How Progressive Arizona Became Tea Party Arizona
The panelists of How Progressive Arizona Became Tea Party Arizona. Jon Talton is speaking. (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Good morn­ing from Phoenix! Our live cov­er­age of Net­roots Nation con­tin­ues all day today, the mid­dle day of the con­ven­tion. The first activ­i­ties today are break­out ses­sions, and I’ve decid­ed to attend How Pro­gres­sive Ari­zona Became Tea Par­ty Ari­zona. The syn­op­sis of this pan­el is as follows:

Ari­zona entered the Union in 1912 as a pro­gres­sive state, enshrin­ing in its Con­sti­tu­tion cit­i­zen pow­er over elect­ed offi­cials in at least three major ways: ini­tia­tive, ref­er­en­dum and recall.

All have been used repeat­ed­ly to enact pub­lic pol­i­cy, recent­ly, for exam­ple, in the his­toric recall of Rus­sell Pearce. Unions have his­tor­i­cal­ly been robust in the state and still are today. Yet all statewide elect­ed offi­cials today are Repub­li­can, and the state leg­is­la­ture is over­run with Tea Par­ty con­ser­v­a­tives. How did this hap­pen? And more impor­tant­ly, what can be done to revi­tal­ize and re-empow­er pro­gres­sives and pro­gres­sive policy?

The pan­el’s mod­er­a­tor is Joel Wright. Pan­elists include for­mer State Sen­a­tor Alfre­do Gutier­rez, Hei­di Osse­laer, Dan Shilling, and Pacif­ic North­west trans­plant Jon Tal­ton (who writes on eco­nom­ics for The Seat­tle Times) .

Dan Shilling kicked off the dis­cus­sion for us by pro­vid­ing a thor­ough overview of Ari­zon­a’s his­to­ry. He began his remarks with the obser­va­tion that Ari­zona has been a home to human beings for thou­sands of years, despite being the youngest of the low­er forty-eight states. Twen­ty-two tribes still endure today in Ari­zona, and the Hopi and Nava­jo Nations are among the first peo­ples with the largest reservations.

Ari­zon­a’s econ­o­my has been shaped sig­nif­i­cant­ly by indus­tries like agri­cul­ture and min­ing. It also ben­e­fit­ed from the Unit­ed States’ entry into World Wars I and II. Its infra­struc­ture and devel­op­ment were made pos­si­ble by the peo­ple of the Unit­ed States (think Hoover Dam, Grand Canyon Nation­al Park, Cen­tral Ari­zona Project).

In the words of Shilling: “The state could not exist with­out fed­er­al largesse.”

Hei­di Osse­laer fol­lowed Shilling, and gave us an excel­lent primer on the his­to­ry of women in pol­i­tics in Ari­zona. For decades at the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, pol­i­tics in Ari­zona (as else­where) was con­sid­ered by men to be the domain of men, and women were not open­ly wel­come in either the Demo­c­ra­t­ic of Repub­li­can par­ties. As a con­se­quence, women got orga­nized through wom­en’s clubs. They worked for caus­es like suf­frage, an end to child labor, and Prohibition.

But a lot has changed between then and now.

In the 1990s, Ari­zona made his­to­ry by elect­ing five women to the high­est offices in Ari­zona (gov­er­nor, sec­re­tary of state, attor­ney gen­er­al, trea­sur­er, and super­in­ten­dent of pub­lic instruc­tion). Pri­or to the inau­gu­ra­tion of cur­rent Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor Doug Ducey, Ari­zona had had a suc­ces­sion of three women gov­er­nors: Jane Dee Hull, Janet Napoli­tano, and Jan Brewer.

How Progressive Arizona Became Tea Party Arizona
The pan­elists of How Pro­gres­sive Ari­zona Became Tea Par­ty Ari­zona. Jon Tal­ton is speak­ing. (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Seat­tle Times colum­nist Jon Tal­ton, an Ari­zona native, was the next to speak. Echo­ing and expand­ing on Dan’s com­ments, he reit­er­at­ed that Ari­zona entered the Union dur­ing the midst of Pro­gres­sive Era, with a Con­sti­tu­tion that pro­vid­ed for the ini­tia­tive, the ref­er­en­dum, and the recall. Unique­ly, Ari­zon­a’s Con­sti­tu­tion also cre­at­ed an elect­ed body called the Cor­po­ra­tions Com­mis­sion, which is charged with reg­u­lat­ing most pub­licly-owned cor­po­ra­tions with­in the state.

Tal­ton remind­ed the audi­ence that the Pro­gres­sives of the 1900s were from a dif­fer­ent time, and did not hold all of the beliefs and prin­ci­ples that pro­gres­sives of today do (though the val­ues they believed in are the same val­ues we believe in).

In the ear­ly decades of state­hood, Ari­zona was most­ly rur­al, and run by Democ­rats. Demo­c­ra­t­ic hege­mo­ny last­ed through the Depres­sion and World War II, but began to be more com­pet­i­tive dur­ing Har­ry Tru­man’s pres­i­den­cy, in part due to Tru­man’s unpop­u­lar­i­ty. It was dur­ing Tru­man’s last year as pres­i­dent that the state elect­ed lib­er­tar­i­an con­ser­v­a­tive Bar­ry M. Gold­wa­ter, turn­ing out long­time U.S. Sen­ate Major­i­ty leader Ernest McFar­land by a nar­row margin.

Alfre­do Gutier­rez was the last pan­elist to speak, and focused on the emer­gence of Ari­zon­a’s major cities and sub­urbs as the cen­ters of pop­u­la­tion and polit­i­cal pow­er. Prag­mat­ic Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans from urban areas used to work togeth­er, once upon a time, to devel­op insti­tu­tions like Ari­zona State Uni­ver­si­ty, he said.

But those days are over. The Ari­zona Repub­li­cans of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry are an extreme, mil­i­tant, xeno­pho­bic par­ty whose mem­bers are impos­si­ble to work with… the kind of Repub­li­cans who think Joe Arpaio and Don­ald Trump walk on water.

“We have always been a south­ern state,” Gutier­rez observed.

The pan­el wrapped up by tak­ing a few ques­tions from the audi­ence. Most of the ques­tions con­cerned points raised by pan­elists ear­li­er in the discussion.

The chief con­cern of the pan­el and audi­ence mem­bers is the weak­ness of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in Ari­zona. Repub­li­cans have con­trol of statewide offices and also the Leg­is­la­ture, which has result­ed in many bad poli­cies get­ting enact­ed, with Sb 1070 being the most famous example.

Our move­ment has not done a good job of orga­niz­ing new Amer­i­cans and get­ting them out to the polls, which is per­haps the most impor­tant rea­son why Repub­li­cans con­tin­ue to win elec­tions in Ari­zona despite hav­ing anti-immi­grant views.

“The peo­ple who tend to vote in Ari­zona are old white Ang­los,” Tal­ton point­ed out.

“Democ­rats do not have a chance unless you have an Ari­zona Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that fig­ures out a way to stand up and fight,” he added, to enthu­si­as­tic applause.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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