It's in a labor union hall on a residential street in Tucson. The Plumbers and Steamfitters local. This cold and rainy Saturday night, no one here is plumbing or fitting steam. It's the Arizona Democratic Party's "Campaign-98 Kick-off," and the hall it's being held in could serve as a perfect campaign metaphor--sterile, artificially lighted, with a feeling of emptiness even when busy.
The scheduled speakers tonight are gubernatorial candidate Paul Johnson; prospective secretary of state Art Hamilton; Janet Napolitano, who's running for attorney general; Paul Newman, who wants to be corporation commissioner; and Ed Ranger, who wants to bag John McCain's place in the Senate.
When Newman gets up to speak, he'll describe Hamilton as "a legend, and an inspiration to us all." But before hearing that, we get to hear Hamilton. He's no legend, but his oratorical power is considerable. Trouble is, he doesn't say anything other than that the Democrats are going to win.
I'd expected this event to be a pretty big deal, but as far as I can tell the only other media representative present is Jim Nintzel, editor of the Tucson Weekly. I sit next to him, and, before long, former city council candidate Alison Hughes scurries over to us and excitedly asks who we write for.
"I covered her campaign for four months," a bemused Nintzel tells me after she leaves us.
It's Hughes' job tonight to tell the audience that Janet Napolitano isn't going to be here. This is a disappointment, because it was Napolitano I most wanted to see. Hughes declares that she can't think of anyone better for the job of attorney general. "This is a committed woman, an experienced woman," she says. She's right; Napolitano is extremely committed to her own career, to the extent that she was willing to kiss up to Joe Arpaio and help him save face when an investigation of his jails resulted in a report that unequivocally condemned him. Napolitano, having seen the report, held a joint news conference with Arpaio and opined that he was doing a good job.
Most of the speakers could learn something about oratory from Art Hamilton.
Ed Ranger talks! like! this!, exclaiming! every! word! He says this campaign will be about ideas, not money--but he never gets around to proposing a single idea. "What do Democrats want?" he asks, then gives us his answer. "More schools, less jails . . . More books, less bombs . . ." But he doesn't say how these aims can be achieved. Instead, he prefers to ask himself questions. "Can you beat an institution like the great Senator McCain?--I say yes!"
The faithful cheer, and Ranger seems to get even more into it.
"County by county, town by town, the momentum will sweep this state," he says, actually banging his fist on the podium.
No reference is made as to how this will happen--how McCain can be beaten, what momentum will sweep the state.
It soon becomes clear that this will be the tone of the entire meeting. Paul Newman takes the stage and says we need to "make changes," but he doesn't say what we need to change or how we should go about it. "It's very difficult for a little guy from Bisbee to run, but my name's Paul Newman and I'm gonna do it!" he concludes.
This last gets such applause that I half expect someone to start rolling on the floor and talking in tongues.
But there's something unconvincing about all this bravado. It's because the speakers have the tone of panhandlers making a pitch for some change. There's a desperation in their pleas for support--and they're not even talking to the electorate, but to the diehards who already support them.
When state Senator Elaine Richardson gets up to introduce Paul Johnson, she literally seems hysterical. Her style of delivery would be more appropriate if she was shaking someone by the lapels as she spoke. She refers to Johnson as the "next governor," then screams that his wife "is the only woman in his life."
Most of the audience seems to understand this remark; they laugh and applaud. I don't get it. Perhaps it's a dig at Fife Symington over his alleged relationship with Annette Alvarez. If so, it's irrelevant. Symington is no longer governor, and, even if he were, his problem is that he's a convicted felon, not that he's suspected of infidelity. And, considering the antics of their man in the White House, it's comical to see Democrats taking the high ground in this regard.
Before Johnson appears, a promotional film is shown. To background music that sounds like the soundtrack of a made-for-TV movie, we see black-and-white photographs of Johnson as a student. Then there's a voice-over from his wife.
Her voice soft, she tells us that Paul wasn't the best-looking guy in their class. But he obviously had other qualities; when she asked him what he wanted to do with his life, "Paul just looked at me and told me he wanted to make things better."
What Paul Johnson delivers in his speech is aural candy--light, pleasant-tasting, easily digestible, and devoid of nutrients. It's what the others have done, only he takes longer and his speech is a little more elegant.
Arizona, he tells us, is "a great state, a place where men and women don't believe values like hard work and honesty ever go out of style . . . a place where anyone can make their American dream come true."
After saying, "I have known Jane Hull for many years, and respect her," he goes on to vilify her, pointing out that she voted repeatedly, as speaker of the House, to cut funding for public schools, compared teachers to the Mafia, pushed for bills that would have destroyed workers' ability to organize, voted against equal pay for women, who is known for insider deals for developers and polluters, and who has the state's largest developer--Phil Dion, CEO of Del Webb--chairing her finance committee.
Which raises a question: If Paul Johnson believes these things about Jane Hull and still respects her, whom does he not respect? How uncaring does a politician have to be to earn Johnson's contempt? Does anything we're hearing from him tonight involve genuine conviction?
Without meaning to, Johnson answers this question when he tells us a story about "a meeting I will never forget. It happened here in South Tucson. [We're actually not in South Tucson.] As I walked down the dusty streets, I met an old woman that wanted to talk to me. She asked me if I would take a minute to sit and talk with her 12-year-old granddaughter. . . . She explained to me that her granddaughter had become a member of a gang and asked the girl to tell me her story.
"The girl did not want to tell the story. But when she did, she simply looked into her bowl of menudo, her voice became soft and she told me that seven boys had 'jumped her' into the gang. The boys held her down while they took turns raping her. She then used her hand to wipe away the tears."
Johnson says that, when he tried to persuade the girl to go to the police, she answered, "The government ain't gonna help me."
If Johnson's story is true, it's unquestionably horrifying. So what does he plan to do about it? Nothing, apparently. He just knows it's a good story, one that pushes easy buttons. He says the girl's grandmother told him, "I just thought that was something a governor ought to know."
He repeats the statement, "I think a governor ought to know that" a total of 10 times as he runs through a list of everything he thinks is wrong with the status quo--public education, crime, the environment. But he seems to think that all he has to do is know about these things. He might as well base his campaign on a promise to read the paper every day. Long before he repeats his mantra for the 10th time, I'm tempted to shout, "I'm sure Jane Hull does know about these things. Trouble is, she doesn't care. Do you?"
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Hull herself has talked about solving problems with education and mental-health care, restraining growth in ways that don't harm the environment or those on low incomes. It's easy to talk.
Johnson is fairly clear about some of the things he wants--a limit of 17 kids per teacher, alternative schools for delinquent kids, conservation of water, good jobs, a clean environment. But you can hear the same in just about any barber shop or bar. If Johnson has any actual plan for getting these things done, he's not telling.
Contact Barry Graham at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org