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Trump controversies drive surge in Democratic ranks


Corinne Yusi admits she wasn’t doing much.

While she usually voted, she was pretty “lackadaisical” in her approach to politics.

“I just thought it would work without me,” the 67-year-old retired accountant said.

But in January, she signed up to be a Democratic precinct committeeman in Legislative District 21, a reliably Republican district in the northwestern suburbs surrounding Phoenix.

Her motivation was simple.

“Trump – five little letters,” she said.

Bill Bercu, chairman of Legislative District 21 Democrats, calls a meeting of precinct committeemen to order on May 23. (Photo by Hank Stephenson/Arizona Capitol Times)

Bill Bercu, chairman of Legislative District 21 Democrats, calls a meeting of precinct committeemen to order on May 23. (Photo by Hank Stephenson/Arizona Capitol Times)

The Arizona Democratic Party found a powerful recruitment tool this year in Republican President Donald Trump, who continues to generate controversies.

Trump drove many who have avoided political activism into legislative district meetings, where state Democrats have seen their ranks overflow meeting rooms and their number of precinct committeemen rise.

Precinct committeemen are essentially the neighborhood leaders for each political party who help reach out to voters, recruit more people and participate in activities that support the party.

Statewide, Democrats now say they have more than 2,500 PCs, an increase of more than 1,000 since August 2016. Some Democratic legislative districts have doubled or even tripled their PCs.

Their ranks pale in comparison to Arizona Republicans. In Maricopa County, Republicans boast more than 3,000 PCs compared to Democrats’ 1,657. But GOP numbers have barely grown in Maricopa County since Trump’s election.

For Democrats, the challenge will be to sustain the momentum Trump gives them by keeping newly active members engaged in the political process, a tough prospect as the election is 18 months away.

And, while more people now attend monthly Democratic meetings, that may not translate to more Democratic votes next year, as Democrats still face a voter registration and turnout disadvantage.

Still, the recent turnaround in Democratic activism is a far cry from just a few years ago. In 2014, when then-Rep. Ruben Gallego resigned his seat in Legislative District 27 to run for Congress, the district didn’t have enough PCs to nominate people to replace him.

House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

Rebecca Rios (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

“That was pretty sad,” said House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, who represents the same district, Legislative District 27.

At the last few LD27 Democrats meetings in south Phoenix, Rios said it was a standing-room-only crowd in a space that holds about 75 people.

Since August, the strong Democratic district has grown to 105 PCs from 63, according to the latest numbers from the Arizona Democratic Party.

“Donald Trump has been a godsend for us Democrats in terms of mobilizing our base,” Arizona Democratic Party spokesman Enrique Gutierrez said.

To keep momentum, the Arizona Democratic Party created a rapid response team to send out actions that people could take during the legislative session, like calling their lawmakers, Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez said Democrats hope to have a big year in 2018, setting their sights on the races for state superintendent of public instruction and secretary of state, and keeping the 1st Congressional District in Democratic hands and potentially winning back the 2nd Congressional District. Maybe, he said, the Arizona Senate could see a 15-15 split.

The state party had planned to build its ranks for 2020 or 2022, when perhaps their voter registration numbers had grown enough to be more competitive, but Gutierrez said Trump sped the process up.

The groundswell of Democratic discontent and activation showed up even in districts held firmly by Republicans, like LD21. The district is represented by Republican Reps. Kevin Payne and Tony Rivero and Sen. Debbie Lesko.

LD21’s monthly Democratic meeting moved from a small room in a funeral home in Sun City to a large lecture-style classroom at Centennial High School in Peoria after membership swelled earlier this year. About 60 people turned out on May 23.

“This is history in the making,” said Bill Bercu, the LD21 Democrats’ chair.

Cathy Fifer, a new precinct committeeman in Legislative District 21, shows a map indicating where Democrats live in her neighborhood. (Photo by Hank Stephenson/Arizona Capitol Times)

Cathy Fifer, a new precinct committeeman in Legislative District 21, shows a map indicating where Democrats live in her neighborhood. (Photo by Hank Stephenson/Arizona Capitol Times)

Cathy Fifer, a new PC in LD21, said she first got active on social media, joining a liberal Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation. She then connected with Stronger Together, a statewide liberal advocacy organization that rallies its members to attend town hall meetings with lawmakers, protest at their offices and make calls opposing legislation.

Fifer recently signed up for the Arizona Legislature’s request-to-speak system and registered her thoughts on proposed bills. She wants her district to oust Lesko, who sponsored a measure this year for universal school vouchers.

She held up a clipboard with dozens of red dots lining a section of her neighborhood, each one representing a registered Democratic voter.

“I got to thinking I was the only Democrat,” Fifer said. She said she wants to put together a newsletter to send out to neighborhood Democrats to keep them informed and engaged.

The goal for Fifer and other new PCs in the district is simple, yet hard to achieve: Get more Democrats to register and then actually show up at the polls.

Democrats say their biggest helper with that goal right now is the president. And the state’s continuing education issues, like underfunded classrooms and teachers jumping ship, give Democrats talking points against leaders, like Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican lawmakers, they say.

“Year after year, we have hoped that we’d wake that sleeping giant … and year after year we’ve made gains, but it’s never quite what we’ve hoped for,” Rios said.

Torunn Sinclair, spokeswoman for the Arizona Republican Party, said the state GOP isn’t taking anything for granted. Republicans in Arizona, though, have historically done well at getting their people out to vote, she said.

The uptick in Democratic activism makes sense – there’s a Republican president, and Democrats are mad about it, Sinclair said. But she was skeptical that the momentum would continue and lead to electoral victories.

“They had Obama in 2008 and 2012, and they had so much momentum going into (the 2016 election), and it didn’t work out for them.” Sinclair said.

Barry Dill, a longtime Democratic consultant, said he hasn’t seen excitement and engagement at this level since the 1960s and ’70s, when the unpopularity of former President Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War inspired a nationwide protest and activism movement.

“Democrats need to start winning some elections to sustain this current groundswell of activity,” Dill said. “The longer that Trump stays in office, quite frankly, the better it probably is for Democrats.”

Chuck Coughlin and Paul Bentz, Republican consultants at HighGround Public Affairs Consulting, said it’s clear there’s an increase in enthusiasm in Democratic ranks since November. But 2018 is an off-cycle election, meaning lower turnout for Democrats than a presidential year, as much as 14 percentage points lower than Republicans, Bentz said.

Democrats have 1.1 million registered voters to Republicans’ nearly 1.3 million. Independents make up more than 1.2 million.

That means Democrats likely need to bring their message to independents, who also underperform in off-year elections, in order to win some seats in Arizona, Coughlin said. And they’ll need to decide if they could support independents in more conservative districts, he said. They also need to move beyond anti-Trump and anti-GOP sentiment.

Chuck Coughlin

Chuck Coughlin

“It has to be an aspirational agenda about what they’re actually for. We know what we’re against, but what are we for?” Coughlin said.

As for whether the enthusiasm translates to wins next year, Democrats repeatedly said they had hope.

“We hope so. You never know. One day you’re riding a high and you have a big Democratic advantage, and the next day James Comey releases a letter,” Gutierrez said.

For Yusi and other new PCs, their involvement is much more personal. They watch Trump on TV each night, mortified. They want to do something, anything, to make things better, even if it’s an uphill battle against statistics and political game theory.

“I just can’t stand what’s going on, and I want to be part of the change,” Yusi said.

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