Last month, local radio promoter Big Ben called up Phoenix New Times with a vague threat to stop buying ads from us if we didn't do an interview with Joshua Carmona, a.k.a Crisco Kidd, the Phoenix mayoral candidate he was working with.
To New Times he said this!
It is, of course, normal for aspiring politicians to seek publicity from media outlets. And the request from Big Ben (his real name is Reuben Sanchez) initially sounded routine. He said he was working for the Carmona for Mayor campaign and wanted to know if we would do an interview with his guy.
Then things took a turn. Big Ben said the ad the campaign had bought on the New Times website some weeks back hadn't performed as well as they'd hoped. The Carmona campaign had shelled out some of its limited cash supply so that when you went to the New Times website for a few days, the background behind your news article about municipal corruption or naked stoners would have the bright yellow-and-black colors of the Carmona campaign, with Carmona smiling up at you from the side. This probably wasn't cheap. And now, Big Ben said, he was hoping to get a reporter to interview Carmona so they could get their money's worth.
After a brief explanation that New Times' business and editorial sides are separate and that editorial decisions are made independently, Big Ben ended the call by saying that the Carmona campaign wanted to support people who supported Carmona. His implication floated in the air.
Carmona has been a local radio fixture since moving here from Dallas four years ago. His afternoon show on Power 98.3 FM (KKFR) offers a combination of hip-hop tracks, celebrity interviews, and local news.
Or it did offer that. On June 19, Carmona made a special announcement on the show: Crisco Kidd was running for mayor of Phoenix, the fifth-largest city in the country.
This last-minute announcement left Carmona only two-and-a-half weeks to get the signatures he needed to get on the ballot. He only collected around half the 1,500 signatures required but, undeterred, decided to press on as a write-in candidate, ending his weekday show so he could focus on the campaign. He still does his syndicated weekend show on SiriusXM's "Pitbull's Globalization" channel from his house.
Carmona has approached the race with a radio host's flair for promotion and branding, leveraging his large Instagram following and celebrity guests to promote his campaign. His website features videos of him chatting about issues of the day with Dr. Phil, Regina Hall, Akon, and other assorted celebrities.
We wondered: Did Carmona encourage Big Ben to call up New Times and try to bully us into writing a story? Is this the kind of behavior we could expect from a Crisco Kidd administration? We invited the candidate into a Zoom meeting to ask.
"That's weird because in radio you call that payola. So I wouldn't even suggest that because I know that's not legal in what I do in radio," Carmona said. "So I think maybe what he was been trying to say was the fact that I bought and I have supported the New Times for my restaurant and we bought a reskin [of the website] during the [Best of Phoenix] takeover. And it was just brought to my attention that, 'Hey, maybe they could do an article on you as well.' That's it.
"So if this is any type of payola, we can stop this because I don't participate in that. Never have in my life and I never will now. I don't pay to play."
In a follow-up Twitter message after an interview, Carmona went further, saying that Big Ben should not have insinuated a quid pro quo and offered to kill the interview if it was improperly obtained.
Despite all this, Carmona, in interviews, seemed like he meant well. Whatever his underlying reason for running for mayor ultimately may be, it's clear he cares about the community. He talks about opening the phone lines on his show to help connect people with COVID-19 economic assistance and having Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone on to talk about police misconduct. This summer, he mentioned a New Times story about a woman ticketed by the city for living in an alleyway on his show, and when a listener called in to offer to pay the ticket, he reached out to make it happen. For each of the last 10 years, he has spent a week sleeping in front of a Walmart to raise 2,000 pounds of donated toys.
"I just challenge any other candidate: Who's slept outside of a Walmart for a week until you've raised the goal? Who has cut their own hair? I've donated almost 100 inches of my own hair," he told New Times.
Stunts like these are part of Carmona's brand. He's a polished entertainer. At the University of Houston, he focused on public relations and advertising as part of his business degree, and he seems to have boundless energy: on top of his radio show, he's a real estate broker and owns a churro business. Under all that polish, one can sense an earnest desire to give back. It's not hard to draw a line between Carmona's charity efforts and his struggles with testicular cancer, which he beat 15 years ago. (He also launched an unsuccessful 2017 suit against his former employer, the country's third-largest radio chain, Cumulus Media, alleging racial discrimination after he was passed over for a promotion at his job in Dallas and parted ways on bad terms.)
Carmona denies that the mayoral run is a publicity stunt, pointing out that there are easier ways for him to get attention than to quit his 21-year career in radio that's taken him from Texas to New Mexico, California, and, now, Phoenix.
"I felt it was just the right thing to do to focus fully on the campaign," he said. "That's the only way to win. You got to go all in."
For the record, his employer seems supportive.
“This has been a passion of Crisco’s for quite some time now and we should always believe in our people when they want to step out and try something new,” Power 98.3 Program Director Ben 'DJ Complex' Romero told Inside Radio last month. “It is important to him and to us at the station to show that anyone can make a change if they put their heart and soul into it.”
Without his day job, Carmona is relying on his real estate sales to fund his campaign, but he also said he's been getting a number of small donations, including some each week for $100 or $200. New Times was unable to independently confirm this, as finance reports aren't due until the end of today.
Carmona claims there's been a lack of leadership in the mayor's office, and that one of the things that drove him to run was a lack of response from Mayor Kate Gallego's office to requests from him and another radio DJ for her to come on the air. In one email, Gallego's office cited her childcare schedule as preventing her from attending, he said.
"I took it as a slap in the face," Carmona said. "Not for me, I'm not a single parent, but my mom raised me and my brother, and she made time to do anything that was important. I took that as an insult for the other single moms out there that not just have one job, maybe they have two or three, and can still juggle the things to make a phone call, to make a Zoom meeting happen to talk to people."
Carmon's policy agenda is short on specifics, but big on the idea of leadership. He said he's socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Asked about COVID-19's economic and health impacts on vulnerable communities, he pivots to talking about how his restaurant didn't get relief money from the city since they couldn't document a loss in funds. On police brutality, he talks generally about finding middle ground and increasing training.
His frustrations with current city governance are understandable. Over the summer, repeated stories of abuses of power by Phoenix police have come to light, and lawsuits against the city continue to pile up. Meanwhile, the city council's efforts to establish a basic independent review board have stalled. A number of Gallego's efforts to address COVID-19 were hamstrung by the city council, and despite making national media appearances she declined to talk to the Arizona Republic for a story on the issue.
How much of a difference Carmona would make it is a different question. Phoenix's "weak mayor" system means that the mayor really has little power beyond any other member of the city council, other than their public platform. Carmona's only lived in Phoenix for four years but he thinks creating a daily or weekly radio show or podcast would allow him a greater connection with the community if he was mayor.
In some ways, those skills as a radio host transfer well to being a politician. Carmona is great at telling stories that tie his personal experience to a larger issue and drops statistics and names easily in conversation. He also has a knack for branding and slogans. On police misconduct, one line goes, "I back the blue... I don't back the BS."
However, like with many a politician, not all those narratives are quite so tidy. For one, emails between Gallego's staff and Oh Jezuz, the Power 98.3 host trying to schedule an interview with her, provided by Carmona show that Gallego did have to cancel and reschedule on a couple of occasions. But they also show that Oh Jezuz didn't respond to several emails, and when he did, he didn't confirm potential interview dates until the last minute.
In the email referencing Gallego's childcare obligations, Annie DeGraw, Gallego's former communications director, noted that the mayor's team never heard back from the station about a date proposed a half-month earlier.
Jeanine L'Ecuyer, Gallego's current communications director, said nobody at the office knows why DeGraw invoked Gallego's childcare schedule as that wasn't accurate. She declined to elaborate on Gallego's personal arrangements but said there was no way that could have been the case. Either way, Carmona's comment was "stunningly insensitive," L'Ecuyer said.
"In some ways that says it all right there," she said of Carmona's comment that he wasn't a single parent himself.
L'Ecuyer added that there was nothing personal behind the mayor not going on the radio; she was just busy and is in constant conversations with members of the community. If Carmona returns to radio, the mayor would be happy to look at being a guest, she said.
The mayor's campaign has yet to respond to an invitation to a mayoral debate organized by Big Ben and featuring radio host Dana Cortez and Telemundo Arizona anchor Angélica Atondo as two of the moderators. Or, as Big Ben put in a press release yesterday: "Both White Phoenix Mayoral Candidates have declined participation in a Latino/Minority driven debate for this Tuesday and the organizer wants to know WHY?"
Carmona is not just facing off against Gallego, whose campaign had close to $650,000 in the bank at the end of June, but two other candidates whose names will be on the November ballot, Tim Seay and Merissa Hamilton. Big Ben compared joining the campaign to getting on the Titanic, noting that Gallego had an "army." He was less worried about the "the girl and the Black guy," as he put it.
Carmona said he's received a good response from people he's talked to and who have reached out to him on social media. That gives him hope for his chances.
"If this doesn't work out, hopefully I would say, 'Hey, is my job still available? Have you guys filled that position yet?' That would be the first thing to do," Carmona said. "Second, you know, I just keep moving. I keep pushing forward."