Six Activists, A Mysterious Proposal, And Dem Party Mutiny in AZ

Six Activists, A Mysterious Proposal, And Dem Party Mutiny in AZ
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PHOENIX--Arizona is not a sexy state. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, DC, these are the locales people pay attention to. Arizona politics barely gets attention in Arizona. So, when non-party-hacks start following Arizona party politics for the entertainment value -- and not just regular politics but inside baseball party politics -- then something is happening. Whether it's good or bad depends who's asked. Clearly, if you ask the Republican who has been hired to hire the Arizona Democratic Party (ADP) Executive Director, he'll probably tell you it's all good.

In January, Arizona politicos were stunned when party outsider Paul Eckerstrom came from the far reaches of the Arizona desert to beat out long-time party hack Don Bivens in the election for Arizona Democratic Party (ADP) Chair. Well, technically Eckerstrom is not a party outsider, and technically he is from Tucson (Pima County), which is not the far reaches of the desert. He's the former Pima County Democratic Chair, and Tucson is the second largest city in Arizona. As far as the ADP leadership is concerned, though, anyone outside of the Phoenix metropolitan area... well, they're treated with about as much respect as the desert Fremen in Dune.

Eckerstrom accidentally propelled himself into the chairmanship when he threw his hat into the ring in a split decision on the spot at the party reorganization meeting. Party business meetings are usually staid and stuffy, but Eckerstrom gave a rousing speech pillorying state party leaders for bungling the 2008 Arizona elections. He railed and thundered at the podium until the assembly was on their feet hollering, whistling, and stomping.

Saying that spurned former chair Don Bivens is unpopular, is a colossal understatement. If the ADP were polled, Bivens would probably have a lower approval rating than Jindal or Palin. Yet, only 2 weeks after Eckerstrom became possibly the most popular party chair in Arizona history, he sent new shockwaves through the party by resigning from the chairmanship, saying:

With my family and work obligations in Tucson, I cannot do the job that is required. I thought I could, but after being on the job for the last two weeks, I realized that I would be only hurting the Arizona Democratic Party that I love if I continued as chair.

The elation of having a new, inspiring state party leader quickly dissolved into frustration and furor. The outrage, suspicions, and conspiracy theories clogged up telephone lines and blogs nearly instantaneously. There was wild speculation that plutocrat Jim Pederson and other fat cats threatened to bankrupt ADP if Eckerstrom would not step down. Others conjectured that party staff thwarted Eckerstrom. Other scuttlebutt was too incredible to mention.

Meanwhile, six young politicos gathered to talk shop. Mostly they griped about the disarray of ADP. The mistakes made by Bivens' team. The loss of the new party leader. The Democratic legislative seats lost to the Republicans in November. The feeling of despair settling over too many Arizona Democrats.... Then, unexpectedly, one of them had an epiphany:

Maybe instead of complaining about the party, we can come up with some possible solutions.

All six had worked on various campaigns across Arizona in 2004, 2006, and 2008. One was a campaign director, another a field director. They all have hands-on campaign experience and felt their ideas were grounded in genuine on-the-ground experience, but ADP leaders don't exactly have a great reputation of listening to people on the ground. They set out, in the beginning, with the idea that they would put their ideas on paper and then worry about who would read them. They hoped to find someone to read their ideas -- anyone really.

Sean Bowie took copious notes and then went home and typed up the first draft. Seven pages. It took another month and seven more rounds of revisions by Joel Edman, Geoff Esposito, Matt Herlihy, Devin Mauney, and Todd Phillips, and the Building a Stronger ADP: A New Way Forward plan was hatched.

They had hoped a new candidate for chair would materialize who might be willing to read their plan and listen to their ideas. So far, though, no new candidate has materialized. Ousted Chair Don Bivens is once again running unopposed as time runs out for this Saturday's special election. As the plan to share their proposal with a new chair dissolved, they did what today's generation of young adult politicos typically do: They put their proposal on the web anonymously.

Something unexpected happened. In only a couple of weeks, "Stronger ADP" became a rallying cry for rank-and-file Democrats across the state. Arizona Democratic activists are fired up and ready to go. Unfortunately for the party leadership, many of them are fired up and ready to march on party headquarters.

Only party insiders are chary of Stronger ADP. Party honchos have standoffishly avoided endorsing even the simplest elements of the plan. Every powerful party hack in Arizona is pointing the finger at each other, certain that their political rivals are hoping to gain an edge over them. Phillips sounded off about the paranoia,

Everyone is assuming it's their rivals. We thought by being anonymous, the debate would be about the issues, but now too many people are only talking about the anonymous authors.

As you probably guessed from the list of names in this article, the Stronger ADP coauthors are coming forward today to allay suspicions -- to let everyone know that they are ordinary grassroots activists, not powerful political players.

Todd Phillips of Tucson, one of the coauthors, said although each of the coauthors has worked on campaigns in 2004, 2006, and 2008, the group didn't feel well known or "famous" enough to push their proposal. Their goal was meager: to promote a healthy discussion and debate, one that they felt ADP has never engaged in:

We want people to focus on what is inside the plan, not the names at the top of the plan. We're just six guys. We don't have all the answers. We encourage everyone to read the plan. Just read the plan. It's not about the authors. It's not about us. It's just about the plan.

The proposal has four primary prongs, which are expanded upon within the full plan (download the PDF here):

(1) An open and transparent hiring system for all state party employees, including Executive Director.

(2) A renewed organizational focus, aimed at developing a system of priorities and guidelines that will help shape the future of the state party.

(3) The formation of Project 2010, an all-encompassing statewide voter outreach campaign that is focused on targeted voter registration, PEVL sign-up and new PC recruitment.

(4) A strong unified message campaign for 2010 that challenges Republicans and in simple terms tells Arizonans what Democrats would do differently.

Ironically, #1 is already a complete bust. ADP First Vice Chair Harriet Young (now the interim Chair) hired Republican David Bruno to search for the next ADP Executive Director, and then she sent out a memo saying,

The Executive Board of the Arizona Democratic Party has approved the use of a search firm for filling the position of Executive Director of the party.

According to members of the Executive Board, not only did they not make the decision, they didn't know it was under consideration. One Board member, who was contacted by a local activist, said did not believe it was true at first:

I would have known if we had hired someone. I was certain we would hire a Dem firm. I felt like an ass, begging activists for what info they had on the subject.

Board members were especially angry that the decision was made only a couple of days before a scheduled Board meeting in which the idea could have been debated and voted upon. At least five out of eight ADP Vice Chairs were caught seemingly unaware of the decision. Party insiders contend that both potential Democratic candidates for governor, Jim Pederson and Attorney General Terry Goddard, knew that Bruno is a Republican and gave their blessing. It is unclear whether they knew that the Executive Board was circumvented.

More disturbing is the fact that David Bruno seems to have been awarded this contract allegedly because wealthy donor Bill Roe allegedly offered to pay for the cost of the contract upon the condition that his friend Bruno get the fee. Roe may have good intentions. Many were quick to come to his defense, but without the openness and transparency that the party grassroots has been demanding, these types of deals appear, from the outside, to be influence peddling. Bowie, like many others, expressed disappointment in the process,

It's as far away from transparent and open as it can be. When people see these kinds of things happening, they are less likely to put their time and energy into the party.

The move to hire a headhunter may or may not have been motivated by the desire of some party leaders to undermine the ability of the incoming party chair to select his own Executive Director (specifically, the unpopular probably-re-incoming former chair Don Bivens).

This type of impropriety, coming on the heels of what was seen as a party takeover by the grassroots is discomfiting. After all, complaints of "inside baseball," a lack of transparency, too many high-cost consultants, and nepotism have consistently been high on the list of complaints against ADP. Unfortunately, it seems that ADP leadership is answering those complaints by subverting more transparent processes, hiring more consultants, and engaging in more nepotism.

Is it any wonder that Arizona was the only state in the country to turn redder in 2008?

If you're a democrat in Arizona, then this comedy of errors either has you depressed or gearing up for a fight on Saturday. The authors of Stronger ADP are not sure what to expect Saturday. They do not endorse or oppose Bivens. Rather, the authors simply express a hope that the new chair, whoever he or she may be, will read the Stronger ADP proposal and take it to heart.

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