Election reforms campaign suspended after donor pulls out

AP News
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Posted: Mar 10, 2016 9:35 PM

PHOENIX (AP) — Two former Phoenix mayors on Thursday suspended their campaign to bring elections reform to voters after a major donor said it hadn't intended to support an initiative that would combat anonymous campaign spending.

The Open and Honest Elections Coalition had been collecting signatures for two ballot measures.

Former attorney general and Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard said the primary donor did not support the initiatives requiring groups that spend money to influence elections to disclose donations of more than $10,000.

The coalition's other initiative would have placed all candidates on a single primary ballot for state elections. The top two candidates would go on to campaign in the general election.

Texas billionaire John Arnold contributed $1 million to the campaign through Open Primaries, an advocacy group for non-partisan primaries. During a January news conference, the coalition said the money would be divided equally between the two initiative campaigns.

But Arnold made it clear last week that his contribution was not meant for the disclosure initiative, despite the coalition spending or committing more than $300,000 of that money on the initiative.

"As soon as Open Primaries was made aware of this action, we asked that money be returned to the elections committee as the transfer was not condoned," said Jeremy Gruber, Open Primaries spokesman.

Goddard, former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson and Chuck Coughlin, president of HighGround Inc., a political consulting and lobbying firm, all said they were taken aback by the national group's stance, noting that Open Primaries was represented in all their planning meetings.

"All of us unanimously felt we were spending those funds in accordance with the wishes of the donors," Coughlin said.

An Open Primaries representative had attended the January news conference where the Arizona groups announced they intended to split money raised between the two initiatives, but Open Primaries officials said they believed the reference was to overall fundraising, not their donation.

The Arizona groups returned $178,000 to Arnold's group this week, former Phoenix Major Paul Johnson said.

Disclosure is at the center of another heated political battle over a campaign finance overhaul bill currently in the Legislature that would relax rules for so-called dark money groups so they could anonymously spend more money on elections.

The Open and Honest Elections Coalition said it intended to use Arnold's donation as seed money to aid local funding, but it said potential donors have been scared off because of opposition from the governor's office and Legislative leadership over the disclosure requirements.

Gov. Doug Ducey's spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said neither the governor nor his staff have pressured potential donors to avoid giving to the coalition's effort.

"No, he has not," Scarpinato said. "The answer is no."

Senate President Andy Biggs' spokesman also said he had not pressured potential donors. A spokesman for House Speaker David Gowan didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Goddard and Johnson are leading the bipartisan initiatives in conjunction with HighGround.

The coalition had gathered at least 20,000 signatures for each campaign but has decided to suspend both campaigns until or unless they can find other funding sources.

"This is a speed bump, not a dead end," Goddard said adding later, "The word 'suspend' is critical. It's not the end, it's simply a time for reassessment to see what our Arizona support is like. I think it's robust."