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Rancor prompts resignations in Arizona

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.

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“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.

The senator was challenged during the primary by tea party candidate J.D. Hayworth, a former talk show host and congressman who was a favorite of the New Vision Republicans. McCain has become persona non grata among some Arizona conservatives after supporting conditional legalization for some illegal immigrants.

Miller said the right-wing faction turned on him and his supporters over whether one of his allies was actually a resident of the precinct.

E-mails and comments were not overtly threatening but became so nasty, Miller said, that he began to wonder whether it was worth continuing in the job at all. When Giffords was shot, he said, his wife became worried.

“Sorry today my wife asked me do I think my PCs [precinct committee members] will kill me. I am done,” Miller texted to a committee associate. “I am done.”

“These people are crazy,” he said. “If somebody’s that mad at you, who knows what they could do?”

In his resignation letter and subsequent letter of clarification, Miller emphasized that his distaste for the animosity and infighting was a much bigger factor in his decision than any concerns about potential violence.

But Kolb, who has moved to another state for his wife’s job, said the level of rhetoric was escalating to an uncomfortable degree.

“I’m not worried. Nobody’s going to drive 900 miles to come track me down,” he said. “But were things escalating out of control? I would say yes.”

Nor are perceived moderates the only ones worried in Arizona. Tucson Tea Party leader Trent Humphries was advised by law enforcement officials not to attend a recent memorial for victims of the Jan. 8 shootings because of threats he had received.

“We had people say, ‘Too bad it wasn’t your family that was killed,’ ” Humphries was quoted as saying on a conservative website. Another call, he said, was even more worrying. “It was something like, ‘We hate you and we’re going to stand against you and we’re going to use our 1st and 2nd Amendment rights to stop you.’ ”

Miller’s opponents did not respond to requests for comment, but on conservative blogs they have accused him of “playing the race card” and raising fears about threats when none existed.

It was a political dispute over the direction of the party, they said, and when Miller saw he and his supporters were about to be voted out of office, he chose to publicly resign instead and blame it on the Giffords shooting.

“A hostile environment? You bet! We don’t like cheaters occupying trusted elected positions as district officers. Miller was tipped off the district was ready to launch a recall of him,” one commenter said.

Miller said he was raised to be nonconfrontational, and that’s what he told supporters when they urged him not to give up the chairmanship.

“I told [them], you know, I don’t see any good coming out of this,” he said. “I see only negative coming out of it. My father always told me if you see trouble coming one side of the street, pull away. Cross the street.”

kim.murphy@latimes.com


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