Arizona's Minimum-Wage Initiative Saved by Political Consultant's Inheritance

The campaign manager for a group trying to raise Arizona's minimum wage said on Wednesday that the effort was helped considerably by his own timely loan of $100,000.

Bill Scheel is one of three founding partners of the public-relations and political-strategy firm Javelina, which Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families hired to run its campaign. The Phoenix-based firm got the job done in the form of Proposition 206, which will appear on the November 8 ballot.

Preliminary state campaign-finance records show that Bright Owl, a limited liability company of which Scheel is the sole member and manager, made a $100,000 contribution to the campaign on August 4.

Asked on Wednesday about the cash infusion, Scheel said the money is an interest-free loan, not a donation, and that it will be classified as such on the campaign's official pre-primary report, which is due to the state on Friday.

According to Scheel, the loan came in the nick of time to cover legal fees for an unexpected court challenge to the initiative, and was made possible by money he inherited after his parents died a few years ago.

"I couldn't think of a better way to honor their memory than to provide this loan, which has helped get our Healthy Working Families initiative on the ballot," he said.

If Arizona voters approve the measure, the state's minimum wage would go up to $10 an hour next year and rise to $12 in 2020.

But it almost didn't make the ballot. The Arizona Restaurant Association sued, claiming many of the petition gatherers hired by the campaign ineligible to collect signatures. The association wanted tens of thousands of signatures thrown out, potentially enough to knock the initiative off the ballot.

The campaign itself was in need of a raise.

Before Scheel's loan, the two largest payments to the campaign were a July 19 donation of $25,000 from the United Food and Commercial Workers union Region 8 States Council, and a May 12 donation of $25,000 from the California-based Fairness Project. Prior to that, records show, from January 1 to May 31, the effort was funded with $384,642 donated by the nonprofit activist group Living United for Change in Arizona, (LUCHA), which reportedly received money for the effort from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Popular Democracy.

During that same period in the first half of 2016, the group spent $337,975.59 on signature gatherers, printing services, and other expenses, including $3,000 in consulting fees paid to Tomas Robles, the campaign's chairman and LUCHA's executive director.

Scheel says the campaign pays his company $10,000 a month for campaign management, plus another $5,000 a month for communications, all of which is split by several people at Javelina.

On top of all those expenses came the legal bills for the lawsuit by the restaurant association.

"We didn't have money set aside for legal expenses," Scheel explained, adding that his loan was a "huge help" to the campaign. It was also a risk to put his own money on the line, he admitted.

"If the court had ruled against us last Friday, my $100,000 would be gone," he said. "Legal fees is basically what [the money] was spent on."

The group's tenacity, along with Scheel's inheritance money, paid off in the courtroom. Last week, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit because the association filed the complaint seven days after the signatures were submitted to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office, exceeding the statutory limit of five days.

Now, the website for Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families lists Bright Owl as a major funding source, along with LUCHA, the UCFW, and the Fairness Project.

Scheel, who hasn't made any other contributions to the campaign, expects to be repaid out of donations that come in between now and November, he said.

"There will be future donations coming into the campaign from donors," he said. "About $1.5 million."

In response to questions from New Times, he said he hasn't made any deals with the unions and activist groups behind the campaign, nor does he expect anything in return other than repayment, if the group can manage it. His loan simply came at the right time and was a "huge help" to the legal effort that saved the initiative, he said.

"This really is a labor of love for me," Scheel said. "When I work on a campaign, I go all in. I want it to succeed."
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.