3-D Vision

Bill Clinton won here in 1996, but two years later Arizona remains a one-party state--Republican.

In this election year, the Arizona Democrats are pluckily predicting victory. "You're gonna have a lot more Democrats to kick around, come November," chirps the party's state chairman Mark Fleisher of the statewide offices he hopes to pick up.

C'mon, Mark. If anything, the Arizona Democrats will lose their one remaining statewide office, the Corporation Commission seat held by Renz Jennings. He's stepping down, and his aspiring successor, Bisbee legislator Paul Newman, is hardly a shoo-in. Even party loyalists admit their best hope is that the voters confuse Newman with the movie star.

But wait. Just when you thought the party of Mo Udall, Bruce Babbitt and Carl Hayden was a goner, here comes a chance at redemption. It's an opportunity to nudge Arizona's one-party system over to make room for the Democrats, to stop the big-business-loving, tax-cutting, public-education-starving GOP steamroller bearing down on our state.

The opportunity at hand: The Arizona Democrats are poised to tie up the state Senate. Currently, the tally stands at 18-12, GOP. In any given year, political apathy and gerrymandered districts guarantee a large number of uncontested and inevitably uneven Legislative races. This year, there are three hot Senate races, and three is the magic number for the Democrats to achieve a 15-15 split.

That simple dose of equilibrium would throw a wrench into the state GOP political machinery, allowing the Democrats to promote their platform in the Senate and keep the Republicans at bay. And the Dems could achieve that even if they lost every statewide race on November 3.

With scant exception, the Republicans have controlled the state Legislature since the mid-1960s. The GOP never lost control of the House, and only slipped twice in the Senate: from 1974-78, and 1990-92.

Arizona's 1998 Dems of Destiny are Herb Guenther, Stan Furman and Harry Mitchell. If the three are successful, the party would be poised to make tremendous changes, says Tucson state Senator George Cunningham, a Democrat. "It will change the culture of the entire Legislature."

And possibly of all of Arizona. A tie in the Senate would change the Democrats' fortunes. The Dems would be entitled to half of the Senate's committee chairmanships. They could block big-business bills like the Polluter Protection Act--which threatens a comeback next year--and have a shot at securing substantial funding for children's programs and public education, hallmarks of the statewide Democratic agenda.

From all indications, this opening seems not to be the product of party strategy. If there's a god, he's a two-party god, and he's handed the Arizona Democrats a golden opportunity.

Neither party saw it coming. The Republicans knew early on that Democrat Stan Furman was going to run for then-AG-hopeful John Kaites' open seat in Glendale's District 16; Furman entered the season as the GOP's number one target. Meanwhile, Senate President Brenda Burns tried unsuccessfully last spring to woo Dem Herb Guenther, who is running in Yuma's District 5, to the other side of the aisle. But it wasn't until early summer, when former Tempe mayor Harry Mitchell signed up to run in District 27, that the numbers shook out, making it clear that the Democrats had an opportunity to even up their chances in the Senate.

Guenther, Furman and Mitchell are all formidable candidates. All three have served in public office in their districts. But experience is not enough. These candidates need to raise money, run strong grassroots campaigns and be able to count on the Arizona Democratic party for support.

For their part, the Republicans are taking the threat seriously. Last month, Brenda Burns made headlines for her heavy-handed attempts to hit on big-business lobbyists for donations to the Republican candidates in the three vulnerable seats.

The underdog Dems will have to counter big-business money with party strategy. And it appears as though they're doing everything right. With none of the seats contested in the primaries, the Democrats have been working hard to register Democratic voters and get the statewide vote out. The theory is that by focusing party efforts on oiling the party machinery, candidates are free to spend their own time and campaign money wooing moderate Republican swing-voters.

As of late August, the state party had an unprecedented $450,000 to spend on such efforts. Although, according to campaign finance laws, the get-out-the-vote effort must focus on all Arizona Democratic voters, the coordinated campaign is free to concentrate on targeted areas--like Guenther's, Furman's and Mitchell's districts.

The party plans to reach every registered voter in those three districts with at least two mailings and two rounds of phone calls, urging them to vote. Democratic legislators in uncontested races are encouraging their traditional donors to give money to the targeted Dems.

The best thing the Democrats have going for them in the battle to tie up the Senate is the candidates themselves. Two face weak GOP contenders, and all three are politically experienced.

Herb Guenther, in Yuma's District 5, has the best shot of the three. Democrats outnumber Republicans there, 27,000 to 22,000, and Guenther is well-known in the district. He spent seven years in the House, retiring in 1993 to put his kids through college. For the past five years, he's served on the state Game and Fish Commission, and that, combined with his job as administrative assistant for the Wellton-Mowhawk irrigation district, makes him an expert on agricultural and water issues--two important factors to his district's mainly rural residents.

Guenther's opponent, Yuma Chamber of Commerce official Larry Nelson, is a political novice. Of the three Democratic Senate hopefuls, Guenther is the most moderate, which is probably why Burns thought she should ask him to change parties. Guenther wouldn't budge, more out of disgust at the offered inducement--the chairmanship of the Senate Natural Resources Committee--than out of loyalty to the Democrats.

Stan Furman is running for the District 16 seat in Glendale being vacated by John Kaites. Like Guenther, Furman is well-known in his district. He served in the Senate for four years, until retiring in 1994 to run against Jane Hull for secretary of state. When he lost, he swore off politics, but party leaders lured him back. Furman has a reputation for running strong grassroots campaigns led by his wife, Gloria. That's how he won before in this district, where Republicans outnumber Democrats, 35,000 to 26,000.

Furman's GOP opponent, Darden Hamilton, is largely unknown in the district. Hamilton, an aerospace engineer, was recruited to run by conservative Trent Franks. If Furman can paint Hamilton as a conservative right-winger, he can likely get the moderate Republican votes he needs to win.

Of the three races, the Republicans will likely focus the most energy and money on defeating Furman.

Ironically, it's Harry Mitchell (Tempe's mayor for 24 years, he's already been immortalized as a statue outside city hall) who faces the toughest challenge. Mitchell retired as mayor in 1994 and ran an unsuccessful primary campaign for state schools superintendent against Lela Alston. He says he can beat District 27 two-term incumbent Gary Richardson this time, though, because he's back on his old turf. But even party insiders beg to differ. In comparison to Guenther and Furman, Mitchell's viewed as a lazy campaigner. As of the latest campaign filing, in mid-August, Mitchell only had $4,600 on hand, compared with Richardson's $27,300. Again, party registration works against him, with 31,000 Democrats and 40,000 Republicans in District 27.

But if Mitchell gets to it, and the party delivers the support it keeps promising, all three Democrats could win.

So, let's suppose Guenther, Furman and Mitchell pull it off. Will it be a new era in Arizona politics? A real two-party system? Not so fast. The price of winning is having to beat back the hordes of Republicans who will want to clip your wings.

Winning those three Senate seats doesn't necessarily guarantee the Democrats equal footing with the Republicans in the Senate. Burns and Co. won't relinquish control easily. They'll continue cajoling and teasing Democratic senators to change their party affiliation, dangling tempting offers of committee chairmanships and approval of pet bills.

But the Democrats don't seem to see the need for a strategy. George Cunningham and his colleague Chris Cummiskey, of central Phoenix, are both expecting a peaceful sharing of power. Cummiskey suggested that a genteel coin toss between the Democrats and the Republicans could easily determine who gets to choose the Senate president and Appropriations Committee chair, with the remainder of the committee assignments thrown into the hopper.

Cummiskey is hoping for "initial solidarity" among the Senate Democratic caucus.

"I would just hope that for all the work it took to get us there, the caucus would hold strong and not just cave in after all that," he says.

But, Cummiskey admits, it could easily happen. "Somebody could cut a deal, and that's the end of that game."

Contact Amy Silverman at her online address: [email protected]