Saturday, April 29, 2006

Why would John Verkamp run against Jim Pederson anyway?

In a bit of controversy, Tedski (my favorite blogger on Arizona political issues) 'arm-wrestled' a small secret out of fellow blogger Kevin Spidel, namely that John Verkamp plans to run for the Senate in the Democratic primary against Jim Pederson. The winner would face Republican incumbent Jon Kyl in November.

Now, quoting Spidel on Verkamp, he says

You all know him as a former County Attorney for Coconino County, a former Republican Legislator, and now as a vocal opponent against the war, and for single payer healthcare around Arizona. He is a third generation native with a family business in the Grand Canyon. Still not enough to get who this is? Folks who have come to a PDA, antiwar meeting, or peace action know him.

Pardon me, but I remain unconvinced. And no, it isn't simply because he is a former Republican legislator (I supported former Reagan supporter Wesley Clark in his Presidential bid in 2004, and I support former Republican legislator Slade Mead in his current quest to become state Superintendent of Schools.) As more and more Republicans switch parties, it is likely that in the future we will see more Meads, more Clarks and perhaps more Verkamps.

The reasons I am unconvinced about Verkamp is about HOW he switched parties, combined with the disconnect between what his positions were four years ago (as a moderate Republican who did break ranks to vote with the Governor on the budget, but also supported a lot of the same garbage that the rest of the GOP did-- and single payer health care? Why didn't he push for it in the legislature if he is so big on it?) and his new status as an extreme progressive. Now, I don't want to discount the possibility that he may have become fed up (like many people I know, including at least a couple of voters I have re-registered as Democrats) with the excesses of the Bush administration and of his former brethren in the legislature, but somehow this one doesn't pass the sniff test.

Let's focus on the how he switched matter first. In 2002, the independent redistricting commission redrew the lines and because Flagstaff didn't get its act together, instead of continuing to dominate its own district as people had expected, it was lumped into a district with the Navajo reservation (which is about three quarters population wise of the district.) Verkamp (who did not join the legislature until 1999, and so was nowhere near term limited out) decided not to run for re-election to the Senate in the new district, concluding (probably correctly) that a Republican would have no chance of winning in it. Had he switched parties then, however, he would have had a decent chance to retain his seat. Navajos are willing to listen to a Democrat from the Flagstaff area portion of the district (Ann Kirkpatrick of Sedona is one of the district's representatives today in the House, and would not have gotten there without support on the reservation.) So if Verkamp was really a closet Democrat then he had every opportunity to switch that year, and he would likely have retained his Senate seat in the bargain. But he instead put his party loyalty to the GOP ahead of his own interests and declined to switch parties so he could run.

So what of his 'conversion?' People change, after all. One of the people I re-registered as a Democrat in the little town I live in had been a conservative for nearly his whole life, even voting Libertarian once because he felt that the Republican candidate that year for President wasn't conservative enough. But after four years of Bush, the guy was so angry about Iraq, about changing the surplus to a deficit, about corporate welfare and about the Republicans' do-nothing approach on health care, that he re-registered as a Democrat. Couldn't Verkamp have undergone a similar transformation? After all, he was one of the most moderate Republicans in the state Senate for many years.

He might have, but I remain skeptical. Why, for example, would he wait until now, when Jim Pederson has jumped out to the point where he is the putative nominee and his recent round of positive ads have cut Kyl's lead in half, to run for the United States Senate? I understand (and agree with probably more than someone just reading this post and otherwise unacquainted with my blog would imagine) the point of view that we don't want to work our tails off to elect a Democratic Senator and get a Zell Miller/ Joe Lieberman/ Ben Nelson type Senator who the Republicans can always count on to break ranks. However, I don't believe that Jim Pederson, who transformed the Arizona Democratic party from a chronic loser which hadn't won very much statewide or elected a Governor in over a decade, into an influential and dynamic party during his stint as chair, is a guy who would break ranks often and vote with Republicans. Work with Republicans, yes (and frankly most voters of any persuasion want the problems to get solved, don't we?), but undermine the Democratic leadership, absolutely not.

My concern is this: given that John Verkamp refused to break ranks with the Republican party even when it cost him his state Senate seat, why should I believe that his candidacy is anything more than a 'trojan horse' candidacy, which he may well have worked up to over the past couple of years by showing up at progressive meetings, and which is expressly designed to run a negative campaign attacking Pederson? Republicans have been known to try this sort of stuff before (I've seen it personally in other states) and earlier this year I got a call from a 'pollster' who was obviously a front for someone wanting to smear Pederson. So if that is their strategy, then what better vehicle than a "Democrat" running against him in the primary? What causes me to wonder the most about this is the timing; If Verkamp was serious about a Senate run, he would have begun months ago. Coming out now seems to be the response to Pederson's recent momentum. Now stop and think-- who would want to change the dynamics of the race right now?

He has the right to run, but any progressive should think real hard about what is going on before they opt to support him.

NOTE: Tedski makes a point in the comments that Wesley Clark was never a registered Republican, being registered in Arkansas when they did not have voter registration. However, in addition to Reagan, he also voted for Nixon and has admitted that he considered himself more to identify with the Republican party than the Democratic party. This article (which is not complimentary at all to Clark) makes it clear that he tilted towards the Republican side much more than towards the Democratic side until a couple of years ago, so that my description of Clark as a 'former Republican' is not entirely without merit. Therefore I'm not counting this as an error (so I still have a .981 fielding percentage) but definitely could have been played better. Thanks, Ted.


Tedski said...


Wesley Clark was never a Republican. He voted for Ronald Reagan, which a lot of Democrats did, and was always registered to vote in Arkansas, which didn't have partisan voter registration until recently.

Eli Blake said...


Thanks for the correction. He did however identify with the Republican party for a long time, at least according to him.

Lily said...

I think we should encourage people to change directions if need be, as opposed to always looking at it as a huge character flaw.

Part of the problem these days is that nobody can ever change, or self correct- or they are labelled the dreaded flip-flopper.

Hey Eli, I'm at Blue Republic too now (in addition to far too many places!) and they are from Arizona. In fact, they just added a podcast of a recent radio show on Air America Phoenix where Jeff participated. Thought you might have some connection to the guys, and theya re very funny!

Eli Blake said...


I have no problem with people changing directions, I'm just not all that certain that John Verkamp is all that changed. Anybody can put on a new suit, but it's what he's done, not what he says that makes the difference.

We will see, but if his Senate run turns out just to be a front for GOPsters to get into the Democratic primary process and smear Pederson, then I will just say I told you so first.

Air America Phoenix? They were bought off the air on March 1. As far as I know, they are working on getting another station but they don't have one yet.

union guy said...


While your post had lot's of great background information, I think you missed one of the points of the situation why would anyone actually support Verkamp at this point?

Jim Pederson is not perfect, but he is viable. Verkamp will never be able to raise enough money to even compete with Pederson or Kyl, so why aren't Spidel and other progressives encouraging him to run for an office that he can actually win and create change? Why isn't Verkamp running against Renzi or for Secretary of State or State Treasurer? Is this run just symbolic and, if so, why back it?

We need real change, not symbolic change. Good candidates too often run for offices they can't win to make a point, when they could be making change by running for something a little lower down the political rung. We need to encourage the Verkamps and the Latases of the world to help the progressive movement by running for the leg or state offices that they can win. Jeff Latas would be a great legislator and lives in a district he might be able to take away a Republican seat. But he's running for Congress instead.

As progressives, we need people running at every level, and we should be honest with people about that and about their chances. If we're not, we're not helping the movement, we're hurting it.

Eli Blake said...

union guy:

Good point.

And I have a good starting point-- APS just got a sizeable rate hike, much more than many think they should have gotten, thanks to five out of five Republicans on the Corporation Commission. A former Republican legislator might be the key to open up the lock the GOP has on the Corporation Commission, so why not run for that?

Eli Blake said...

In fact, union guy, you bring up an even better point now that I think about it.

Look at the last Presidential election-- we had four U.S. Senators seeking the Democratic nomination for the Presidency (two of whom gave up their seats, both of which went to Republicans).

We have two quality candidates running for Secretary of State, but it's hard to scare someone up to run for the state legislature.

A guy like Terry Goddard (who wanted another shot at running for Governor in 2002 himself, but stepped back and let Janet have a clear shot at the nomination while Goddard ran for A.G. instead) who is willing to put the needs of the public and the party ahead of his own personal ambitions is an increasingly rare bird.

Our politicians need to remember that we are a team. It's fine to run against someone in a primary, but let's make sure that we have a good candidate for every office first.

Eli Blake said...

Rev. Straatemeier:

Although I'm not from district 8 (and as such don't consider it my business to endorse any of the candidates) I have posted repeatedly on Ted's blog the big lesson we learned up here in district one in 2002:

That year we had a free-for-all primary. People split in all sorts of ways, and we ended up nominating George Cordova, who was one of several who had moved into the district to run (as was Rick Renzi, the Republican nominee), and who it turned out was a flawed candidate. Of course, Renzi raised millions of dollars to spend on the race (both his own, his backers and the GOP national committee), and ran a very loud smear campaign against Cordova that he couldn't compete with, especially due to the failures on the part of many of us to coalesce around him (see next paragraph). So now it seems likely that we may be stuck with Richmond Rickey for awhile.

What we failed to do as Democrats was to unite around a single candidate. And we made a big mistake early in the primary season, another late in the primary season, and a third during the general election. Early in the primary season, there was too much in the way of personal attacks thrown around among the supporters of the various candidates, which weakened all of them. Late in the primaries, it became clear that there were really only two candidates who had a chance to win the primary-- Cordova and Steve Udall (incidentally, I was not a supporter of either of them, but late in the game I should have been willing to work for a guy who could win). Udall would certainly have been a stronger candidate, having deep roots in the district in a year when nobody knew who Renzi was. He wasn't the guy I was supporting initially (he is a moderate rancher, not generally my first choice), but he would have been a much better candidate than Cordova and more to the point, he'd probably be in Congress today instead of the Bush clone we have. Then, after the primary, we compounded our earlier errors by being slow to unite around Cordova (flawed candidate or not, the race was open-- Renzi certainly had his warts too) and didn't do the work in the days leading up to the election to pull him through. True, we worked in fits and spurts, but to win a congressional race requires more than fits and spurts, especially during the sprint to the finish line. It doesn't matter if the candidate in November is who you supported in the primary or not, you have to be willing to give them 100% support starting the day after the primary and not look back. Many of us here (and I include myself here) could have done more (just as much as we would have done had our candidate won) but we did not.

So the advice I would give (from unhappy experience) is that it's great to debate in the primary but at the end of the day, the team that plays better as a team, usually wins.