Local community college students could learn about steamy political drama in Arizona by studying up on Kathleen Winn, one of three new members of the Maricopa County Community College District board.
Back in 2013, she was accused along with former Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne of violating campaign finance law during the 2010 election that put him in office. Talk of a rumored affair between the two close friends surfaced in public documents at the time, adding spice to the story when it hit the news media. Winn and Horne, who are both married, denied they ever hooked up.
The election night victory has put the Mesa businesswoman with seven grown children on a path to make her mark on the local college scene and move away from the scandal with Horne that's been years in the running.
The latest election results show that Winn won her race for the open at-large seat on the seven-member community college board by one of the largest margins of any Arizona candidate on Tuesday night: She beat longtime east Valley booster Roc Arnett by more than 150,000 votes.
Now she says she's ready to put the problems of her past behind and focus on her four-year term on the nonpartisan board.
Having campaigned on the idea of lowering tuition, she'd like to focus on turning the 10-college system, one of the nation's largest, into a job-creating engine.
The county has 100,000 unfilled jobs and tens of thousands of young, unemployed people who aren't in school, she said.
"We need to do a better job with our kids," she said.
Winn doesn't have any experience in education, though, other than having "six kids in college at one time" years ago. She's a former real estate broker and mortgage banker, according to her website. She's been active in the Republican Party, serving as first vice chair of the Mesa Republican Women club.
She's also worked as an activist at AZMen, a group with "a mission to assemble a diverse group of male leaders who are focused on actionable initiatives in the support of the well-being and safety of women and children," and the Arizona Anti-Trafficking Network.
"My actions overall speak louder than the assault on Tom Horne," she said. "I developed my own identity and my own record. I ran on my own record and not an alleged campaign violation. I would like people to focus on my accomplishments."
Still, she knows that some people would associate her name with dirty politics. In her and Horne's lawsuit against the state of Arizona and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, Winn is seeking $300,000 in lost income and at least much in general damages "including damage to her reputation." The suit is now before a federal court.
Winn and Horne claim in their federal complaint, filed earlier this year, that their rights were trampled during an investigation and rulings related to their alleged campaign violation in the 2010 election that put Horne in office.
She feels at this point that she's been exonerated of any wrongdoing related to that case by a previous ruling of the Arizona Supreme Court. She likens her experience to the accusations leveled against Brett Kavanaugh before he was approved as Supreme Court justice.
"Falsely accused, tried in the court of public opinion — it was, like, I didn't even have one beer," Winn said.
She found herself in the glare of media attention in 2013 because of a chain of events that began with a Phoenix New Times article and would lead to Horne's political downfall.
Here's the CliffsNotes version of the key events:
Horne won the Republican primary election for state AG in 2010 against former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas. In July 2011, former New Times writer Stephen Lemons wrote an article outlining how Horne's "gal-pal," Carmen Chenal, had advanced rapidly to a $108,000-a-year job at the AG's office despite serious problems with her legal career. Horne, incensed at the article, ordered an internal investigation into who in his office had leaked information to Lemons.
There was no actual leak: Lemons had culled information for his article from public records. But as he described in a 2012 article, investigator Meg Hinchey discovered the AG's Office was a "viper's nest of backstabbing, gossip, and resentment."
Horne protected Winn during the investigation, even though some thought she was the source of the leak. Horne once said in a meeting, according to an affidavit by Hinchey, that he'd been told Winn wanted to have sex with him, "but he didn't believe that to be true."
Other titillating quotes about a relationship between the two arose during the probe, like the time Winn supposedly told a woman who liked Horne, "I'm the new girlfriend; you're the crabby old woman."
Winn has publicly denied an affair with Horne. But that rumor was the least of their problems.
Hinchey's investigation revealed potential evidence that Winn had colluded with Horne illegally during the 2010 campaign when she ran an independent expenditure campaign supporting Horne and attacking his Democratic rival, Felecia Rotellini. Winn had worked for Horne's campaign, then quit and ran the independent expenditure campaign, raising more than $500,000 in five days.
After Horne narrowly won the election, he hired Winn as the office's community outreach and education director.
Hinchey turned over her findings to the FBI, which began its own probe, eventually tailing Horne during an afternoon rendezvous with Carmen Chenal. Agents documented how Horne hit another car with his Jaguar, then left without leaving a note for the car's owner. The case exploded in the news in late 2012, when Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, acting on information from the FBI case, concluded that Horne and Winn had illegally coordinated on the independent expenditure campaign.
The case got bumped to Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, who also found the pair had broken campaign laws and ordered that the independent expenditure campaign refund its donors $396,000.
Horne lost the primary election in 2014 against fellow Republican Mark Brnovich, (who won re-election this week). The campaign-finance case bounced around in the court system until the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Polk denied the pair due process by acting as both an advocate against Horne in an administrative law proceeding and as the final arbiter of the case.
The High Court sent the case to Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre, who concluded there wasn't enough evidence Winn and Horne had broken the law. The two then filed their complaint in federal court against Polk and the state for violating their due-process rights.
Hinchey received a $99,999 settlement from the state after she filed a lawsuit alleging that Horne had retaliated against her.
Winn began a quest to regain her footing with the public. She ran for a seat on the Mesa City Council last year, but lost. Following that experience, several leaders in the state Republican Party asked her to try for another elected office, this time on the community college board.
Campaign finance records show that she and her husband, Al, a retired Boeing aerospace engineer, chipped in about $29,000 of the $35,000 in total funds she raised for her run. She picked up a few thousand from about a dozen donors, including controversial developer George Johnson, who gave $1,000, and Horne, who gave $500.
Joining her on the board are newcomers Marie Sullivan in the community colleges' District 3, and Tom Nirini, who'll represent District 5. Jean McGrath, a former state lawmaker, was also elected on Tuesday to a second four-year term.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The community colleges have been filled with tension lately, with faculty and administration at odds over issues like the elimination of a meet-and-confer process, which were seen by administrators as inappropriate collective bargaining in a right-to-work state.
The termination of community college football programs brought even more angst: A football coach formed a political group to try and install college board members who were amenable to bringing the programs back. Sullivan and Nirini were backed by the pro-football group, but Winn defeated the group's third candidate, Arnett. Also failing to gain enough votes was Sherman Elliott, a Grand Canyon University dean who ran for District 3.
Winn said she plans to work hard at the unpaid position, trying to bring unity to the board and helping address the system's problems. She hasn't yet visited all of the community colleges, but plans to in the coming weeks.
"Everything I can do to prepare myself for that first meeting, I will do," she said.