Regina Romero has touted it throughout the campaign:
“I’m the only Democrat running as a clean elections candidate.”
She said that during the editorial board meeting with the Arizona Daily Star, and she’s highlighted it frequently in person and in ads.
And she’s right — technically. Romero is the only candidate who is using the city’s matching-funds program that limits the amount candidates must raise by matching their fundraising up to a limit. This year, mayoral candidates in the public system can raise up to $130,684, to be matched by the city.
But in these days of booming outside spending on elections, that only tells half the story. And the second half of the story tends to negate the first half.
As my colleague Joe Ferguson reported, Romero has been, by far, the biggest beneficiary of outside spending for her or against her opponents, Randi Dorman and Steve Farley.
Already, outside groups are spending more money to benefit Romero than her campaign will, considering the city’s spending limits.
By the end of July, one group, Chispa AZ PAC, had spent $155,618 on Romero’s behalf. Chispa is the Latino outreach arm of the League of Conservation Voters.
Another group, United 4 Arizona, has spent $140,606. That group is funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
Together, at a total of $296,224, they’re already exceeding the city’s spending cap for public candidates in the mayor’s race. That cap is $261,369 total, between the money the candidate raises alone and the matching funds from the city.
And the outside spenders are probably not done yet.
Now, legally, Romero and her campaign cannot coordinate with any outside groups. And I am not claiming they are coordinating. But they would hardly need to.
In the case of Chispa, executive director Laura Dent is Romero’s former chief of staff, who left in January 2018 after seven-plus years in the office.
They don’t have to talk to be on the same page.
In fact, in an ironic twist, even some of the outside groups have touted Romero’s status as the only publicly funded candidate.
“Steve Farley rejected the clean elections program and relies on private, wealthy donors,” begins a 30-second video ad by outside group Mi Familia Vota. “Regina Romero is running a clean campaign, taking no corporate or PAC money.”
A mailer from Chispa AZ’s PAC put an even sharper point on the irony. It says, “Regina knows corporate interests have too much power in politics. She is running clean, taking NO corporate money and NO PAC money.”
Yes, a PAC was advertising that Romero doesn’t take money from PACs.
I asked Romero about this seeming contradiction on Tuesday. She wasn’t happy that I was taking up a critique that Farley has been making against her campaign.
“If Steve would have gotten the endorsements that I have received, from women’s groups, groups representing working people, environmentalists, he would not be complaining,” she said. “This is just a tactic because he did not get these endorsements.”
She went on to say why she believes her public-financing choice is still a valid and important claim.
“Clean elections does two things: We don’t need corporate money, or special interest money, because it doesn’t get matched,” she said, referring to the fact that only individual contributions are matched by the city.
“The other thing clean elections does is it caps the amount of money that you can spend. That’s important because elections have gone crazy with the amount of money that candidates have to raise in order to win. It tempers the amount of money in a political race.”
This point is starting to become harder to accept. If outside groups are just going to exceed the amount of money spent by publicly funded candidates, then it doesn’t seem to me the system is limiting spending at all.
Farley, by the way, last reported raising $217,010. Of that money, two $500 donations raised eyebrows the most among Democrats. They were from auto dealer Jim Click and his wife Vicki, perennial and partisan supporters of Republicans nationwide.
Farley has also benefited from about $26,036 in outside spending from a group called Tucson Together, funded primarily by the Tucson Firefighters PAC.
Dorman had raised $170,011 as of her last filing. The most controversial part of her finances so far has been the high number of donations from out of state, especially the New York City area where Dorman is originally from.
All three of the candidates, it turns out, have endorsed the Outlaw Dirty Money proposition, a constitutional amendment that could be on next year’s Arizona ballot.
That ballot initiative would require any group spending $20,000 or more on a state race or $10,000 or more on a local race to disclose the original source of any donation of $5,000 or more. It would also outlaw structuring donations to avoid these requirements.
If passed, the amendment would make it easier to know whose money, exactly, is going into outside campaigns like the ones for Romero.
As it is, though, if you want to find out, for example, where Chispa’s money comes from, you go to the disclosure form that discloses only that the group has received $500 or more from Arizona List PAC, League of Conservation Voters, Inc., Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona PAC and UFCW Local 99 PAC.
The original sources of the donations made by these groups? That’s a whole other research project.
Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.