Democrats losing ground in Pinal - East Valley Tribune: News

Democrats losing ground in Pinal

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Posted: Monday, April 7, 2008 8:32 pm | Updated: 9:25 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Orlenda Roberts had to hunt up a knife to cut down her blue-and-white campaign sign that was strapped to a chain-link fence at Florence's Heritage Park this weekend.

Roberts, the superintendent of Pinal County schools, was headed back to her Casa Grande home, following a Democratic Party rally to raise money for the party and get support for potential candidates.

Roberts said she is not naturally inclined to play politics. And she's never had to. She was appointed to the position and must now face a candidate from the county's ever-growing Republican party.

"I don't want to become a political animal - I'm an educator," she said.

But now it's more important than ever for Roberts - as well as the Democratic Party as a whole in Pinal County - to be politically savvy and fight to maintain the ground Democrats have held since the county was formed.

That's going to test a strengthening Democratic political network, begun several years ago, that has coalesced in response to historic gains in Republican and independent voters in the county.

"It's important to have that network because it's so new to me that I don't know what's going on necessarily all over the county," Roberts said. "I have to get the signatures, meet individuals; you have to have fundraisers."

In addition to facing the growing bloc of Republican voters, the Democrats on Nov. 4 must deal with the first major election since the Stan Griffis scandal rocked Pinal County.

Griffis, the county manager, was convicted last year of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds - while Democrats occupied most of the county's important offices. Two of those Democrats on the three-member Pinal County Board of Supervisors are not seeking re-election.

SAW IT COMING

In the mid-1990s, Joe Robison, a retiree who lives in the Saddlebrooke development on the county's southern border and spent 30 years as a prominent union representative, said the county was Democratic. Period.

"You just didn't have to worry about it," he said. "If you were a Democrat, you got on the ballot and were elected."

Around 2000, Robison saw the demographics changing to the point he wanted to better organize his party.

The most recent voter registration statistics bear out the shift Robison foresaw several years ago.

The booming communities in the northeast part of the county are now largely Republican and independent voters. Independent voters make up nearly 30 percent of the county's voters, according to the county election department's statistics.

The Democratic effort to maintain control can found inside a building on Florence's Main Street that used to be a Mexican restaurant until about a year ago, when it became the county's Democratic headquarters.

The old-brick facade on the building belies the fact it's a new nerve center of an expanding political network of nine Democratic clubs that are pulsing across the county - gathering signatures and working phone banks.

"The clubs are right down in the grass roots and the nuts and bolts," Robison said.

Last week, at least five volunteers scurried around with clipboards full of signatures for petitions to qualify candidates.

Robison, who helped focus these volunteer efforts, said that the broadening network is essential in a county that's now politically competitive. The network didn't exist in any formal way several years ago, and that was a formula for losing ground, he said.

"If there is no semblance of an organization, where are people going to go to talk to voters?" he said. "I found that all over the county."

THE CHALLENGE

No less than 33 candidates - Democratic, Republican and independents - have filed papers in Pinal County to run in the September primary for offices that include recorder, sheriff and the three supervisor positions.

The countdown to November comes as the county is still recovering from the Griffis scandal, some say. This will be the first major election cycle that Democrats will have to parry attacks that the crimes Griffis committed occurred under largely Democratic watch.

Larry Bence, 60, a physician in Florence and a Democratic activist, said the scandal can't help.

"We're worried about it," he said. "I think it could negatively affect the election."

The county's political scene is becoming more partisan, with Republicans promoting the idea that they could inject new blood into a government stained by scandal.

Mary Bateman Espinoza, a District 1 supervisor candidate, represents the establishment Republicans will be working against.

She worked for the county for 30 years, and her father was a county administrator and a supervisor. She called Griffis' actions "awful" and realizes that Democrats no longer dominate the county.

"I find it alarming - it's a drastic change to our county," she said. "The people moving to Arizona are coming from Republican states. We've spent a lot of energy countering that growth."

Jim Walsh, county attorney, who recently came from Attorney General Terry Goddard's office to fill a vacant position, sees strength in the number of independent voters in the county.

Statewide, they have supported moderate Democrats, such as Gov. Janet Napolitano and Goddard. He's banking that they will stick with tradition.

"The bulk of the people living in Arizona are looking for a candidate that makes sense," he said. "We've got a few Republicans out there, but I don't think they will be making gains."

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