Two weeks before the election, Steve Gaynor, the GOP candidate for Arizona Secretary of State, remains a mystery to many voters.EXPAND
Two weeks before the election, Steve Gaynor, the GOP candidate for Arizona Secretary of State, remains a mystery to many voters.
Zac McDonald / Phoenix New Times

Piecing Together Steve Gaynor

This story was originally published October 25, 2018.

Sprawled in the foothills of Mummy Mountain, the 10,000-square-foot mansion in Paradise Valley hides behind a thick tangle of towering hedges. It is worth $3.87 million, the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office says. From the road, little more is visible than the upper story of the off-white, flat-roofed manor. Through the bars of the wrought-iron gate spanning the driveway, a soaring portico with red roof tiles edges into view.

A few miles to the northeast rests a vista of dark, jagged mountains. To the south, the road rises and splits into a web of lanes and dead ends that thread between more gated mansions. A few cyclists wrapped tightly in Spandex pump by.

On a recent Wednesday morning, the landscapers are there. The man who owns the house is not, according to the voice that answers the intercom. The metal box sits on the left side of the driveway, just outside the gate.

The voice agrees to take a reporter’s name and number and pass a message to the owner. The voice identifies itself as belonging to the owner’s son. Then, it stops answering.

On a sign by the gate, two versions of the same message appear in all capital letters. “All activities are recorded on video tape to aid in the prosecution of any crime committed against this facility” reads the upper half.

On the bottom, without accents: “Toda actividad es grabada en video tape para ayudar en la persecucion de cualquier crimen cometido contra esta instalacion.”

A few feet away, a bulbous security camera droops from an arching metal post, sprouting from the gravel amid manicured patches of desert grasses and scrub. 

This is the home of Steve Gaynor, a wealthy, enigmatic businessman and staunch Republican who is running to become Arizona’s next secretary of state. He never before has sought elected office. Like his estate in one of the wealthiest enclaves of Arizona, much of Gaynor’s story, his persona, and his motives remain concealed.

His campaign manager, Brian Seitchik, declined Phoenix New Times’ request in early September to interview Gaynor. “I frankly just don’t trust the agenda of the Phoenix New Times to give us a fair shake,” Seitchik said. He subsequently served as a conduit for emailed questions and answers between Gaynor and New Times for this piece and one previously published story.

What has been unearthed about Gaynor as an individual, businessman, and aspiring politician is ominous for civil rights. He is a progressive’s worst nightmare, supporting voter identification laws and posing for photos with the far-right, anti-immigrant Patriot Movement AZ. In August, Gaynor made headlines for saying that in the United States, election literature should not be printed in Spanish or any language other than English.

But he has no problem posting security warnings outside his multimillion-dollar home en inglés y español.

Gaynor during a debate in July.EXPAND
Gaynor during a debate in July.
Courtesy of Arizona PBS

If Gaynor wins in November, he would become not just the state’s chief elections officer but also its second-in-command. History suggests he could stand a good chance of succeeding to the governorship, as four of Arizona’s last nine governors have ascended from the secretary of state’s office. Incumbent Doug Ducey, poised to win a second term, is widely suspected to have aspirations for a U.S. Senate run in 2020, so whoever wins the secretary of state race next month could, in two years, become the governor of Arizona.

Since declaring his candidacy in February, Gaynor has touted himself as an executive with management prowess and a history of success. But the stories unearthed about him suggest otherwise. These reports, plus a few months’ worth of public remarks and media interviews, show him to be ruthlessly savvy, intolerant, and used to getting his way, no matter the cost.

This story is based on original reporting by New Times; a radio interview with Gaynor in July conducted by Robert Graham, a former chair of the Arizona Republican Party; a radio interview with Gaynor in September with Bruce Ash, one of Arizona’s Republican National Committee members; and local reporting from other Arizona newspapers.

Gaynor is a self-proclaimed fiscal and social conservative, and a pro-life, lifelong member of the National Rifle Association. He has garnered support from run-of-the-mill conservative politicians and entities like Ducey and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. But he’s also been endorsed by Patriot Movement AZ. Appearances publicized on his Twitter feed have been confined to conservative local GOP groups or local TV stations. He recently declined an interview request by the local NPR affiliate, KJZZ.

He’s been a fan of President Donald Trump from the very beginning. Gaynor also supports so-called conversion therapy, a discredited practice aimed at turning gay people straight that numerous professional psychological associations consider harmful. He opposes updating state laws to protect people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. He talks about progressives and Democrats with disgust, and he told New Times that he chose his Twitter handle, @realSteveGaynor, “to distinguish my identity from another person named Steve Gaynor who is a Democrat.”

Given his campaign promises, Gaynor could be detrimental for voting rights in Arizona, a state with a history of voter suppression. In 2016, the Department of Justice looked into claims of voter suppression in Arizona during the presidential primary. Those claims included allegations that racial and linguistic minorities had to wait in disproportionately long lines to vote on election day. More recently, in August, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against current Secretary of State Michele Reagan, alleging that Arizona was violating the 1993 National Voter Registration Act by failing to update voters’ registration addresses.

Gaynor vehemently opposes the National Voter Registration Act, which aimed to enhance voting access. He has vowed to crack down on voter fraud and illegal voting in ways that would restrict access to the ballot box.

He regularly criticizes Reagan as absent and incompetent, citing her failure to meet with county recorders, who run elections. Indeed, under Reagan, the secretary of state’s office has been rife with high-profile missteps, including the failure to send pamphlets to about 200,000 homes during a special election in spring 2016. A state investigation later concluded that Reagan broke the law but would face no penalty. In January, all 15 of Arizona’s county recorders sent a letter to Reagan, describing their communications with her office as being “in a dire state, failing to function as an equal partnership or even a cooperative working relationship.”

Recent polls show Gaynor leading his Democratic opponent, Katie Hobbs, by anywhere from 4 to 14 percentage points. That leaves up to 14 percent of potential voters undecided. In this election season, Gaynor has raised more money than any candidate in Arizona besides Ducey. As of October 16, he had more than $2 million in campaign income. Of that, $1.89 million came from his own pocket.

Steve Gaynor is originally from White Plains, New York. He moved to Phoenix 37 years ago with his wife, Dorothy, who had been recruited by what was then Valley National Bank. She is a Tucson native; they met at Harvard Business School and both graduated in 1981. Before earning his MBA, Gaynor attended Swarthmore College, a liberal arts school not far from Philadelphia. “I was one of a handful of conservatives on a very liberal campus,” he said during the July radio interview. “It wasn’t very comfortable.”

In 1988, Gaynor bought a small printing company in Phoenix, B&D Litho, according to his campaign website. He bought another in Denver in the early 2000s, and started one “from scratch” in Los Angeles. In 2007, he sold the Denver and Phoenix plants to the public company Ennis Inc. for $12.5 million, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission documents show. He kept the one in Los Angeles, a decision that eventually came back to bite him when Ennis sued him a few years later, alleging violations of a non-compete agreement.

Campaign financial disclosure statements suggest Gaynor is savvy with and protective of his finances. In those documents, he listed ownership or financial interests in eight LLCs — limited liability corporations that protect assets by effectively putting them in silos — four corporations, and four trusts. The majority of those entities are listed at a single address in Phoenix.

When the Gaynors’ first child was born, Dorothy, a certified public accountant, left her career to raise what would eventually become a brood of three. She wrote in a class note to Harvard Business School alumni in 2013, “[Steve] and our two sons spend a fair amount of time working on cars, including a 1969 Camaro. They take annual ‘man vacations’ and exercise together.” She is now active in the Scottsdale arts scene, especially in opera and theater (she’s a soprano). “This is as big a surprise to me as it is to Steve, who tells me, ‘I thought I married a CPA,’” she wrote.

For five years the Gaynors have been members of the same synagogue in Scottsdale, the Scottsdale-based Jewish News has reported. If elected, Gaynor would occupy the highest statewide office ever held by a Jewish person in Arizona.

It remains a mystery why someone with no experience or demonstrated interest in politics, aside from previous campaign donations to Republican candidates, would want to become secretary of state. Gaynor has denied that he’s after the governorship, yet his explanations for running for the No. 2 position are vague, wide-ranging, and sometimes conflicting.

Last fall, unspecified “people” approached him about seeking office, Gaynor said in the July interview. So, he did some research into the secretary of state’s office, which made him concerned about the ability of Reagan, a Republican, to win in the general election, he added.

Two months later, that narrative had evolved and acquired a nobler, more selfless color. “I certainly did not want to see a Democrat hold the secretary of state’s office,” Gaynor said in another radio interview in late September. “I felt someone needed to step forward, and I kept waiting for other folks to do that, and finally I said, ‘Okay, I guess it’s me,’ and I did it.”

“Certainly I could advantage myself and my family much more by being in the private sector,” he added. “But I came to a point in life where you ask yourself what’s important in life, and I’d like to leave the state better off than when I found it. So this is just my way of paying it back.”

Gaynor told New Times that the skills required to be secretary of state fit with his background in printing. He cited his “deep knowledge of printed documents and document security, areas which are important to the conduct of secure elections.”

In the primaries in August, after spending $1.5 million of his own money, Gaynor defeated Reagan with 68 percent of the vote.

Steve Gaynor at a Trump rally in Mesa, Arizona on October 19.EXPAND
Steve Gaynor at a Trump rally in Mesa, Arizona on October 19.
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Throughout Gaynor’s campaign, two themes have emerged. Chief among them is cracking down on illegal voting. He opposes or wants to overturn laws that enhance access to voting or that streamline registration. He plans to restore laws or regulations that heighten identification requirements for people trying to register to vote.

One example Gaynor frequently slams is a consent decree that Reagan signed in June to settle a lawsuit filed last year. Under that agreement, Arizona cannot demand proof of citizenship from those registering to vote if they have already submitted documentation to the Motor Vehicle Division. For those who register without proof of citizenship, Arizona must allow them to cast ballots in federal elections, although not state and local ones.

Last year’s lawsuit stemmed from a 2004 ballot initiative, Proposition 200, that required Arizonans to provide proof of citizenship when registering to vote and to show a photo ID when actually voting. After voters passed the initiative, election officials said the resulting law would bar thousands of legitimate voters from casting ballots.

Gaynor has a different view. “It makes it easier for illegals to vote,” he said in July. “It makes it possible for them to register with our state form and vote in our federal elections.” He then claimed that “there are like 10,000 voters in our state right now that are undocumented.”

He told New Times that he would attempt to reverse the consent decree by filing a motion in federal court. “My legal advisers have told me there is good precedent to do so,” he added. Asked to provide a source for the 10,000 allegedly undocumented voters, Gaynor wrote, “The number is based upon reports filed by county recorders.” However, investigations into the extent of voter fraud and illegal voting in Arizona have turned up 30 cases sent to the office of the Arizona Attorney General between 2008 and 2017, the Arizona Republic has found.

Elsewhere, Gaynor has promised to do everything in his power to “prevent people from registering to vote if they don’t have proof of citizenship.” At a candidate meet-and-greet in Wickenburg in August, Gaynor notoriously said that all election materials in the United States, including ballots and information pamphlets, “should be in English,” although he acknowledged that in some places federal law requires multiple languages.

Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, states or counties must provide voting materials “in the language of the applicable minority group as well as in the English language,” depending on Census Bureau counts.

In other remarks at that event, which an attendee caught on video, Gaynor decried the National Voter Registration Act. It in part requires people registering to vote to attest to their citizenship rather than provide documents.

“We need to do one thing to solve this problem: Have 60 Republican senators who have the guts to vote the way they need to vote,” he told attendees. “Until we have 60, we will not be able to overturn the NVRA passed in 1993.” He promised to issue regulations, via the elections procedure manual that the secretary of state is supposed to publish, that would require county recorders to verify citizenship.

Another avenue for voting Gaynor opposes is early voting by mail. “It gives a lot of opportunity for fraud,” he said.

When New Times asked Gaynor whether minority voters could trust him to uphold their rights, he dodged the question. “The highest obligation of every executive branch official is to faithfully carry out the oath of office, which is to implement and defend the law,” he wrote. “I will do that in every respect.”

It’s worth noting, however, that besides implementing the law, Gaynor also hopes to help change it.

The other theme dominating Gaynor’s campaign is the promise to run the secretary of state’s office like a business.

“The secretary of state’s office is a classic turnaround situation,” he said in July. “I’ve done turnarounds. I’ve walked into companies that were a mess, cleaned ’em up, made ’em profitable.” The worst part about Reagan’s office, he added, was the lack of transparency. After failing to send the 200,000 informational pamphlets, he said, “They tried to cover it up instead of coming forward right away when they found the error.”

His voice was laced with disdain.

To overhaul the office, “the place I’d start is the people,” he added. “Some people in the secretary of state’s office need to go, but a lot of them are good.”

When New Times asked whether that meant firing employees, and if so, how he’d assess which employees “need to go,” Gaynor said he’d first review the office’s mission and goals, organization, and job descriptions.

“Only then can you evaluate the staff. There are many ways to evaluate employee performance. It is a matter of experience to know which methods are appropriate to the situation at hand.” He estimated that he had turned around 10 “underperforming organizations” in his career.

One measure of his success, he wrote, was that “in the 19 years I owned my Phoenix printing company, I was proud of the fact that despite times of economic difficulty, we never had a layoff for lack of work.” He added that in California, the first employee he hired “is still with the business.”

That picture is less rosy when you include the lawsuits, which alleged underpayment of wages, discrimination, and violations of a non-compete clause. Gaynor paid to settle most of these.

In 2013, a machine operator named Felipe Juarez sued, along with other employees at Gaynor’s B&D Litho California Inc. They alleged that the company evaded paying them for overtime hours by shifting pay period dates, the Arizona Republic’s Dustin Gardiner reported in late September.

In 2014, Gaynor paid more than $134,000 to settle the class-action lawsuit. Juarez also filed another lawsuit claiming that after he was injured at work, the company refused to accommodate his disability and fired him. The company settled that case, too.

A few years earlier, in 2010, another lawsuit alleged that Gaynor violated a non-compete agreement, the Arizona Capitol Times’ Carmen Forman reported in early October. It came three years after Gaynor sold two of his printing plants to Ennis, Inc. The lawsuit claimed that Gaynor was “soliciting customers” to the California plant, which he still owned.

Gaynor told the Capitol Times that he settled for a “minor” amount, explaining, “I paid them a little money kind of for them to save face and go away.”

In another lawsuit, from 2005, Gaynor was sued by National Card West, Inc., which claimed he hadn’t paid monthly installments owed after he purchased a small printing company from them. Both parties eventually dismissed the case, the Capitol Times reported.

When New Times asked Gaynor to explain these lawsuits, he responded, “Allegations made in lawsuits are often not factual. They certainly were not in the cases you mention.”

On the bright side, maybe this contentious history has helped Gaynor prepare for office. At least, that’s how Gaynor spins it. He told the Capitol Times that his encounters with litigation were useful, saying, “For being secretary of state, it certainly is advantageous to have legal experience.”

There is one more Gaynor story, back in Paradise Valley, that still deeply upsets people. It took place nearly 20 years ago, but the truth remains shrouded in mystery.

In the fall of 2000, a handful of parents learned that the Minnesota-based Tesseract Group, Inc., which operated three private schools in the Phoenix area, planned to file for bankruptcy. Determined to save the schools, the parents banded together to try to buy them.

At the Paradise Valley campus, Steve and Dorothy Gaynor, along with another couple, Phil and Stacy Polich, spearheaded the campaign. They asked parents for five- and six-figure donations and established a nonprofit that eventually purchased the school. By many accounts, Gaynor was instrumental in saving the Tesseract School in Paradise Valley.

“Steve and Phil really did a brilliant job in putting this deal together, gathering parents, raising the money and getting the school launched,” said Bob Engelman, a former Tesseract parent who served on the school’s board after Gaynor’s departure.

At the time, the Tesseract School in Paradise Valley had 200 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Parents and teachers from that era describe it as a lovely school, with dedicated teachers who nurtured children’s creativity. Many still reflexively point to Jill Kessler, the head of school, as essential in creating that environment.

The day after Christmas in 2000, the Paradise Valley Private School Foundation bought the Paradise Valley Tesseract School, SEC documents show. Incorporation documents for the foundation list just one person on the initial board of directors: Steve Gaynor.

Parents had expected a full board, said one former Tesseract parent, who requested anonymity. Instead, Gaynor “took over the school himself,” the parent said. “His leadership style is basically, ‘I know best.’”

Gaynor contested that after the purchase, the board “served a ministerial function.” He told New Times, “We had an informal group of parents that guided the foundation.”

It’s not clear when parents learned that Gaynor was the sole officer, but when they did find out, they were furious, according to the anonymous parent. But they were even angrier at the end of the school year in 2002, when they learned that Kessler had been fired. Or at least, many believed she had been fired.

“Her leaving was devastating to all of us,” said Elizabeth Lucas, a former Tesseract parent who sent two daughters there for a dozen years starting in the early 1990s. “She was just the best possible person to take care of our children’s education, in every single way, and she was greatly missed. After that, the school just entirely changed.”

The foundation’s first annual report shows that Steve Gaynor was its president and sole officer for more than three months, starting on October 2, 2000. In mid-January 2001, Dorothy Gaynor joined as treasurer, and Kessler was added as well. Only at the end of the 2001-2002 school year did the Paradise Valley Private School Foundation finally have a full board.

When Kessler left, she had been at Tesseract for more than a decade, according to her LinkedIn profile. Attempts to reach her were unsuccessful, and dates and events such as her departure could not be corroborated with the Tesseract School in Paradise Valley, which closed last year.

The lack of transparency around Kessler’s abrupt departure led several parents to suspect that Gaynor was behind her termination. Others swear that the board was.

David Cohn, a former Tesseract parent who eventually withdrew his daughter and enrolled her at the school where Kessler ended up, insisted it was the new board that let Kessler go. He speculated that those involved had signed nondisclosure agreements. “I remember that, because I said, ‘What happened? What’s going on?’ And nobody could talk to me about it,” he said.

In his email to New Times, Gaynor said that the board of directors had seven people on it at the time of Kessler’s departure. “The matters surrounding Ms. Kessler’s employment were resolved under reasonable circumstances, which were satisfactory to the parties,” he wrote.

After Kessler departed, so did Gaynor. He told New Times that he left the board because he no longer had children at the school. His daughter had graduated from Tesseract in 2001, and after that, he and his wife decided to transfer their son to public school “for academic reasons.”

Whoever was responsible, Kessler’s exit threw the Paradise Valley school into turmoil, with parents looking to enroll their children elsewhere and teachers wondering who their next boss would be. Gaynor, a candidate who has called for transparency and efficiency, left turmoil and speculation in his wake.

“Did Steve handle it right? You know, in retrospect, in a school, you need to build consensus for something like that,” Engelman said. “I think that it could’ve been handled significantly better.”

Then he added:

“People change in 17 years. So he may have gotten to be a fabulous, fabulous, much better person than he was — or a much worse person.”

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