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As goes Billy Kovacs, so go Pima Democrats

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What the Devil won't tell you

As goes Billy Kovacs, so go Pima Democrats

Progressive upstarts are the party's future but they the terrify centrist-loving establishment — here and nationally

  • Kovacs during a forum of the Democratic candidates.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comKovacs during a forum of the Democratic candidates.

Billy Kovacs is going to lose.

Billy Kovacs is the future of the Democratic Party in Southern Arizona.

Reconciling those two truisms is the biggest challenge the party faces, here, statewide and nationally because they sure could use some fresh faces and new energy.

Republicans face a different set of challenges but one thing the Grand Ole Party has proven good at over the years is stocking its bench with candidates skilled at bringing the conservative gospel straight to voters.


Kovacs is one of seven Democratic candidate seeking the nomination to vie to replace U.S. Rep. Martha McSally and I use him as a proxy for all up-and-comers out in our corner of the desert who seem to terrify party leaders in D.C. 

The Democratic Party in Tucson, statewide and nationally must figure out how to turn its bench and walk-ons into potential starters, lest it start placing want adds or figuring out how to clone Terry Goddard.

Kovacs is one of six Southern Arizonans who are struggling to stand out against the Northern Arizona transplant (and as a former Northern Arizona transplant myself, nothing but respect) Ann Kirkpatrick. The former congresswoman is in the crosshairs of former state Rep. Matt Heinz’s attacks for being a carpet-bagging Republican Lite. But Kirkpatrick has the money to bury Heinz because she has the establishment's support.

The fact that Kirkpatrick won that support at all is the mind-bending news of this primary and it should send shockwaves through the local party. On some level there's absolutely nothing wrong with hiring from out of town. Business does it all the time. But someone from Tucson or Southern Arizona must be in a position to make a go of it next time.

Pima County Democratic voters have elected 11 state lawmakers, three county supervisors, seven city council members, a county attorney, county recorder and county superintendent of public instruction. If none were deemed to be able to take on Martha McSally (or her replacement) in a good Democratic year, then there is a big need for new blood.

Kovacs is making mistakes — the same mistakes every rookie makes — and the powers that be aren't to blame for that. He doesn’t have the money to get the message out to overtake Heinz trying to overtake Kirkpatrick. But he’s got the youth, charisma and smarts to make a dent in local politics and one day be “the guy” when the time comes. The powers that be will be to blame if they turn around in 2023 and say "we got no one" to make a race again without going to more Fred DuVals or retread Republicans.

Stefanie Mach had the chops. So did Tim Sultan. So did Brandon Patrick. Matt Kopec may not have been the most charismatic guy you ever met, but he worked his tail off. They left the arena and went on to other things (although Kopec's sliding back into the elected side of politics with a run for the Amphi school board). Democrats have a way of treating progressive comers as nuisances. And how they welcome Latino faces? Don’t even get me started.

This election cycle was going to be good for Democrats the moment Donald Trump was certified the winner in 2016. As sure as summer leads to monsoons, the party that wins the White House gets shellacked two years later. Pima County Democrats, being the stronghold of Democratic Party support in Arizona, should have had at the ready a candidate ready to give McSally a swashbuckling run.

Instead, a three-term but twice-losing candidate for federal office who moved to Tucson last year has become the front-runner for the seat.

Scouting the party

Locally, the Democratic Party has done a lot to get itself modern. First it built up its its base of legislative district chairpeople to establish something of a grassroots structure. Then it got real about fundraising and becoming more professional in terms of staffing.

But a party exists for one reason: To elect partisans. That means more than just finding candidates; it means grooming candidates.

I’m not talking about picking winners and losers during the primary process. I’m talking about recruiting and teaching candidates before they even take out their campaign paperwork. I’m talking about identifying among the current crop of elected officials, the ones best suited for moving up. Finding those new activists who should run for school boards. Making sure every precinct has its full slate of committemen.

The work that needed to be done to get someone ready to make the CD 2 race in 2018, should have been done in 2013.

Pima problems

Stepping-stone offices like sheriff, county attorney and mayor that typically feed congressional and statewide offices have been held in Tucson by Democrats like Clarence Dupnik, Barbara LaWall and Jonathan Rothschild — folks who've showed zero ambition to take the next step up.

Arizona's Clean Elections provisions relieve candidates of state offices from the burden of raising money above the $5 individual contributions required to gain public financing. So they don’t build up their own donor bases.

Safe Democratic districts socially promote progressives without having to get in a cage fight with real conservative challengers, thereby proving their electoral appeal beyond the party’s base. Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District contains four Legislative districts with 12 serving members. Eight are Democrats. Last cycle, just one election was close, with Republican state Rep. Todd Clodfelter ousting Mach in 2016 (something we will revisit). 

The party honchos want Democrats to schmooze moderates and independents by denying any presence of a political conscience. They don’t want liberals being so silly as to try to win with progressive arguments. (I don’t care if it’s a liberal idea or a conservative idea, so long as it’s the right idea for the people of X." Sound familiar?) Republicans will preach their ideology anytime, anywhere and do so with enough confidence to win.

I’m going to say it’s a knowable unknown that a liberal message can win moderates and independents. Voters tend to favor clean air, safe drinking water, Social Security, Medicare, public schools, public lands, the minimum wage, student financial assistance, gun restrictions and Obamacare, all of a sudden.

It’s at the very least a fair fight against popular conservative ideas like balanced budgets, rule of law, free markets and a belief that being aggrieved is no way to get ahead. It’s more than a fair fight now that President Trump has convinced the Right those are stupid liberal ideas too.

What the Beltway wants

Candidates seeking to climb need help at both the local and national levels, but the locals who are hooked in with the national players consider themselves to be players, too — and players in progressive politics favor resumes over talent.

The perfect candidate, in their calculus, is a Latina who opened a successful shooting range after being discharged from the Marines after seeing combat overseas. A business person can’t be called pro-tax and won’t be tagged for wanting more regulation. A combat veteran won’t be hammered for a lack of patriotism. She will turn out the base without having to bend to their issues.

Progressive Latinos, of course, need not apply unless maybe they were registered Republicans just a few years back. 

That’s borderline sexist and racist, while missing the point that Republicans would call Ayn Rand a socialist purveyor of permissive objectivism if her ghost ran for public office.

The worst candidate possible is a liberal, let alone a gay half-Lebanese liberal like Heinz whom the Left didn’t go out of its way to help as they begged the politically impaired Ron Barber to cling to life until his predictable political demise. Barber is a damn nice guy, but was an awful candidate. He was supposed to be a temporary placeholder but the gurus in Washington felt they needed him to keep running because they thought no one else in Southern Arizona could win.

What separates Kovacs and those like him from the real contenders isn’t a lack of talent but a lack of know-how and connections. There’s a nuts and bolts to campaigning and people aren’t born handy in the ways of politics. They also need access to money, which requires a whole bunch of hook-ups.

When the South rose

Once upon a time, a scouting unit would watch for young talent to groom.

The Southern Democratic Leadership Council rose up in reaction to Walter Mondale’s 49-state drubbing just 12 years after George McGovern’s 49-state drubbing.

The party saw the South as the route back to power but only if they could break the the northern lock on Kennedy liberalism. The SDLC leadership dropped the "Southern" part in the 1990s and became the DLC.

They scored successes at the state and national level, helping Bill Clinton get to the White House and providing a template demanded of swing district candidates that was very simple.

I found this priceless quote from a 2001 article in the American Prospect touting the DLC’s string of successes throughout the 1990s:

"Today's is not your father's Democratic Party. Though the dwindling chorus of party progressives provides counterpoint, today's Democrats are proud to claim the mantle of budgetary moderation. They oppose President Bush's $2-trillion tax-cut plan not by arguing mainly for more spending on health, education, and welfare, but because it risks the new sacred cause of paying off the national debt. They are the party of increased military spending, the death penalty, the war on drugs, and partnership with religious faith. They are the party of Ending Welfare As We Know It, the party of The Era of Big Government Is Over."

What? No protecting the American family from the gay agenda? The DLC did a great job repositioning the Democratic Party as the Republican Party with a bit more social conscience.

National Democrats haven't changed much in their approach to winning tight races but the rest of the party has moved on.

After pushing for the Iraq War and the kind of deregulation that brought down the banks, the DLC shuttered in 2011. 

Looking for a hook-up

“True Progressives” can applaud that all they want but the DLC served a purpose.

The DLC scoured the political landscape for young leaders and hook them up with all sorts of help. In Southern Arizona, they found their woman in the early '00s. A businesswoman and, most important, a former Republican with connections to the Tucson business community. Gabby Giffords was a comer.

The political world made room for her. They helped her with connections. When a seat came open, she had nearly $300,000 in the bank within a month.

For his part, Kovacs jumped into the race early while other Democrats hemmed and hawed at the prospect of taking on McSally. He managed to bring in about $20,000 in his first two months. Great money for a Tucson City Council race but not enough to convince anyone he was a serious contender for a congressional run. When McSally bolted for the Senate campaign after Kirkpatrick entered the race, Kovacs' fundraising dried up.

Maybe here, progressives/liberals want to gripe about “legalized bribery” and the contamination of money in politics. Good. Fine. But there is a real world thing going on here that needs to be recognized.

What is the new Democratic Party’s answer, in its new liberalizing incarnation, to hooking candidates up for cash? Anything? There are organizations like “Swing Left” that has raised $4 million for primary winners in swing districts but that’s awfully late in the candidate recruitment process to count much. Small-dollar donations can pack a wallop, too, and there are groups trying that approach. Again, they are seeking to reward the candidate long after the real help is needed.

The Center for Progressive Leadership does offer some training and fellowships for “future leaders” but they take a broad approach to help fill staffing positions in liberal institutions and teach community organizing. That’s fine and all but it’s not retaining and grooming candidates.

From Sirhan With love

Which brings me to the rank-and-file needing to grow up some.

Democrats want to fall in love. They want passion. They want to walk passed the bumper sticker, look at the candidate’s name and feel it. They don’t want to hire someone to do the job they need done. They want the X factor.

I blame Sirhan Sirhan.

The man who murdered Robert F. Kennedy left a giant gaping promise never redeemed or never found to be a broken promise. Boomers passed the romanticism onto Gen Xers and somehow millennials still carry the infirmity.

The party isn’t in love with Heinz. It’s heart doesn’t skip a beat when Mary Matiella walks in the room. Bruce Wheeler is a nice guy … but …

Democrats here took out Matt Kopec in a 2016 legislative primary and then for reasons I can't even begin to understand didn't turn out for Stefanie Mach that November. Local voters never knock out incumbents but they chose to 86 Mach? The woman had a personal narrative so inspiring, she chafes at the idea that she's an inspiration. And that's the candidate a Democratic stronghold full of older voters looked at and said "eh, I bet she likes hip-hop."

It’s OK to “just be friends” with a candidate who shares most of your principles. The soul doesn’t have to dance. Republicans learned long ago it’s perfectly fine to hire a candidate to do a job without hoping they notice you from across the room.

Well, they did until Donald Trump came along and suddenly they are waiting to find out what they believe based on what Trump will tweet tomorrow morning.

Losing a race for Congress is no big obstacle to a future in elected office, especially if it's a primary. Ann Kirkpatrick lost a House election, and bounced back for two more terms. Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all lost a race for the House before working in an office without right angles. Twenty percent of U.S. presidents lost an election before finding themselves at that desk. Even the seemingly undefeatable Raul Grijalva lost his first bid for elective office. McSally lost a primary and a general election before eking out her first narrow win. Steve Farley lost a City Council primary before turning his sights on the Legislature (and now the governor's chair).

No matter what happens in 2018 or 2020, Democrats are going to need someone to run in 2022 and 2024. The time to start thinking about those races isn’t 2021 or 2023. There are Billy Kovacses out there ready to make the leap. Without some help now, they'll make that leap and lose. If the Dems let them wander off into oblivion, then Terry Goddard’s DNA will start looking good.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party.

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported the election cycle in which Kopec lost his primary race.

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