At a time of unusually dismal attitudes toward politics and government, an unusual number of opponents are poised to challenge Mesa’s incumbent mayor and three City Council members this fall.
And that number is . . . zero?
With only a week left for candidates to qualify for the election, not a single challenger is likely to get on the ballot.
The only known active office-seeker admits he probably won’t collect enough nominating petitions. And while it’s technically possible for a candidate to get started now, City Clerk Linda Crocker said it’s nearly impossible to work quickly enough to meet the May 30 deadline.
“I don’t remember anybody coming in at this late a date and doing that, but I’ll never say never,” Crocker said.
That would allow Mayor Scott Smith to sail into a second term, along with council members Alex Finter, Dennis Kavanaugh and Dave Richins.
And that would mark a huge shift for a community where boisterous gadflies and long-shot candidates have played a more outsized role in politics than in most other Valley cities.
Mesa is where border activist and former neo-Nazi J.T. Ready wanted to break into politics in 2006, losing a primary battle for City Council with 24 percent of the vote. Ready killed four other people and himself this month at a Gilbert home following years of increasingly controversial activism.
Mesa has lost two colorful characters who were perennial office seekers. Illias Kostopoulos had run for office in Tempe and Mesa, winning 125 votes in 2006 and just three as a write-in in 2008. He died in 2009.
Kirby Allen launched multiple bids over decades as he engaged in sometimes vitriolic debates. Allen, respected for his musical talents in Hollywood, died in a house fire in 2011.
Past City Councils have triggered lawsuits and other challenges over everything from a proposed Arizona Cardinals stadium to a smoking ban and even a road project.
The controversies eased about four years ago as the recession took hold. Smith said he’s not surprised at the lack of challengers.
“I think when this council stepped up and hit the financial downturn head on and really worked hard to make the city of Mesa a lean, efficient, effective operation, I think that resonates with people. And if you can resonate with people, there’s a tendency to say, ‘We’ll let you finish your job,’” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s indifference. Believe me, we hear a lot.”
Longtime activist Marilynn Wennerstrom has sued Mesa several times dating to the 1970s, and was surprised to hear of the lack of challengers. Her suits involved financial disclosure and a road widening project, which she said were not personal but aimed at issues she found unjust or illegal. Wennerstrom said she hasn’t felt the need to be the kind of watchdog she had been because of how the city’s elected officials interact with voters today.
“The general impression I have of Scott Smith is he is very out there, actively communicating with people, following up on issues,” she said. “I get the general impression that people are satisfied, contrary to years past.”
Richins said he doesn’t see the uncontested election as a lack of interest in politics. If anything, he believes last year’s recall of state Senate President Russell Pearce compelled citizens to become engaged.
Richins said it’s clear people are following city issues based on conversations while collecting signatures.
“One lady completely let me have it about the Cubs while she signed my sheet,” he said, referring to the voter-approved $99 million Chicago Cubs spring training complex set to open in 2014. “And I respected her opinion and she respected me doing my job. She signed it and said, ‘I still hate the Cubs.’”
Only two potential challengers got paperwork from election officials for the Aug. 28 primary, Crocker said. Her correspondence to one man has come back undeliverable for six months. The other, Ralph Brandt, told the Tribune he’s falling short on signature collection efforts to challenge Kavanaugh.
Brandt is a member of the American Third Position, which promotes the interests of whites and is labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Brandt said voters don’t seem upset at any particular issue, except some would like turnover simply because Kavanaugh is seeking a fourth term.
Brandt needs 233 signatures to appear on the ballot for District 3 in southwest Mesa. Other districts require slightly more, while 1,000 signatures are needed to run for mayor. The process is more grueling than he imagined.
“At first, the tea party said they were going to help me in my efforts but they kind of flaked out on me,” he said. “Politics is a funny game. I’m just learning it by the seat of my pants.”
Kavanaugh said several people in his district were interested in running but they are supporters who didn’t want to challenge him. He expects a lively election in four years when he steps down.
Kavanaugh said ho-hum elections are more common in non-partisan municipal politics than in partisan state or federal races.
“Where you have incumbents with a record of service and few if any controversies, you don’t have a groundswell of opponents or opposition,” he said. “You’ve got to have a reason to turn this person out.”
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