Tim Steller

Arizona Daily Star columnist Tim Steller

One political party, the Pima County Democrats, had a rollicking 2018, sweeping all the elections it should have won in the Tucson area.

The other party, the Pima County Republicans, had a tough year of losses.

Guess which one replaced its leadership in a big party shakeup? Not the Pima GOP.

The same forces that likely gave Democrats a great election year also led to a challenge of chair Jo Holt and the county party’s old guard. New activists, energized and drawn into the party by opposition to President Trump, pushed through the leadership change, giving Alison Jones a narrow victory at last month’s party meeting, by 156-151 votes.

Also last month, GOP chair David Eppihimer and his slate of county party officials faced a similar challenge to their leadership, motivated in part by the GOP’s 2018 losses. But Eppihimer prevailed over challenger Ray Ihly by a vote of 75-61.

The thrust of Jones’ campaign was to harness and ally with the energized activists on the political left. In fact, Marion Chubon, the founder of a group challenging then-Rep. Martha McSally and another called Represent Me AZ, nominated Jones.

“For some people, ‘activist’ is sort of a pejorative. I don’t see it that way,” Jones told me. “I ran on a platform of inclusivity. What I said was that a lot of the success in the midterm was due to the grassroots energy. Some of that was inside the party, but a lot of it was outside the party.”

Holt was a bit mystified by the challenge and the approach.

“I think there’s a group of people who are pretty loud and pretty aggressive,” she told me this month. “They believe that the county party should be an activist organization. It should be out there doing rallies, signs and proselytizing. I’m not opposed to that, but it’s not a priority of mine.”

“The main difference is the difference between having an activist party and a party that literally does work behind the scenes,” she said.

Of course, there’s a backstory behind this surface-level disagreement, too. Holt took over as party chair in November 2015 after a sharp split within the party led to previous chair Cheryl Cage’s resignation. Cage and some of the existing staff and board members had a falling out, convincing Cage to bail.

The man who was interim executive director of the party at that time, Heath Butrum, later took the job permanently but resigned in advance of the party election in December.

In this latest election, Cage supported the challenger Jones against some of the same people who had fought with her in 2015. Holt happened to be in the way.

“I think people were ready for change,” Cage told me. “I don’t think it had anything to do with Jo.”

The degree of change in the party could be muted, though.

“Enough of those older voices in the party are still at the table,” executive committee member Tom Prezelski told me. “What I already see starting to happen is the realization that what we were doing was working.”

On the GOP side, the challenge to leadership was not particularly welcome, former vice-chair Karen Schutte told me.

“They were fit to be tied that ‘how dare we,’” she said. As it is, she said, “We’re really down to the people who were born Republican there.”

But in fact, three members of the challenger slate ended up on the party’s executive committee, including Ihly. And one was elected treasurer when his opponent was ruled ineligible.

“It’s a mixed board, with mostly David’s choices being on the board,” Legislative District 9 GOP Chair John Dalton told me.

But Nadia Larsen, a member of the Ihly slate also from LD 9, told me the challengers are already gearing up for a new race at the next opportunity — December 2020.

Woods’ past comments criticized by some dems

Grant Woods isn’t getting a warm welcome from Chubon and other progressives as he tests a possible Senate run as a Democrat next year.

The former Arizona attorney general and former chief of staff for the late Sen. John McCain is being criticized by a local grassroots group, Represent Me AZ. The group has dug deep into video and audio files from his KTAR/KFYI radio program as well as social media postings and found plenty of inappropriate material.

In one 2009 exchange, Woods mocked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s looks, saying, “If she has one more lift, she’s gonna have a goatee.”

In a radio exchange in September 2009, Woods and several guests poked fun at actress Mackenzie Phillips after Phillips revealed in a book that she was sexually abused by her father. Noting that book detailed she had sex with her father the night before her wedding, Woods quipped: “Someone said that was the something old at the wedding … something blue something borrowed…”

In another segment of the Grant Woods Show, he mocked a woman who sat next to him on a flight, calling her “just fat as hell” and saying she made the flight uncomfortable for him.

“We think these videos disqualify him as a viable candidate because he doesn’t meet the minimum standards as a decent human being,” Chubon said. “But for those who don’t have a problem with his misogyny and homophobia, there is a lot more information out there regarding policy positions that should disqualify him as a Democrat.”

Woods responded Thursday through a statement from his executive assistant, Sharon E. Beatty: “Grant Woods has spent a lifetime fighting for women and families. As Attorney General he was on the front lines in this fight making sure survivors got justice and that their abusers were prosecuted. There’s more work to be done and he can be trusted to fight for our families.”

Ward 1 candidates emerge

The announcement by Tucson City Council member Regina Romero that she will run for mayor has unleashed a new race — the one to replace her in the west side’s Ward 1.

Romero has not endorsed anyone yet, but here are three names likely to be in the mix, each of whom has substantial potential to win the Democratic primary.

Sami Hamed, a longtime Democratic activist and previous candidate for the Legislature, is not just considering but absolutely running, he told me. Hamed, who lives in Menlo Park, enjoys the support of the Legislature’s Hernandez siblings, Daniel and Alma, who represent different Tucson districts in the state House.

Miguel Ortega, a longtime west-side activist who frequently clashed with Romero, also is strongly considering a run, he said. A Barrio Hollywood resident, Ortega was previously a council aide to former member Karin Uhlich.

Lane Santa Cruz, who is an aide in Romero’s council office, also is strongly considering a run, she said. Santa Cruz, who lives in Barrio Santa Cruz/Paseo Estrella, has a long history with Romero, having worked with her for three years when Romero first joined the council, then rejoining a year ago after getting a Ph.D. from the UA’s College of Education.

Star reporter Joe Ferguson contributed to this column.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter:

@senyorreporter.