Yolanda Bejarano picked as next leader of Arizona Democrats, trounces Hobbs' preferred candidate

Arizona Democrats chose union organizer Yolanda Bejarano in a landslide to lead the party's work into 2024, with prying control of the state Legislature away from Republicans a foremost goal.

Bejarano received 70% of votes from the 626 state party committee members who gathered online Saturday to choose their new leaders. She defeated Steve Gallardo, a Maricopa County supervisor backed by Gov. Katie Hobbs, in a contest that some viewed as a test of Hobbs' influence within the party.

Bejarano will take the helm of a party fresh off victories in November that saw Democrats take the top three posts in state government for the first time in nearly 50 years. U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., won a full six-year term in one of the most competitive races in the nation.

She also will face pressure to turn those victories into a streak in 2024 — when Arizonans will vote for president, a U.S. Senate seat and state lawmakers — and deliver on Democrats' goals to turn the purple state blue.

“Arizona Democrats had huge successes in both 2020 and 2022, and it is my full intention to continue that trajectory into 2024 and beyond,” she said in a statement. “There is much to be done and I look forward to speaking with people across the state to ensure that we have a successful and unified strategy not just for federal races, but for our state and local races as well."

The state party election this year saw a primary goal emerge from both candidates: flipping control of the state Legislature, where Republicans have a single-vote majority in both chambers. Democrats have not had majorities in the chambers for decades, and winning in 2024 would deliver Hobbs a Legislature with enough allies to accomplish her policy goals in her first term.

"My strategy is organizing from the ground up, not from the top down," Bejarano said, pledging to focus on recruiting and electing down-ballot candidates in every legislative district.

Who is new party Chair Yolanda Bejarano?

Bejarano, 48, is a field director for the Communications Workers of America. She previously was a vice chair of the state party, and replaces former party chair and state Sen. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix. The Arizona Democratic Party's reorganization meeting on Saturday, held on Zoom with votes cast via ElectionBuddy software, lasted about five hours, with brief technical difficulties causing interruptions in the agenda.

Bejarano grew up in Roll, in southwestern Arizona, and entered politics after the passage a decade ago of Senate Bill 1070, which required police to inquire about immigration status and was criticized nationally as permissive of racial profiling.

As party chair, she will oversee efforts to recruit and elect Democrats at a time when Arizona is seemingly always under the spotlight.

That national attention comes with unprecedented resources: The state party raised more than $50 million for last year's election, trouncing over $4 million in fundraising by the state Republican Party, which is in an identity crisis of its own that was amplified by defeats in November. Those losses prompted calls for the GOP to return to a big-tent, more moderate approach separate from the grip of former President Donald Trump's star-power politics.

Every statewide elected Democrat, except for Hobbs, endorsed Bejarano. Kelly, D-Ariz., said Saturday that Bejarano's "leadership will strengthen our party and guarantee even more wins up and down the ballot."

Gallardo, a former state lawmaker who was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2015, will seek another term on the county board in 2024. He cast himself as an experienced candidate and proven winner in his bid for party chair, and signaled support for Bejarano after his loss on Saturday.

"I congratulate her," Gallardo said. "I want to be able to work with her. We're all in this together and we all have a mission to flip that Legislature, and I wish her the best. I'm here to help her in any way I can.”

Democrats turn focus to more wins

Some political insiders saw the party leadership race as a proxy battle between Hobbs, who recruited Gallardo, and Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, who urged Bejarano to run. Bejarano later said Fontes was a friend but not the person who suggested she seek the chair position.

"Much like his 2022 campaigns, Fontes orchestrated a solid victory," GOP consultant Barrett Marson said of Bejarano's win. "And now Fontes showed he has juice with the party faithful."

But Tony Cani, a Democratic consultant, said Hobbs remains very influential, and the party will now coalesce around the work ahead.

"The party is going to do everything it can to support Hobbs as she fights against an extreme Legislature this year at the Capitol, and next year at the ballot box," he said. "And Gov. Hobbs is going to keep doing what she has always done since she was a party volunteer before she ever ran for office. She's going to put her all into helping Democrats win up and down the ballot."

Gallardo said having two candidates was a reflection of energy, not intraparty drama.

"I don’t believe it’s a rift," he said. "It’s a good thing to have this type of energy within our party. It really just shows Democrats care about the future of Arizona and we’re going to be united into 2024 to flip the Legislature.”

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at stacey.barchenger@arizonarepublic.com or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona Democrats elect Yolanda Bejarano as new party chair