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Rancor prompts resignations in Arizona

Three Republican Party district officials step down, citing increasing venom from conservative 'tea party' rivals.

January 18, 2011|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • Anthony Miller resigned as a Republican Party district chairman in Arizona, saying, "I don't want to take a bullet for anyone."
Anthony Miller resigned as a Republican Party district chairman in Arizona,…

Reporting from Phoenix — Anthony Miller was a bit of a sensation when he was elected the Republican Party's district chairman in the comfortable suburbs of east Phoenix and Tempe. He was dedicated, conservative and the first African American ever to hold such a post in the state.

But things began to fall apart, he figured, when he worked last year as a field organizer for Sen. John McCain, facing a primary challenge from the conservative wing of the party.

At a campaign meeting in Kingman, a man formed his fingers into the shape of a gun and pointed at Anthony. Then in Lake Havasu, somebody spoke up as Miller walked into the room.

"This old guy says, 'There's Anthony. Get a rope.' I turned around and said, 'If you get a rope, get one for you and get one for me too,' " Miller recalled.

But the heat really turned up during an election for the 20th Legislative District's leadership board, when Miller and a group of fellow McCain supporters came under fire from conservative "tea partyers" within the district.

The rancor had no racial overtones but it "just got awful," Miller said.

When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot Jan. 8 in Tucson, Miller's wife begged him to step down. Two other district officials from the moderate faction joined him.

"I love the Republican Party, but I don't want to take a bullet for anyone," Miller said.

Party members have been quick to make clear that there have been no overt threats of violence. But the party's new district secretary, Sophia Johnson, who also resigned, has gone to court to get an anti-harassment order against a precinct committee woman allied with conservatives after receiving an e-mail she interpreted as threatening. Johnson was offered a police escort to party meetings, which she declined.

"I reported it because I'd rather be safe than sorry. That's a sad thing that happened down there in Tucson," Johnson said. "I don't want to be the one, if something happens like that, and I didn't do anything."

By all accounts, the rift within the 20th Legislative District was a simple political squabble, far removed from the strange, confusing musings of the young man accused of shooting Giffords and 18 others at a meet-the-congresswoman event.

But Miller's worries speak not only to the edginess of many involved in Arizona politics, but to the venom that has come to characterize even the most pedestrian disputes within party politics here.

"This is a group of people who should in theory agree on 95% to 98% of things. This is not Republicans against Democrats," said Jeff Kolb, who resigned as communications director when Miller stepped down. "I don't get it."

Though the man accused in the Tucson shootings did not appear to be motivated by any coherent ideology, the fact that Giffords was apparently deliberately targeted at a political meeting has prompted politicians across this acrimonious state to ask whether lively debate has crossed into open warfare.

In Tucson last week, a dozen state, local and federal elected officials, both Republican and Democratic, met to sign a pledge of civility.

"It's the tone and texture of our disagreement that we are being asked to deal with and to confront," said Democratic Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, quoted in the Arizona Daily Star.

Miller has taken the same tack. "It is my hope that by calling attention to what happened to me, others will stop and think about how they are behaving, and to what end," he wrote on his Facebook page.

Johnson, who considers herself a conservative and was running for her first party leadership post after volunteering for several Republican campaigns, including McCain's, said she has been bewildered by the animosity of the attacks from members of the district's conservative tea party wing, who ran on a slate called New Vision.

"All this job was supposed to be was taking notes at the meetings. And I thought, if it's this strong and there's this much hunger for power, if you want it that bad, you can have it. If you want to take notes, you can take notes."

Miller, 43, who runs a philanthropic foundation for cardiomyopathy patients and is starting a political action committee to help young people go into politics, was a Democrat who joined the Republican Party in 1995.

"I catch it from the African American community, the Democrat side. I caught it in '08 because I supported Sen. McCain over President Obama. And I catch it from the so-called conservative side of the Republican Party, because I supported Sen. McCain and they feel he's not conservative enough and I'm not conservative enough," Miller said.

The controversy broke out over the Dec. 1 election for party committee and leadership positions, in which Miller was challenged by a contender from what became a de facto New Vision slate of conservatives — some complaining that Miller had taken a staff position on McCain's campaign, though he was supposed to be impartial as party chairman.

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