A half-dozen legislative candidates who knocked off Republican incumbents in September's primary election have two little-known political operatives from the East Valley to thank. Now, as those new lawmakers prepare to take their seats when the Legislature convenes in January, the two operatives are at the center of state investigations into possible voter disenfranchisement and violation of campaign finance laws.
One of the new lawmakers could even face removal from office if found to have broken campaign laws.
Constantin Querard and Chris Baker arguably affected the political bent of the next Legislature more than any other political figures. About half of their staunchly conservative candidates trounced moderate Republicans — lawmakers who had rebelled against GOP leadership to pass a budget written largely by Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano.
As a result, this Legislature will be one of the most conservative in recent years, which means tax cuts, restricting access to abortion and immigration-related policies will get a higher priority.
Querard and Baker helped to craft themes about low taxation, responsible education spending and immigration control that were repeated from campaign to campaign. But some losing candidates as well as Republican officials see Querard and Baker as shadowy conspirators willing to bend or break state election laws to win. They say the pair manipulated campaign records and hid expenditures to help their candidates win in tough races.
The consultants' campaign practices are the subject of a joint investigation by the state Attorney General's Office and the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.
Formal complaints filed since July allege that Querard and Baker worked with up to 13 conservative candidates to "hijack" early primary ballots of Republican voters with a deceptive mailer that appeared to be from the party. The complaints also accuse Querard and Baker of sharing campaign resources, thus sidestepping requirements for a strict accounting of candidate spending.
Querard and Baker insist the complaints are frivolous, filed by defeated candidates and others worried about conservatives gaining power in the Legislature. The two said many of the candidates backed by Querard and Baker won tough primaries because they made smarter spending decisions in their campaigns and had messages that appealed more to voters.
"There are some sore losers out there who know each other and talk to each other," Querard said. "The complaints don't have to make sense because you don't have to win a complaint. It doesn't cost anything to file a complaint. You just file, and it has been taken seriously by the commission."
Querard and Baker aren't subject to Clean Elections penalties because the commission only regulates candidates, not their consultants. But those candidates who relied on public funds could face hefty civil fines from the commission.
One candidate, Scottsdale lawyer David Burnell Smith, has admitted he spent $6,500 more than state spending limits allow, money that he owes to Querard. Smith wants to settle the case by paying a fine, but critics have been lobbying for the commission to invoke a provision of state law to block Smith from taking his seat as a District 7 representative.
Querard and Baker could face criminal charges if they denied voters a chance to cast ballots or hid how much money some of their candidates spent. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Terry Goddard said the agency couldn't comment on the investigation.
The commission is conducting extensive audits of the campaigns for Smith and Rep. Colette Rosati, R-Scottsdale. At least three other candidates were randomly selected for limited audits that will look for patterns of misconduct, said Colleen Connor, executive director of the commission.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, Querard was quizzed for four hours in a deposition with top attorneys from Goddard's office about his work with Smith and Rosati. Querard told the attorneys he designed campaign literature for candidates, and arranged for their printing and mailing. But he couldn't recall details about individual invoices and other documents, according to the deposition.
Querard also refused to answer any questions about the controversial early ballot request mailing, invoking his right to avoid self-incrimination.
Baker said investigators haven't asked for a similar meeting with him.
Querard of Ahwatukee Foothills and Baker of Scottsdale were little known in Arizona political circles before the 2004 election season. But they quickly built a reputation among conservative Republicans for their energy and ingenuity in supporting candidates with little campaign experience.
Baker is a traditional political consultant — developing campaign themes and managing day-to-day advertising efforts. His credentials include a brief stint as executive director of the Colorado Republican Party.
At the time, Colorado Republicans were torn apart by a battle between conservatives and moderates over the future of the party — similar to what is happening in Arizona now.
Baker says he was fired in 1998 because he refused to actively support the Colorado chairman's efforts to use Republican resources to drive moderates out of power. Newspaper accounts from two Denver newspapers and interviews with other politicos generally say Baker fell victim to the crossfire.
"I think Chris was more political than an executive director needs be and ultimately he had to pay a heavy price for it," said Phil Perington, state chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party at the time.
Baker said most of his consultant experience is with congressional candidates, including work with The Club for Growth, an independent political group that funnels money to Republicans who support deep tax cuts and limited government. Baker is credited with engineering the unexpected victory of Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., in the 2002 GOP primary.
But Baker said he became interested in working with legislative candidates this year after defections in the 2004 regular session by House moderates to avoid a deadlock with Napolitano over state spending. Conservatives contended those lawmakers violated Republican principles by not working out their differences with GOP leadership.
Querard, a Denver native, also got his start in politics by working with congressional candidates in Arizona and Colorado. After working briefly at his family's West Indies resort, Querard returned to the Valley in 2001 and became active in the right-to-life movement.
Querard describes himself as a "direct-message vendor" who specializes in campaign mail literature. But his activities include managing campaigns and providing informal advice to candidates he supports.
Querard and Baker became friends while working together on Randy Pullen's losing bid for Phoenix mayor in 2003. But the two insist they acted independently while working for most of their candidates in 2004, and even backed competing candidates for the state House from Ahwatukee and Chandler.
Querard and Baker clearly were successful this past election. Seven of 13 Republican candidates who paid one or both them were elected and six of those candidates defeated moderate Republican incumbents.
Querard's tactics came under fire in July with an effort to solicit early ballot requests and gather voting information for several candidates.
Campaign fliers mailed out by Querard invited Republican voters to request primary ballots by mail. The fliers included a design that made it appear they came from the Republican Party instead of an individual candidate. The mailing worked — Querard received more than 14,000 ballot requests from four legislative districts, a much higher return rate than candidates normally get.
But some Republican leaders contended the flier misled voters, and a judge ruled in early September that Querard held on to ballot requests for far too long while creating a database for selected candidates to target likely voters. Querard was forbidden from using any information from his voter database to help candidates, and he was ordered to turn the list over to county election officials.
During a court hearing, Querard testified he developed and paid for the flier himself, and had planned to sell the information to selected conservative candidates to recoup his costs.
A series of complaints were filed against candidates who had paid Querard for the voter data or for other services, accusing the candidates of participating in a scheme to "hijack" early ballots. Some candidates supported by Baker were targeted as well because his name appears on the paperwork for the Ahwatukee post office box where Querard's ballot requests were sent.
Baker said he had no involvement in the flier, pointing out that two of his candidates that are targets of complaints weren't even running in the districts involved. The only candidate who has admitted to any wrongdoing is Smith, who says he misjudged how much money he had left and ordered additional campaign literature just before the primary.
The incoming lawmaker says he will pay for the $6,500 in excess spending out of his own pocket as well as a $2,500 fine to the Clean Elections commission. He believes an appointed body of regulators can't remove a duly elected lawmaker from office, even though state voters approved that provision when they passed the Clean Elections initiative in 1998.
"Probably no judge in Arizona would do that," Smith said. "As a lawyer, I think it's unconstitutional. They could destroy the will of the people for mistakes made in campaigns."
No Arizona court has ruled on the issue. But Connor, a former assistant state attorney general, conceded courts in other states have voided state statutes that essentially raise additional barriers to public office that aren't found in that state's constitution.
Critics insist that if Smith isn't removed from office, as well as any other candidates proven to have spent beyond state limits, the entire public funding system will be undermined. Future candidates might consider a state fine and some public embarrassment to be just part of the cost of winning office — on the taxpayer's dime.
Outgoing Rep. Clancy Jayne, R-Phoenix, who has filed a complaint against another candidate who employed Baker, is one of those who thinks larger principles are at stake. "The (public complaint) was about more than just my campaign," he said. "It was establishing whether we're going to have all campaign finance (information) on the table. Or if we're going to have what looks like to be ‘clean’ and what really happens under the table. If there isn't something done to clarify it now, I don't how you stop it for all campaigns in the future."