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Tempe, Chandler elections take a partisan turn

By Doug Snover

May 13, 2006

Two Kyrene Corridor residents – incumbent Councilman Leonard Copple and challenger Onnie Shekerjian – are vying for the last open seat on the Tempe City Council, with the Arizona Republican Party taking an active role in the May 16 general election.

In Chandler, meanwhile, three survivors of the March primary election are competing for the final two City Council seats.

Trinity Donovan, Becky Jackson and Jeff Weninger finished in that order behind Bob Caccamo, who won outright in the primary. A fourth candidate to qualify for Tuesday’s general election, Chris Stage, withdrew from the race after finishing well behind Donovan, Jackson and Weninger in March.

In addition to its role in Tempe, the Arizona Republican Party backed Chandler Mayor Boyd Dunn's successful reelection bid in March but has not been active in the May general election.

Veteran political watchers in both cities say the 2006 city elections mark the first big push by a political party to influence city elections. Municipal elections are strictly nonpartisan.

Tempe’s City Charter Section 13-2 says:

“All elections for mayor and city councilmen shall be nonpartisan and nothing on the ballot in any primary or general election shall be indicative of the source of the candidacy or of the support of the candidate.”

That rule is reflected in the City Code and follows state law on municipal elections.

And while there is, indeed, no party affiliation noted on the official ballot, a group called Tempe Deserves Better, sponsored by the Arizona Republican Party, has sent mailers and made telephone calls to Tempe Republicans urging them to support Shekerjian.

“Elect Onnie Sherkejian, Your REPUBLICAN Candidate for Tempe City Council,” the Tempe Deserves Better flier states, presumably unaware that the candidate's name, correctly spelled S-h-e-k-e-r-j-i-a-n, is misspelled.

Shekerjian says she has no control over the Tempe Deserves Better mailers, and is uncomfortable with the partisan campaigning. “I wish they would have spelled my last name correctly,” she said.

“I feel like I’ve been caught in the middle,” Shekerjian told Wrangler News. “I would much prefer to be able to control my own message.”

“This isn’t something that I was looking to have happen,” she said. “I’d much rather be spending my time talking about ways to improve Tempe than whether partisanship has raised its head.”

l       Early voting takes over

In another twist on the historical approach to city elections, most of the ballots will be cast before Election Day, city clerks in both Tempe and Chandler agree.

There were two ways to vote early: Qualified voters could mail in their ballots through May 5 or cast ballots in person through May 12.

Tempe City Clerk Kathy Matz predicts that up to 80 percent of the General Election ballots will be cast early. Chandler Clerk Marla Paddock estimated 70 percent early voting.

Paddock said any Chandler voter who requested an early voting ballot in the March primary election was automatically mailed one for the May 16 general election. Of the more than 13,000 early ballots mailed in Chandler, more than 7,000 had been returned with 11 days remaining before Election Day, she said.

Partisanship also reared its head in Chandler’s primary election, Paddock said.

Incumbent Mayor Boyd Dunn was supported by an independent expenditure committee called Republicans for Dunn, she said. Dunn easily defeated challenger Vice Mayor Phill Westbrooks in the primary election.

Paddock, a long-time Chandler employee, said she “probably could not pull out an example” of partisan support for a candidate in previous city elections.

“I’ve been with the city for about 20 years and this is probably one of the first times we had a committee like that register,” she said.

Bill Lopiano, a former Tempe mayor and longtime political watcher, received the Tempe Deserves Better mailers at his home.

“I don’t know specifically where it came from, but I assume it was under the auspices of the Republican Party,” said Lopiano, who spent 14 years on the Tempe City Council and was mayor for two terms in the 1970s.

Lopiano also was on the Board of Freeholders that drafted Tempe’s charter in 1964, and he said the committee specifically intended that city elections be nonpartisan.

“We’re a home-rule city – the charter prohibits it,” he said of partisanship.

l       A Republican Party effort

Tempe Deserves Better is certainly not hiding its political affiliation. The pro-Shekerjian mailer states that is was “paid for by Tempe Deserves Better with major funding by the Arizona Republican Party.”

On expenditure reports filed with the city, the group lists its address and telephone number as those of the Arizona Republican Party in Phoenix.

Tempe Deserves Better has reported total contributions of $6,257.68, with the entire amount coming from the Arizona Republican Party. The full amount was spent to oppose Copple, according to the group’s post-primary election report.

Christopher Dahm is listed on the expenditure reports as the Tempe Deserves Better treasurer. Documents on file at the Arizona Corporation Commission list Dahm as vice president of Coleman, Dahm & Associates, Inc., formerly called Coleman Dahm Moyer, Inc., a Phoenix-based public affairs consulting firm created in May 2003.

Dahm could not be reached for comment.

Shekerjian said she does not know Dahm, although he is listed as a contributor to her campaign.

“I have run my race in a nonpartisan way,” she said, noting there is no party affiliation listed on her website or campaign mailers.

“I don’t ask people their party affiliation when they offer their support,” she added.

Nor does she know how Tempe Deserves Better acquired pictures of her that were used on the mailer, she said.

“They didn’t get them from me,” she said, adding that she suspects the photographs were copied electronically from her own campaign materials.

Matz confirmed early this week that a complaint has been filed with the city over the Tempe Deserves Better mailer. The city has hired former city attorney Dave Merkel to investigate, she said.

Matz said she did not know yet who had filed the complaint, which was not filed with her office.

Garrick Taylor, a spokesman for the Arizona Republican Party, said the Tempe Deserves Better mailer and the earlier support of Mayor Dunn’s re-election in Chandler are “not an effort to inject overt partisanship into municipal elections but rather an effort to get good candidates elected.”

“The use of the committees is just a way for like-minded folks in Tempe and Chandler to help get what we believe are good candidates elected,” Taylor said.

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