Phoenix Democrat Joe Downs easily has the coolest campaign pledge of this election cycle.
"If you elect me county treasurer," he promises in a recent YouTube video, "Russell Pearce is fired on Day One."
For those new to school, the 35-year-old Downs is referring to former state Senate President Russell Pearce, an unabashed bigot, author of Arizona's reviled anti-immigrant legislation, Senate Bill 1070, and hero to Cactus Country wingnuts. Pearce was driven from office in 2011 as a result of a historic recall election in his Mesa district and was defeated the following year by fellow Republican state senator Bob Worsley when Pearce attempted a premature comeback.
The disgraced Pearce may be sidelined politically for the remainder of his time aboveground, but it helps to have friends in the right places, and one of those friends is Royce Flora, chief deputy to current county treasurer Charles "Hos" Hoskins. Hoskins and Flora are Republicans, and Hoskins, who is leaving office in January after serving three four-year terms, has tapped Flora as his heir apparent.
As New Times reported in 2014, Flora helped Pearce land an $85,000-a-year job with the county as the treasurer's "Tech and Customer Services Division Director," which in itself is outrageous, if you know anything about Pearce's checkered past, his embrace of the ultimately murderous (and suicidal) local fascist J.T. Ready, and Pearce's firing in 1999 as head of Arizona's Motor Vehicle Division, allegedly for altering a woman's drunken-driving record.
Downs's campaign promise is a tantalizing one, as it reminds folks that a vote for Flora is a vote for Russell Pearce's continued employment on the county taxpayer's dime. Downs's YouTube video also recounts Pearce's major controversies, such as one in 2014, when he stated during his now-defunct radio show that women on Medicaid should be sterilized, a comment that forced his resignation from a leadership position with the Arizona Republican Party.
Indeed, a win for Flora, a lifelong government employee, most likely will mean a raise for Pearce, who is expected to ascend to Flora's current position of chief deputy treasurer, a post for which Flora is paid an annual salary of $136,843.20.
A spokesman for the county could not immediately say whether Pearce would be paid the same, if Flora wins the election and Pearce becomes chief deputy treasurer, but Pearce would no doubt score a bump in pay. Flora, on the other hand, will take a pay cut if he wins, as the treasurer's salary is fixed by state statute at $76,600.
Downs says there are more reasons to vote for him over Flora for treasurer, the elected official who collects and distributes the county's taxes.
In a recent conversation, Downs, who has an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and an MBA from Arizona State University, told me that while Flora has no experience in the private sector, he is an investment analyst for Ameriprise Financial Services and previously has worked both in banking and as a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch. (I reached out to Flora by phone and e-mail but have yet to hear back from him.)
Downs also suggests that the treasurer's office could do better managing the $3.1 billion portfolio of taxpayer funds it manages, bringing a higher return than its current rate of .4 percent.
"Even for a safe and conservative portfolio, that’s pretty awful," he told me. "More prudent investing of the funds that we’re sitting on, a very conservative portfolio in accordance with Arizona Revised Statute 35-323, which governs the investment of treasury funds — you’re looking at about another $100 million generated, per year, without dipping into the principal. About $60 million of that going to public schools."
The treasurer-wannabe is also highly critical of Flora's promise on his campaign website to "eliminate residential property taxes," which currently account for more than 21 percent of the county's revenue.
"That would be catastrophic for county agencies and for education," said Downs. "Probably north of about $1 billion taken away from public schools annually. Which even a moderate Republican would say is insane."
Downs claims Flora made an addition to his website, after Downs began criticizing him on this point. The Democrat provided me with before and after screenshots of Flora's site, with the before version simply stating that Flora would work to "eliminate residential property taxes" and the amended version adding the phrase, "while ensuring our schools are adequately funded."
The average processing time for requests from the public is another concern for Downs, who wants to modernize what he regards as a lethargic county agency.
"I know they are having an overhaul now," Downs noted. "But when Russell Pearce is the technology and customer services division director, I have some qualms and some questions about just how good that IT is going to be."
Downs brings to the campaign a more-than-adequate résumé, effective YouTube videos — some funny ones involve his pooch, Milton — and an accurate critique of the current state of affairs in the treasurer's office. But his race is about as down-ticket a contest as you get. Downs has raised only a fraction of the money Flora has, and he faces a Republican registration advantage in Maricopa County of 738,000 active voters to the Dems' 576,000.
Still, there are 722,000 active voters with no party preference, and Downs is hoping for a bit of a blue wave this election cycle.
"I’m not too proud to try to ride that wave," he says, "when I’m running against someone [like Flora] who has zero name ID and isn't really even trying."
Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But the kid gets points for fighting the good fight, and for promising to sack Pearce should he prevail.