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Despite Defeat, Pederson Still a Player

After losing last year to Sen. Jon Kyl (R), Arizona businessman Jim Pederson has picked himself off the mat and is doing what he has always done: raising big money for Democratic candidates.

He already has helped multiple Democratic Congressional candidates in Arizona this cycle and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the presidential frontrunner. And now Pederson is proving that his value as party activist extends far beyond the borders of his home state.

A wealthy shopping center developer, Pederson already has hosted a fundraiser for 2008 Colorado Senate candidate Rep. Mark Udall (D) — and spoke to former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) the other day about hosting an Arizona fundraiser for his Senate campaign.

Warner, running for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), is scheduled to be in Arizona next month, Pederson said.

Pederson, who is 65, said in a telephone interview late last week that he hasn’t ruled out running for office again in the future. But for now, his focus is on helping Democrats win Congressional races in Arizona and doing whatever he can to assist Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Last month Pederson hosted a Tucson fundraiser for Clinton that garnered her campaign around $250,000.

“Right now I’m back to my business and supporting Democrats wherever I can,” he said. “It’s a good life.”

With Arizona’s next round of major state elections not until 2010, Pederson this cycle is using his influence to raise money and otherwise help the re-election efforts of freshmen Reps. Harry Mitchell (D) in the Phoenix-area 5th district and Gabrielle Giffords (D) in the Tucson-area 8th district.

The former Arizona Democratic Party chairman also has prioritized aiding former state Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s (D) effort to win the 1st district seat, which is being vacated by retiring Rep. Rick Renzi (R), and is taking a serious look at helping attorney Bob Lord (D), who is challenging Rep. John Shadegg (R) in the 3rd district.

“We have a remarkable opportunity in Arizona next year,” Pederson said.

Arizona Democrats credit Pederson with getting their state party back on its feet after years of playing second fiddle to the Republicans. It was largely Pederson’s money that provided the financing to professionalize the party and afford a talented political staff.

Among the Democrats’ gains in the Pederson era was the election of now-Gov. Janet Napolitano (D). The popular chief executive was elected overwhelmingly to a second term last year and has her sights set on Sen. John McCain’s (R) Senate seat in 2010.

Arizona Democrats say Pederson played a crucial role in helping Napolitano get elected in 2002. The party also gained seats in the state Legislature during his tenure as chairman and after last year’s midterm elections holds two more Congressional seats than it did in the 109th Congress.

“Jim Pederson has been instrumental to the success of the Arizona Democratic Party,” party spokeswoman Emily Bittner said. “It was his vision and commitment to investing in the party that put us on our current path.”

In addition to the financial assistance Pederson provides to Democrats, they say he has been a solid political adviser. And they credit his success in part to the fact that he is more than just a political operative. Democrats say that Pederson’s experience as a businessman has helped the state party grow and helped its candidates prosper at the polls.

A spokesman for Kirkpatrick said the candidate feels fortunate that Pederson is backing her over all of the other Democrats running to replace Renzi in the sprawling, mostly rural 1st district.

“Jim obviously has the ability to raise money. But what’s nice about Jim is that he’s also a businessman,” Kirkpatrick campaign spokesman Taylor Bell said. “He’s well-liked, has been successful in business and has a successful business in the [1st] district, and that carries a lot of weight.”

Pederson is a native of Casa Grande, Ariz., which is located in the 1st district.

Republicans, obviously, have a different take on Pederson.

They still take exception to his 2006 Senate candidacy, which they refer to as a failed attempt to “buy” a Senate seat. In fact, Pederson did spend a considerable amount of his fortune on that bid. Although Pederson was the candidate Democrats wanted in that race, he still lost to Kyl by 10 points.

The view of Pederson among Arizona Republicans might be skewed by the fact that it was the wealthy businessman’s money that significantly financed the rebuilding of the state Democratic Party.

“Some things take more than blank checks and sound bites,” Arizona GOP executive director Sean McCaffrey said. “Arizona voters aren’t that impressed by bored millionaires with fragile egos and vapid stares who think that bank accounts rather than actual ideas can change the world.”

Pederson takes the attacks in stride and continues to revel in the political game.

“I enjoyed [the 2006 Senate] campaign a lot. The only thing I didn’t enjoy was the final result,” Pederson said. “Would I do it again? I’m not going to take anything off the table. We’re going to see what future holds.”

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