Progressive newcomer Yassamin Ansari is on track to represent Phoenix's most populous council district after taking a commanding lead in a race that turned bitterly personal in its final months. Ansari, a 28-year-old climate adviser, held 58 percent of counted votes at 8:30 p.m. in District 7, which stretches from Roosevelt Row to Laveen.
Meanwhile, moderate Democratic incumbent Debra Stark has fended off a challenge by far-right provocateur Nicole Garcia after pulling in 69 percent of counted votes in north-central Phoenix's District 3.
The vote counts released tonight include more than 40,000 citywide mail-in ballots received by last Friday and the couple-hundred cast in-person over the weekend. More results will trickle in as late-returned ballots are added to the total but appeared unlikely to force an upset in either district race.
With 2,000 votes still separating Ansari and her opponent Cinthia Estela, Ansari told New Times that she was declaring victory on her way to a celebration.
"I'm thrilled. I'm so overwhelmed," she said excitedly, at one point accidentally triggering a FaceTime call.
The results of tonight's election may shift the balance of power on the city council if Ansari takes office on April 19. The recent Phoenix transplant was backed by Mayor Kate Gallego, as well as a collection of labor and progressive groups. She had indicated she'll give greater support for independent police oversight and expanded homelessness services than outgoing incumbent Michael Nowakowski, who has been a deciding vote on those issues.
The decisive nature of the race, District 7's opportunities for development, and Ansari's national networks have led to big spending. Between the two candidates and affiliated special-interest groups, more than $1 million poured into the race. Ansari has been targeted in the last month by a dark-money group that flooded the district with misleading mailers designed to look like they were coming from her campaign and that painted her alternatively as a Trump supporter and as someone who wanted to defund the police.
"I think the dark-money attacks completely failed," Ansari said. She recalled one voter fishing a flyer out of a trash can to express his frustration with them and said her team had knocked on 90,000 doors in the district since November.
Ansari was challenged by Laveen Community Council member Cinthia Estela, whose campaign had touted her long history in the district. Estela backers criticized Ansari's recent move to District 7 and her upbringing in a ritzy Scottsdale suburb, while Estela faced scrutiny for a checkered past that included allegations of child abuse as part of a messy divorce from an ex-husband she has said was abusive.
Estela was unreachable by phone on Tuesday night, and a campaign consultant working with her did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
At its core, the race for District 7 was between an earnest outsider with an impressive resume and a passionate local with a checkered past.
Ansari boasted degrees from Stanford and Yale, policy work on climate change at the United Nations, and national political experience. Estela has volunteered for local political campaigns and emphasized her experience on the Laveen Community Council, a nonprofit that organizes picnics and other events.
Both come from immigrant families, but while Estela's parents worked in more direct-service industries, Ansari's father owns a wealth management firm.
Estela played up her connections to the district and appealed to Latino voters, adding stickers to her signs that noted she spoke Spanish, while Ansari received Spanish tutoring.
Both undertook extensive door-knocking efforts trying to drive up engagement in a historically low-turnout district. In the most recent finance reports, Ansari reported about $690,000 raised and Estela reported nearly $305,000.
Estela narrowly won the five-way primary election this November. After that, the race heated up with outside money pouring in and a series of personal attacks on both candidates.
Besides the misleading mailers, another political action committee hit Ansari for her Scottsdale background and claimed she was a lobbyist for Iranian Americans. Ansari decried the mailer as racist misinformation. The head of the committee, Deborah Gullett, defended the mailer as being based on Ansari's LinkedIn but added that she was resigning from the PAC due to its focus on the District 7 race.
On the other side, a committee supporting Ansari called Estela a "deadbeat" mom who had missed child support payments. It also surfaced a disorderly conduct arrest stemming from an argument between Estela and one of her siblings.
Estela defended herself by invoking her history as a survivor of domestic violence. She reckoned that people in the district could identify with a past that has not always been straight and narrow.
Public records reveal that police groups spent big to back Estela while unions spent even bigger to back Ansari, but questions remain about who was trying to influence the race.
The group behind the deceptive mailers against Ansari appears to have never registered with the city or state, in a flagrant violation of campaign finance laws. And the group that attacked Estela's record as a mother has reported no money donated or spent in its financial reports, despite operating a website attacking Estela in the time covered by the reports.
The political action committee operated by the advocacy wing of the nonprofit Chicanos Por La Causa, an Estela endorser, is over a week late in submitting its required finance report to the city.
City spokesperson Alejandro Montiel-Cordova told Phoenix New Times that CPLC's committee, Democrats for a Better Phoenix, is being notified of its failed obligation and that they are processing a complaint against the group behind the misleading flyers, Americans for Progress. Any issues with the group backing Ansari, Residents for Responsible Leadership, have to be taken up with the secretary of state since that's where the committee is registered, he said.
A clean elections advocate previously told New Times that Phoenix's campaign finance laws lack teeth. Both candidates' campaigns have agreed they are insufficient.
The race in north-central Phoenix was a test of the appeal of the increasingly polarized far-right in Phoenix. Though Garcia openly supports election conspiracy theories, her supporters included Councilmember Sal DiCiccio, who endorsed her. She pulled in around 35 percent of the vote in the primary.
Garcia cited national conservative talking points and tried to stir fears about Phoenix looking like Seattle or Portland. She also tweeted support for the violent, January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and voiced COVID-denying talking points.
Stark, a Democrat, presented herself as a moderate pragmatist focused on local issues.
It appears that approach has resonated with voters in District 3: Stark will cruise easily to a second term.
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