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

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 second congressional district in Congress 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 first congressional district 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.

The lineup:

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 month resigned as U.S. attorney to run for attorney general.

Steve Owens, challenging U.S. Representative J.D. Hayworth for the second time.

Terry Goddard, the party's perennial also-ran, who hasn't held office since the Eighties.

Eddie Basha, who lost the governorship 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 seven, four have lost their most recent elections; two are unlikely to run at all. And each from this would-be best-and-brightest list is so deeply flawed as to provide a compendium of the seven deadly sins of Arizona politics. 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 Johnson

Paul 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.

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