A 'dirty' small-town election campaign shows how partisan politics seeps into Arizona communities

Sam Kmack
Arizona Republic

Candidates and local officials said they’ve never seen anything like this year’s "vitriolic" election in Fountain Hills, a small town of 25,000 people in the Phoenix area's northeast Valley where races are typically low profile and amicable. 

The mayor’s seat and three council positions were on the Aug. 2 ballot, with former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio spending massive amounts of cash in an effort to take the top spot from incumbent Mayor Ginny Dickey, and four candidates — three conservatives and one liberal — vying for the council seats. 

The campaign got ugly when some local conservatives sought to establish a Republican majority, painting their left-wing opponents as “communists,” “leftists” or extremists despite the election being for positions that require the winners to mostly oversee non-ideological issues such as zoning and road repair.

It got so heated that an entire angry audience was removed during a candidate forum earlier this year, when GOP council candidate and former Illinois state Rep. Allen Skillicorn called his opponent, Cindy Couture, a liar before implying that she and other “liberals” were “ignorant.”

Fountain Hills’s departure from amiability to hostility marks another instance of party politics entering into “nonpartisan” local races. It’s a shift for the conservative-majority town where voters have rarely balked at electing Democrats in the past. 

Cindy Couture lost her bid to win a seat on the Fountain Hills Town Council in the Aug. 2 election.

“This year's race was vitriolic. It was horrible,” said Couture, a 72-year-old retired English teacher who lost her race and was branded as a far-left radical because of her Facebook posts about prosecuting “anti-vaxxers for attempted murder” and Democratic Socialism. “I mean, it didn't belong in Fountain Hills. We are a nicer community than this, but they wanted to win at all costs.”

A political action committee called Reclaim Our Town, or ROT, spent thousands on signs that depicted Dickey as a puppet master leading the town to disaster and included slogans such as “leftists ruin towns.”

Conservative candidate Brenda Kalivianakis, who won a seat on the council, said she did not support ROT’s negative campaigning and “did her own thing,” while candidate Hannah Toth and Skillicorn, who won the other two council seats, joined the PAC in taking swings, getting firmly behind the push to secure a partisan majority.

Incoming Councilmember Allen Skillicorn

“I am only running because the current liberal majority does not represent the values of our conservative town,” Skillicorn told The Arizona Republic. 

Dickey was labeled a “leftist” because of her connection with Couture, whose bid for Town Council she supported, although Dickey believes she’s governed in a nonpartisan way.

Complaints from the PAC and Republican council candidates about Dickey’s leadership largely centered around more material issues, like the town’s four “sober homes” — which multiple officials said sparked the desire to flip the Town Council — rules about how businesses can display signs, and COVID-19 mitigation measures that ended last year. 

Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio

By the time the election was over, the conservative candidates had secured the majority they were after. They are slated to replace Councilmembers David Spelich and Mike Scharnow, both Republicans, and Allen Magazine, a Democrat. The latter two said they chose not to run for personal reasons. 

Dickey narrowly defeated Arpaio despite “America’s toughest sheriff” spending an unusually high amount of cash in the small town’s race. He spent more than $160,000 — roughly three times that of all the other Fountain Hills candidates combined and 600% more than Dickey's nearly $27,000. 

Arpaio has vowed not to concede, however. He recycled debunked voter fraud allegations from 2020 and said  immediately after the election that he would explore legal challenges — another instance of local races mirroring the troubled state of national politics — but later said he would not contest the results.

Incoming Councilmember Hanna Toth

“I will say one thing: I am not going to concede,” he told The Republic when asked if he was going to challenge his loss.

Whether the election in Fountain Hills is a canary in the coal mine for the longstanding practice of nonpartisan local elections in Arizona communities, one of the town's newest local leaders said it is already dead or never really existed at all. 

“Nonpartisan or not, every single candidate for public office has a party behind them,” said Toth, the second-highest vote getter in the Town Council race. “In a lot of ways, I think we were kidding ourselves to believe otherwise.”

Most Arizona cities and towns don't place political party labels on mayoral or council candidates. A state lawmaker who proposed changing that several years ago faced fervent opposition from city officials, who said local issues such as pothole repairs are nonpartisan in nature. 

‘Sober home’ issues spurred the partisan change

Fountain Hills candidates and officials said one hot-button issue is at the heart of the partisan shift this year: sober homes. The facilities are operated in residential neighborhoods and give people who are addicted to drugs a place to stay while they get clean. 

Fountain Hills Mayor Ginny Dickey

Four sober homes have been opened in Fountain Hills since Dickey got into office, according to Kalivianakis, who said the new facilities worried residents and spurred political engagement ahead of August’s election. 

“We had unregulated sober living homes moving into our community, which was very unpopular with (residents),” said the newly elected council member.

Kalivianakis described crowded Planning and Zoning Commission meetings as residents pushed for stronger regulations, adding that continued regulation is one of her priorities even though the number of sober homes is still relatively low. 

“The last I heard it was four. But trust me, if we just let it go as it is right now, (it will) increase exponentially,” she said. 

The town commission suggested a new policy that would require sober homes to be at least half a mile away from one another, a move that would drastically limit the number of those facilities in the 20-square-mile town. 

Incoming Councilmember Brenda Kalivianakis

Kalivianakis and other local conservatives said council members “watered down” the proposed ordinance over fears that it was too “exclusionary” and would cause the town to violate federal laws that limit how much officials can restrict group homes.

“There was some concern that that was maybe too exclusionary. And so the council ended up cutting (the distance) in half,” said John Wesley, the town’s development services director. “Staff and our attorneys just want to make sure the council was fully aware of potential issues with the ordinance as it had been recommended as they were making their final decision.”

Development Services Director John Wesley

It’s still unclear whether the half-mile rule would be illegal, but the three conservative candidates this election all contend that further restrictions are allowed.

Regardless, it was what sparked the creation of the ROT PAC and began the push to get a conservative majority on the council, according to Kalivianakis and other officials who said the “dirtiness” of the election may not have otherwise come to pass.

“That really created a lot of energy, which spawned a PAC called Reclaim Our Town,” Kalivianakis said. “Had it not been for sober living homes and detox centers, this election would have been completely different. That was the energy behind everything that transpired.”

Nonpartisan elections 'a myth'

Retired Fountain Hills residents Lawrence Meyers and Crystal Cavanaugh ran ROT with the goal of getting a conservative majority on the Town Council. They spent roughly $5,000 during the campaign. 

A separate conservative PAC called Fountain Hills Forward spent about $25,000, meaning that roughly $30,000 went toward defeating Dickey and Couture. 

Meyers, who served as ROT treasurer, said he and Cavanaugh hashed out a strategy with the conservative candidates before the PAC was formed. The plan was that the committee would take shots at liberal contenders, allowing conservative candidates to keep things positive. 

Couture's Facebook post about Democratic Socialism was why RTO labeled her a "communist candidate."

“Before we formed the PAC, we went to the conservative candidates and we told them that if we were to form the PAC, we would take the role of the aggressor,” Meyers said. “We told the candidates you should be positive about what you want to do, the changes you will make, and stay away from attacks.”

Couture was at the receiving end of most of ROT’s attacks, being labeled a “communist candidate” because of a Facebook post about Democratic Socialism and another in which she appears to advocate that “anti-vaxxers” be prosecuted for "attempted murder."

Couture, a first-time candidate, also accused ROT of circulating a photoshopped image of her in what’s supposed to be a Soviet-era uniform, although the PAC denies being behind that image.

It appears that ROT labeled Dickey as a “leftist” mainly because of her affiliation with Couture, given the PAC’s website that reads, “Mayor Dickey helped collect signatures for the far left, communist candidate Couture as well as contributing funds to her campaign.”

Results:Fountain Hills mayor edges out Arpaio and other local election outcomes. Here's who won and who's headed to runoffs

“I've been here 38 years and I'm not acting as a partisan in any way, shape or form, but that was probably their best shot,” the sitting mayor said of the ROT campaign against her.

The PAC’s hyperpoliticization of the election was part of the plan, according to Meyers, who said ROT saw nonpartisan elections as a “problem” that masked candidates’ true agendas, a sentiment echoed by Toth and Skillicorn.

“I get the whole nonpartisan nature of things, but in reality, it's a myth,” the PAC treasurer said. “(The left-leaning candidates) have gotten around it — that's what they shout, 'We're nonpartisan, we're nonpartisan,' and then they govern as Democrats do.”

A political action committee called Reclaim Our Town spent thousands of dollars on signs opposing incumbent Mayor Ginny Dickey and Town Council candidate Cindy Couture.

Town says some ROT claims are bunk

In addition to sober homes, Meyers pointed to the town’s COVID-19 mitigation measures — which ended last year but hindered public participation in council meetings because of attendance limits — and financial policies as examples of the mayor’s left-wing governance. 

Meyers cited a roadway roundabout study, which he said would cost $400,000 and the town doubling its contribution to homelessness planning efforts that are conducted by the Maricopa Association of Governments — a regional organization made up of municipalities across the county. 

“You have to connect all of the dots,” the PAC representative said. “We connected the dots, and the dots are who runs the town. … Because the town is run by a majority. The current majority, which is still seated right now, is a bunch of liberals.” 

Bo Larsen, the town’s community relations manager, said the roundabout study would be necessary to get millions in federal roadway funds, but has yet to be approved and likely would not cost as much as Meyers' suggested. 

About the town’s homeless program contribution, Larsen explained that “we pay in to help with the homelessness study and programs that MAG is providing for the homeless."

“When it's all said and done, we only donate like $50,000 to MAG programs," the town staffer said. "It's not a ton of money and we're not, like, promoting homelessness.”

ROT also slammed Dickey for “increased crime” under her leadership, as well as a rise in the town’s homeless population.

Larsen said neither spike actually exists and that “when we (last) went out and did our homelessness count, I think they literally counted one that day.”

“Crime has not gone up as an issue by any means,” he added. “The biggest thing that goes on around here is traffic stops.”

‘I have never seen such a dirty campaign’

Not all of the conservative candidates followed the strategy of letting ROT be the “aggressor” while they remained positive, according to Meyers who said “some listened, some didn't.”

Skillicorn, who received the lowest number of votes among the three winning candidates, was one of those who didn’t follow that advice.

He went after Couture during a candidate forum at the Fountain Hills Community Center this summer, which caused an uproar among the audience and led to event organizers clearing the hall for the remainder of the event. 

“Some people have said some things online that are a lot different than what they say on the stage. There’s three of us who are telling the truth and (Couture) is not,” said Skillicorn, who went on to quote President Ronald Regan by saying, “it isn't so much that liberals are ignorant, it's just that they know so many things that aren't so."

The former Illinois lawmaker was referring to Couture’s political leanings, which he and other GOP campaigners felt she was hiding because of her stated desire to keep the election nonpartisan. 

Fountain Hills election:Fountain Hills election: Where mayoral, Town Council candidates stand on finances, other challenges

“To me, this shouldn't have been partisan,” Couture told The Republic, echoing her earlier statements during the campaign. “This should have been, 'we're neighbors, this is our community.' We do what's best for the community.”

Skillicorn’s antics on stage irked residents and ROT contributors, according to Meyers who believes the candidate lost votes because he took an aggressive tact. 

“Skillicorn, as is reflected by the vote, didn't listen. He attacked a lot,” Meyers said. “The overwhelming consensus (from PAC contributors and residents) was one of two things: I knew we needed a majority on the council, so I held my nose and voted for Skillicorn, or I didn't vote for him because he attacked Couture in a personal manner at the forum.”

Numerous others, including conservatives, liberals and sitting officials were turned off by the tone of the entire election. 

Magazine, the outgoing council member who managed Couture’s campaign, said “I've spent almost 16 years in elected office. I can say with certainty, I have never seen such a dirty campaign in my life.”

Magazine himself was found guilty of violating the Town of Fountain Hills Code of Ethics this election. He told a local business owner that it was illegal to display ballot petitions in his store that were used to collect signatures for Toth's campaign.

It was not illegal, although the campaign manager said he believed it was when the incident occurred in January. An independent investigator concluded in April that Magazine had committed a violation.

Kalivanakis said she didn’t support ROT’s campaigning, calling the “negative” campaigning “bad politics.”

Scharnow, another outgoing council member, said the election was the “nastiest” one he’s seen in his four decades as a Fountain Hills resident. 

“It just seems like this (election) was particularly nasty and more personal. (There was) a lot more polarization and name calling than I’ve seen before,” Scharnow said. “It's certainly disappointing.”

'I am not going to concede'

Arpaio's campaign largely avoided the mudslinging that was embraced by ROT and candidates like Skillicorn.

He ultimately came up short by 213 votes. Immediately after the election, Arpaio said he planned to look into whether he can legally push for a recount through a legal challenge, but he told The Republic that he no longer plans to go that route. 

The former sheriff was found guilty of criminal contempt of court in 2017 for ignoring orders to stop racial profiling at MCSO, but was pardoned by then-President Donald Trump. He lost his bids for sheriff in 2016 and 2020, and for U.S. Senate in 2018.

Arpaio mentioned that he lost by "pretty close" margins in each of those races.

The 90-year-old said  he plans to remain politically active and still has the "intent" to run for mayor in Fountain Hills in the next election cycle, but added that he may not throw his hat into the ring if he's tied up with other political work when Dickey's term comes to an end.

"My intent was there. My intent is still there. I have not ruled it out. The only thing that changes (is that) I won't have the title of mayor, but everything stays the same," he said. "I want to make one thing clear, though: this is not concrete. Something could come up. I'm a big supporter of Trump, and some things could come up."

Reach Sam at sam.kmack@arizonarepublic.com. Follow him on Twitter @KmackSam.

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