2 GOP congressional candidates oppose DC big spending, but took COVID-19 relief money

Tara Kavaler
Arizona Republic

Eli Crane and Juan Ciscomani, two Arizona Republicans running for the U.S. House of Representatives, have staked out campaign positions that Washington spends too much money.

But both took money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Crane and Ciscomani counter that the government relief was necessary because businesses were forced to shutter during the pandemic, both citing closures mostly dictated on a national level.

The program was created under the bipartisan, $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) that then-President Donald Trump signed into law March 27, 2020.

The two GOP candidates running in different congressional districts also argue that receiving government relief on the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic does not negate their general belief that Washington overspends and overreaches. 

Eli Crane is a former U.S. Navy SEAL and an America First candidate for Arizona's 2nd Congressional District.

The two candidates have not directly criticized the CARES Act but otherwise have been campaigning on fiscally conservative messages. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the House, and some, but not all, of their Republican primary opponents have characterized Crane and Ciscomani's actions as "hypocritical." 

Crane, a veteran Navy SEAL hoping to unseat Democratic incumbent Rep. Tom O'Halleran, is running as a Republican in Arizona's sprawling 2nd Congressional District, which includes northeastern Arizona.

“From my time in the Navy, to becoming a small business owner, I’ve dedicated my life to serving this country because I believe with every fiber of my being that America is the greatest country on Earth. To me, she’s worth dying for,"  a Crane campaign email states. "Now Fellow Conservative, do you believe our politicians today have the same convictions? ... These phony patriots are more interested in lining their pockets."

Crane's company, Bottle Breachers, which sells bottle openers shaped like .50-caliber shells, lawfully took nearly $70,000 in a PPP loan, which was ultimately forgiven by the SBA.

Juan Ciscomani

Ciscomani, a senior adviser to Gov. Doug Ducey, is hoping to represent Arizona's 6th Congressional District, which includes part of Tucson and much of Cochise County.   

On his website, Ciscomani says that he believes that "taxpayers should get to keep more of their hard-earned money because they know how to spend it better than government bureaucrats."   

Ciscomani's consulting business, Two Worlds Branding, received more than $2,000 in a PPP loan for his small business. He also sat as a board member for more than 12 years at a nonprofit, Torch of Freedom, that accepted more than $41,000 in PPP money.

Ciscomani's campaign has said that the last Torch of Freedom Foundation board meeting he voted in was held in January 2020 and that the decision to vote on whether to accept PPP was, to the best of its knowledge, held in May 2020, when Ciscomani was not present.

However, in an Oct. 1, 2021, filed financial disclosure form required of all congressional candidates, Ciscomani lists himself as a board member of the Torch of Freedom Foundation. His campaign says this was included in an abundance of caution. 

The PPP, which is run by the Small Business Administration, with help from the U.S. Department of Treasury, helped small businesses and a variety of other organizations, like nonprofits, financially survive during the pandemic. Owners received enough money to, among other things, keep employees in their jobs for up to two months. Approximately 650,000 small businesses and non-profits received loans as of June 30, 2020. 

Crane and Ciscomani used the loans in line with the law's purpose, which was to save jobs. Small businesses keeping their workers employed, the Trump administration argued, was crucial to the economy.

More than half of the PPP loans ended up in the hands of larger employers.

The PPP had support in 2020, and even now, Crane and Ciscomani's challengers' have not been entirely critical. 

However, Johanna Warshaw, a DCCC spokesperson, said Ciscomani and Crane's actions are contrary to their publicly stated views.

"It doesn't get more hypocritical than Eli Crane and Juan Ciscomani pocketing COVID relief dollars for themselves while opposing the same relief for hard-working Arizonans," she told The Republic in a written statement. "Their ‘money for me but not for thee’ approach just isn’t going to work in the Grand Canyon State.”

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Crane campaign: Government lockdowns hurt small businesses

In a campaign video, Crane, while appearing to get a tattoo, says: "The problem with Washington politicians is: they have no skin in the game. It's all about them and almost never about us. Well, I'm not a self-serving politician ..." 

In a Dec. 23 Instagram post, Crane blasted the December 2020 COVID-19 stimulus bill under for increasing the national debt. That bill, however, funded the PPP, which Crane's small business benefited from months before that also contributed to increasing the national debt. 

“Trillion in debt. This is the type of wreckless behavior that got us here in the first place. Coming in dead last are the American People. The collective sell out of America continues ... Best part is, who do you think pays for this in the end? How long will the dollar hold it’s value as we continue printing money we don’t have?”

In addition, on his campaign site, Crane says: “Arizona’s economy is strong because of conservative policies – we can’t let Washington politicians and Democrats weaken our state with bad policies like trillions of dollars in handouts and higher taxes ..."

Bottle Breacher LLC accepted a $68,125 PPP loan on April 30, 2020, to protect 10 jobs during the pandemic.

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Pat Aquilina, Crane's campaign manager, says that Crane's actions are not hypocritical, arguing that the national government mandated the candidate's business shut down during the early parts of the pandemic and should thus offset some of the losses Crane incurred through no fault of his own.

“The PPP program implemented to offset the damages caused by the government mandated shutdown of Eli Crane’s private business," Aquilina said. "This is a story about big government imposing lockdowns damaging small businesses and the government creating a program to offset the damage they caused. The amount of money the government cost Eli Crane’s business through lockdowns and mandates far exceeds the recompense for the damages it inflicted on his business.”

Crane, the founder and owner of the now Tucson-based companyenlists current and former members of the military to hand-make bottle openers, among other things, out of recycled 50 caliber bullets. Crane's wife, Jen, is also listed as an owner on the site. He started the business out of his San Diego garage in 2012.

"When the government forced Eli Crane's private business to shutter like many American businesses, he sought a Paycheck Protection Program loan for $60,000," Aquilina said. "Despite closing for over a month, Eli ensured all employees received a paycheck from his business until outside of the loan program window. In fact, Eli has subsequently refused PPP loans as his business was able to reopen and return to normal operations without the government's heavy handedness. Eli Crane's business is completely debt free."

According to the SBA, the PPP loan was considered "paid in full," as it was forgiven at $68,826.78, which includes interest.

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Ciscomani camp: 'something needed to be done to protect small businesses, non-profits, trade associations'

Ciscomani, along with his wife Laura, founded the Tucson-based company Two Worlds Branding, according to a page that has since been taken off their website.

The two registered the small business with the Arizona Corporation Commission on Sept. 6, 2011, with Laura listed as statutory agent and Juan under principal as member, Two Worlds Branding, which provides consulting services to nonprofits, was listed as active and in good standing as of April.

In order to retain one job, their company received $2,117 from the government as part of the first round of PPP Loans. Approved May 1, 2020, the government loan, was disbursed by the Association of Wells Fargo Bank.

According to the SBA, the loan, which is considered "paid in full," was fully forgiven at $2,146.93, which includes interest.

Ciscomani says on his website: "I have worked directly with the people of Southern Arizona ... understanding their concerns and advancing a limited government agenda because we know big Washington government is not the solution to the issues we face."

Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesperson for the Ciscomani campaign, says that while the CARES Act was not without its flaws, the government had the responsibility to help compensate organizations after ordering their closure.  

He told The Republic: "As for last year's efforts, it's hard to talk hypothetically about legislation Juan didn't have the chance to impact, but while not perfect — he certainly agrees something needed to be done to protect small businesses, non-profits, trade associations and individuals, who through no fault of their own were impacted by the pandemic, primarily because of government-mandated shutdowns. Juan believes the focus now should be on getting people back to work, fixing our supply chain and scaling back Washington spending and overreach."

Tara Kavaler is a politics reporter at The Arizona Republic. She can be reached by email at tara.kavaler@arizonarepublic.com or via Twitter: @kavalertara.