by Pamela Powers Hannley
Left-wing Facebook pages, blogs, and online-only radio news shows are on fire with charges and counter charges about the Arizona Democratic Party's backroom politics, party darlings, and the quest for party solidarity during the 2012 elections. For those of you safely ensconced down here in sunny Baja Arizona, here's a news flash you won't see in the Arizona Daily Star: for weeks, a tiny band of Democrats have been picketing in front of the Arizona Democratic Party headquarters and protesting the party's practices.
The crux of the matter is the appearance of favoritism by the Arizona Democratic Party, the Maricopa Democratic Party, and the Pima County Democratic Party. So, everyone has favorite candidates; what's the big deal you ask? It's OK for individuals to have favorites-- candidates they work for and raise funds for; it's decidely not OK for the party to choose "party darlings" and grease the skids for them during the primary season. Favoritism during a primary season squashes dissent, suppresses the candidacy of challengers, creates bad blood in the party, and hurts democracy. Here are a few examples.
In the CD8 special election to fill Gabrielle Giffords' seat, former Giffords' aide Ron Barber stepped into the race after several Baja Dems announced their candidacy or were thinking about it (publically)-- State Senators Paula Aboud and Matt Heinz, State Representative Steve Farley, and Southern Arizonan Nan Walden. Everyone expected Barber to be the sentimental shoe-in favorite and a placeholder Congressman for the CD8 seat but not to run in the general election for the new CD2 seat (a bluer district thanks to redistricting). After Barber announced he would run in the November general election, all of his would-be primary challengers-- except Heinz-- mysteriously dropped out. (Consipracy theorists like myself assumed people were strongly encouraged to step aside and make way for Barber.) In the Arizona Daily Star recently, Pima County Democratic Party Chair Jeff Rogers was qouted as saying there are people in the party who are encouraging Heinz to drop out. Personally, I think Blue Dog Barber has been a huge disappointment in the 2 or so weeks he has been in Congress-- most recently voting with Republicans and pandering to the National Rifle Association by voting to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. I lament that the other Dems dropped out of the primary so quickly; Heinz should definitely stay in the race.
In the 2012 CD7 election, the Democratic Party decided to not allow Congressman Raul Grijalva's primary challengers access to party data, which would have facilitated targeted precinct walking and phone banking. (Don't get me wrong here; I am in no way criticizing the Congressman. I like Grijalva, one of the true progressives in Congress, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I have donated a whopping $90 to his campaign, and my husband has canvassed for him many times.) It keeps incumbents on their toes when they have challengers.
Speaking of incumbents, in the 2011 local elections, the Pima County Democratic Party Executive Committee endorsed the three City Council incumbents almost 6 months before the primary. Only Councilwoman Regina Romero had a primary challenger, but who knows how many would-be challengers were stopped in their tracks by this pre-emptive move. In addition, the party spent thousands of dollars to bankroll a website and smear campaign against Romero's Democratic challenger Joe Flores. This was unnecessary nastiness against a fellow Dem, in my opinion. There was no way Flores would have overtaken Romero, so why stir up bad blood in the party? Endorsing all of the incumbents is a bad practice. Councilwoman Shirley Scott (a died-in-the-wool Blue Dog who was tainted by the long-running Rio Nuevo scandal) should have been primary'ed. Councilman Paul Cunningham (a neophyte Blue Dog) had been appointed to his seat; the Democrats never got a chance to size him up against other Dems.
Facebook is on fire with charges that Maricopa County Democratic Party Chair Ann Wallack, Arizona Democratic Party Executive Director Luis Heredia, and newly elected Arizona Democratic Party Chair Bill Roe are determining which Dem primary candidates are "viable" and, consequently, are steering money and "boots on the ground" toward those candidates with the bucks-- thus ensuring that the lesser known and poorly funded candidates will fall by the wayside (according to the people making the charges). There is even a Facebook page created to oust Wallack from her position as county chair. (Here's a hint for the activists: find an elected precinct committee person to run against her for party chair when the party reorganizes after the November election.)
Two "party darlings" often used as examples are Ann Kirkpatrick for Congressional District 1 and Paul Penzone for Maricopa County Sheriff. There are charges that Wallack has strongly endorsed Penzone over reform candidate John Rowan and has manipulated meeting agendas to deny Rowan and his supporters time at the podium. This is clearly meddling with the primary process. As county chairs, both Wallack and Pima County's Rogers should give all primary challengers equal access to party resources, databases, and legislative district meetings (where said "boots-on-the-ground" meet to hear candidates and issues).
There are further charges that the statewide party is acting in a racist manner-- particularly toward Kirkpatrick's challenger Wenona Benally Baldenegro. Benally Baldenegro, who has vowed not to take corporate donations, has raised less than one tenth the funds Kirkpartick has. I think the charges of widespread racism in the party maybe a bit thin (particularly since the Pima Dems' "party darlings" are Latinos), but there is evidence of favoritism before the primary. For example, there are charges that Heredia (a Latino) started an e-mail campaign encouraging people to drop their support for Benally Baldenegro (a Navajo who is married to a Latino). If this happened (and I say "if" since I have not seen said e-mail), it is definitely manipulative and inappropriate.
My point is...
The party should not be choosing which candidates are viable. All Dems should be treated equally by the party and given an equal chance to succeed or fail on the merrits of their ideas and the strength of their campaign organizations. All declared candidates, who have filed papers, should be given equal access to party resources, voter data, and party foot soldiers and should be allowed to speak at statewide and local party functions.
The people should choose candidates in the primary election; it is NOT the party's role to take sides.
The bottomline is...
The bottomline is that we need to get money out of our election system. It appears as if a primary deciding factor in the party's determination of candidate "viability" is money. According to the Federal Elections Commission website, Progressive candidate Benally Baldenegro had raised around $75,000 by March 31, 2012. Blue Dog corporate candidate Kirkpartick-- who had more than that in her coffers last year before Benally Baldenegro even entered the race-- had raised over $990,000 by March 31, 2012.
Psychologically, people want to back a winner. Rightly or wrongly, the vast money difference between these two makes it appear as if Kirkpatrick is the better candidate because she has the big bucks.
Dream with me for a while about a publicly financed elections-- not unlike the Arizona Clean Elections system or Tucson's clean elections system. What if after qualifying with a certain number of signatures and $5 donations, all candidates received the same amount of money to run their campaigns? What a concept-- a truly level playing field. Although there would undoubtedly be far less advertising, maybe we would have improved communication and real messaging-- instead of spin, lies, and smear campaigns.
With publicly financed elections, maybe the voice of "the little guy"-- as my Mom would put it-- would be heard.