It's been more than a year and a half since a Phoenix ordinance meant to limit dark money went into effect, but you wouldn't know it from the race for the open District 7 city council seat.
Early ballots were mailed the week before last and ever since it's been a free-for-all of underhanded efforts to influence voters before the March 9 election. But due to a loophole in disclosure requirements, voters will have no idea which special interests are funding the attacks until potentially just days before the election.
The race will decide whether Laveen Community Council member Cinthia Estela or climate nonprofit adviser Yassamin Ansari get to represent the city's most populous district, which stretches southwest from Roosevelt Row to Laveen. Both campaigns have invested heavily in their ground games, knocking on tens of thousands of doors in hopes of driving up engagement in what has been a traditionally low-turnout district, but with as many as a third of likely voters still undecided according to polling commissioned by the Ansari campaign and Estela winning the five-way primary by just 116 votes, the dark money attacks could make the difference between the two Democrats.
Ansari says she's gotten calls from supporters considering changing their vote due to misleading mailers and one on Twitter asked her how to recall their cast vote after being deceived into thinking she was a Trump supporter. Although Ansari came in second in the primary, her campaign's internal polling shows her up 16 points among likely voters in the district.
"This is a very targeted attempt to bring our campaign down," Ansari said. "A desperate attempt."
I received this deceptive mailer along with a flyer from your opponent and my early ballot. Without much consideration, I voted for your opponent whose flier did not have any red flag statements. I feel deceived. Is there a way to cancel my ballot? https://t.co/DCPxmb2IFy— Erin Ryan (@ryanerin720) February 13, 2021
A representative for Estela's campaign declined to share their own polling, but said he would be suspicious of any polling that showed the race as anything but "narrow."
Estela did not respond to a call or text from Phoenix New Times but said in Facebook posts that she's been targeted with personal attacks that have invoked her history as a survivor of domestic violence.
"My family and I have also been attacked by dark money from my opponent's supporters during this campaign, therefore I empathize with this situation," she wrote. "The messages have attacked my reputation, integrity, and my children. It is unacceptable."
It's unclear how widespread dark money spending is in the race and who is ultimately funding it, because reporting requirements do not require disclosures until just days before the election. In this regard at least, both campaigns agree: the measures in place to control dark money and require transparency are insufficient.
Fishy FlyerOne mailer funded by unknown donors that hit mailboxes recently purports to be a voter guide. It's hardly an unbiased portrayal, however. On one side, a cross-eyed Ansari looks out dimly in front of a Scottsdale mansion. Across from her, a put-together Estela beams in front of a local park.
The flyer claims that Ansari was born and raised in a ritzy Scottsdale development, while Estela was born and raised in Laveen — inside District 7. It also lists one of Ansari's professions as being a "lobbyist for Iranian Americans."
For one, while Ansari did grow up in Scottsdale, something she is not always the quickest to disclose when discussing her background, she was actually born in Seattle. Estela was also not born in Laveen as the flyer claims, but in Lima, Peru, according to her candidate bio.
Ansari has volunteered to help organize civic engagement efforts for members of the national Iranian-American community, but she has not been a lobbyist.
“I think it’s pure racism that’s trying to scare people and feed into a stereotype about a nationality that's targeted,” she told New Times.
Deborah Gullett, chairperson of CJS PAC, the group behind the flyer, declined to do a phone interview, instead sending New Times a series of texts. She said that she wasn't aware of the specific mailer until she was contacted about it by New Times. The material came from Ansari's LinkedIn page and the goal was to promote candidates with ties to the area, Gullett said.
Gullett, the executive director of the Arizona Association of Health Plans and a former Republican state representative with a long history in Arizona politics, said that she agreed to chair CJS PAC because she thought it would be focused on supporting councilmember Debra Stark of District 3, who is facing a challenge from far-right provocateur Nicole Garcia. As the committee's focus has shifted to District 7, Gullett said on Thursday that she had decided to resign as the PAC's chair.
"While I think Cinthia Estela is the superior candidate, well-qualified and suited for the work at the city council, I signed up to help get Deb Stark reelected," Gullett wrote in a text message.
Gullett did not respond to a question about the group's funding. In 2019, Gullett's husband, Wes, helped facilitate an advertising campaign funded by out-of-state dark money that unsuccessfully sought to stop Kate Gallego from becoming Phoenix mayor. Gallego backs Ansari for the District 7 seat.
Some of the most outlandish attacks on Ansari have come from a mysterious group called "Americans for Progress." The group has sent mailers meant to appear as if they are coming from her campaign, alternatively painting her as a rabid Trump supporter next to a "Blue Lives Matter" flag, and claiming she wants to defund the police — neither of which is true.
Another mailer from the group claims Ansari "use[d] a domestic abuse case" against Estela, and again compares her to Trump. Ansari denies this and Estela's campaign said they had no evidence that this was the case.
Americans for Progress recently sent out a mailer attacking Ansari for being backed by dark-money groups, and claiming that those groups had distributed a mailer comparing Estela to Trump — as Americans for Progress had done with Ansari. The anti-police brutality activists at Poder in Action have called Estela a "local Trump" on Instagram.
The group has still not registered with the city or state and is approaching the 10-day deadline to do so. According to Ansari's campaign, it may be tied to another unregistered political action committee supporting Estela, "Democrats for a Better Phoenix," due to both using the same bulk mailing permit. That group registered Thursday, revealing its chair as Joseph Garcia, executive director of Chicanos Por La Causa Action Fund.
Garcia told New Times that there was no connection between the groups and that the committee contracts out its mailing to Tempe-based All Star Mailing Services. A representative for the company declined to offer any information about their clients, saying their work was confidential, but the bulk mailing number for the company has also been associated with other clients.
Garcia declined to offer any information about who's supporting the CPLC-tied committee financially, but said there are legitimate reasons to establish a PAC, such as avoiding the need to match spending to back candidates with spending to promote general political education and engagement, like the organization's political nonprofit is required to do. He repeated that the group had decided to back Estela after a rigorous issues-based process, but had committed to avoiding negative campaigning because it would hurt their brand and turn voters off.
“If you can't win by espousing the positive attributes of your candidate then something's off,” he said.
"Immature and Reckless"
The day before voters received the mailer from "Americans for Progress" claiming that Ansari had attacked Estela for being a survivor of domestic abuse, Estela released a statement alleging that Ansari's campaign had done the same.
Kyle Moyer, a veteran political consultant who said he's volunteering to advise Estela's campaign, could not name any specific examples of attacks from Ansari's campaign on the issue. He said Estela meant "campaign" broadly and her volunteers had encountered voters who had been fed negative information about Estela as a mother, but he said they don't know where the information was specifically coming from — in part because third-party groups are involved in the race.
“It appears as though the opposition is trying to paint the picture of [Estela] as a bad mother or a poor wife," he said. "She was in a difficult, violent, troubled relationship and was fortunately able to get out.”
Moyer pointed to canvassers not affiliated with Ansari's campaign who had been spotted around town, and speculated that they may be spreading that information. He said they had declined to identify who they were with and he did not know might be funding them.
Ansari said that she believed that progressive group Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy was conducting its own canvassing in the race. The group did not respond to a call or email last week seeking more information.
The group has launched a website questioning Estela's qualifications to lead, based on her history as a Laveen Planning Committee member and on allegations that she failed to pay child support. For good measure, it offers the public a recording of Estela yelling at her brother. It's paid for digital ads that ensure the website comes up when someone searches "Phoenix elections" in Google.
"Racist rants to her brother & court records that show she's been a deadbeat parent 4 times," reads the site's Google summary. "If Estela turned on her own family. You can't trust her to protect yours."
Court records show that Estela was held in contempt of court for overdue child support, but she also said in filings that she was struggling with unemployment and paying what she could.
The committee that put up the website is registered to a Natacha Chavez, an unemployed former LensCrafters associate who's married to Alejandro Chavez, an employee at the political consulting firm Strategies 360. Councilwoman Betty Guardado of District 5, who endorses Ansari, uses the same firm.
Natacha Chavez responded to an interview request by sending a document expanding on the website's attacks on Estela. She had previously sent the police unions backing Estela's campaign the same document. She did not respond to a follow-up email seeking comment on her interest in the race.
Around an hour after receiving Chavez's email, New Times received an anonymous email referencing documents from the same court case as the previous email, and containing allegations of abuse against Estela's children. Estela has generally denied those allegations. On Friday, the anonymous emailer sent another email asking New Times to speak with Estela's ex-husband, who she has said in court documents was abusive.
Moyer said that there had also been several mail pieces sent out attacking Estela. He declined to comment on any of the specific allegations in the attacks.
“I would say we choose not to speculate about the validity of any messaging statement because all of them are inherently bad because they’re not transparent," he said.
Under Phoenix election code, political action committees have 10 days from when they first spend or receive $1,100 to register with the city.
For Americans for Progress, that would mean they need to have registered as of today. On Friday, there was no sign that was going to happen, according to a city spokesperson.
However, even if the group doesn't register and ignores the law, there's little that can be done, says clean elections advocate Joel Edman, executive director of the progressive group Arizona Advocacy Network.
Under current rules, committees not in compliance get 20 days to register after receiving notice of their deficiency. Assuming the city attorney can track down the people behind the committee to give them notice, the election will be over by the time it would be required to reveal who is behind the effort — if it does at all. Edman said that whoever has enough money to fund the efforts behind the committee may have no trouble paying any associated fines.
Ansari has tried to distinguish the attacks against her from those by the registered, transparent committees that support her own campaign. But even if political action committees conform to all city guidelines, going into operation toward the end of the race means they aren't required to report who's funding them until just days before the election.
This can be a problem in low-turnout, off-year elections like this one, especially when most voters use mail voting.
"I think most people who are going to vote will have voted before we know who was sending these mailers," he said.
This means voters won't get the benefit of understanding which special interests are trying to sway or buy the election before they make a decision on which side to back. Both candidates are Democrats, but Ansari has positioned herself as the more progressive candidate and could give Mayor Gallego the vote she needs to shift the balance of power on the council.
With key issues like stalled police oversight on the line, and District 7 a fertile ground for development, the race has already drawn big contributions from developers to both candidates, as well as from police groups backing Estela.
While Phoenix voters in 2018 overwhelmingly passed an initiative meant to curb dark money by requiring detailed reporting of where election spending came from, Edman said the lack of strong enforcement measures and generous deadlines essentially create a loophole. He said the campaign finance system is still set up based on the idea that there's one Election Day on which everyone goes to vote.
"And now we have election month and I don't think our laws have caught up to that," he said.
Both campaigns say they are helpless in the face of dark money and called for stronger regulations.
“It’s difficult for any candidate campaign committee to stop dark money engagement because of the laws surrounding coordination. We wholeheartedly denounce dark money in any form but there are very significant limitations on what any candidate's campaign can do," said Moyer, Estela's consultant.
Ansari stopped short of condemning all outside spending, saying that the groups supporting her were following regulations and attacking Estela on her record, but she said that the disclosure timelines fall short.
“When it comes to transparency, to accountability, none of these processes are enough," she said.