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What the Devil won't tell you

Pima County poised to lurch Left after night of the living woke

Pima County seems poised to take a step to the Left after a primary night that ended eras and broke form.

Two outsiders and one challenger knocked out institutional candidates and an incumbent.

Defense attorney Laura Conover won the Democratic primary to succeed County Attorney Barbara LaWall. She beat Jonathan Mosher and Mark Diebolt, two Pima County Attorney's Office veterans.

The race for to replace Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez saw Tohono O’odham activist and progressive organizer Gabriella Cazares-Kelly beat Kim Challender, the assistant chief deputy in the Recorder's Office.

And former State Rep. Matt Heinz, who lost multiple runs for Congress, secured a victory over Pima County Supervisor Ramon Valadez in the District 2 Democratic primary.

Such a trifecta is rare for Pima County voters, who tend to promote from within departments rather than elect outsiders. They also have shown a heavy preference for incumbents. Only two incumbents have lost county elections in the last 24 years – Supervisor Ed Moore in 1996 and Sheriff Chris Nanos in 2016, and Democrats on Tuesday renominated Nanos.

The progressive base is taking over Democratic party politics and looks to be taking the county with it.

End of eras

The elections broke two lines of political heritage. Gone is a political pedigree that can trace a straight line of county attorneys succeeding one another back to Dennis DeConcini. They had a particular get-tough-on-crime ethos and worked through DeConcini’s sole term, 20 years of Steve Neely and 24 for Barbara LaWall. Conover is a defense attorney, without internal ties to the prosecutor’s office.

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Valadez was well-known to be the top choice of Dan Eckstrom to succeed him after he resigned in 2003. Eckstrom himself had replaced Sam Lena in 1988.

Valadez and LaWall rose from the '90s-era Democratic politics. In vogue then were pro-business, tough moderates because Democrats at the national level were coming off four straight presidential ass-whoopings (of the 400-plus electoral vote variety) in five cycles.

Local political fare was part of the broader national menu. It still is.

Democrats are increasingly woke. The new party imperative is bubbling from the ground up to drive party back to the Left, sensing some opportunity with Republicans abandoning the middle and the middle following the Democrats leftward on issues from universal health care to the dangers of climate changes, taxes on the wealthy and pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants. Criminal justice politics has turned from cracking down to ending mass incarceration. Being seen as “pro-business” pales compared to “fighting for the 99 percent.”

Hey, this could lead to backlash if the Republicans put themselves into a position to take advantage. How the Democrats move Left is as important as that they are moving.

Politics is changing. It always does. In this climate, Democrats seem less scared to pronounce their value or less moderate priorities. That was reflected in this vote.

Not sayin' (just sayin')

Now, I’m not saying these county positions were held by MAGAs in wingnut clothing. Mosher campaigned on much the same platform as Conover’s. Both wanted to get rid of cash bail. Both promised major shifts from punishment to treatment as a prescription for drug treatment. Both sought to reduce the amount of incarceration. Conover just represented an outsider’s approach.

Ramon was a perfectly fine supervisor with a decent progressive record and earned respect among some Republicans.

Challender was an assistant chief deputy for Rodriguez and any employee good enough for F. Ann is experienced enough for me. F. Ann is awesome.

Cazares-Kelly’s victory presents the biggest example of the county’s leftward lurch.

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The Pima County recorder’s job isn’t traditionally a political vocation. The office registers voters, keeps official county records and handles mail-in ballots.

All those Pima County Republicans who think funny all those efforts in Georgia, Wisconsin and North Carolina to reduce voter participation are likely to have a woke tribal activist in charge of your voter registrations. Enjoy.

Somebody who's made it a cornerstone of her campaign to make the franchise more accessible in places that have been overlooked — that happen to lean blue — just might be in charge here soon.

Part of me wants to laugh but more of me says the job is to give all sides equal access to the ballot – no matter their party preference.

Hers could be the star set to rise among the three big winners from Tuesday, if she can go on to general election glory.

The general

Her victory is not fait accompli. She has to go up against longtime Republican Party organizer Benny White. Yet countywide races that deep on the ballot tend to follow party registration advantage, and Democrats hold a substantial – but not unbeatable – edge there.

Republicans would have to turn the county recorder’s race into a high-information election. Good luck with that. Arizona has never been so vital to the national balance of power in the presidential race or deciding which party controls the U.S. Senate. The state Legislature is in play and the sheriff’s race between Nanos and Republican incumbent Mark Napier promises to be the most visible local election.

Cazares-Kelly had $18,000 in the bank and more than a two to one edge in cash on hand over White, as of the most recent expenditure reports.

Schadenfreude directed at the Republicans might be tempting, but the job is a bigger one than their manifest fears. More people voting is a good thing, not something that should make anyone nail boards over the windows. The election of any of these candidates promises to bring changes, but the most fundamental changes in our democracy start with voting — who has the opportunity, and who shows up.

Heinz also has opposition, in Republican Anthony Sizer. Sizer has a rather pitiful $1.78 in the bank as of the pre-primary campaign finance reports. Seriously, he should have written a 78-cent check to someone because those dangling pennies are almost embarrassing. It’s like the football team that loses 55-2. The safety almost makes the score look worse than a shut-out.

White and Sizer would be wise to see how Napier ran his campaign. He ran an old school "smooth-and-steady-with-honor" campaign. Heinz and Cazares-Kelly would be wise to keep doing what they are doing.

We already know Conover will be the next top prosecutor because the GOP – inexplicably – could not find any candidate to run for the post.

Just an aside: this was an enormous lost opportunity for local Republicans. They’ve managed to elect a treasurer and sheriff. How can the party just let that top spot go? Two years ago, the Democrats had no obvious choice to take on Martha McSally when she represented Southern Arizona in Congress because LaWall was a non-starter for higher office. The party could have had a clear challenger for Ann Kirkpatrick in 2022 or 2024.

Hello, goodbye

This sort of thing happens because the pendulum always swings. The big idea in 1980 is seen as out of touch decades later, just as the New Deal became tired old pablum in the 1980s, when the Republicans started to lurch the country to the right.

I remember being a 7th grader in New York state when Al D’Amato ran a conservative primary against moderate Jacob Javitz. Javitz represented the old Rockefeller wing of the party and was a relic of days gone by. The Goldwater wing was rising.

Now the pendulum is swinging back to the Left and someday it will swing back to the Right. Goodbye, Newt Gingrich. Hello, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Don’t blow a head gasket progressives, I’m not saying they are the same kinds of people. I’m just saying they are self-confident disruptors drawing their parties to their base.

Valadez got caught up in that historical scythe. Nothing wrong with Ramon; it’s just happens. He, Mosher, Diebolt and Challender were insiders in what is suddenly an outsider’s game.

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The people get to decide. If they choose to go in another direction, that’s not necessarily a personal rebuke. The shifts we're seeing aren't exactly generational with these candidates, but they're a potentially historic changing of the guard nonetheless.

Pima County progressives woke up. They’re probably going to keep waking up and with fits, starts and setbacks move the county to the Left … until it moves back to the Right as the current era ends and forms break.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who has spent 20 years covering government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly described Challender as a “chief deputy” to Rodriguez. Chris Roads of course holds that post in the Recorder’s Office.

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have your say   

3 comments on this story

Aug 10, 2020, 12:31 pm
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Seems to me like fearmongering about a “woke tribal activist in charge of your voter registrations” is perhaps not the best take and also racist. Just a thought.

Aug 9, 2020, 7:41 pm
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“Ramon was a perfectly fine supervisor with a decent progressive record and earned respect among some Republicans.”

Aug 9, 2020, 7:35 pm
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Oh here it is!  Thanks!

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U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a progressive stalwart, with Democratic county recorder candidate Gabriella Cazares-Kelly. Progressives scored wins in key primaries and are poised to move the county Left.


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