Democratic Party Chairman Andrei Cherny Wants His Party to Champion Immigrants as a Strength, Not Consider Them a Weakness

The Arizona Democratic Party's reorganization meeting on January 22 at the Wyndham Hotel in downtown Phoenix was tailor-made to bolster that oft-repeated Will Rogers saw: "I don't belong to any organized political party, I'm a Democrat."

Ultimately, former state treasurer candidate Andrei Cherny beat out last year's Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Rodney Glassman, 279 to 232 — but not before the crowd of state committee members tussled over Cherny's qualifications to run.

Though it may seem daft to those non-Dems out there, donkey-kongs tend to be passionate about the intricacies of party bylaws and parliamentary procedure, ad nauseam.

Many in the party disliked Glassman for a host of reasons, his disastrous campaign against U.S. Senator John McCain being just one. (YouTube video "Sweet Home Arizona," anyone?)

Party insiders claimed Glassman had promised to sink millions of his family's wealth into the campaign. He lent himself $500,000 instead. At the reorganization meeting, Glassman denied to me that he'd ever made such promises.

But aside from these, and many other complaints, Glassman was, unlike Cherny, an elected precinct committeeman, whereas Cherny had been appointed to the post. Sticklers claimed only an elected PC could run for chair.

Others, including party legal beagles, contended that if someone was appointed to the state committee (the next rung up the ladder) to fill a vacancy, he or she need not be an elected PC. And so could seek the chairmanship.

Right about now, I'm sure many of you are wondering, "Who gives a flip?" And admittedly, that was my response to this kvetching over the rules.

Cherny seemed eminently qualified to be chair, despite the technicalities involved. He's a former assistant Arizona attorney general, an erstwhile policy wonk for the White House under President Bill Clinton, speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator John Kerry, and he actually wrote the national Democrats' 2000 party platform.

Though he lost to Republican Doug Ducey in the 2010 state treasurer's race, he nonetheless ran a tough campaign, for which he raised more than $1 million, which was impressive for a down-ticket race. Former President Clinton even came through Sand Land once to help Cherny raise funds.

With contacts to prominent Dems nationwide, and a brilliant political mind (he was working for Clinton as a senior policy adviser at age 21), the 35-year-old Cherny seemed just what the doctor ordered for Arizona's nearly moribund Democratic party.

But some in the so-called "progressive" faction of the ADP were having none of it. They bought a wacky, conspiratorial line that had Glassman — you know, the rich guy — pegged as the anti-establishment candidate. Cherny was, weirdly, the representative of the elite, for them.

Ironically, some members of the Arizona branch of the Progressive Democrats of America argued that Glassman would be a full-time party chair, whereas Cherny would have to bring in income for himself and his family somehow.

The chair position is unpaid, you see. And because Glassman's the scion of a California agricultural empire, well, he doesn't have to work for a living. Yeah, that's really anti-establishment, PDAers.

Knowing that Saturday's fight could get ugly, Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Glassman supporter, and former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Cherny supporter, issued a letter to party faithful days earlier, asking that the actual Cherny versus Glassman vote be put off for a month because of the tragedy in Tucson.

Glassman reacted that any postponement was part of an effort by party bosses to make sure Cherny would be elected. But didn't Glassman sign off on the deal to begin with?

Glassman said he had talked to his longtime sponsor, Grijalva, about it but that he had not agreed to any deal.

"We spoke about it four times over four days," Glassman admitted to me. "I told him specifically, and we exchanged e-mails about it with his staff, that I was going to run on Saturday, no matter what."

(For the record, Glassman also denied having made a homophobic comment about a fellow Tucson City Council member. The supposed comment became an issue in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, and the fallout from it lingered into the race for chair. Glassman portrayed himself as stalwart for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender causes.)

The state committee plunged itself into some serious parliamentary procedure on Saturday afternoon, with raised voices and occasional booing. But all the angst aside, the state committee voted down a motion that would have essentially prevented Cherny from running. Committee members then voted for accepting an interpretation of the rules that allowed Cherny's candidacy.

And then came the election itself, wherein Cherny prevailed, after a hand count of the ballots, no less.

Glassman gave an enthusiastic speech just before ballots were cast, one that called for "a strong Democratic brand" so voters know what Dems stand for. Glassman's not without communication skills, but I think quite a few fence-sitters were swayed by Cherny's heartfelt speech, which discussed his hard-knock upbringing and that he was the child of Czech immigrants who fled Communism to settle in Los Angeles.

"Thirty-five years ago," he said, "I wasn't standing up in a suit, or anything like this. I was in a one-bedroom apartment with two parents who were recent immigrants. A family where unemployment benefits and food stamps were what made the difference for us when times were tough.

"And because of good public schools and good public school teachers, public libraries, and good parks, because of Pell Grants and federal student loans, I was able to go from a kid whose parents didn't speak any English to working in the White House for the President of the United States. That only happens in America because of the Democratic Party."

How often do you hear a politician — even a Democratic one — talk publicly about the importance of food stamps? Or take pride in being the child of immigrants?

Cherny drove this message home, saying that only one party fights for public schools and regards immigrants as a strength not a weakness — the Dems. He talked about taking the battle to the "Russell Pearce Republicans," who are making the state a laughingstock, selling the state Capitol, and slashing education and Medicaid with unwholesome glee.

And then, Cherny ended with a moving vignette.

"Right now," he told the assembled, "somewhere in this state, there is a little kid who has no idea what we're doing here today. And maybe her parents are immigrants. And maybe they don't have a lot of money. But we are here today because we want to send a message to her that there are people out there ready to fight their heart out for her. That's why we're Democrats."

Afterward, I approached Cherny and joked that in the eyes of nativist, racist Republicans, he might be deemed an "anchor baby," as he was born in the United States a couple of years after his parents came here. He smiled and noted that his parents had green cards, so he might not meet that odious definition.

He decried Republinuts' attempts to change the 14th Amendment's birthright citizenship clause, calling it "un-American" and telling me that because of his background, "I take it personally."

Cherny said his parents were part of the arts community in Czechoslovakia and moved in the same dissident circles as playwright Vaclav Havel, who later became Czechoslovakia's president after the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism. When his parents were still there, the commies were in power, and they ordered the Chernys to spy on their friends. When they refused, they were ordered out of the country.

Interestingly, all four of Cherny's grandparents were concentration camp survivors. He attended Harvard for undergrad and UC-Berkeley for law school. His wife, Stephanie, is an Arizona native, and they have two children, one born on election night eve 2010.

He's the author of the wonkish The Next Deal: The Future of Public Life in the Information Age and a work of history, The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour.

The Dems are lucky to have Cherny as their new state chair — he can make the case that Democratic values are American values, in addition to all his other qualifications.

Yet there are a number of disgruntled Dems who whisper about a lawsuit or about challenging Cherny's credentials to the Democratic National Committee.

Before Saturday's state committee vote, I asked Glassman if he would be inclined to sue or otherwise challenge Cherny if Cherny were to win.

"I'm not getting involved with lawyers. I never have," he told me. "I don't plan on it. I plan on staying involved in the party . . . I'm going to support whoever gets elected today."

That sounds pretty clear. Glassman must know that if he's attached to an effort to challenge Cherny, he'll kill any future he has in the ADP. Better for him to accept the loss gracefully, do everything he can to mend fences with Cherny, and set his sights on other goals.

What about the Democratic wackadoodles more hung up on parsing bylaws than fighting Republicans? Who knows? These nudniks may choose internecine warfare over supporting Cherny's battle against the Republiloons.

If they do, they will reveal themselves for the clowns they are. Also, they will be held up for public condemnation and ridicule.

Here's a suggestion: Cherny has a two-year term; if he fails to turn the party around, disaffected Ds can always throw him out in 2013. Isn't that what democracy is all about? Or are the donkey-crazies afraid that Cherny might actually be an effective leader?

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons