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Democrats facing off in Pima County Recorder's race talk voting rights, representation

Democrats facing off in Pima County Recorder's race talk voting rights, representation

From the Election coverage: 12 stories about Tucson-area primary races series

Engaging vulnerable voters and voters of color a priority in Pima County race

Kim Challender and Gabriella Cázares-Kelly are vying to be named the Democratic party’s candidate for the office of Pima County Recorder.

The office, responsible for voter registration, early voting and public record keeping of things like property transactions, has been occupied by F. Ann Rodriguez since 1993.

Here’s what you need to know about the candidates who are going head to head in this year’s primary election for a chance to land on the November ballot.

The winner of the Democratic primary will go on to face Republican Benny White, who is unopposed in the primary.

Kim Challender

Challender, 53, has worked in the Pima County Recorder’s Office for more than five years, most recently as assistant deputy recorder, which she says helped give her the experience needed to fill Rodriguez’s shoes.

Issues that matter to Challender are increasing voter participation, voter rights and cyber security.

“The office has done a fabulous job” with voter outreach, but there are still areas that need additional attention, like rural and tribal communities, Challender says.

“I believe that all voices need to be heard,” she says. “The vulnerable populations, the rural populations — they need to be heard just as much as someone in downtown Tucson needs to be heard. In the end, your vote needs to be counted. Bottom line.”

She says her background in marketing has positioned her well for building and strengthening partnerships in areas where voter turnout is low.

Challender previously worked in the private sector, in management of both Fortune 500 organizations and local businesses.

If elected, Challender plans to lobby state legislators to support laws that protect and expand voter rights and accessibility.

Every voter needs to have their rights protected to “be treated fairly and equally,” she says.

Challender’s most recent assignment with the Recorder’s Office included working with the Department of Homeland Security and the Secretary of State to ensure both the physical security and cybersecurity of elections as IT manager.

She says the department has been playing defense for many years but has built up the infrastructure to protect from outside sources that are trying to manipulate the elections.

“You hear the media and the president talking about how there’s voter fraud out there,” she says. “All of that needs to be fought. … Making sure that the infrastructure is secure and safe is super important.”

Challender said there’s not broadscale voter fraud, but it’s important to make sure voters understand that their vote counts and the system is secure.

“The voters of Pima County need an experienced leader” who understands the process inside the office, including voting but also the recording of documents and land transactions, she says.

“It’s just as important, and timing is extremely important,” she says. “You don’t get your keys to your house until we’ve recorded the document.”

“F. Ann Rodriguez has done a fabulous job of creating a very solid foundation,” she says. “And I want to build on that foundation. And from Day 1, I know what to do. I know where I want to go for the future.”

Gabriella Cázares-Kelly

Issues Cázares-Kelly, 38, is championing are voter accessibility, commitment to community needs and increased communication, outreach and visibility to the community, especially in communities of color that are often disenfranchised.

Cázares-Kelly wants to increase voter accessibility through making the Recorder website more user-friendly, having ballot drop boxes, and ballot text message receipts when ballots are received and sent.

“People think their votes don’t count, and to literally have a text message that says — ‘We got it. It counted’ — I think that would be really powerful,” she says.

Cázares-Kelly says the office has not done enough to make voting accessible to communities of color.

“There have been some really egregious shortcomings that have put vulnerable populations in even more vulnerable situations,” she said.

Two years ago, Cázares-Kelly applied for an open position with the Recorder’s Office as a Tohono O’odham outreach coordinator, advertised as paying between $14 to $33 an hour, she says.

With a Bachelor of Arts in Secondary English Education and a Master’s in Educational Leadership, Cázares-Kelly has worked in tribal institutions for 14 years, in higher education and at the high school level, most recently as a college and career readiness counselor.

She is also the co-founder of the grassroots community organization Indivisible Tohono, which provides opportunities for education and civic engagement for tribal members.

After two rounds of interviews and a Tohono O’odham language test, she met for a one-on-one interview with F. Ann Rodriguez, who offered her the position on the spot, at $14 an hour, Cázares-Kelly says.

“I had to turn the job down because they were not willing to pay me based on my education and experience,” she said. “That position had been open for two years, and it remained open for another two years. So it was four years that the Tohono O’odham community was left without any type of outreach, specific to those communities, even though it’s mandated by law.”

Rodriguez did not respond to a request for comment regarding Cázares-Kelly’s account of events.

In her experience of registering voters in the Tohono O’odham community, Cázares-Kelly found that a lack of information and resources created voting barriers.

Voters should choose her because of her track record of being practical, creative, innovative and a community builder with years of experience in engaging underserved communities, Cázares-Kelly says. While Challender has experience working in the Recorder’s Office, Cázares-Kelly says she has more experience community building and working with underserved populations.

She is president of the Progressive Democrats of Southern Arizona, vice president of the Arizona Democratic Party’s Native American Caucus and a Legislative District 9 Precinct Committee member.

Through her local political work, Cázares-Kelly has registered voters throughout Southern Arizona in rural communities, tribal communities and Latinx communities, “trying to demystify the process and change the culture around voting,” she says.

“We really need to address some systemic barriers that have kept people from voting,” she says. “I think I’m the type of person who can create a sense of urgency surrounding issues and am truly dedicated and passionate about voter access.”

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at

dkhmara@tucson.com or 573-4223.

On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara

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