Now Reading
Burns: 'Inclusivity be damned' in Pima Democrats' intraparty elections

Guest opinion

Burns: 'Inclusivity be damned' in Pima Democrats' intraparty elections

I'm not just talking about a lens of ethnic diversity, but sexual orientation, gender & yes, age

  • A screenshot of the Pima Dems website.
    A screenshot of the Pima Dems website.

Pat Burns is a longtime political consultant and staffer who has held several leadership roles in the Democratic Party, the most recent being first vice chair of the Arizona Democratic Party and a DNC member from 2019 to 2021.

Four years ago seems like an eternity these days, but I still remember being in an auditorium on the University of Arizona campus when the results of that year's Pima County Democratic Party election for chair were announced. 151 votes for incumbent Jo Holt, 156 for newcomer and challenger Alison Jones.

I was among those who were a bit surprised at this result given the recent success we’d had. I had just served 6 years in PCDP leadership, and the last 4 of those as 1st vice chair.

I wasn't running again that day but was feeling pretty good about the work we had accomplished over those last several years. Re-electing an all-Democratic mayor and Council in Tucson, finally sending an all-Dem delegation to the Legislature from LDs 2, 3, 9, and 10 collectively, flipping CD 2 from red to blue, and doing our part to elect Kyrsten Sinema to the U.S. Senate (I know, I know).

The week after, Jones told the Daily Star she'd run on a platform of inclusivity and acknowledgement of the grassroots organizations and allies that existed outside of the party that helped Democrats in some important wins.

Fast forward to this month, and it appears that inclusivity be damned when it comes to the leadership of the Pima County Democratic Party.

I'm not here to tell you the new chair of the PCDP, Eric Robbins, is a bad guy. In fact, he seems like a pretty nice guy who is committed to the proverbial cause and really wants to take on this unpaid, often thankless job.

I just take issue with some of his choices and messaging (or lack thereof) leading up to the reorganization meeting.

Eric and Kim Khoury went head to head for the chair position and he won by about a 2-1 margin, similar to two years ago when Bonnie Heidler beat Luci Messing for the same position.

Robbins had the support of outgoing chair Heidler and former chair Jones, and so did the rest of his slate of officers he put together.

That six-person slate with Robbins at the top of the ticket were all elected, all of them white, and with an average age of nearly 70.

It made me feel as if I’d logged into the wrong Zoom meeting, and gave me heartburn over the missed opportunity of having the most diverse group of officers possibly ever.

Is this the inclusivity that was talked about so much four years ago when the “anti-establishment” took over party leadership? As an aside, I'm pretty sure one becomes part of the "establishment," to some degree when they sign up to be a precinct committeeperson, the building block of any recognized political party in Arizona.

This lack of diversity wasn't for lack of options.

Kim Khoury, an activist and adviser to several campaigns through the last several years, didn't want to put together a slate per se, but she did endorse some folks for four of the other five positions.

These endorsements showed that, as the kids say these days, "she understood the assignment." She thought to herself exactly what I would think to myself if running for chair of a progressive organization in Arizona's second-largest county; I should endorse some folks who don't look like me because representation matters.

And I'm not just talking about representation through a lens of ethnic diversity, I'm talking sexual orientation, gender and yes, age.

After Kim lost, up next was the 1st vice chair race.

Dana Allmond, a black woman retired from the Army, just ran a great race for the state House in the new, and red, district 17.

She lost that election by less than one percentage point, but for 1st vice chair of PCDP, she saw the writing on the wall with Kim's margin and decided to not even accept the nomination.

After that, Marcelino Flores went through with his candidacy for 2nd vice chair, he's a former member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribal Council and more recently was elected president of the local AFSCME 449 union chapter.

He ended up losing to a person who as far as most of us could tell, hadn’t even logged into the meeting. Her speech had to be summarized by a supporter.

Later, Caitlin Jensen — at age 37, the youngest person among the whole field of candidates and a queer woman with extensive campaign and marketing experience — was the next to lose for the role of recording secretary.

And finally, Tim Kosse — who earlier this year ran for Town Council in deep red Marana — followed the lead of Allmond and declined his nomination for the position of corresponding secretary.

When running for something like chair of a political party, it’s good to have some plans of what you’ll do and how you’ll do it if you’re elected.

I found the Robbins platform to be a bit on the vague side, and it bothered me that so much was missing.

Little to no mention of the election next year for city of Tucson mayor and three of the six City Council seats, not much specificity on how to keep the party financially solvent, and little about outreach to marginalized groups and areas to increase participation and turnout for Democrats.

His messaging was more about trainings, strategic planning, and growth of the party in a more general sense, all fine things to talk about, but what else are you gonna do? Democratic candidates are often knocked for talking too much and not being able to condense things into memorable soundbites.

It’s usually a pretty valid criticism in my opinion.

But if there was ever a time to get into the weeds in an email or mailer about your ideas as a candidate, it’s when you’re running for chair of the local party and campaigning for the votes of other political nerds like yourself.

A lot of these platform omissions speak to a larger problem in the county party these days, a lack of institutional knowledge.

There are still plenty of activists around who remember a time when the party had a thin budget and went without paid staff, when the Tucson City Council had Republicans serving on it, and even a time when the headquarters was run out of an old gas station.

The folks with that knowledge are largely still around, they just aren’t consulted much. That kind of stuff can come back to bite us.

If the local Republicans ever have the wherewithal to nominate people who don’t think Trump is Jesus incarnate, we could get caught flat-footed.

I’ve already seen some concerning data that points to Pima county having more of a turnout slump than other counties, particularly among Hispanic voters; though we still don’t have party-specific turnout numbers.

Kim Khoury on the other hand, communicated a detailed plan and goals, things a chair is really meant to accomplish and focus on.

She placed a priority on the city of Tucson elections next year and wanted to make sure we retain the 7-0 Dem advantage with the mayor and Council.

This would serve to keep our momentum going into 2024 and keep our precinct committeepersons busy and sharpening their skills.

She’d sit down every day and do something nearly every politician I’ve encountered hates doing, call time for money. She’d use her position as a bully pulpit to amplify the work our local and state elected Dems were doing and she’d do outreach to ignored groups and areas.

Her other officer endorsements were a damn good start for that last point too. She even mentioned down ballot races like school board; did anyone notice how many of these "Purple for Parents" candidates were running for public school board positions this year?

Luckily, not many of them won, but I’m sure they’re already gearing up for 2024. Those are the things a chair does, and I’ve spent plenty of time around successful party chairs at the local and state level in my 20 years of involvement.

I’ve been called plenty of things over the years: a gatekeeper, too mainstream or moderate, part of the establishment, and worse names I won’t mention here.

Politics can be rough and tumble, and our internal battles can sometimes seem worse than the ones we fight at the ballot box every November.

If you ask me who is part of the “establishment” these days in the PCDP, I’m not sure anymore. Is it the last couple of leadership teams, the people who won this past Saturday and the rest of their supporters?

After all, in the past, the establishment has been the group in charge and accused of lacking in diversity, simply complaining about poor turnout on “that side of town,” and being too much in cahoots with the more moderate wing of the party.

Or is the establishment now the group of folks who have a different definition of inclusivity, the group that has the support of not just Supervisor Rex Scott and former Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, but also that of Supervisor Adelita Grijalva and Mayor Regina Romero?

Is it the group that both values new ideas and draws from the collective memory of its longtime members? Or better yet, did this crowd learn from some of the newcomers that got swept in four years ago, regroup and become more inclusive themselves but are now threatening to break up the current social club and all the fun?

If that’s the establishment these days, I’m OK with getting lumped in with them.

My hope is that some people who see themselves on the “other side,” (no, not that other side) read this, not take too much offense and maybe reach out to old timers like me – I’m 41 for those of you wondering.

Or at the very least, stop confusing Mark and Scott Kelly on social media, realize that yard signs alone don’t win elections, appreciate that Twitter arguments with U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego are a bad idea, and maybe don’t try to catch the UA Instagram account in a Photoshop scandal that has nothing to do with politics.

Buy me a beer at the Shanty sometime and I’ll show you some of those screenshots, they’re a hoot.

Democrats, let’s learn these lessons now, and not in a near future November election, shall we?

Pat Burns is a longtime political consultant and staffer who has held several leadership roles in the Democratic Party, the most recent being first vice chair of the Arizona Democratic Party and a DNC member from 2019 to 2021.

More by Pat Burns

— 30 —

Top headlines

Best in Internet Exploder