Vernon Parker was chatting with friends at a party last week when his wife called him aside for a quick huddle. This wine-and-cheese reception at the couple's home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, was a $50-per-ticket fundraising event, but Lisa Parker had just learned that some of their guests had the potential to "max out" -- donating the maximum $2,400 individual contribution allowed under federal law -- and it was important that the congressional candidate make sure to get a little extra face-time with these major Republican donors.
Careful observance of such fine points of campaign etiquette can make a big difference in a hard-fought election, and eight candidates are seeking the GOP nomination to replace retiring Rep. John Shadegg in Arizona's 3rd District. The couple's strategic tête-à-tête at the fundraising reception was accomplished with unobtrusive grace and, though Lisa Parker later averred that she is "just a lawyer," she clearly has top-notch skills as a political wife. Her husband's skills aren't too shabby, either. Vernon Parker was trained by one of the most legendary campaign strategists in American history.
"The first time I met him, he said, 'Hey, you got a job?' -- with that South Carolina accent -- I said, 'No, not yet.' He said, 'Well, come on over here and let me introduce ya to some folks.'"
The man with the Carolina drawl was none other than the late Lee Atwater, who ran the campaign that elected George H.W. Bush president in 1988 and who served as chairman of the Republican National Committee before his death in 1991.
"He gave me my first start in politics," said Parker, a Texas native who is 50 but looks much younger. Nearly 25 years after beginning his political career, he still speaks of the lessons he learned from his first mentor. "It is a fight… It is a war. And I will take all the tools that my friend Lee Atwater taught me and we'll deploy with my team and fight to take this country back."
Team Parker is doing well so far. In the first quarter of this year, which ended last week, his congressional campaign raised more than $230,000 from some 700 donors -- an impressive total, considering that Shadegg's retirement wasn't announced until mid-January. Parker had been planning to run for governor, but switched to the congressional race without breaking stride, saying that he'd received more than 200 e-mails from supporters urging him to seek Shadegg's seat.
In a strongly Republican district in what is shaping up as a high-tide year for the GOP, a lot of other Republicans had the same idea. The field in AZ-3 includes Ed Winkler, one of Parker's predecessors as mayor, as well as former state senators Jim Waring and Pamela Gorman, and Ben Quayle, the 33-year-old son of former Vice President Dan Quayle.
That famous name drew the attention of the New York Times to the district, but the resulting front-page feature article actually shined a brighter light on Parker, relating his up-from-poverty life story and noting that he "would be the only black Republican congressman if elected" -- a fact that isn't necessarily true.
Scarcely noticed amid the incessant media clamor over accusations of Tea Party racism, the GOP has actually attracted more black congressional candidates this year than at any time in recent memory. If Parker prevails in Arizona, he could be joined in the 112th Congress by a number of other black Republicans, including Allen West from Florida's 22nd District, Les Phillip from Alabama's 5th District, Princella Smith from Arkansas' 1st District and Angela McGlowan from Mississippi's 1st District. Pundits may ponder the historic significance of such a national trend, but in Arizona, Parker is ready for an all-out battle all the way to the Aug. 24 primary in the 3rd District -- a battle he expects to win by sheer hard work, which has brought him a long way already.
Parker is now mayor of Arizona's wealthiest town -- the median household income in Paradise Valley was more than $150,000, according to the 2000 Census -- but he was raised in California by his grandmother, who worked as a maid. "I grew up in an apartment that probably was about 500 square feet," he said last week, standing beneath the palm trees in the backyard of his home, while donors mingled nearby.
He excelled in high school and was the first in his family to attend college, beginning at Long Beach Community College ("because it was free"), then majoring in finance at Cal State Long Beach. He was working as an analyst at Rockwell International when he was accepted at Georgetown Law School -- but with no scholarship offer.
"I owned a house. I sold it.… My grandmother of 75 stated cleaning houses again, and my mother started cleaning houses. My brother gave me everything that he had," Parker recalls. "I bought a one-way ticket… and I'll never forget going to the airport that evening, and seeing about 20 people there with me… and the tears that were flowing down their faces. When I turned down that jet walkway and turned and looked at them, I realized that me going to law school was not as an individual, but as something for my family, something for my community."
That's the American dream he wants to preserve for future generations. "I had made a commitment that, if I got out of the environment that I grew up in, what I would do is to work to get others out, because there are a lot more Vernon Parkers out there," he says. "I always wanted to make a change, make a difference, and the way that I figured we could do that was through the law."
At Georgetown, he found himself competing against alumni of prestigious Ivy League schools. "You know that's how I met my wife, actually," he says. "She was from Arizona State, and they wouldn't let state school people into their study groups, so we formed our own and did a lot better than the Ivy Leaguers did."
After meeting Atwater and joining the 1988 Bush campaign, Parker went on to staff positions at the Office of Personnel Management and in the White House until Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992. "I thought politics was over," he says. Parker moved to Arizona and was surprised in 2002 to get a call from the next President Bush, who appointed him an assistant secretary in the Department of Agriculture. He spent more than three years commuting from Arizona to D.C. for that job and says, "I'm used to the commute already, so when I become a member of Congress, it will be very easy to commute. I know how to get to the airport on time."
He said "when" he becomes a member of Congress, not "if." Having come this far, Parker isn't planning to lose.
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