Hee-Haw Politics

The old Democrat answers the phone at state party headquarters. He takes a message for party chairman Mark Fleischer.

Ask Fleischer, says the caller, what is the future of the Arizona Democratic party?

The old man chuckles. "Sorry, I just had to laugh at the question," he says, adding an answer of his own. "Remember that old song from the Eighties, 'The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades'?"

His optimism seems reasonable, considering recent Arizona history. Democratic voter registration has risen. In 1996, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win here since Harry Truman. This past summer, the Republican governor left office in disgrace.

When he sits down for coffee a few weeks later, Fleischer wholeheartedly shares his receptionist's assessment. On the table is a USA Today with an article and a picture featuring U.S. Senator John McCain.

Fleischer says he's confident his candidate, a Democratic lawyer who's spent the past 10 years out of the country, will beat McCain next fall.

Prominent Arizona Democrats--state Representative Ken Cheuvront, party trustee Paul Eckstein, party booster Barry Dill--all are convinced, they say, that the Dems will run the victory lap come next November.

Even national party leaders are clucking about the opportunities here.

Michelle Kucera, deputy press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, says, "There seems to be a new growth market for Democrats in Arizona." Democrats are flying higher, she says, than they have been for decades. The DNC operative is likely looking back to the 1974 election when Dems swept the state with the victories of Governor Raul Castro, Secretary of State Wesley Bolin and Attorney General Bruce Babbitt, thanks partly to Richard Nixon's convenient demolition of the Republican party.

But Kucera--like the others--is wearing rose-colored glasses. If DNC operatives had 20/20 vision, they'd be tucking away their checkbooks and heading to more Democrat-friendly turf--like, say, Orange County.

The Democrats' jolly demeanor is skimpy cover for the reality that the Arizona Democratic party has no clothes.

Next November Arizonans will elect a governor and U.S. senator, along with six congressmen, a corporation commissioner, secretary of state and attorney general. Odds are, the Dems will lose nearly every race.

Despite the Clinton victory and despite the Symington conviction and despite anything short of a really bad hair day for Jane Hull, 1998 will be disastrous for Arizona Democrats.

Just four years ago, Republicans in Congress faced a situation as dire as that facing the Arizona Democratic party. A Democrat sat in the White House. The GOP hadn't controlled the U.S. House of Representatives in decades, and was in constant danger of losing control of the Senate.

Then House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich strode forward clutching his Contract With America. He teamed his charismatic leadership style and bold, attractive message with a strong organization, and, BAM! The Republicans were in.

Gingrich raised a lot of cash, too, but the fate of the Arizona Democrats is not just about money. The national Democratic party can pour endless resources into the state party effort, but it won't make a difference unless Arizona Dems can scrounge up the same crucial components of success that Gingrich did: organization, message and appealing politicos. Right now, on those three pitches, the party's batting zero.

That bright light that local Dems see in the distance is optical illusion, St. Elmo's fire. The only reason Democrats in Arizona need sunglasses right now is to protect them from seeing reality.

Or to hide behind.

Bill Clinton won in Arizona because he had the three ingredients that make a political recipe successful. The most pro-business Democratic candidate since Kennedy, Clinton had a message that appealed to fiscally conservative Arizonans. His topnotch campaign organization also benefited from a momentary breakup in the state's GOP, which split its affections among Phil Gramm, Steve Forbes and Bob Dole. And Clinton had curb appeal--people like him.

But the appeal stopped with him. For proof of the Arizona Democratic party's organizational shambles, look no further than Clinton's 1996 victory. It had no coattails.

Unable to attach to Clinton's popularity, the party lost its majority on the state Corporation Commission for the first time in more than a decade.

And despite record contributions from labor unions, Steve Owens still managed to lose his bid to unseat one of Washington's biggest lightweights, Representative J.D. Hayworth.

Asked to elaborate on the party's standing in the aftermath of the Clinton victory, Barry Dill--who led Clinton's Arizona effort--dons his own rose-colored glasses and looks for something good to say.

"The Arizona Democratic party has moved rapidly up the priority list of the national party organization. And that provides great strength in resources," Dill says.

How much were they getting?

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.