Spender Bender

A word of warning, my fellow Arizonans: The Legislature adjourned last month, which means it's high season for fund raising. The next time a candidate comes begging for your hard-earned cash, don't just ask what he or she plans to do, if elected. Ask what he or she plans to do with your money. The answer may surprise you -- or at least give you a good laugh.

Political journalists spend a lot of time analyzing contributions, but we seldom bother with expenditures. Too bad. I reviewed thousands of expenditures made by state and legislative candidates during the 1996 and 1998 campaign cycles and found scores of purchases beyond consulting services, computers, signs and what you'd typically list as campaign expenses. And we're not just talking about willy-nilly spending on relish trays, balloons, candy, flowers and enough pizza to feed the populations of small countries. Most of the expenditures can be justified, I suppose -- all's fair in politics, right? The expenses are certainly not illegal, according to Arizona officials I spoke with.

But is this really what contributors think they're paying for?

Expenditures range from the extravagant to the comical: Glendale Republican Senator Scott Bundgaard racked up $9,000 in legal fees, and Mesa House Speaker Jeff Groscost paid $428.79 for a camera. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan gave new meaning to "campaign appearances" with a $132 hairstyling bill.

Representative Steve May, a Phoenix Republican, spent $18.18 on a sledgehammer. Scottsdale GOP Senator Randall Gnant bought a "Gabber Grabber" (a device to record phone calls) from Spy Headquarters for $21.40. Senator Mary Hartley, a Phoenix Democrat, has an obvious penchant for crafts, with multiple purchases from Cloth World and Michael's, a popular hobby store, for use as "auction items" at a fund raiser.

At least those candidates gave some explanation for their spending. Many didn't bother, such as Flagstaff Republican Representative John Verkamp's payment of $3,582.40 to himself, with no further details.

Here are some other highlights from my search:

· James Bourassa, the Reform Party's unsuccessful candidate for the House in District 26, shelled out $35 for eyeglass repair and kept himself looking spiffy with a $15 haircut and $36.32 for "mens apparal" [sic] from Kmart. But the real eyebrow-raising items on Bourassa's reports have to do with transportation. He listed several payments to The Carwasher to "wash campaign vehicle." At $12 or $13, those expenditures were nominal (although questionable), but what might really get a contributor steamed was $2,546.62 to Rettke's Auto Repair. Why? Well, Bourassa's motor was running hot. "Blew motor had to installed new motor for campaign vehicle," his report explains, if not clearly.

I suppose I could see the justification if District 26 was in the boonies, but it's not. It includes parts of Paradise Valley, east Phoenix and Scottsdale -- hardly motor-blowing turf. Take the bus, Mr. Bourassa.

· GOP Senator Sue Grace, of Phoenix, reimbursed her husband $500 for airfare to South Africa. (Her trip was funded by a private group sponsoring a legislators' junket; she says the $500 covered only her airfare to Washington, D.C.) Grace even threw in a bill for $75.52 for books on South Africa and $100 for her passport and photo.

· Darden Hamilton, a Republican who won a tight race in Glendale's District 16, paid his wife, Linda, hundreds of dollars for performing "casual labor." Hmmm.

· Frances Emma Barwood, onetime Phoenix City Councilmember, lost her GOP primary bid for Secretary of State. I don't know what the Second Amendment has to do with the largely administrative duties of Secretary of State, but Barwood used campaign funds to pay for memberships in the following groups: Women Against Gun Control, Gun Owners of America, Brassroots, Inc., and my personal favorite, Jews for Preservation of Firearms Ownership.

Barwood also bought herself a subscription to Newsweek. Now, I can understand subscribing to the Arizona Republic, which she also did, but I don't see the justification in subscribing to national publications for any Arizona candidate short of John McCain. But Barwood's not alone. Representative Richard Kyle subscribed to George, Hamilton to the Washington Times and Phoenix GOP Representative Barry Wong to the Economist. Mesa Republican Representative Karen Johnson let her contributors aid her logical ability and her understanding of the common man by picking up the tab for Reason magazine and a publication called Middle America News.

· Dewey Republican Representative Barbara Blewster spent $168.75 on clothes at Solts and $99 at My Sister's Closet, a used-clothing store. Her report was not only entertaining, but bless her cheapskate, junk-food-loving heart, it's so detailed: $1.39, snack at Denny's; $3.23, lunch at Jack in the Box; $1.51, snack at Carl's Jr.; $2.42, lunch at McDonald's; $1.18 at Taco Bell.

· Doug Martin, who's been the state mine inspector for more than 12 years and has never had much in the way of competition, was taking no chances in 1998, when he threw a fund raiser billed as "We Dig Doug" (get it?) and featuring beverages from Keg Beer Unlimited, the Sun City Poms and $900 worth of food from Kenny Rogers' Roasters. Sounds like quite a party.

The most bizarre expenditure listed on Martin's report -- maybe on any of the reports I saw -- was dues paid for membership in the Screen Actors Guild. Martin put himself through college by acting (didn't we all?), and, although the last time he used his SAG membership was eight years ago when he made a commercial for electric cars, his campaign has kept it up.

I don't see any quick solutions out there. Jessica Funkhouser, director of election services for the Secretary of State, says there's no official monitoring of spending and no teeth in the current law to do so.

In 1998, gubernatorial candidate Tom Rawles, a Libertarian, made headlines when he decided to pay himself a salary to run for office. The same year, the ultimately successful incumbent, GOP Governor Jane Dee Hull, had the chutzpah to hire her son, Mike -- a complete political neophyte, and that's putting it nicely -- to run her campaign. This prompted the introduction of legislation that would have limited such practices -- mainly regarding the hiring of household members as campaign staff -- but it failed. (Big surprise.)

Curbing expenditures for items like clothing and haircuts is even more difficult. What candidate can afford to go around with bad bangs or ratty clothes?

Last year, state Representative Richard Kyle, a Phoenix Republican, became the poster boy for questionable expenditures when folks learned he'd used campaign cash to pay for out-of-state trips, baby sitters, an AAA membership and an $11 haircut from Supercuts. The state Attorney General's office declined to prosecute Kyle, noting that it's hard to pinpoint an illegal campaign expenditure. What doesn't a politician do, in the name of politics? Legalities aside, an illegitimate campaign expense is like a bad haircut: hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

If the Arizona Supreme Court ever gets off its collective duff and rules on the Clean Elections law, there may be some limitations in place; if nothing else, participating candidates would have less money to spend. But the longer the Supremes wait, the less likely it is there will be more than a handful of Clean Elections candidates come November.

As of this writing, 2000 candidates are free to spend at will. I could use some new clothes, and my car's filthy. I'm considering declaring my candidacy.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at