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Four candidates are vying for two seats on the Phoenix City Council.EXPAND
Four candidates are vying for two seats on the Phoenix City Council.
Elizabeth Whitman

What $658,000 Says About Four Candidates and Two Phoenix City Council Seats

Come Tuesday evening, the Phoenix City Council could look dramatically different.

Four candidates are in the runoff for the two council seats representing District 5 and District 8, where residents will head to the polls Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday. Each race is split between establishment figures and outsiders.

In District 5, which covers much of west Phoenix, local union leader Betty Guardado is challenging Vania Guevara, the interim council member appointed after Daniel Valenzuela stepped down to run for mayor. In District 8, activist Carlos Garcia is facing off against Michael Johnson, a former council member whose latest appearances in council chambers have been to lobby against initiatives like light-rail expansion.

Their latest campaign finance records, filed Monday, map out some of their key supporters and connections with players in city politics.

For starters, they show that several scandal-tainted figures with ties to District 7 Councilmember Michael Nowakowski have thrown their support behind the two newcomers.

Topping the list is lobbyist Joe Villasenor, a former aide to Mayor Phil Gordon until he was placed on leave after being arrested for domestic violence. He has lobbied on behalf of developers and is one of four people at the heart of a controversy involving an unusual pattern of zoning decisions made by the Board of Adjustment for medical marijuana dispensaries.

In 2016, when Nowakowski was accused of breaking conflict-of-interest laws by discussing a development bid involving his private-sector employer, Villasenor, representing another developer, kept communicating with Nowakowski's chief of staff, Layla Ressler, to handle the crisis, the Arizona Republic reported. The following year, Villasenor was embroiled in a scandal involving forged lobbyist registration documents when he had lobbied for several development deals despite failing to register as a lobbyist.

Last year, he donated $2,000 to the campaign of John Glenn, the Phoenix planning commissioner who was running for a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives. Glenn, facing scrutiny for accepting donations from developers, eventually gave Villasenor's donation to charity.

This year, Villasenor gave $3,000 to Garcia's campaign, campaign finance records show. He also gave $6,450, the maximum allowable amount, to Guardado's campaign, records show.

Ressler, who also figured in the controversy over medical marijuana dispensaries and who was a former fundraiser for District 6 Councilman Sal DiCiccio in 2017, gave $300 to Guardado's campaign.

Another key person in the medical marijuana dispensaries case is attorney Nick Wood. He gave $2,500 to Garcia's campaign and $2,500 to Guardado. His wife, Elizabeth Wood, gave an additional $6,250 to Guardado's campaign. 

Delia Ortega-Nowakowski, Nowakowski's wife, donated $250 to Garcia's campaign.

Don Luke, a staunch opponent of light rail in Phoenix and the owner of car dealership Bill Luke Dodge, donated $6,350 to Guardado's campaign. His wife, Debra Luke, gave $6,250. In March, Bill Luke Dodge paid former council member and now registered lobbyist Peggy Neely, who herself gave $250 to Guardado's campaign, to submit a citizen petition that effectively killed any light-rail extension into west Phoenix. The extension would have run in front of the dealership.

Ben Scheel, a political consultant who has worked on Democratic legislative campaigns and the mayoral campaign of Daniel Valenzuela, said that this kind of support for non-establishment candidates was surprising. Scheel said he is not professionally involved in these races and has been following them purely out of personal interest.

Garcia, a staunch community activist who has been critical of the police, and Guardado, the vice president of hospitality union Unite Here Local 11, "are definitely...less mainstream type candidates," Scheel said. "To see them locking up a lot of this institutional support is fascinating," he added.

In general elections in March, Guardado received 37 percent of the vote and Guevara 25 percent for District 5. In District 8, Garcia took home nearly 29 percent of the vote, followed by Johnson with just over 22 percent.

If Guardado and Garcia won seats on the council — and they well could, having won the plurality of votes during the general elections — "Kate Gallego, the mayor, is really going to have her work cut out for her in trying to build a coalition," Scheel said. Garcia is a potential "bomb-thrower," he said. "I find it sort of hard to see him joining a bloc."

Guardado, he added, had kept a lower profile, but Unite Here has a reputation for aggressive organizing campaigns. Guevara, by comparison, had already cut at least one deal during her time on the council — see the case of the Suns' stadium renovation.

Campaign finance records show that Johnson's campaign has taken $1,000 in donations from Nick Wood. The political action committee for Pinnacle West, parent company of Arizona Public Service, donated $2,500 to his campaign. Brian Neely, husband to Peggy, gave Johnson's campaign $1,900.

Johnson is not a registered lobbyist with the city of Phoenix, but he showed up at the same council meeting with Neely, to oppose the light-rail extension.

Guevara's campaign has taken $3,000 from John Graham, president and CEO of Sunbelt Holdings, a major Scottsdale developer. Former mayor Terry Goddard also donated $1,500.

Collectively, the four candidates have raised $658,000 this election to woo no more than 25,000 voters (during general elections in March, 23,449 residents of Districts 5 and 8 cast ballots).

Even for a low-profile special election, that amount is relatively small. In the District 3 special election in 2017, Councilwoman Debra Stark raised nearly $300,000 in her victorious campaign against Chris DeRose. According to Scheel, the fundraising standard for regular city council races is about $250,000.

In this race, Guardado's campaign has raised just shy of $165,000. Guevara has raised nearly $224,000, Garcia $185,934, and Johnson $83,435. Those do not include independent expenditures, although the only candidate with significant independent spending on her behalf is Guardado. 

Voting centers are open Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday. The city of Phoenix has all the information you need to figure out how to do that here.

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