Rick DeGraw grins. He has good reason.
"On election night at 11 o'clock," Rick DeGraw says, "I got a call from Terry Goddard's campaign. "Terry was then leading Eddie Basha by 1,600 votes. They ask me, 'Do you guys want to concede?' "`This is some kind of joke, isn't it?' I said. 'Terry has already lost the election. You just don't know it yet. About two hours from now, Eddie Basha will move into the lead, and the race will stay that way until tomorrow morning.'"
Rick DeGraw leans back in his chair. He laughs softly. There is no spite in his reaction. DeGraw, 47, with oversize aviator glasses and a prominent mustache, also has an ample belly. If Basha can comfortably refer to himself as "the chubby grocer," DeGraw has the perfect body for his chief of staff. DeGraw has much to smile about these days. In the intensely competitive world that makes up "inside politics," DeGraw is king of the hill. His achievement in this campaign has marked him as something of a political genius. DeGraw is the man who planned and directed Eddie Basha's seemingly miraculous primary election victory. In other areas of endeavor, talent such as his might be nominated for a Nobel Prize, an Academy Award or, certainly, an Emmy. Given the secrecy that shrouds the behind-the-scenes political process, DeGraw's superlative effort on Basha's behalf may only be appreciated fully by his victims in the rival political camps. DeGraw sits in his cramped office at Basha headquarters, 1515 North Central. A converted storefront, the place is, like so many political offices, without charm or amenities. I must make an exception. There is an excellent photo of Eddie Basha on one wall.
The only warm spots in the headquarters are a bowl of apples turning brown and a plate of soggy chocolate chip cookies. But none of this matters. Following the startling victory DeGraw engineered over prerace favorites Terry Goddard and Paul Johnson, the rest of the Arizona Democratic party is beating down his door.
Tommy Espinoza, the prominent Latino, is waiting in line to see him. Earl Katz, for years the chief fund raiser for Dennis DeConcini, is on the telephone from Tucson.
"Wait a minute," DeGraw says. He rummages through piles of papers on his desk. "I have it here somewhere."
Then he says, "I hate it when they clean my desk. I can't find anything. At any rate, I wanted to show you this picture of Harry Truman holding up the Chicago Daily Tribune, which proclaimed Tom Dewey had won the 1948 election.
"Truman always said, 'The experts get more wrong all the time.' "What people don't realize is that the primary election in Arizona is very different from the general election. Between 32 and 42 percent of the vote comes from 13 counties. So I figured that if we did the outlying counties, we could still win, even though we didn't win in either Maricopa or Pima counties.
"We certainly couldn't figure on winning Phoenix. We were running against two former Phoenix mayors. When it turned out we actually did beat Terry in Phoenix, I knew we were going to win. "We knew Terry would do well in Tucson. We figured he'd get 40 percent of the vote and that we could count on 27 percent. We actually got 26.8 percent."
In planning the campaign against Goddard and Johnson, DeGraw wasn't going up against strangers. In previous years, DeGraw had run campaigns for both Goddard and Johnson. He knew their strengths and weaknesses.
"I think Eddie Basha is the first candidate in Arizona history to win this primary without taking either Maricopa or Pima counties," DeGraw says. "Our strategy was based on getting 41 percent of the total vote in greater Arizona. We actually got 45 percent. The only county we didn't win was Cochise."
DeGraw's voice flows easily over the statistics of the race. A former minister, he is a practiced speaker who knows how to marshal his facts.
"Eddie Basha traveled to more towns and cities than any other candidate I've ever been associated with," DeGraw says. What he does not mention is that since Basha owns 70 grocery stores all over the state, such a continuing tour was a simpler task for him.
But the trips paid off handsomely.
"There were several counties where Basha got more votes than Terry and Paul combined. There are some precincts in greater Arizona where Basha got 90 percent of the vote."
And yet, you get the sense that there were times when DeGraw's strategy was questioned.
"Every time a new poll came out and showed us behind, I had to keep telling my supporters that the polls were wrong again. There are several major keys that never show. Polls always go for voters who have voted in the previous two elections. This leaves out voters who are Native American, Hispanics or Afro-American, because they tend not to be involved in contested primaries. In our case, this also left out the employees of Basha's stores. There are 70 stores all over the state. Many became ardent workers for the campaign."
DeGraw smiles again, and speaks like a man who is revealing a dark secret.
"The other group they forgot was registered Republicans who had reregistered as Democrats for the primary. In Maricopa County alone, there were almost 15,000 of them. I know, because we handled them. All of this gave us a hell of a base. "Then we went to work on getting out the vote on the Navajo nation. I've been here 22 years, and this is the first time I remember a candidate covered all 57 chapter houses on the reservation. We even worked every single one of them all through election day."
The last time the vote from the Navajos made such an impact on an election was in the early 1980s, when Bill Schulz almost upset Barry Goldwater in the race for the Senate.
Schulz fell a few votes short of upsetting Goldwater. DeGraw remembers that campaign well. He handled Schulz's campaign to get out the reservation vote.
One who disputes DeGraw's account detailing the ease of getting out the Native American vote is former congressman Sam Steiger. Steiger tells how he went so far as to hold a mutton roast for every chapter house without making a substantial gain in the vote.
But Steiger found a way to win them over. In those days, because of the language barrier, candidates were identified by photos placed next to their names on the ballot. Steiger substituted for his own likeness that of a Navajo tribesman. That sent his share of the vote skyrocketing. Steiger insists, unconvincingly, that the story is apocryphal.
I wondered how DeGraw developed his political expertise. He comes from a long line of coal miners who settled near Reading, Pennsylvania. He tells of his great-grandmother, who was married three times.
"Her first husband was killed in the mines. The second one developed black-lung disease in his 30s and died within two years. Her third husband was blinded in an accident."
DeGraw's grandfather also worked in the mines, and he, too, suffered a disabling injury.
"In those days, one of the things the mine owners did was give an injured miner a free ticket to Philadelphia," DeGraw says. "My grandfather, who was a great influence in my life, moved to Philadelphia and worked as an usher in a theatre.
"My father drove a high-speed interurban train, and never made more than $8,000 in a single year. He died at 59. My mother worked in Woolworth's."
DeGraw and his brother were the first members of his family to go to college. DeGraw attended Princeton on a partial academic scholarship, and worked for the rest of his expenses. He earned a degree in theology, and went on to Rutgers University for his master's degree in sociology.
His first job after being ordained a minister was as pastor of the African-American Presbyterian church in Philadelphia. From there, he went to work as a chaplain in the New Jersey prison system. "Things were so bad in the prisons that I started going down to the state legislature to try to get them straightened out."
Soon, he was working for the senate as an assistant to the president. In that capacity, he met Arizona Democratic politicians Tim Barrow and Bill Jacquin at a convention. They were so impressed by DeGraw that they hired him to come to work for the legislature in Arizona. "I had seen the Grand Canyon once and was impressed," DeGraw says. "So in 1972, I moved my family here."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Since that time, he has worked campaigns tirelessly for Alfredo Gutierrez, Goddard, Johnson and many others. DeGraw first met Basha 13 years ago, when they were founding members of the group Children's Action Alliance, a volunteer organization dedicated to advocating children's issues. The two men are now old friends, comfortable with each other.
"His opponents say Eddie was born with a silver spoon in his mouth," DeGraw says. "What they don't realize is that Eddie went to work in the stores when he was 11. He worked his own way through Stanford. His father actually borrowed money from him. "When his father died, there was $2,000 in the bank, and Eddie had to sell eight of the 16 stores to keep afloat. He now has 70 stores; six of them are on the Navajo Reservation, where he was one of the first businessmen willing to open a store and charge fair prices."
That leaves only the question of a strategy to defeat J. Fife Symington III, the incumbent. "We are going to run an ethical campaign," DeGraw says. "Eddie insists on that. There will be no personal attacks. Eddie says he has spent a lifetime building an honorable reputation. He is not going to sacrifice that merely to become governor.