‘Dark Money’ Casts Shadow On Secretary Of State Race

Republican candidates running for secretary of state include (left to right) Michele Reagan, Justin Pierce and Wil Cardon.

Republican candidates running for secretary of state include (left to right) Michele Reagan, Justin Pierce and Wil Cardon.

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The normally quiet secretary of state race has gotten unexpectedly controversial — and personal this year.

Normally, the Arizona secretary of state runs the elections machinery and waits for the governor to keel over, get indicted or quit to take a better job. Since Arizona lacks a lieutenant governor, the secretary of state has repeatedly ended up in the governor’s chair as a result of resignations, indictments and even impeachments.

This year, three relatively unknown Republicans are waging a fierce struggle for the nomination, while former Attorney General Terry Goddard strolls to an unopposed bid for the Democratic nod.

Two of the Republican candidates — State Rep. Justin Pierce and State Sen. Michele Reagan — have made repeated appearances in Rim Country. Mesa businessman Wil Cardon, who Jeff Flake beat out for the U.S. senate nomination two years ago, hasn’t put in an appearance.

But what makes the secretary of state race interesting in its own right this year is the rapid and far-reaching changes in election tactics and financing, which will keep the secretary of state in the thick of things even if the governor doesn’t keel over.

The Republican candidates have generally focused on concerns about whether the state’s relatively open mail-in voting system poses a threat of election fraud. Reagan has sounded the most alarmed at the prospect, with Cardon and Pearce using more moderate language, while still promising to crack down on the practice.

Goddard, on the other hand, says the state should do what it can to make it easier to vote to draw more people into the process. He’s more concerned with the influence of “dark money” campaign spending by corporations and special interest groups and individuals who don’t coordinate with a particular candidate and don’t have to disclose their source of funding.

The mail-in ballot issue has played out nationally in the past two years, with a few especially interesting twists in Arizona. Lawmakers last year adopted a last-minute package of election changes that would require counties to frequently purge mail-ballot lists and sharply limit the ability of groups to collect signed, sealed mail-in ballots from supporters and deliver them to county elections offices.

Supporters of the change didn’t have examples of any significant voter fraud in Arizona, but said the system was ripe for abuse.

Opponents of the changes led by various Hispanic voter groups said the changes were aimed at “suppressing” minority voting rates, typically far below the turnout rates of white voters.

A group of voter advocacy groups backed by the Democrats got enough signatures to put on the ballot a measure to repeal the whole package of voting changes. That prompted lawmakers to repeal the laws themselves, making the ballot measure moot. The Republican secretary of state candidates say they would push for adoption of many of those reforms again.

Michele Reagan

Reagan has served in the state Legislature for the past 12 years, after her family sold its sign business. She said she’s running to end the practice of “ballot bundling,” in her appearance in Rim Country. This involves efforts by mostly Hispanic groups to increase voter turnout by collecting people’s mail-in ballots and delivering them to the polls. The mail-in ballots are sealed and signed. Groups working to increase minority turnout, who mostly vote Democratic, say the practice can increase turnout for under-represented groups. But others fear the practice could lead to ballot stuffing or other abuses.

Reagan termed the practice “absurd.” She added, “It’s unheard of in any other state. I want to shut that practice down.”

Reagan served in the state House from 2003 to 2011. She was elected to the senate in 2010. She has also worked as a managing partner with Reagan Properties.

Her work in the Legislature often focused on election issues. She sponsored enabling legislation for several elections ombnibus bill packages. She sponsored several unsuccessful bills to force greater disclosure of “dark money” contributors.

As a lawmaker, her interest group ratings included:

Arizona Right to Choose: 0 %

Sierra Club: 13 %

Goldwater Institute: 63 %

Americans for Prosperity: 69 %

Arizona Small Business Ass’n.: 88 %

Humane Voters of Arizona: 60 %

Justin Pierce

Charming and affable, Pierce has made repeated appearances in Rim Country scouring the state for support. He showed a deep-seated familiarity with the area.

He has served in the House since 2010, with committee assignments in education, judiciary and public safety. He’s one of the 36 lawmakers suing the state to overturn the expansion of AHCCCS to some 300,000 Arizonans.

He earned an accounting degree from ASU and also has a law degree. He clerked for the Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court and now is a practicing attorney. He lives in Mesa and has four children.

Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts reported recently that Pierce’s prospects have been boosted by the infusion of at least $385,000 in “dark money” by the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, which doesn’t have to disclose its backers. The group is also strongly supporting corporation commission candidates Tom Forese and Doug Little and is widely assumed to be backed by Arizona Public Service. Pierce’s father at one time served on the Arizona Corporation Commission board.

He has defended the support from undisclosed backers in campaign debates. Increasingly, these mystery interest groups have played a key role in campaigns, especially in the increasingly bitter contest for the governor’s nomination. Often, the “dark money” groups spend most of their time attacking the opponents of the candidates they support, sparing the candidate the onus of negative campaigning.

APS has declined to respond to speculation that it’s financing the group. Observers speculate that the electric utility company wants to put friendly commissioners on the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Pierce’s interest group ratings include:

National Rifle Association: 92 %

Sierra Club: 0 %

Humane Voters of Arizona: 40 %

Wil Cardon

Mesa businessman Wil Cardon earned a certain amount of name recognition two years ago when he made a largely self-funded run to win the Republican U.S. Senate nomination. He’d been running a much quieter campaign for secretary of state until his six brothers and sisters sued him for allegedly taking nearly $10 million from a shared family trust fund to run for the senate and buy a nice house.

Cardon grew up in Mesa, attended Brigham Young University then transferred to Stanford, where he got his undergraduate degree. He then got an MBA from Harvard before taking over the family real estate investment. He’s a fifth-generation Californian with five children.

The splash about the family lawsuit is almost the only publicity he’s generated in the campaign.

His website said he’s focused on fair and transparent elections, requiring proof of citizenship to vote, showing proof of identification at the polls, doing more to make sure military personnel overseas can vote and running the secretary of state’s office “in the most efficient way possible. Wil will use his background as a businessman to seek out ways to reduce costs and ensure the office is not wasting your tax dollars.”

Comments

Robbin Flowers 4 months, 1 week ago

Michele 0% choice is the same chance she has at winning!

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