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UpClose with Don Bivens; Dem chair: 2010 losses were inevitable despite high-caliber candidates

Don Bivens (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Don Bivens (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

When Don Bivens moved to Arizona in the late 1970s to begin practicing law, he asked people how he could get involved with the Democratic Party and quickly met a young politician named Terry Goddard who ushered him into the organization.

Since then, Bivens has stayed active in the party, ascending to party chairman in 2007.

Though Bivens says he’s still not sure if he’ll run for chairman in January, he is already thinking about how Democrats can get up, dust themselves off and get back in the fight after getting trounced by Republicans this year.

Describe your role.

I’ll be interested to see how the two parties end up defining their roles here, because it will be different. The dominant amount of time that the Democratic Party chairman spends is fundraising.

Yes, you are the head of the organizations. Yes, all decisions blow through your office at one time or another. But by and large, you spend a disproportionate amount of time fundraising for the party.

At the non-fundraising level, you are the sort of chief motivational and inspirational officer. You do a lot of speaking to the members of the party who are your most dedicated workers, and the stakeholders who are most dedicated to the Democratic cause. And I think that’s a little different on the Democratic side of the ledger, because you have a much more diverse group of people who come together in a coalition to form the party than you’ll find on the Republican side. We are stitching together Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, the business community in ways that have more differences between those communities than I think you’ll find on the Republican side.

Explain those differences.

Gabby Giffords put it this way, and I’ll attribute this story to her:

When she got to Congress, she sat down, looked at her side and there were women and there were blacks, and there was a Muslim member, there were Hispanics, there were gay and lesbian people. Then she looked over at the other side and it looked like a meeting of the 1950s Rotary Club. You know, mostly middle-aged and older white men.

It’s a little easier to find common ground when your whole group is more homogeneous. So I think there’s a little more team-building when you’re the Democratic chair.

What’s your summary of Election Day?

From my perspective as chair of the Democratic Party, you had to know that when you have the luxury of winning the presidency in ’08, to put on your helmet and get ready for 2010. Every mid-term election since World War II shows you that you don’t get both years. You get one or the other.

So you work from the proposition that you know something’s coming. I do think that in Arizona the passage of SB1070 put a little more wind in the Republican sails. I think that was evident at the polls on Tuesday. Yet, at the end of the day, we had five congressional seats in play, really. We won three, they won two. Compared to the national (trend), I’ll take that.

We already had a Republican in every statewide office, save attorney general. The only thing that happened there is that they got attorney general. So, do I wish for a different result? Of course I do. Do I think those are tremendous changes, somehow not commensurate with what was happening everywhere else in the country? No, I don’t. So I don’t feel like we were somehow isolated, and somehow were worse.

If you could pick one race that you could get back, which would it be?

I think the Harry Mitchell loss is one that I deeply regret for Arizona. No one worked harder for Arizona and for Arizona veterans than Congressman Harry Mitchell. And you had a rematch between two people, so you have to think that it’s not so much the two people that were very different. It was the national circumstances that the two people met. One with a Democratic wind in 2008. One with a Republican wind in 2010.

I feel equally discomforted by the loss of Ann Kirkpatrick in northern Arizona, but the polling made that a little less of a surprise than the ultimate spread in the Mitchell-Schweikert race.

So was there a clear, specific moment over the past few months when you knew there would be losses, or was it a slow realization?

There was a day in which Governor Brewer was running third out of four Republican candidates, and appeared to be staying third. Then the next morning she was very, very popular and unbeatable by those same people who were beating her the day before. What was that day? It was the day SB1070 got the stroke of the pen.

That was a game changer, I think, in terms of the Arizona political scene, for practically everyone involved in that race, whether in the Republican primary or the state.

I think that the Goddard polls, if I’m remembering correctly, were quite favorable in that time with a head-on: Goddard vs. Brewer. The only difference was SB1070. So if I had to pick a day, it would be the signing of SB1070.

Are you going to run for party chairman again?

That’s up in the air. I was elected in July of 2007, and my term ends in January of 2011. So that’s creeping up. Were I persuaded that the party would be in good hands moving forward, with capable leadership to do all the things I just described that are involved with the chair, I might do a little dance that I could later lay it down and give it to somebody else.

The list of people who can do the things I described and who are willing to is pretty short. The timeframe between today and January is relatively short. So I could foresee a situation in which I became comfortable and it would be fine to step down, and I could see a situation where I would say, “You know what, I will carry the flag through this election.”

I think the further you go into this next cycle, the less likely I would want to continue. Because at some point – four years, five years, six years – you want your life back.

So I assume that means you’re having discussions with some of the potential candidates?


Any names you might pass the torch to?

It’s so premature. I think that because the slate of candidates was so good this year, I would hope that some of the people who ran and did very well, in terms of showing their leadership capacity and their ability to articulate a vision and to fundraise, would all be on the list, if they’re interested.

In my mind they’re all capable. But the other question is, are they at a position in their life in which they could dedicate the time necessary. The compensation is of course zero.

I think you’ll hear names percolate out as we go forward. But I think it also sort of depends if the present chair decides to run or not.

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