Hee-Haw Politics

Clinton won, Fife lost, and now state Dems have high hopes for '98. But they're in for a wild-ass ride

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 party 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."

Whoops.

In another dumb move, the county party stumbled onto the brilliant idea a few years ago of relocating its monthly lunch club, Nucleus, to Phoenix Country Club, an egregiously insensitive choice, given the club's historic reputation for discriminating against blacks and Jews. Further, Phoenix Country Club does not allow media on the premises. So, when congressional candidate Steve Owens addressed the group shortly before the 1996 election, for example, a perfect photo op went unrecorded.

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.

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