Say "Arizona politics" and most people across America think "Republican conservative stronghold." But Arizona can no longer be considered a bastion of the right.
Population migration from around the country has fractured the cohesion of the Republican Party and given rise to an expanding group of independent voters. The result has been Democratic victories for former President Bill Clinton, Gov. Janet Napolitano and Phoenix Mayor-elect Phil Gordon.
The new political climate led to the creation of the largest campaign public funding system among the 50 states, and has enabled scores of advocacy groups to slowly win support for additional government spending on education, health care and the environment.
Bruce Merrill, the state’s best known political pollster and a professor at Arizona State University, said the transformation was largely unnoticed until Napolitano’s narrow victory in 2002.
"It’s amazing to me every time somebody from the national press calls, they think this is a right-wing state and it isn’t," Merrill said. "The electorate in Arizona is quite moderate, which is why a guy like Clinton could win in Arizona. On many of the social issues, this is not a right-wing electorate."
Understanding the future direction of Arizona has important implications for the East Valley, where elected politicians have long held enormous influence over state politics. This year alone, East Valley lawmakers hold four of the top eight GOP leadership slots in the Legislature.
But that clout could wane if East Valley voters continue to elect bedrock conservatives that don’t reflect the mood across the rest of the state.
"We can create an effective majority in the state Legislature by coalescing with the moderate Republicans, which I feel reflects more the voters of this state than the current situation," said Jim Pederson, chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party. "All of a sudden, you have a two-party system. All of a sudden, if (East Valley politicians) don’t moderate our views somewhat we’re going to be on the outside looking in. To me, that is what practical politics is all about."
Conservative Republicans don’t easily concede that Arizona is moving in a different direction after decades of control. The GOP remains the state’s largest party with more than 922,000 registered voters, said Secretary of State Jan Brewer. The Legislature actually moved further to the right after the 2002 elections, and Arizona is one of only a handful of states that hasn’t raised any taxes after the 2001 recession, despite the worst fiscal crisis in its 91-year history.
"I don’t think there has been a significant shift from what Arizona has been forever, since statehood," said Robert Fannin, chairman of the state GOP. "And that is basically fiscally conservative. I think the Arizona Republican Party is viewed as more of a fiscally conservative nature. And the fact that we have an advantage in voter registration indicates there’s more than average support for that philosophy."
But the Republican Party is far from monolithic, with moderates quietly moving into key leadership positions.
House Speaker Pro Tem Bob Robson said politics are changing even in Republican dominant districts such as his own in western Chandler and Ahwatukee Foothills.
"The rate of independent versus traditional party is starting to become a major factor in the East Valley political scene," Robson said. "I think for the most part, people don’t necessarily look at traditional politics in the sense of if you have a party designation."
Merrill said most Americans don’t realize that Arizona voters now mirror the country as a whole, with the largest block holding to the middle and more willing to experiment on specific issues.
Cecilia Martinez knows what Merrill is talking about. Martinez came to Arizona in 1999 as the executive director of the Clean Elections Institute. The private nonprofit group was created as a place for supporters of campaign public funding to lobby for protection of the newly created state system of funding state candidates.
Then earlier this year, Martinez went to the nation’s capital to lead the Reform Institute, a similar nonprofit group promoting election reform. Martinez said she often encounters false perceptions there about Arizona politics, created in part by a congressional delegation filled mostly by Republican conservatives.
"What’s really catapulted Arizona was, one, the fact that Arizona elected a Democrat to the governor’s office," Martinez said. "Nobody expected that around here."
Pederson and other Democrats believe the shifting political map is still somewhat masked by new congressional and legislative districts skewed to benefit Republicans. Unless their court challenge to district boundaries is successful, the Democratic Part plans to focus much of its attention on statewide races in the next decade and to appeal to like-minded GOP politicians.
"Certainly, East Valley Republicans have something to say, they have a position they are trying to promote, and so are we," Pederson said. "We want to be in a competitive political environment and we have not been. We think a competitive political environment is in the best interests of this state — that we don’t have one faction of any political party dictating the issues of this state. That is not healthy. Unfortunately, that has happened in the recent past."
However, Fannin believes Pederson has been creating his own illusions.
As a wealthy shopping center developer, Pederson has spent millions of his own money to rebuild the state Democratic Party. While Napolitano ran as a publicly funded candidate, Republicans argue Pederson’s indirect contributions allowed her to outspend GOP opponent Matt Salmon by more than two-to-one.
"She has a soapbox to ask for more and more spending, (and) I think one could get the perception that she is representative of the attitudes of a large part of the voting population," Fannin said. "I don’t think that’s accurate. She barely won. And she only won, in my opinion among other things, because she received $4 million in campaign support from one person that propelled her into office."
Even if Fannin is wrong and the political shift is real, population growth and money are two reasons why the East Valley’s strength won’t diminish rapidly and probably won’t fall too far.
About one in five Arizonans live in the East Valley, ensuring a strong voting block as long as its politicians work together.
"With the growth going on, you’re going to see the East Valley continue to have more representatives and to continue to wield the influence, if nothing else by population," said House Majority Leader Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert. "You’re going to continue to see those people be conservative and the East Valley, by population, is going to continue to be a strong and major player in Arizona."
Money also pulls lots of strings and the East Valley pumps lots of cash into the political system.
The Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., reports that nearly 20 percent of the private contributions statewide for 2002 state and federal candidates came from East Valley ZIP codes. Paradise Valley ranked first, while north Scottsdale and the Arcadia area of Phoenix were among the top six.
"The East Valley was, by far, the winner in giving political contributions," Martinez said. "So if you’re a candidate for office in Arizona, you want to concentrate your efforts in P.V., in Scottsdale, where the money is. And that gives the East Valley a tremendous political clout."
Still, places such as Tucson and central Phoenix are gaining more wealth and influence because of the state’s growth.
That will create new challenges for the East Valley, which is likely to remain closer to its traditional conservative roots than other parts of the state.
"Why shouldn’t the East Valley be basking in the glow of their party, enjoying the fruits they have been able to accomplish?" Pederson said. "Until somebody comes along and takes a little nick out of them once in a while, it’s going to continue to be that way. That’s our job."