Feathered Bastard

Eckerstrom Upsets Bivens for Dem Party Chair; Pullen Beats Back James Challenge for GOP Spot

Today saw a stunning political upset of an incumbent state party chair. And no it wasn't AZ GOP Chairman Randy Pullen, who handily defeated rival Lisa James, 521 to 474 at the Republican reorganization meeting that took place at Camelback High School. Rather, the revolution occurred in the tony ballroom of the Wyndham Hotel, where former Pima County party chair Paul Eckerstrom challenged incumbent state chair Don Bivens at the AZ Dems' meeting, and won by the comfortable margin of 324 to 255.

Although James' challenge had been announced well in advance, and she had the endorsements of heavy GOP hitters like U.S. Senator Jon Kyl and Congressman Jeff Flake, her candidacy did not survive Pullen's appeal to the hard right of his party. As for Eckerstrom, he didn't decide until today to run against Bivens, announcing his candidacy during this morning's meeting of the state Democratic Party's Progressive Caucus.

Eckerstrom seemed surprised by his own win, saying after he rose to the dais to accept his party's leadership that, "I feel a little bit like Robert Redford in The Candidate, who after winning said, `So what do we do now?'"

Bivens raised megabucks for the Dems in the last election, but the party still lost ground in the legislature, and suffered embarrassing losses in Maricopa County, with Republican County Attorney Andy Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio being reelected over the Democratic contenders. Eckerstrom appealed to Democratic dissatisfaction with a state government now dominated by the GOP, a domination made worse by the inauguration of Governor Jan Brewer, and the loss of Janet Napolitano to the Obama administration.

Threats of cuts in state education by the Republican legislature have especially rankled Dems, motivating them to seek new leadership. Eckerstrom's passion seemed to convince many of his fellow party members that the status quo was not adequate.

"I came back from the inauguration," Eckerstrom told me shortly after his win, "and read all these articles where the Republicans were accusing us of destroying the budget because of tax cuts. It's anything but. It's been 20 years of tax cuts, and we need to start pushing back and saying that. And nobody was saying that, so I said, `I'll say it.' And the only way to do that was to run for Arizona state party chair."

Eckerstrom also promised a "15 county strategy," a marked departure from the current state party's Maricopa County-centric worldview, and a shift toward a more inclusive campaign strategy in 2010, with a unified party message.

Over at Camelback High School, it was a day of high-drama, Republican-style, with every major elected Republican in the house, from State Treasurer Dean Martin to state House Speaker Kirk Adams endorsing Lisa James. James'd run against Pullen before, and lost by only four votes to him. Going into this GOP dog fight, it seemed as if James had the momentum, and she was everywhere, working her fellow pachyderms, while Pullen stayed reserved and as cool as Paul Newman's corpse. By mid-day, I was hearing James was up by 15, but by the final count, James trailed Pullen by 47 votes.

Though the high muck-a-mucks had endorsed James, and nearly all of them seemed to think of Pullen as yesterday's man, the rank and file of the party stuck with Pullen. This, despite the fact that he's no great fundraiser, and that many in the party seemed upset by the kerfuffle he caused with the controversial Dan Saban masturbation ad. They also didn't like that he had accepted an improper campaign contribution of $105K from MCSO Captain Joel Fox, which Pullen ended up having to give back.

But Pullen effectively used the issue of illegal immigration to torpedo James, widely seen as a moderate, which is practically a dirty word to the AZ GOP. During Pullen's campaign address, he reminded the audience that he bucked both Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain on immigration reform, and he smeared James as being a supporter of "amnesty" for illegals.

"We have some very divided folks in our party on how they feel about that issue," James said of the pull of the immigration debate on the state GOP. "They're going to have to find some common ground, because unfortunately the folks that are going to be deciding that now are in charge at the federal level."

Pullen's supporters also slimed James in another way, inserting a flier into all GOPers' packets, announcing that James had received the endorsements of the New Times and the Arizona Republic. I don't know about the Rep, but I know the New Times as a paper didn't "endorse" anyone. Although I wrote something about the GOP donnybrook in a recent blog post, and my colleague Sarah Fenske did so in her own Valley Fever post. James told me she had nothing to do with the flier, and believed it to be dirty pool on the part of Pullen's camp.

To tell you the truth, from a purely selfish POV, having a yahoo like Pullen as the head of the AZ GOP will give me plenty to write about. Plus, the Dems are happy with Pullen, because they know he's an ineffectual fundraiser.

I'll have way-more to say about today's events in my upcoming Bird column, as I talked to a lot of players on hand at both meetings. So stay tuned for more detailed analysis and plenty more scuttlebutt next week.

(Update: The first version of this blog post noted incorrectly that Congressman Trent Franks and state Superintendent Tom Horne supported Lisa James. Actually, both were neutral in the James-Pullen match-up. All apologies.)

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