Stealth recall candidate Olivia Cortes may not want to answer her phone or come to her door, but on Thursday there were paid petition circulators soliciting signatures for her at the main branch of the Mesa public library.
These individuals are informing skeptical pro-Russell Pearce signers that getting Cortes in the race will help split the vote in favor of the state Senate President in the upcoming November 8 recall election.
I stopped by the main branch of the Mesa library this afternoon, and was asked to sign a petition to put Cortes' name on the ballot by a woman who said her name was Suzanne.
Suzanne told me she was working for a woman who showed up later and identified herself to me as Diane Burns, with a company called Petition Pros.
When Suzanne asked if I lived in LD 18, I fibbed and said I did. She then asked if I was a Russell Pearce supporter. So I told an even bigger fib, and said yes.
"Then you want to sign this," Suzanne told me. "The whole purpose of getting her on the ballot is to dilute the vote so that [Pearce] stays in."
She's not running on her own behalf, I asked incredulously?
"She's running on her own," the woman said. "But the whole purpose is to split the vote. So that everyone who [is] against [Pearce] will vote for two people instead of one, and that way [Pearce] will get the most votes."
Though I'd been tipped off that the petition circulators for Cortes were at the library, I don't think I would have believed they would be so brazen, unless I'd heard the pitch myself.
This same woman made a similar pitch to others, though other times she made no pitch at all, just asking for someone's signature. A man identifying himself as Doug later showed up to help Suzanne.
"He wants Russell Pearce to win," Suzanne told Doug, who said he was with the Cortes campaign. "And I told him that was the whole purpose of her getting on the ballot, to split the vote."
"Is that the purpose of it?" I asked Doug.
"In every campaign, both sides try to run candidates to try to manipulate the vote," he explained, matter-of-factly.
Can't say that I know of Lewis's "side" doing likewise, though as I let them try to convince me to sign, I didn't argue with them.
Before I finally identified myself as a reporter and gave them my card, they both stated that the Pearce campaign knew nothing of this dilution-strategy. Doug told me that he and other generous souls were just spontaneously helping out, by paying for Burns' services.
Doug varied his pitch to library-goers, sometimes advocating Cortes as sort of a middle ground between Pearce challenger Jerry Lewis and Pearce, other times offering her candidacy as a plus for Pearce.
Burns, a middle-aged lady with white hair came along later, apparently to collect the petition sheets, which are due Friday at the Arizona Secretary of State's Office by 5 p.m. I asked her if they had the required 621 signatures, but she clammed up as soon as she found out who I was.
Earlier Suzanne told me that the drive didn't have enough signatures yet. However, I know she told another individual that they did have 621, but wanted to get more as a cushion.
Adding to all this weirdness was the fact that Burns at one point asked Doug if he was going to see "Constantin" later on. I immediately asked if she meant pro-Pearce GOP operative Constantin Querard. Burns wouldn't say anything. I asked Doug if Querard was assisting the Cortes effort. He hemmed and hawed, then talked up Querard's status as a political whiz.
After getting back to my office, I e-mailed Querard, asking if he was helping Cortes out. Haven't gotten a reply as of yet. I've reached out to Cortes as well, and will update this blog if she has a response.
Doug also told me that Pearce "knew" Cortes, and had no problem with her running.
Aren't you being dishonest with people, I wondered of Doug, pitching for Cortes as an actual candidate, when all info seems to indicate she's a plant? (For the record, Cortes denied this allegation in answers to questions of mine submitted via e-mail.)
"She's not a candidate yet," he offered. "She might not even get on the ballot."
Suddenly, some old dude, a pro-Pearce fella signing the petition, advised me, "You're getting the cart before the horse."
I'm surprised he didn't call me, "sonny" or "whipper-snapper."
Other Mesa residents identifying themselves as pro-Pearce signed the petition, after being told that Cortes' name on the ballot would ultimately assist the embattled state Senator.
I'm kind of amazed at how bald-faced the petition circulators were about their actions. But I recorded all of the conversations we had, to be on the safe side, and snapped a few images with my cell phone.
Who are these people and where is the money coming from to pay for the signature-gatherers and the signs?
That is unclear, despite Doug's admission regarding Petition Pros. But we're sure to know more after tomorrow, assuming Cortes submits her petition sheets, which should have the full names of the gatherers on the back.
UPDATE 9/9/11: Democrat Andrew Sherwood, who ran against Pearce in 2010, has posted a recording to his Facebook page of a conversation between a Cortes petition circulator and a woman pretending to be pro-Pearce. Check it out, here. Sounds like the same woman I spoke with.