Lessons from an Abortive Populist Coup


Paul Eckerstrom didn't campaign to be elected Democratic Party Chairman in any meaningful sense. He didn't even plan to run. He certainly didn't think it though. He tossed his hat in the ring because he had a passion for the ideas and strategy he wanted the Party to pursue, and which he wasn't seeing from the current leadership. He allowed his name to be put in nomination at the state meeting and made a nominating speech from the heart that resonated strongly with the delegates. Here is that speech:

The power of his passion for the ideas he expressed in that speech won over the committee members overwhelmingly. Suddenly, without planning or preparation, he found himself Chair of the Arizona Democratic Party. Everyone was stunned; especially Paul.

After two weeks trying to steer the Party, during which his health declined, he ran himself to exhaustion, lost 12 pounds, disrupted his family life, imperiled his livelihood, and ran into the thresher of an institutional culture that was unremittingly hostile to leadership from outside the borders of Maricopa, Paul faced reality and resigned the chairmanship because he realized that he would be unable to meet his goals and hold together his personal and professional life.

I don't blame Paul for this unfortunate and somewhat embarrassing episode. I blame the institutional culture of the Arizona Democratic Party and its failure to invest in technology and make thoughtful cultural changes that would allow a person who does not live in Maricopa County to effectively lead our party.

What does Paul's
resignation say about the how the dominance of Maricopa County in our
politics? Simply that it effectively excludes anyone from the out-counties from
political party leadership, or state-wide office for that matter, unless their personal
life is very flexible and they are independently wealthy or willing and
able to uproot their lives and move to Phoenix. How much vision, passion and talent are we leaving untapped due to the myopic focus on Phoenix?

leadership be a bit more flexible by now with communication technology
as it is? Does a corporate CEO have to be on the factory floor everyday? Does the President have to constantly be in the White House to lead the nation?

I have to say that the one thing I admired about Governor Sarah Palin
is how she managed to buck the expectations that she would uproot her
family and move full-time to Anchorage in a state dominated by its largest
metropol, in a manner not unlike Arizona.

We are effectively
excluding a lot of talented people who could bring leadership and
vision to both parties with the de facto requirement of residence in
Maricopa. Our next party leader must invest in the technology and work to establish a new institutional culture that allows our party leaders to be effective from
anywhere in the state. That hasn't been a priority up 'til now, and this episode with
Paul highlights why we need to make it one.

It seems very likely
that a chastened Don Bivens will likely get another term as Chair. He
should make building a location-agnostic leadership infrastructure his
primary goal as an acknowledgment of the mandate for change expressed
by the very fed-up committeemen and women who impulsively tossed him out
in favor of Paul. He should also make sure that the vision and ideas that swept Paul into the Chairmanship are pursued and brought to fruition.

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Michael founded BlogForArizona.net as the Howard Dean presidential campaign blog for Arizona in 2003, and has been blogging ever since. Michael is an attorney living in Tucson with his wife Lauren. In 2008, Michael remade BlogForArizona into a collaborative project. Michael now is but one of the contributors to the blog and provides editorial and publishing direction in consultation with the Board of Directors and the other authors. If you want to keep up with the latest Arizona and National political news in an entertaining quick hit of news and opinion, check out the BlogForArizona twitter feed, which Mike curates under the hashtag #MB.


  1. I agree that better use of technology would help the Arizona Democratic party be a true state party. Video conferencing and other internet technology will help communication statewide.

    Let’s wait and see what shapes up in the race for the chair.

    Having a defeated chair return after a vote of “no confidence” does not make sense to me from any political vantage point, no matter what is promised. We need a chair that is a team player, even in defeat. Was Don Bivens lending a helping hand on fundraising and party communication to keep the party strong after his defeat? If Hillary Clinton could support Barack Obama after her defeat, I would expect nothing less from a democratic party chair.

  2. We agree with you Francine about our former Governor Janet. Won’t support her anymore for any office in AZ.

  3. I had a chance to collect my thoughts over the last couple of hours and would like to address all Democrats on this blog.

    Bear with me, it will be a long posting.

    When I was in high school back in the 80’s, there was this senior who thought it was cool to go out and do whatever he wanted to do; from stealing out of others lockers to beating up on anyone whom he deemed “necessary of a good ass kicking.”

    He beat up a friend of mine pretty badly, but he wouldn’t report it because he was scared he’d get beaten again. I became so incensed at Ralphie Ballesteros (the bully) that I confronted him in the locker room before PE a couple of days afterward.

    Make no mistake, Ralphie beat the living hell out of me and I was on his radar screen after picking this fight with him. But there was a result I never imagined would happen-I gained a lot of respect that day (not from Ralphie) but from those who saw that a sophomore stand up to that punk. I didn’t ask for respect, all I wanted to do was give Ralphie a beating for what he did to my friend.

    Fast forward to June 2008.

    I was at the Sidewinders on a Saturday night. While I was waiting in line for a hot dog at the consession stand, a man rudely pushed past everyone and threw his beer at the person behind the counter. “This beer is flat you bitch!” he yelled.

    No one in line stood up to confront this guy, so I did.

    This guy was easily 6′ 1″ and 250. From what I could tell he wasn’t drunk (it was the second inning).

    I turned his bulky frame around and said, “apologize to her..now.”

    He pushed me into some patrons and I went up and pushed him right back. This guy had a couple inches and about 50+ pounds on me.

    Before anything could escalate, and off-duty deputy was there to break us up. Everyone in line turned on the guy and told the deputy that he started it and threw the beer on the lady behind the counter.

    He was arrested and I earned free food from the consession stand manager every time I went to that booth because I stood up for them.

    I’m not doing this to toot my own horn, I’m doing it to explain my thought process about the Democratic Party and Democrats in general. (If you want to stand up to a bully who is bigger than you, I hope there is a deputy around everytime!)

    I was at Saturday’s Democratic Hearing on cuts in the state budget. I congratulate Reps. Patterson and Heinz and Sen. Lopez for doing this. But what I took out of this meeting was very telling.

    These people need action and they need it now!

    The Democrats response: “I feel for you and I will take your concerns to Phoenix.”

    Yeah, like that is going to help. (No insult intended to our legislators-they are doing all they can with no back up from a Democratic governor.)

    The lot of us will sit around and whine on the blogs and go to our precinct committee meetings and commiserate with our fellow Democrats.

    Whatelse do we do: Nothing!


    We are getting past the point where Legislative District leaders should be getting their flock together and prepping for a recall of not just one or two Republican legislators, but EVERY legislator who voted for these cuts. Why aren’t we getting our ducks in a row to take on these bullies up in Phoenix when the six month period is over?

    Are we afraid of the work it might take?

    Are we afraid we might give people like Al Melvin a free soapbox during the recall?

    The people are looking for a leader against these bullies and all we are doing is standing in line while the bully curses out the lady behind the counter.


    Are we afraid like Senator Reid of standing up to the bully and losing a PR battle?

    We should be using this time in our history to show ourselves as leaders. To show we will stand up to them and their asinine ways.

    We may lose some or all of the recall races, but I guarantee you we will gain those people who are looking for someone to stand up for what is right and against what is wrong.

    You can get your committees together and march on the Capitol all you want. You write all the letters to the editor you want. It isn’t going to make a world of good, because these bullies won’t listen.

    It’s going to take a massive effort on our part to send the message through a recall of what they are doing is wrong.

    We must stand up for our communities, our neighbors, our children and our state-despite the recent turnoil inside the state party. We must do it ourselves and not depend on any leadership for anyone else.

  4. How does registering as a Green party member help diminish the chances of conservatives winning elective offices in this state?

  5. Um, Wasilla is a suburb of Anchorage and a drive should take an hour at most – less of a commute than some of us in Phoenix (like those of us in Apache Junction – NOT in Maricopa County) have.

    Besides, the state capital is remote Juneau. So I think you’re giving Gov. Palin undue credit.

    I am thinking of reregistering as a Green. Will the Green party again be on the ballot in 2010?

  6. Bravo, Zelph!!! It’s time that more people say what you did about Janet’s selfish screw job. She knew who would be in the legislative leadership, knew who would succeed her and knew the agenda Brewer and the other right-wingers would pursue. She left anyway to advance her own career. And, please, don’t anyone say that she was obliged or honor-bound to heed the call of her president and serve a higher calling. That’s sanctimonious crap!

    We are in the mess we are now both because Janet left BEFORE her REAL duty was done. We are also in this mess because she caved on tax cuts two years ago, despite the wise counsel of Lopes and others. It was sickening when, on the way out the door, she said that agreeing to those cuts was a mistake.

    I honor Janet for what she did for this state for six years, but she tarnished that legacy by leaving the foxes in charge of the henhouse. I will NEVER support her for US Senate or any other elective office. Moreover, next year, when the cuts to schools like the one I work in are even more deep than they were this year, it is her face I will see.

  7. Can a new tree be grafted onto the existing AZ Democratic party roots and survive, even thrive? That may be the short term question, while the long term goal is to create a system that can handle leadership outside of Maricopa, as this post suggests.

    The statewide response to Paul’s speech showed a deep hunger for a new direction in Democratic politics in the state, something of a combination of the Dean and Obama models. A wise “establishment” would use this energy and momentum to propel the party forward while cementing and enlarging the current fundraising mechanisms.

    We’re all Democrats. Our overall goals are the same, though we differ on some of the particulars. Our aim should be to work together for the general good, using the talents of all the parts of the party to our best advantage.

  8. If Napolitano wants to run for Senate, as has been rumored, and expects our loyalty, someone needs to tell her that loyalty runs two ways – and she has demonstrated her non-loyalty. She had an overweening concern for “protecting” the seats of moderate Republicans over solid Democrats and, when push came to shove, she abandoned us to work entirely at the national level. We needed her here to help our legislative candidates but her own self-aggrandizement was primary for her. If she decides to run for Senate and a “real” Democrat challenges her, that’s who I’ll vote and work hard for!

  9. Zelph- The only problem with that is the fact that Bivens can apologize and just go back to the same ol’ management style.

    I think that Bivens ouster should be permanent and another fresh face for the party given the opportunity to lead. Why should we make the same mistake twice?

  10. If Bivens wants the state chairmanship back, he should at least admit that he made some mistakes and tell us what he would do differently this time. Otherwise, no deal. Bivens won’t be our only choice.

  11. The party was not in the control of Bivens over the past two years, it was our popular and now AWOL Gov. Janet. She left the Arizona Democratic Party months before the election, knowing she would be HHS. The politics of ADP politics cowered to her demands to promote BO, then US Congressional seats, leaving our state legislature candidates in limbo. Her interest to make the federal government more palatable for her own selfish interest is appalling. Don’t put all the blame on Bivens and Weeg, the head was our own departed Gov, they were just the lackeys.

  12. Good thoughts Francine…I like the support for Paul who talked from his heart. And like the article said, he never thought he would win. However, we must have a way to bring our State party together. Pima County works very hard and won the election for Janet. There are dedicated paople in Northern AZ as well. United we’ll win, divided nothing positive can be accomplished.

  13. Surely, SURELY in a state this size and with a large corps of active and thoughtful Democrats, it doesn’t/shouldn’t boil down to “either/or”. While I don’t know the whole cast of characters who could/might/should become State chair, there has to be more than two. Clearly, Bivens lacked the necessary qualities to succeed. We lost seats in the legislature in the face of a large number of hard, hard working volunteers because of arrogance and wrong-headedness from the top, from Bivens and his selected staff. We need to do this again? There is no better alternative? Puleeze – give me a break – I don’t for one small minute believe that!

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