Donkey Kong

After looking like political asses in the '90s, Arizona Democrats have the money, moderation and 800-pound gorilla to kick some pachyderm tail

Dennis DeConcini was always a centrist Democrat, a "Pinto Democrat" as they used to be called here, but like many moderates in the party, he still felt a deep fondness for the intellectual and moral champions of the liberal cause. One such man was Phoenix attorney John Frank, among other things a leading legal scholar against segregation.

Besides respecting Frank, who died last year, DeConcini knew that Frank was the linchpin to his getting elected as and remaining a U.S. senator from Arizona.

As a moderate, DeConcini needed a voice from the liberal end of the party. Frank -- who first respected DeConcini's father and later gained respect for the senator himself -- gave him that support.

By playing to the center, Arizona Democrats can kick the opposition to the curb.
Joe Forkan
By playing to the center, Arizona Democrats can kick the opposition to the curb.
Jim Pederson hopes to unseat powerful but 
vulnerable ultra-conservative Senator Jon Kyl.
Peter Scanlon
Jim Pederson hopes to unseat powerful but vulnerable ultra-conservative Senator Jon Kyl.

Which, in the late 1980s and early '90s, brought with it the support of a young feminist attorney named Janet Napolitano, a bright political and legal underling of Frank's at his politically powerful Phoenix firm, Lewis & Roca.

But at that time, DeConcini tells New Times, it was begrudging support.

"Janet was more of a true liberal then," DeConcini recalls, over breakfast at Tucson's historic Arizona Inn. "I'm guessing she supported me because John told her she had to support me."

Over time, though, as she ascended with the help of her mentors, Napolitano became more moderate. And over time, she became a centrist Democratic political force -- arguably more on force of personality than force of action -- who has helped reignite the Democratic party in Arizona and helped prove once again that Arizona does not fit its stereotype as a Republican sure thing.

These reinvigorated moderate Democrats are poised to make gains for the party in three critical areas of government:

Polls show Napolitano's popularity outpacing any potential challenger in the governor's race. Indeed, Republicans who have the public appeal to be serious challengers -- the likes of former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley and ex-Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods among them -- have decided they have no chance against her. Riding a wave of popularity into a race with a Republican second-teamer, analysts predict, Napolitano will win in such a convincing manner that her position against the state's right-wing Legislature will be greatly strengthened.

National analysts have dubbed the U.S. Senate race in Arizona between Jon Kyl and Jim Pederson as one of the top races to watch in the country. Kyl's voter approval rating has consistently been below 50 percent. In another poll, only 46 percent of Arizonans said they would vote for Kyl even before there was a candidate announced to run against him. Kyl, analysts say, has made himself vulnerable with a voting record arguably to the right of even the increasingly unpopular George W. Bush administration.

That said, Kyl is still very powerful and likely will get support from Arizona's beloved moderate Republican senator, John McCain.

Pederson is a real estate developer who, as head of the Democratic party since 2001, has been credited with the party's renewed strength in recent years. He also was successful at getting the Redistricting Initiative passed in the state.

The problem here, though, is that the initiative has been a huge disappointment to Democrats. Basically, Pederson's initiative has failed in its intended purpose -- to make more of Arizona's legislative districts competitive.

Much more difficult for the Democrats will be making progress in the Arizona Legislature, which, analysts say, has been gerrymandered for 40 years under Republican rule to create districts hopelessly uncompetitive and left essentially unchanged by the Redistricting Initiative. The goal here is more defensive. Right now, Republicans sit three votes from a super-majority in both houses.

Republican leaders made it clear late last year that their goal in the next election is to make the Legislature "veto-proof" against the Democrat Napolitano. Also, if Republicans (primarily right-wing Republicans) get a few more seats in the Legislature, they could punch through tax legislation that might leave certain of Napolitano's programs unfunded.

"The idea of a super-majority led by the right wing in this state should be terrifying to the vast majority of Arizonans," says Democratic consultant Barry Dill. "This is a moderate state. And if we're not careful, it could soon be controlled by people who are completely out of whack with the people of the state."

Unlike in the 1990s, the state Democratic party appears to be much more poised to counter the Republican right. The dark days for Democratic politics during the decade before the turn of the century appear to be over.

Heck, even state Attorney General Terry Goddard found a way to win in 2002, which means that the two most powerful state officeholders are Democratic.

What Democrats will need to do, political analysts say, is understand and follow the Napolitano model, which is a replay of the DeConcini and Bruce Babbitt model, which is based on a knowledge of Arizona history, which is all based on a few core ideas about the Arizona electorate.

For one: Arizonans are, as a whole, much more moderate than their right-wing reputation -- and their right-wing Legislature -- would suggest. In fact, on statewide initiatives, voters have tended to be moderate and sometimes liberal. They voted to legalize medical marijuana, for God's sake.

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