ARIZONA

Who's the top Democrat in Arizona now? Backing for next party chair shows rift

Ray Stern
Arizona Republic

The planned departure of the chair of the Arizona Democratic Party has created a division between Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs and other newly elected officials, raising questions about which elected official holds the most sway among Democrats.

Hobbs, the current secretary of state who narrowly won last month's election against Republican Kari Lake, backs Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo in his bid to become the next chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, Gallardo told The Arizona Republic.

Democrats Adrian Fontes and Kris Mayes, who just won election as secretary of state and attorney general, respectively, announced Tuesday on social media that they support the party's vice chair, union organizer Yolanda Bejarano, for that role. Sen. Mark Kelly, who voters reelected to another six-year term, also posted his support for Bejarano.

Maricopa County Board of Supervisors member Steve Gallardo speaks during the general election canvass special meeting on Nov. 28, 2022, in Phoenix, Ariz.

Democratic party officials will vote for a new chair on Jan. 28, replacing state Sen. Raquel Terán, who has held the post since January 2021. The chair will set the tone for the party for the next two years and will try to ensure President Biden gets reelected in Arizona and that the state Legislature flips to blue in 2024. The party's efforts in statewide races helped elect Hobbs and the others. But it also failed to make gains in either the state House or Senate, resulting in the Republicans maintaining their thin majority.

Hobbs and Mayes did not return messages seeking comment.

Fontes, who declined comment for this article, stated his support for Bejarano on Twitter at about 8 a.m., an hour after Bejarano announced her candidacy for the position.

Mayes echoed that support soon after: "Our next ADP chair must build on the success of 2022 by expanding the base of our party while appealing to swing voters. I trust Yolanda Bejarano with this important job."

Sen. Mark Kelly followed later in the afternoon with a post supporting her.

Just before 7 p.m., Hobbs posted a message on Twitter praising Terán, saying, "@AZSenateDems are in good hands!" but not mentioning her choice of a replacement.

Gallardo downplayed the elected leaders' differences of opinion.

He said he had talked with Hobbs about the job and wouldn't run for the position without "complete backing" from her. He believes Hobbs and other elected officials "don't want to be at odds here. We all need to chat and talk."

"They are free to support whoever they want," Gallardo said of Fontes and Hobbs, adding that he hasn't talked to them yet about his goal to be chair, he said.

Terán, D-Phoenix, announced Monday evening that she would not run again for chair, saying her new position as Senate minority leader will require all of her time and skills. She did not return a call seeking comment.

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'It's really about winning in 2024'

Besides her job with the state Democratic Party, Bejarano is the current legislative/coalition director for Communication Workers of America, a labor union that supports telecommunications workers.

In Georgia on Tuesday, while knocking on doors for U.S. Senate candidate Raphael Warnock, she said that Terán did a "great, fantastic job" as party chair even though Democrats "didn't win all races."

"It's a great opportunity to continue to build on what (Terán) built," she said. "It's really about winning in 2024."

Bejarano said Tuesday that Fontes had asked her to run, but after this article first published Wednesday she said she was misheard and that though he is a "close friend," Fontes did not ask her to run.

Kelly's spokesperson, Sarah Guggenheimer, said she would not describe the situation as a "rift.

Kelly spoke with Hobbs about the "future of the party" but not about their differing vision for who would make the best leader, she said.

"The senator sees (Bejarano) as someone who's really fit to unify and really move the Democratic party forward," Guggenheimer said.

How the next chair is chosen

State law and party rules require the party to hold an election for its chair every two years. More than 1,000 state committeemen will cast their vote for the new party chair in a meeting that's open to the public, said Morgan Dick, Arizona Democratic Party spokesperson.

Divisiveness is a significant problem in the state Republican Party, which also is holding an election for a new chair on Jan. 28.

Republicans, including former Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon, have called for the current chair, former legislator Kelli Ward, to resign. She played a role in planning and creating fake presidential electors for Trump after Biden won the presidency in 2020. Her phone records have been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Ward decided not to run again for the position following the election in which Trump-endorsed candidates failed to win the U.S. Senate, governor, secretary of state and attorney general positions.

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Reach the reporter at rstern@arizonarepublic.com or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter @raystern.