Is this the best the Democrats can do?
The question kept rolling through my mind in the days after Tempe political kingpin Harry Mitchell declared his candidacy for Congress.
Mitchell is challenging the sharply listing, Jack Abramoff-stained Republican J.D. Hayworth for the 5th Congressional District seat in November.
The race is attracting national attention as a key contest where a Democrat could pick up a seat in what, until recently, was a considered a Republican lock. The Democrats need to gain 30 seats to take control of the House.
Mitchell appears to be the ideal candidate to challenge the ethically bankrupt, intellectually vapid Hayworth. But my son's puppy could give Hayworth a run for his money.
In the 2004 race, an unknown college student named Elizabeth Rogers grabbed 39 percent of the vote while spending less than $5,000 against Hayworth's half-a-million-dollar war chest.
Mitchell will certainly garner far more votes than Rogers. He's well known in the East Valley congressional district and will attract votes from moderate Republicans worried that Hayworth's harsh stance on immigration will undermine the economy.
There's no doubt that Mitchell has clearly mastered the process of government. But what's very disappointing is that he's offered nothing to show that he has the ideas and mettle to help lead this nation down a socially progressive, ecologically sustainable and economically prosperous path.
He offers only the bland, canned, unimaginative ideas of a political party that is irrelevant to more than two-thirds of the registered voters in Arizona.
The centerpiece of his campaign to date is that he's going to "restore trust and integrity to our nation's capital."
Well, that's nice. That's the same baloney we've been hearing from every candidate who has ever run for Congress. It's meaningless. It's this type of pandering that has alienated so many citizens who refuse to even bother to vote.
So far, I see nothing coming from Harry Mitchell that will do anything to improve this nation other than hopefully knocking J.D. Hayworth out of office.
A former Tempe High School government teacher for 28 years, Mitchell was first elected to the Tempe City Council in 1970. He was elected mayor in 1978 and held that post without a significant challenge for the next 16 years.
His claim to fame is laying the groundwork for the Tempe Town Lake and the "revitalization" of Mill Avenue. At first glance, both projects appear to be successful.
But beneath the veneer, there are serious problems.
Town Lake is part of Tempe's Rio Salado Project and has cost taxpayers more than $135 million. It remains a significant financial burden on Tempe as development has come about slower than anticipated.
Mill Avenue, meanwhile, continues to struggle with high vacancy rates and a plethora of bars, pool halls and slackers -- the same mix that Mitchell derided 35 years ago when he declared downtown a disaster area and began the wholesale destruction of the historic heart of the city.
As mayor, Mitchell razed nearly all of historic downtown Tempe, replaced it with new buildings and dubbed the entire makeover "Old Town Tempe." In the end, Mitchell, and his successors, drove away nearly all of the unique small business that once lined Mill and replaced it with corporate chains.
Mitchell's political machine continued to dominate Tempe even after he retired as mayor in 1994. Mitchell's protégé, Neil Giuliano, succeeded him as mayor and held the position until deciding not to seek reelection in 2004. Mitchell's son, Mark, is following in his footsteps and is now Tempe's vice-mayor.
After a failed bid for state Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1994, the elder Mitchell became the first Democrat elected from Legislative District 17 to the state Senate in decades, winning the seat in 1996. In the last eight years at the Legislature, Mitchell rose to the post of assistant minority leader and last year took over as chairman of the state Democratic Party. He resigned from the Senate and his party duties in March to run against Hayworth after a Democratic Party poll showed him beating the incumbent.
It's a damn impressive résumé that is matched by widespread affection for the man who has lived in the same Tempe home with his wife (his high school sweetheart) for more than 40 years. Tempe loves the guy so much the city erected a 35-foot-high abstract statue of Mitchell that overlooks, you guessed it, the Harry E. Mitchell Government Complex.
So what's the problem, you ask?
The 65-year-old Mitchell's clueless about what he'll do if he's elected to Congress. All he can say is, "It's time for a change!"
No kidding, duh!
It was time to get rid of Hayworth the second the bumbling former sportscaster sneaked into Congress in 1994 by hitching his wagon to Newt Gingrich's Contract On America.
Hayworth is now championing himself as one of the nation's leading Mexican bashers. He spouts outrageous and unsupported statements to fuel the fury (and to promote sales of his recently released pinhead book on immigration Whatever It Takes).
"Numbers are very hard to come by," Hayworth said to the National Review Online, before making the following conclusion based on the sketchy statistics offered with no context. "But a conservative estimate of the number of Americans killed by illegal aliens since 9/11 is higher than the number of Americans killed in Iraq and probably higher than the number of Americans killed on 9/11 itself.
"It may be a slow-motion nightmare, but it is a nightmare nonetheless," says Hayworth.
Hayworth makes it sound as if every Mexican making the harrowing trek across the border to work in American factories, restaurants and hotels, and on construction sites and farms, is carrying a couple of Glocks and a satchel of IEDs.
I'm more worried about the avian bird flu than getting knocked off by an angry undocumented Mexican gardener firing RPGs launched from a modified leaf blower.
The real nightmare has been putting up with this hate-mongering buffoon in Congress for the past decade. Hayworth's racist attitude is underscored by his adamant refusal to support a guest worker program, which Mitchell supports. Instead, Hayworth wants to make millions of undocumented workers criminals, round them up and ship them out.
It's an angry, simpleton's response to a complex issue.
Harry Mitchell has a chance to end this debacle. But he better come up with more than sweeping generalities about what he will do as a congressman or Hayworth will head him off at the pass as a "tax-and-spend liberal."
I asked Mitchell after his campaign announcement speech to name three specific pieces of legislation he would seek to enact. You would think that after 36 years in government he would have a couple of ideas.
All he could muster up was a litany of generalities. He sounded like one of his high school students trying to jive his way through an oral exam.
"I think there has to be first of all a comprehensive immigration program, a reform program, a comprehensive one," Mitchell said.
"I think there needs to be something done about Iraq, and we have to at least convey to the people that there is a plan. That we are getting out. That we are bringing to the people of Iraq the freedom and the peace we hope that they would have.
"I think we need to do something about health care. Health care in this country . . . is broken.
Well, thanks, Harry, for providing a list of issues. But that wasn't the question! What are you specifically going to do if elected to Congress?
The press conference was quickly cut off before I could press Mitchell to be more specific.
So I called Mitchell at his home and left messages on his answering machine. He never called back.
Perhaps he is confident that the way to beat Hayworth is to simply tar-and-feather him by repeatedly associating the congressman with felon Abramoff, disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, skyrocketing gasoline prices, the Iraqi quagmire and President Bush's plummeting approval rating.
Why bother with the press?
This strategy may be enough to end Hayworth's reign. But the Democrats need to do more than just defeat Hayworth. If Mitchell wins this seat, and I think he can, he needs to be prepared to implement policies to truly move this country forward, not merely "do something."
Here are a couple of suggestions, Mr. Mitchell, in case you're taking notes.
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On immigration: Suggest implementation of a latter-day version of the Marshall Plan for Mexico. Foreign investment in Mexico linked to political reform could greatly accelerate economic development. The creation of a powerful Mexican middle class is in our best interest economically and politically and would do more to cut illegal immigration than militarizing our border.
On health care: Call for providing financial incentives -- lower premiums, tax credits and deductions -- to individuals living a healthy lifestyle that includes a low-fat diet, not smoking, moderate drinking and regular exercise. Such an economic incentive would motivate tens of millions of Americans to make substantial changes in their daily lives that would lead to much lower health-care costs and a healthier nation.
On Iraq: Demand that the Bush administration, while maintaining a strong military presence, drop its inflexible stance and offer to hold peace negotiations with known "terrorist" organizations. Negotiation is the only way to end the War on Terror.
Come on, Harry, it's time to get nitty-gritty. We've already got a Republican dumb guy making vague generalizations. We need to believe that your approach would be different. That you have an actual plan.