In Washington, D.C., the Democrats are bleating about the politics of personal destruction. But here in Arizona, some Democrats are doing a pretty good imitation of Ken Starr.
Last week, a three-inch stack of paperwork hit my desk, the result of a local Democrat's opposition research into one of his own, state party chairman Mark Fleisher, who is one of about a dozen state party officers who are up for reelection at the party's convention, scheduled for 10 a.m. this Saturday at the Plumbers Local 469 hall in Phoenix.
There are some powerful Democrats who want a new state chair.
I admit that I got the creeps while flipping through the documents provided to me. There are Superior Court records, bankruptcy court filings, a federal fraud investigation that shut down a company Fleisher worked for a few years back.
Mark Fleisher does not have a sterling business record. That much is made clear by those papers.
But does that make him unfit to serve as chairman of the Arizona Democratic party?
Where's the three-inch stack of Arizona Democratic party business records, painstakingly detailing Fleisher's track record as chairman? There is no dossier on party business, just a flurry of letters that make unsubstantiated claims about Fleisher's poor performance on behalf of the party.
There's no evidence--or even an accusation--that Fleisher misused party funds, although he has had some outrageous cell-phone bills. Fleisher has raised eyebrows by suggesting to a meeting of state Democratic chairs from around the nation that people in his position should get paid. But he was up-front about it; it's hard to label that move anything more than tacky.
Should Fleisher be reelected? I don't know.
What I do know is that the opposition research I saw is the result of last-minute digging by Democrats who want to oust Fleisher. I also know that their disdain is as much about his 1987 bankruptcy as the Republicans' antipathy for Bill Clinton is about Monica Lewinsky's blue dress.
When you're out to get someone, you cast a wide net, pull in what you can. Bankruptcy, blowjob--what's the difference?
In typical Arizona Dem Keystone Kop fashion, Fleisher's antagonists haven't bothered to anoint a replacement for him. Apparently, anyone else will do.
No one knew much about Mark Fleisher when he was elected to chair the Arizona Democratic party in January 1996. He was simply a longtime activist, a real estate salesman and businessman who moved to the Valley in the late 1980s from New Mexico.
Democratic party loyalists were shocked when, shortly after Fleisher's election, a local daily reported that he had been a registered Republican during parts of 1992 and 1993. No one learned much more about him, it seemed, until quite recently.
Fleisher's resume lists a smattering of interests: owner of a commercial real estate firm; owner of a "Las Vegas Tour Company" that "recruited high-end players for Caesars Palace, Bally's and the Riviera Hotel and Casino"; infomercial producer/director; "personal representative" for Indy race car driver Johnny Unser; and, presently, real estate agent with Coldwell Banker.
The public record lists Fleisher's business problems, including eight lawsuits filed by banks in New Mexico in the mid-Eighties, for money owed by Fleisher. Fleisher filed for bankruptcy in Albuquerque in 1987, listing his business income for that year of about $33,000 and gambling income of approximately $12,000. His debts totaled more than $880,000. The bankruptcy was discharged in 1989.
Apparently, business didn't get much better for Fleisher when he moved to Arizona. From 1988 to 1994, he worked as director of marketing for Twin Star Productions, which sold various self-help products, including a weight-loss aid called the "EuroTrym Diet Patch," a hair-growth aid called "Foliplexx" and an impotence treatment called "Y-Bron."
In 1990, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Twin Star, alleging the marketing of the products was "false, misleading or deceptive." That year, the company paid $1 million in damages and agreed to stop its deceptive practices. Fleisher was not an officer of the company, and thus was not named in the complaint.
Twin Star filed for bankruptcy in 1991, with $9.7 million in debt. The company's president and Fleisher were sued separately for nonpayment of debt, as well, but successfully defended themselves with the bankruptcy.
At the same time, Fleisher operated another company, Starlite Productions. Starlite was successfully sued for nonpayment of debts. The company ultimately went bankrupt, with liabilities of more than $300,000.
Fleisher refuses to discuss any of it. "It's not relevant to what this is at all," he says, and that's all he'll say.
Does Mark Fleisher's dubious business record have anything to do with the pitiful condition of Arizona's Democratic party? That's a difficult question.
At best, Fleisher's been a mediocre chairman. The party was doing poorly when he took over; it's still doing poorly. Although his personal expenses are high--an estimated $16,000 over the past two years--no one has accused him of misappropriating party funds.
There are complaints that the Arizona Democratic party only doled out $12,300 to candidates in the 1998 election cycle, although it raised $449,000. Fleisher says the $12,300 figure is misleading because it doesn't include mailings paid for by the party, or money raised by state House and Senate leaders and labor groups for candidates at Fleisher's behest.
While Fleisher hasn't set the Arizona Democratic party on fire, he certainly hasn't done any worse than his recent predecessors, who include two of his most vociferous opponents, Sam Coppersmith and Steve Owens.
Fleisher has infuriated a small but vocal and powerful knot of local Democrats--apparently because he challenged the authority and competence of state party executive director Melodee Jackson, who's practically set a record in state-party-directorship longevity: 17 years and counting.
"Believe me," Fleisher says, "if I was a supporter of Melodee Jackson, and hadn't had a conflict with her, they'd all be big supporters of mine."
He claims that a cabal of Democrats wants to control the party, and they do that through Jackson.
"What we're fighting is a very important battle for the success of the party in the future," he says. "If we don't change, if we don't move forward in how we treat people and how our party is run, we're never going to be victorious. . . . It's not a small club, it's a big tent."
Before he was chairman, he says, legislators had to run their campaigns alone.
"You know," he says, "we had nine state senators come out and help [District 18 Senate candidate] Stan Furman the Sunday before the election. We've never had unopposed legislators come out and help anybody before."
Fleisher is reminded that Furman lost.
"Doesn't make any difference. It's the unity of the party. It's the effort that we're making. It's people realizing that there's a greater whole by working together than being individual. And until you get that communicated to people, that together we're stronger than individually, we'll never win."
Some Arizona Dems agree. Former House minority leader Art Hamilton has written a letter, circulated to state committee members, supporting Fleisher. A handful of current legislators has signed a pro-Fleisher letter, too. David Eagle, who recently lost a reelection bid to chair the Maricopa County Democrats, attributes his loss to his vocal support of Fleisher.
In a letter released Monday, Eagle describes the "control group" that opposes Fleisher--including, along with Owens and Coppersmith, John P. and Lorraine Frank, Sam Goddard and Rick DeGraw--and accuses them of excluding "various members of affinity groups, ethnic groups, labor and other traditional Democratic groups because it threatens their ability to control the state party."
That's not a new accusation, and one the "control group" has repeatedly denied.
Lorraine Frank and DeGraw have both voiced their disapproval of Fleisher in letters full of accusations of poor fund raising and bad decisions. Fleisher denies the charges, and, without access to the party's internal records, it's impossible to tell who's right.
The latest anti-Fleisher letter hit the mail Tuesday. Signed by a dozen Democrats--including Coppersmith and current state party officers Lois Pfau, Burt Drucker, Betty Liggins, Stanley Lubin and Amelia Mancini--the letter reiterates the poor fund-raising charges against Fleisher and then goes on to detail the substantiated charges about Fleisher's personal business dealings.
"Mark has been questioned about a number of these matters and his stock answer has always been that everyone else has wrong information, that it was all someone else's fault or that someone is lying," the letter states. "He absolutely refuses to acknowledge any wrongs. That is his style. . . . We have concluded that Mark Fleisher does not deserve to remain as our Chair."
So, why bother? Fleisher's asked. Why not walk away?
"Don't think that hasn't crossed my mind more than once," he says. "I have a lot of people that have really stuck their necks out in support of me. And some have gotten their heads chopped off."
Like David Eagle.
Will Mark Fleisher's head be the next to roll? Asked about his chances, Fleisher displays his patented naive optimism, a trait that might be a necessity for the head of the Arizona Dems.
"I think things are going fine," he says. "I think I'm going to win. I'm hoping to win on the first ballot."
He might be right. Observers say there are only about 60 solidly anti-Fleisher state party committee members among the 270 or so eligible to vote. To win, a candidate must get more than 50 percent of the vote; if a winner doesn't emerge on the first ballot, the least popular nominee is eliminated, and so on, until a chair is elected.
Fleisher's opponents might end up hurting themselves more than Fleisher. Although there are three other people running--Tom Bean of Casa Grande, Ken Hollack of Page and David Armstead of Phoenix--the rabble-rousers haven't rallied behind a candidate. They're just anti-Fleisher.
So he may well remain party chairman. And who knows? He may soon be taking home a party salary, thanks to his own resolution. And Melodee Jackson--whose resignation is rumored to be imminent, even if Fleisher is defeated--may soon be looking for work.
Does any of this matter?
No, says one disillusioned Dem who's considering reregistering as an Independent. A like-minded friend had told him, "'This is a fight over who is going to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.' My response was, 'No, this is more like a fight over the salvage rights.'"
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.