FLAGSTAFF — The race for secretary of state in Arizona drew fewer than a handful of candidates this year, and the only contest in the primary is between two Democrats seeking the party's nod.
The secretary of state is the chief elections officer, a regulator for consumers and the custodian for the state's official records. But most importantly, says Democratic candidate Chris Deschene, the secretary of state is first in line to succeed the governor if there is a vacancy.
That played into both Deschene's and Sam Wercinski's decision to seek the position. They'll face off in the Aug. 24 primary. Whoever wins will go up against Republican Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who was appointed to the position after Jan Brewer was elevated to governor, in the Nov. 2 general election.
Green Party candidate Michelle Lochmann has filed as a write-in candidate.
A provision in the state Constitution that dates from statehood nearly a century ago says a governor's powers go to the secretary of state when the governor is absent from the state. Five secretaries of state have assumed the governorship in Arizona history.
Arizona does not have a lieutenant governor, though a ballot measure this year could change that.
Both Deschene, of LeChee on the Navajo Nation, and Wercinski want the secretary of state to have more of an active role in state government that would better reflect the duties assumed when the governor is absent.
For Wercinski, of Phoenix, that means working with the attorney general on consumer protection issues, creating jobs and developing business.
"As the official keeper of all government records, it can help to provide more accountability and transparency in government," Wercinski, 48, said. "From there, be a key leader in helping fix state government."
At minimum, the secretary of state should be able to partner with the governor, the attorney general and other chief elected officials to address issues such as economics, infrastructure and education, said the 39-year-old Deschene.
Deschene said whoever is elected must have broad experience in voting on core issues affecting the state, a diverse background and be able to deal with economics. He asserts his qualifications far outweigh those of Wercinski, as an attorney, engineer and a state representative who has worked on bills that directly affect Arizona's voting rights.
"When they (voters) looked at the leadership component, they said, 'You've been proven and been tested with your military service, your experience running divisions and operations, departments that are responsible to a larger unit and running multi-million-dollar budgets,'" he said.
Deschene said he would institute a top-to-bottom review of the secretary of state's office if elected to make the voting process less complex and cut inefficiencies.
Wercinski said he's already started analyzing past elections and found clear patterns of people being disenfranchised because they are directed to the wrong polling locations.
Wercinski, a veteran who served as the state's real estate commissioner and touts his experience in the private sector, has outspent Deschene by more than $30,000 in his first run at a political office. Deschene had about $11,000 cash on hand as of May 31, while Wercinski had more than $125,000, according to the latest campaign finance reports.
"I'm the Democrat that shares the values that Arizonans seek in their elected leaders," Wercinski said. "I'm the Democrat that is inclusive, who is a good listener and who has empathy. That is a key value that I think is missing in leaders today, the ability to understand where other people and other communities are at this moment and what they're trying to achieve."