I could do a better job than these commissioners, Kiana Maria Sears thought.
Since 2008, Sears had been working for the Arizona Corporation Commission, as an executive consultant and professional public-utility analyst. While there, she found herself increasingly frustrated as she saw the commissioners, who set utility rates for Arizonans, raise those prices.
“We would recommend that these rate increases shouldn’t happen,” Sears told Phoenix New Times in a recent interview. “And our commissioners would, time and time again, ignore the recommendations. So at that point I felt a little bit powerless, because as a staffer you write all these things, it’s your professional recommendation... and then the commissioner is like, 'Okay, we’re going to approve this rate increase.'” She clapped her hands together for emphasis. “And you’re like, ‘What is the purpose?”
Eventually, Sears began saying to herself, “I wish I was a commissioner, because this is ridiculous.”
So, in 2014, Sears quit the Corporation Commission, where her specialty had been reviewing applications from people and organizations like homeowners’ associations that wanted to become water suppliers. She started working as a development officer for Valley of the Sun United Way, a nonprofit that fights poverty in Maricopa County. The job would teach her to fundraise, a skill that she would need in order to campaign for the elected position of Corporation Commissioner — especially as, as some have labeled her, “the outsider.”
Four years later, Sears has passed major milestones on her way to potentially becoming a Corporation Commissioner next year. In August, she defeated former commissioner Bill Mundell, who campaigned with Sandra Kennedy as “The Integrity Team,” in the Democratic primaries. Sears took 219,011 votes to Kennedy’s 351,561, with both of them beating Mundell, who received just shy of 209,000 votes.
Come November 6, in the general election, Sears will be one of four candidates competing for two seats on the five-member commission. She’ll be up against Kennedy, a longtime Arizona lawmaker and former commissioner, as well as Republicans Rodney Glassman, who received 218,130 votes in the primary, and Justin Olson, a current commissioner who got 240,825 votes.
Tonight, the four of them will take the stage in a 30-minute debate sponsored by the Arizona Clean Elections Commission, scheduled to air live at 5 p.m. on Arizona PBS stations. A replay will air at 10 p.m., and be posted to Arizona PBS' website when it concludes.
For this campaign, Sears estimates she’s put 122,000 miles on her silver Honda Accord. She has visited all 15 Arizona counties and solicited 1,802 donations of $5, more than the 1,500 she was required to gather to qualify as a Clean Elections candidate. Campaign finance records show that she collected these donations by early February, well ahead of the August 21 deadline.
Yet Sears has also been caught seemingly flat-footed at times, in public debates and in her interview with New Times, when pressed to explain the practical aspects of her goals and ideals. She’s been criticized by a watchdog group and by her opponents for having a campaign treasurer who worked for 30 years at Arizona Public Service, the state’s biggest electric utility and which the Corporation Commission regulates. That link was part of the evidence that the watchdog group, Energy and Policy Institute, presented as Sears' "connections to APS." Sears slammed these suggestions of collusion with APS as “character defamation,” “slander,” “untruth,” and “lies.”
Others question whether, in this race, it really matters that she has not always laid out her policies in detail. Her supporters and some of those with whom she’s worked consider her to be highly knowledgeable about utility regulation and operation, and they praise her ability to work hard and learn fast. At this point, they suggest, what matters more is what she stands for.
During a period when the Corporation Commission is beset with allegations of corruption, Sears and her passions could represent a glimmer of possible change. A shortlist of those allegations include: bribery charges against former commissioner Gary Pierce, although the case ended in a mistrial; suspicions that APS funneled $3 million to two Republicans running for the commission in 2014; and the resignation in July of the commission's executive director after regulators discovered that his wife worked for a lobbying firm hired by APS.
“Most Arizonans don’t know the duties of our Arizona commissioners and how it affects their pocketbook,” Sears said. “The Corporation Commission determines how much you’re paying for regulated utilities. The company doesn’t raise your rates — it’s our commissioners.” She added, “This office is actually supposed to be protecting you.”
Sears is a relative newcomer to politics in Arizona. To her advocates, she’s a breath of fresh air. A black woman, she became the first person of color to win a seat on the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board, on which she began serving her four-year term in January 2017. She bills herself as a champion for children and consumers, a staunch advocate for the people. In her messaging, she promises not to cater to special interests and instead to advocate for impoverished and minority communities. That idea, and especially the authenticity with which she delivers it, has clearly resonated with her supporters. Sears seems earnest, eager, and filled with idealism.
Sears visited New Times' Phoenix office on Monday before heading to Tucson for a conference on climate change. She smiled brightly and chatted readily, giving off an easygoing vibe. Occasionally, Sears fidgeted with the ring settled onto her right ring finger.
“I call myself the economic and environmental justice warrior,” Sears said, a phrase she repeated several times.
If elected to the Corporation Commission, she’d certainly bring a different perspective to a five-member board that, right now, is solidly white, male, and Republican.
Sears grew up in New Orleans East, which she described as a “fusion” of different cultures. From an early age, that high level of diversity fostered her curiosity about how other cultures thrive. The area had a robust Vietnamese community, and in high school, she attended a magnet program, where “I was probably one of three people who weren’t Vietnamese,” she said.
In 1995, she and her husband, also from New Orleans, moved to Arizona for his job at a bank; they’ve since lived in Mesa for more than 20 years. Now 43 years old, Sears has two daughters, aged 22 and 24.
Much of Sears’ public service prior to this campaign has centered around children’s welfare and education. In addition to her work on the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board, she’s been an advocate for the early childhood development program First Things First. To her, being on the Corporation Commission was directly connected to her work for the school board, on which she would continue serving if elected as commissioner.
“I feel like the things that I do, some people see as being very different,” she said. “To me, they all align." For example, she said, electricity bills are often the most expensive in August and September, when school starts. "So there's a direct issue with paying for AC, or paying for school clothes, shoes, fees," she said.
On August 15, in a debate among the Democratic candidates for commissioner, candidate Sandra Kennedy pointed out that Sears’ website contained confusing language. It wasn’t clear which of two current renewable-energy proposals, or neither, Sears supported. Was it the proposal by current commissioner Andy Tobin to require 80 percent of Arizona’s energy to come from renewable sources, including nuclear energy, by 2050? Or did she favor the ballot initiative Prop 127 to require 50 percent to come from renewables, not including nuclear, by 2030? The former proposal — Tobin’s — is not open to voters, whereas the latter is.
On Monday, Sears’ site read, “Sears fiercely supports efforts to legally require that 80% of Arizona’s energy come from renewables by 2050. Should voters choose to encode this goal into law, Commissioner Sears will staunchly oppose any attempts to undermine their will.”
When asked to clarify whether that language meant she thought Arizonans would be voting on Tobin’s plan, Sears said, “Tell me why you think that.” After some clarification, she said, “It’s always good to get another perspective, because I’ve heard all this stuff about the Tobin plan, and since then I’ve actually done some updates to my website.” After being shown the site with the current language, Sears later made a note on the back of an envelope, to update her website.
She also laid out, once and for all, what kind of renewable energy policy she supported. “I’m totally, totally absolutely supportive of 127,” Sears said. But, she added, “it’s a start.” She said 80 percent of Arizona’s energy should come from renewable sources, including 50 percent from solar, and the rest from other sources, like 10 percent from wind. “Nuclear should not be counted as a renewable energy source or as a clean energy source.” she added. In a follow-up interview, she said that Arizona could increase its dependence on solar energy without hiking up rates for consumers, because monthly bills already include the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure.
“Infrastructure is not paid for up front,” Sears said. “It’s not like buying a T-shirt off the rack.” Rather, she said, consumers pay for it in bits and pieces. Monthly utility bills cover upgrades to pipes from the 1970s, repairs for broken infrastructure, and new power plants, she explained. Because utility companies are able to charge customers for this infrastructure, they have an incentive to build more, Sears added.
“Right now, if you talk to APS, they want to build more power plants,” Sears said. “It will gain them money over time.” Investing in solar energy was simply a matter of “swapping out costs,” not increasing them, she said.
Cathy Nichols, the political director of Arizona List, a network that supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates and which endorsed Sears, said that Sears’ commitment to renewable energy was one of the reasons the List endorsed her.
“She had extraordinarily strong preparation for this race and her platform resonated with our endorsement committee,” Nichols said. “What is see in Kiana is somebody who works very hard, and so if there is an issue that she’s not familiar with, she will educate herself.” Nichols added, "She’s never run a statewide campaign before, but she’s running an excellent campaign. She beat a former commissioner based on pure hard work.”
“If you’re at an event with her, she works the room,” Nichols said. “She’s so good at talking with people.”
For the last two years, Ben Smith has worked with Sears on the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board, an unpaid, nonpartisan position. “I’ve learned a lot from her,” he told New Times. “She comes to the table with a very different perspective.” Sears had “a keen awareness” of minority populations, and connected well with them, he said. He praised her willingness to stand by her beliefs, citing a case in which the school board voted to rename a school after a former board member. Sears didn't follow along with the rest of the board, because, Smith said, Sears had reached out to members of the community and found that they weren’t sure whether they supported the decision. “She wasn’t afraid to take a hard stand and be the one man [sic] out.”
“She works with a lot of passion,” Smith added. “To get to the nitty-gritty of what the policy means, in some cases, requires a conversation. And it’s a conversation of clarification about what that policy stands for what it does, and what it enforces and what it protects. She hasn’t been afraid to ask those questions.”
Others praise her ability to collaborate, like Dennis Kavanaugh, a former Mesa city councilmember who endorsed Sears for school governing board and is endorsing her for Corporation Commission. He said he was also pleased to see someone running for Corporation Commission who had experience at the Commission. “All too often, people who run for the Corporation Commission have limited experience in the field, other than probably serving for years in the legislature. It’s not often that you see commissioners get elected who really do have a good working knowledge of how the agency functions.”
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Kavanaugh argued that Sears’ weakness — her lack of history as an elected official in a partisan position — was, in fact, her strength. It meant that she didn’t have “some of the baggage of the past,” especially during a time when public trust in the Commission has faltered.
Last August, two-thirds of 400 voters surveyed by HighGround Public Affairs Consultants answered “yes” when asked whether they believed that the Corporation Commission had been “corrupted by outside influences and contributions to their election campaigns by the utilities they are supposed to regulate.”
Toward the end of the interview with New Times, Sears criticized what she saw as an excessive emphasis on APS in the race. Instead, she wanted voters to understand just how influential the Corporation Commission is on daily life.
“The conversation solely about APS does a disservice to all Arizonans,” she said, because the Corporation Commission oversees much more than just electricity — it sets rates for water and gas, and regulates securities and businesses, too. “The everyday dollar that comes from your wallet is because of this office.”