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Arizona Democrats Struggle to Come Out Of The Closet -- As Democrats

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Last weekend (Nov. 18-20, 2011) about 300 Democratic stalwarts met in Yuma for one of our quarterly tent revivals, better known as a State Committee Meeting. The purpose of this gathering is to vote on policy resolutions, hear how wonderful our prospects are (a recurring theme despite the 2010 GOP sweep of every statewide office ) get attendees to donate money and, I suspect, provide rare moments in the sun for devotees of Robert's Rules of Order.

The meeting started informally Friday evening as early arrivals celebrated ADP Executive Director Luis Heredia's birthday with a (what else?) dinner/fundraiser. That night and into the next day, folks were abuzz with three recent torpor-rattling developments: the Arizona Supreme Court's smackdown of Governor Jan Brewer's dismissal of Independent Redistricting Committee Chair Colleen Mathis in a blatant GOP power grab; the nascent Occupy Movement and, most profoundly, the end of Russell Pearce's (R-Mesa) reign of terror as State Senate President with the election of nice guy Jerry Lewis. Yes - Jerry Lewis.

We also recently had a State Treasurer named Dean Martin. There's no telling how far other GOP candidates with Rat Pack-era celebrity names could go in this state. But I digress.

The defeat of Pearce was the topic of du jour not just because it rendered him the first sitting Senate president in the nation and the first Arizona legislator ever to lose a recall election, but because of the awkward dynamics between Democratic Party establishment and former Senate Candidate Randy Parraz, the man who led the charge against Pearce.

Parraz, a charismatic UC Berkeley Law School grad and former union organizer, was openly shunned during his 2010 Senate campaign by corporate Democrats terrified of breaking away from their Republican-lite campaign strategies. Those tactics, while occasionally landing a winner like former Governor and now Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, have also rendered the party silent (and impotent) on racist anti-immigration bills like SB1070 and repeatedly demoralize activists drawn to the party on just such populist issues. In fact, the only thing differentiating mainstream Arizona Democrats from Republicans may be the Prius' in their driveways.

Party leaders also shied away from openly endorsing Parraz' successful effort to remove Pearce, as did several sitting Democratic electeds. When I verbally pondered why party leaders and electeds would not openly embrace the movement to remove our arch-nemesis, the response, paraphrased, was "If people know Democrats want Pearce to be gone, he'll stay in office." Hmmmm.

One could say there's an almost pathological self-loathing of Democratic values at play among Democratic State Committee members. Let's call it internalized Demophobia: the fear of actually letting people know that your leanings are decidedly left-of-center The good news is that with the defeat of Pearce and the rise of the populist Occupy movement, it looks as if AZ Dems, while not quite ready to wave a donkey flag and hold a pride parade, are willing to let their GOP mom and dad know they've finally had enough.

Mid-morning, Parraz and members of his bipartisan posse entered the Progressive Caucus meeting to a lengthy standing ovation. Parraz spoke about campaign and its nay-sayers with passion, grace and just a touch of crowing. Ironically, his pitch was followed by that of former Party Chair Don Bivens, now a candidate for veteran GOP U.S .Senator Jon Kyl's seat. Bivens, the man at the helm during 2010's GOP sweep, now appeared in front of these lefty Dems out of his usual Snell and Willmer partner suit and tie in favor of dad jeans and a short-sleeve shirt. Hoping to catch the tailwind from Parraz's rock star entrance, Bivens promised to run as a "real" Democrat.

Evidence of burgeoning change was also apparent at the plenary meeting Saturday afternoon. Following a tepid financial report, Parraz was introduced by subdued Party Chair (and former advisor to Presidents Clinton and Obama) Andrei Cherny. Countless games of Angry Birds remained unfinished as the faithful cast aside their smart phones to stand, applaud and bask in a rare moment of victory, even if getting rid of Pearce had been an admittedly bipartisan move. They listened with rapt attention as Parraz retold the tale and in a classy gesture, shared the stage with the many campaign volunteers in the audience. Suddenly the previously scarce Democratic money started to flow - for Parraz' next campaign that is. After hinting strongly that Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio were next on the hit list, $1400 was gathered in just under five minutes -- a miracle not all that dissimilar to that of multiplying loaves and fishes (if not quite as lasting). The message is loud and clear: this is what happens when beleaguered 'Zonie' Dems see the real deal.

Will Arizona Democrats continue to embrace their newfound moxy to change our state's current reputation as a sunshiney, margarita-drenched version of 1960's Alabama? For the first time in 30+ years, signs point to "Yes" - but only with the steadfast determination to destroy that stale Demophobia. Real victory means engaging voters' heads AND hearts.

Diane D'Angelo is a Phoenix-based writer, civic engagement enthusiast and member of the State Democratic Committee and of the precinct committee in Legislative District 11. The video above of Randy Parraz speaking at the meeting was shot and contributed by Pamela Powers Hannley. If you would also like to contribute to The Huffington Post's coverage of the 2012 electoral process as a citizen journalist, please sign up at www.offthebus.org.

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