Longform

The Dirty Truth about "Clean" Elections

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The stakes are high. If Davis really did $11,000 in work for Quelland's campaign, it would put Quelland well over the spending limits he agreed to as a clean candidate. Those limits are strictly enforced for a reason: The system simply wouldn't work if candidates took an infusion from government, only to subsidize their campaigns secretly with their own funds.

While Quelland's lawyer denied the charges, the commission has directed its staff to investigate further. (Quelland did not respond to a request for comment.)

If the commission finds that Quelland exceeded his spending limits to that degree, he could be removed from office — a fate that's been suffered by only one previous candidate, David Burnell Smith.

But that's small consolation to the Democrats, who lost the seat by the narrowest of margins. As Jackie Thrasher points out, even if Quelland is removed, it's up to leaders in his own party to replace him.

And Quelland's alleged overspending was hardly the only dirty trick that Clean Elections may have unwittingly financed in District 10. Far more insidious is the very strange case of Margarite Dale, the aforementioned housewife turned Green Party candidate.

When Dale filed papers to run, Thrasher thought it was no big deal. "I saw a Green candidate had filed, and I thought, 'Good for them,'" she says. "Having a number of options and a number of different candidates, that's how it should be."

Until, that is, Thrasher got a call from a real Green Party activist. Celeste Castarena told Thrasher that she and her fellow party members had never heard of Margarite Dale. When they did a little research, Castarena reported, they'd learned that Dale had changed her voter registration to Green just days after the Greens qualified for Clean Elections funding.

Prior to that, Margarite Dale had been a Republican.

In an attempt to be open-minded, Castarena says, she invited Dale to a Green Party event. Dale declined, saying she couldn't attend meetings on Sundays or Wednesdays.

"We ended up voting to actively oppose her," Castarena says.

It didn't matter: On the ballot, Dale was still listed as Green Party. And, because real Green Party volunteers had earned Clean Elections status for their party, Dale was awarded a massive infusion of funds. Simply by registering as a Green candidate and gathering 200 token contributions, Dale was granted $68,531 in public money for her "campaign."

Evidence suggests that Dale's candidacy was the ultimate dirty trick — a dastardly plot by the Republican candidates to siphon votes from Thrasher.

The GOP barely bothered to hide its connections to Dale. Doug Quelland's wife, Donna, actually donated $5 to kick-start Dale's campaign — and so did Jim Weiers, the other Republican running in the district, plus five members of his family.

Questioned about the connection, Dale says the Weierses are friends.

Indeed.

Dale certainly ran her campaign as if she were trying to help her "friends" in any way she could. Oddly for a Green Party candidate, Dale hired a campaign consultant closely allied with the GOP. In the most recent election cycle, Blue Point Consulting LLC ran the campaigns of congressional candidate David Schweikert and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, both serious conservatives. Soon after the election ended, Blue Point hired the GOP's executive director as senior vice president.

Strangely, Dale's campaign also chose to spend a full $10,500 on "polling/research." Consultants say that's rare in a legislative campaign; polling is much too expensive when you're seeking grassroots support.

Even odder: Dale chose to use National Research, a polling firm in New Jersey. Among the few Arizona pols listed on the firm's Web site as past clients? Jim Weiers himself.

So did a big chunk of Margarite Dale's funding go to help her supposed "opponents" figure out the lay of the land? It certainly looks that way, and when New Times reached Dale by phone last week, her denials were fairly unconvincing. How did she come to hire the New Jersey firm? Dale couldn't say. Did she share the data she gathered with her Republican "opponents"? Dale didn't know.

"I don't know what the big thing is," she said. "Everything we paid for with Clean Elections money was exactly within the confines of what we were supposed to be doing. Everything we got, we used for my campaign. I did run a campaign, and I got 3,000 votes. You don't get 3,000 votes by doing nothing."

When pressed about her ties to Weiers, Dale grew audibly annoyed. "I thought this was about my experience in the campaign," she said. "I'm kind of done. Thanks." Then she hung up.

Dale's numbers are a little off. She got 2,358 votes, not 3,000. But that was unquestionably enough to make a difference. Jackie Thrasher lost her House seat by a fraction of that — just 553 votes.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske