

She says she has contribution commitments from both the Women's Campaign Fund and Handgun Control PACs for support in the general election; during the primary, she got money and an endorsement from the National Women's Political Caucus and the National Organization for Women. Still, the national groups seem more impressed with Karan English's chances of winning than Sargent's--English isn't facing an incumbent who, in his last election, won with 60 percent of the vote. And Democrats have a slight edge in registration in the newly created District 6, while statewide there are nearly 100,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.

Though Sargent says she personally has no trouble asking people for money--much of her community work involved asking people to open their checkbooks--sometimes the fund-raising part of the job is frustrating. As when, for instance, she receives a solicitation letter from Emily's List, the pro-choice organization to which Sargent has belonged for years and which, so far, has contributed no money to her campaign.

"It's supposed to be going the other way now," she remarks as she holds the letter gingerly between her fingers before dropping it in a waste basket. "I'm supposed to be asking them for money."

Jane Danowitz of the Women's Campaign Fund in Washington says her group has met with Sargent and is considering contributing to her campaign. "The reason that race is even credible is the Mecham factor," Danowitz says. "And because of the year, and because it's Arizona. I'll be honest with you: The English organization is far stronger. In any other year, in any other circumstances, Claire Sargent couldn't win."

But this year is different.

"This is a year when campaigns like hers, which are basically grassroots campaigns based on a choice-change message alone, seem to be successful," Danowitz says. "You have an incumbent who is vulnerable. You have someone like Mecham who will be a menace. Claire has the potential to pull the draw play, as it were. Let them feud, and she can move up the middle. A lot of factors have to come together for her to win, but it's not at all improbable."

In 1992, Danowitz says, strengths can become weaknesses. McCain's money--manifested in a nonstop barrage of radio and television ads since the primary--could backfire. Nowhere is Sargent's status as a true outsider more apparent than in her unsophisticated campaign. And though Arizona Democrats have been slow to coalesce behind her, Danowitz says they should be "smiling" over her victory over Spangrud. "She can beat McCain," she says. "He couldn't."

"I don't know whether it will make any difference whether she gets any money or not--if those people just go out and vote," Marcia Weeks says. "But looking at the new polls, where there's not that undecided factor, it appears that she will need to raise substantial money--unless there's an undercurrent there that just says, 'Hey, we're just voting for a woman.'"

And as one leading Democratic woman put it, we've been electing unqualified men for a long time.

"When you think about it, what does it take to run for the United States Senate?" Sargent asks. "I tell you, after being back in Washington, I'm overqualified."

She says her decision to enter the race had a lot to do with what she perceived as Spangrud's unelectability. While she admits she would have stepped aside for other, better-known candidates who wanted to run, she says her response to the general's candidacy was, "Truman who?"

"I think it was Woody Allen who said 95 percent of life is just showing up," she says. "I knew if I got into the race, I could change the dynamic, that good things might happen. It's a little like Bill Clinton. He got in the race when it looked like George Bush was invulnerable. Now he's ten points ahead in the polls."

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.)

But even if McCain can't be portrayed as a Tailhook villain, there are indications that voters may not hold deep affections for the senator. In the recent primary, Tom Freestone, a Republican candidate for the Corporation Commission, outpolled McCain by more than 8,000 votes statewide. A lot of McCain's money and support comes from outside Arizona--his campaign finance reports list literally hundreds of out-of-state contributors, some who have sent the senator sums as small as $1. His Arizona roots are suspect; he moved to the state in 1981 and almost immediately returned to Washington as a member of the House of Representatives. And his friendship with Charlie Keating stretches back at least a decade, providing opponents with plenty of low-road ammunition.

Sargent's campaign r‚sum‚, on the other hand, looks relatively slim. After working in Goddard's campaign, she ran for the state legislature and lost, she was a player in the fight to secure the Phoenix Indian School property for an urban park, and she was the founder of the International Desert Cities Conference. Though the outbreak of the Gulf War led to the cancellation of the Desert Cities Conference, which was supposed to bring 500 civic leaders from desert cities around the world to Phoenix to discuss common problems, Sargent did arrange a "preamble" to the conference, hosting mayors from 16 cities around the world. Still, not having a record to run from can be an advantage this year. Asked what she'd bring to the office, she "expounds" again.

"I feel like in a lot of ways Arizona's been ripped off," she says. "I think Barry Goldwater was somebody who deeply cared about it, and Mo Udall did. I feel it's been so diminished by the recent black marks that our leaders have perpetrated. Here McCain came in, he chose Arizona. He came from Washington, he ran and he went back. That's exactly what Truman was going to do. That's what Doug Wead is doing. Wake up, Arizona. People can come in here and they still think they can take the money and run."

This is still the frontier, a land of opportunity--and opportunists.

"Bruce Babbitt once said anybody with a thousand dollars to spend can come out here and become a social leader," she says. "I think Arizona is really ready to find our identity and not our image--identity being what we really are, image what we're perceived to be."

Sargent says the past 12 years have been rough on the state and the country. When Nancy and Ronald Reagan moved into the White House, one of their first gestures was to remove the solar panels installed by the "naive" Jimmy Carter. The story is that the President and the First Lady sipped champagne on the roof as the panels were taken down.

"The beginning of the '80s: Rip off the solar panels," Sargent says. "Such divisive things have been going on, the Martin Luther King Day thing, divisions between Native Americans, Hispanics--we've really been reduced to the haves versus the have-nots during these last 12 years."

Sargent says she believes that if she wins it will be because she was meant to win. Because, as Woody Allen advises, she was willing to show up.

"You have to really look inside yourself," she says, "and know who you are, because you know that things are going to be said about you, people are going to turn on you, you're not going to know who your friends are. So you really have to know who you are. You have to do kind of an internal journey and come to this decision and know that no matter what happens, you can take it. I said earlier that I was terrified. Well, I'm not afraid anymore."

The question is irresistible. Not even of winning?

Sargent laughs. A high titter, more amused than nervous.

"You mean like in The Candidate? 'What now? What the hell do we do now?' Well, the learning curve will certainly be straight up."

She catches herself--the self-editing process kicks in.

"On the process of being a senator, that is."

She's learning already.

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