Don Bivens Should Say Bye-Bye as Democratic Party Chair in 2011, but Who Should Replace Him?

Arizona Democratic Party Chair (for now) Don Bivens (left), under siege by independent Jarmel Kennedy.
Stephen Lemons


Arizona Democratic Party Chair Don Bivens needs to exit stage right, and his moronic remarks at the party's November 20 state committee meeting, held at the Wyndham Hotel in downtown Phoenix, are a prime example of why.

Faced with the stark reality of Arizona as a one-party state ruled by Republinuts, Bivens told the morose collection of Dems at a morning "post-election forum" that they should hold their heads high, despite the Election Day shellacking they endured.

Then, he made an incredibly dumb analogy, comparing the Dems to the Spartans during the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., when the Spartans faced an overwhelming army of Persians led by King Xerxes the Great.

"Xerxes came to [the Spartans] for a parlay," recounted Bivens, "and the notion was, hey, you guys, you're stupid. Look at how many people I have here. I have so many arrows that when we launch, it will block out the sun. And the attitude of the Greeks was, 'Great, we'll be fighting in the shade.'"

Bivens told the donkey-kongs that they must have that "fighting-in-the-shade mentality" coming out of the day's meeting.

Um, great, Don. Just one problem: The Spartans were defeated at Thermopylae, and their king, Leonidas, was slain. Sheesh, didn't you see that flick 300, dude?

Before the history nerds get all over me, the Persians ultimately lost that war, but Bivens was talking about the battle itself. And if the previous election is any indicator, Bivens ain't no Leonidas. And the local Dems, save for a few exceptions, don't fight like Spartans.

As the meeting droned on, and each of the party hacks dutifully reported how many doors were knocked on and how many phone calls were made in the get-out-the-vote effort, it was stunningly obvious that, for the most part, they just didn't get it.

Despite all the shoe leather expended and money raised — a hefty $4.2 million — the D-hacks handed a supermajority to Cactus Country pachyderms in the Legislature and nearly complete control of the state.

What were they missing? The ultimate weapon in any party's arsenal: a message.

From observing the November 2 debacle, can anyone tell me what Arizona Democrats stand for? They argued to the electorate that they weren't Republicans, doing their best to play margarine to the GOP's butter.

On immigration and Senate Bill 1070, the Dems kept their noggins beneath their collars, either trying to ignore the issue altogether or peddling a diluted version of the Republican Kool-Aid.

Whenever GOPers intoned the names of President Barack Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Dems cringed in shame. They did ditto — for the most part — when it came to mentions of healthcare reform.

You can have all the loot in the world, but lack of a message and a strategy is a fatal flaw. Add to that a dearth of courage and passion, and you've ceded victory before the battle's begun.

In general, the refrain from the leadership was, "Hey, it wasn't our fault," that "it was a Republican year," that the Dems faced a "tsunami going in the other direction," and that they were wracked by a "perfect storm" on the national front, which, gosh darn it, they just couldn't do a thing about.

The problem with that line is that in 2008, when a different tsunami rode Obama to the White House, Arizona Dems also lost seats in the Legislature. The national tide is not irrelevant, but it is not a satisfactory excuse.

Jeanine L'Ecuyer, former flack for ex-Governor Janet Napolitano and deputy campaign manager for Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard during his latest failed gubernatorial bid, made a revealing comment when asked to opine on the election results as part of the panel Bivens led.

"We are, and we see ourselves as, a party of intellect," she noted, adding, "The other side is a party of feeling . . .and the feeling that was communicated tremendously well throughout [their] campaigns on every level was anger. It didn't make any sense to us."

Good point. But the lesson the Ds should take from that is: Get angry! There was plenty to be angry about during the election. And with state Senate President-elect Russell Pearce now captain of Arizona's doomed dinghy, there's even more reason to be incensed.

Sadly, in the crowd that day, there was a real paucity of any "feeling" other than malaise. Before I entered the gathering space, Dems came up to me and said they were ticked and were about to prove it by pulling out metaphorical guillotines to do some head-chopping, as I had recently suggested they should in print ("Arizona Democrats' Defeat Dissected," November 11).

But when it came time for questions from the floor, the mood was phlegmatic. It took a man named Jarmel Kennedy, who told the crowd that he was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, to ask a money question.

He wondered, rightly, why Dems locally took it on the schnoz for so long from the GOP's negative attack machine, which used the national political situation against them.

"Why did the Democrats not put out these fires as they were springing up before they took momentum?" asked Kennedy.

Bivens didn't really seem to understand the query, but erstwhile state treasurer candidate Andrei Cherny, who was also on the morning panel, did, and he answered with, dare I say, emotion.

"[Republicans] did an amazing job of really demonizing Democrats, demonizing our leaders," he replied. "And that means Democrats . . . did not do a good job of speaking about what we stand for, what are we about . . . and how are we going to do things differently."

Out of the park. Which is one reason that Cherny could make a solid replacement for Bivens, if party bylaws allow. Cherny told me later he's thinking about running for the position, which will be voted on at the party's reorganization meeting in late January.

(Thing is, I didn't see Cherny listed as a precinct committeman, which would be a problem for him.)

Bivens, who has said he will run once more unless the right person comes along with the right skill sets, displayed his tin ear again when Kennedy tried to follow up on his first question. Bivens rudely cut him off by encouraging him to become a Democrat.

Later, Kennedy and I approached Bivens, and Kennedy further challenged the party chair on the issue. Bivens was clearly uncomfortable and eventually got rid of Kennedy by telling him that he (Bivens) was late and needed to be somewhere else.

Once Kennedy left, Bivens stood and chatted with me for about 10 minutes, belying his lame dismissal of Kennedy. When a party chairman cannot engage an independent such as Kennedy on these important matters, it speaks to a lack of competence.

Local state parties that fumbled during this election cycle, in places like Tennessee, Montana, and Florida, are kicking either their executive directors and/or party chairmen to the curb. That's a bloodletting that's desperately needed here in Sand Land.

So who should replace Bivens? Cherny knows how to raise money, how to fight, and how to express the Dems' core values.

Some have mentioned Maricopa County party chairwoman Ann Wallack, who recently told me that she's flattered but that she's sticking with the county.

Other names that have been floating post-election — turncoat Dem Jon Hulburd, who lost to Republitard Ben Quayle in CD3, and ultra-liberal, ex-Green Party member and state Senator-elect Kyrsten Sinema — are not viable contenders, nor should they be.

To my mind, the job is Felecia Rotellini's to turn down. In her feisty yet failed bid for the state Attorney General's Office, she garnered more votes statewide than any other Democratic candidate, including Goddard.

As a result, she should now be regarded as the new, titular head of the state party.

Rotellini can scrap like a wolverine, and she's the party's only rock star, with more charisma in her tiniest digit than in all of Bivens' uninspiring frame.

When she announced in her speech to the party that afternoon that she was keeping her Web site up in anticipation of challenging Republican Attorney General-elect Tom Horne in four years, Dems erupted in thunderous applause.

The chairmanship is a two-year gig, so she can still challenge Horne in 2014.

Rotellini's crowd appeal will draw money and followers like a supercharged magnet. The fact that she can attract crossover voters while maintaining Democratic ideals certainly will not harm her.

Rotellini told me she's been approached by people who want her to run, and she's "considering" the proposition. I hope she does run. She's the injection of B12 the party's limp, listless body so desperately requires.

As for Bivens, thanks for the bad memories, Don. Really, it's long since past time for you to shuffle back to Snell and Wilmer, put your feet up, and watch as your firm makes bank off of defending Senate Bill 1070 for Republinut Governor Jan Brewer.

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