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Bolding & Fontes spar over Az Secretary of State qualifications

2 Arizona politicians talked voter rights, protecting elections & their own electability in Sentinel-moderated forum

Democratic primary candidates for Arizona secretary of state Reginald Bolding and Adrian Fontes contrasted their plans and qualifications during a debate Saturday in Sahuarita, making their cases for who's best suited to beat a Republican opponent in the November election. The debate included a few verbal sparring matches between the two, and plenty of swings from the substance of questions to the candidates' familiar talking points.

Bolding repeatedly brought up his experience in the Arizona Legislature, touting that "I've won eight elections," while Fontes frequently turned to his time in charge of elections in Maricopa County. Both talked up their successes in registering Arizona voters.

While the two-hour discussion became heated at times, the two candidates eventually turned most of their fire away from each other and toward the Republican Party.

Arizona's Democratic and independent voters will pick between Bolding and Fontes in the Aug. 2 primary, with the winner vying for the job of chief election official for the state in the Nov. 8 general election. TucsonSentinel.com Editor Dylan Smith moderated the debate at Quail Creek, which was attended by about 70 people.

The two candidates have held elected roles before, with Fontes serving as the Maricopa County recorder from 2017 to 2021 and Bolding as a state legislator for LD27 in Laveen since 2014. Secretary of State Katie Hobbs is seeking the Democratic nomination to become governor.

Bolding and Fontes both brought up accomplishments in their previous roles. Fontes touted his success in Maricopa County in protecting the 2020 elections, which he called “the most highly scrutinized election in Arizona history, in American history, and we passed every test with flying colors.”

Fontes said that his history as a certified election official makes him “the most qualified person in the history of Arizona to run for secretary of state.”

Bolding said he was qualified as Arizona’s next secretary of state because of his leadership in the largest Democratic House caucus since 1966, and at the top of the Arizona Coalition for Change, one of the largest voting rights organizations in Arizona. He's the current the state House minority leader and one of two Black state representatives in Arizona.

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Expanding voting rights and building coalitions were some of Bolding’s key talking points. He mentioned that as legislator he passed laws that improved access to state IDs and records and fought for better public education, abortion and workers’ rights.

“What I’ve been spending my time doing over the last eight years is fighting for issues that matter most to us,” Bolding said. “I absolutely have some of the most foundational skills that you need to be secretary of state.”

Protecting Az’s elections

Arizona’s elections have been placed under a microscope by Republicans, especially by former President Donald Trump, and have been the target of unfounded fringe conspiracist claims and misinformation after President Joe Biden won the election by 11,000 votes in the 2020 election, such as the CyberNinjas “fraudit.”

The top contender on the Republican side of the secretary of state race is state Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, who was endorsed by Trump in September. Finchem went as far as introducing a bill to “decertify” the 2020 general election results, though no decertification process exists under Arizona law.

The Republican secretary of state primaries also include state Rep. Shawnna Bolick, state Sen. Michelle Urgenti-Rita and Phoenix advertising executive Beau Lane. Bolick and Urgenti-Rita have also made efforts in the Legislature to undermine the 2020 election.

During the debate, Fontes, who lost reelection in 2020, took personal responsibility for guaranteeing the integrity of the election’s results, saying “​​that election was not stolen. How do I know? I ran it.”

“Out of almost 2 million ballots cast in my race, I was just over 4,500 short, and the minute it became statistically impossible for me to win, I didn’t complain,” he said. “I didn’t whine and cry. I didn’t go running home to mama and say 'they stole the election.'”

Fontes roused the audience when he proclaimed that Finchem was a "traitor" because of his involvement in the Trumpist attempt to undermine the 2020 election, including his cheerleading of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol that sought to halt the formal certification of President Joe Biden's victory.

Shortly after losing the 2020 election, Fontes took a deputy county recorder role under Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, the current Pima County recorder, to help her with the transition into office. He took credit at Saturday's debate for Pima County’s vote centers which will allow voters to vote and drop off ballots at any polling location for the 2022primaries and general election.

Bolding talked about the importance of protecting “free, fair and safe elections” in Arizona and the country, saying “the reality is our election system has never been more partisan than it is today.”

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“It is no longer about how do I assure we’re doing the best for democracy,” Bolding said. “It’s about do I ensure that my team wins, even if they’re willing to break down the system.”

With presidential elections coming up in two years, Bolding warned that Trump supporters “are going to try to do in 2024 what they couldn’t do in 2020, which is to actually steal the election.”

“This race (for secretary of state) could not be more important,” Bolding said.

Friendly fire

Both Bolding and Fontes threw a few verbal punches at each other for lack of transparency, with Fontes first calling out Bolding for running a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization that isn't required to disclose its funders, accusing the state legislator of taking “dark money.”

“Who’s actually paying your paycheck?” Fontes said to Bolding. “The problem that we have here is that some of our candidates will talk about anti-corruption and yet they will be sitting, being personally funded through a 501(c)4 organization that they are the head of, and nobody knows where the money is coming from.”

Bolding responded to the personal attack by saying Fontes is associating dark money “with organizations that are fighting for our community.” He also said his organization helped elect Fontes as Maricopa County recorder.

He then accused Fontes of being delinquent on nine years of property taxes. Fontes flatly denied the accusation and said that he sold his home in November with no issues. Maricopa County online tax records do not show any late fees were paid on the taxes for that residence.

Fontes agreed that donors to 501(c)4 groups should be shielded but said that “it’s a little unseemly if you’re an elected official and you’ve got one of these organizations and you’re executive director of the organizations and that organization is actually campaigning in an election year for you. That’s a little rough.”

How to improve elections

Though both candidates agreed on the importance of secure elections, they suggested how the voting system can be improved and made more accessible for more voters.

“Every single cycle we have to make sure that we’re looking to improve the process,” Bolding said. “It shouldn’t be easier for you to know whether or not you’re getting a package in the mail from Amazon than it is to know whether or not you’re getting your ballot.”

As secretary of state, Bolding said he’ll make sure Arizona voters will “know exactly when your ballot has been sent, when it’s been received, when it’s been sent back and when it’s been tabulated.”

Bolding said there need to be systems in place “that make it undeniable that our elections were safe and secure” to take power away from election deniers.

Fontes said that he was already behind efforts to create track ballots online. “I want to acknowledge and appreciate that Mr. Bolding has endorsed my ballot tracking system that we created in Maricopa County.”

Maricopa County’s system includes email and text message updates about when ballots arrive at homes and when they return to the Election Department.

Bolding also said it’s important for “all of Arizona” to get a traceable ballot system including rural and tribal voters. Inclusion was a clear priority for Bolding, who talked about getting ballots to more voters.

“At the base, that’s what we’re talking about, giving people the ability to access democracy,” he said. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu, and the reality is that voting rights have been on the menu.”

He criticized the Legislature for making it more difficult to vote over the years by introducing laws that would take away the ability of voters to permanently sign up to vote early by mail.

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Electability

The ability to prevail in the general election also came up in the debate, with both candidates acknowledging that they have to make sure they can not only beat Finchem, whom they consider the presumptive GOP nominee, but help get Arizona Democrats elected to Congress and as governor in 2022.

Fontes pointed out that by 2020, he had earned 2.5 million votes total across his career as an elected official. Bolding repeatedly told the audience that he’s won eight elections.

Bolding lost in his first run for state office, in the 2012 Democratic primary for an LD 27 House seat. He first won a race in 2014, and in over the last four primary/general election cycles, has had two straight Novembers with no general election opponents. He and his Democratic seat-mate easily won against token GOP opponents in the other races.

Bolding said “he was able to bring people together” to win elections, including in his legislative district, where “the demographics don’t fit me.”

He said “coalition-building” is the key to his success, and that he developed the skill by serving a district that is more than 60 percent Latino, he said.

Bolding challenged Fontes’ electability, saying he’s only run for office twice, winning by a half-percent the first time and losing the second time.

Confident in his ability to win over voters, Bolding said was able to reach his constituents because “the language that I speak, I speak to working-class people who want to get things done.”

Fontes countered that attack by pointing out that he ran for election in Maricopa County, which is populated with more Republicans than Bolding’s overwhelmingly Democratic LD27.

“When you’re talking about electability state wide, you’re talking about a candidate (Bolding) that has never run against a Republican ever,” Fontes said. “With me, you have a candidate who has beaten the Republican voter registration advantage every time I’ve run, and I’ve garnered right around 2.5 million votes on my way to doing this.”

Electibilty is “about the entire state of Arizona,” Fontes said, not “just a legislative district in South Phoenix.”

Fontes than asserted he’d be able to get U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly re-elected and a Democratic governor in office, delivering a few lines in Spanish, though with a few stutters and questionable grammar during the riff.

“We’re going to have to have candidates who can communicate with all our voters about the values of the Democratic Party,” he said in Spanish. “Because it is important that we can communicate clearly with everyone.” Fontes said "comunicar" instead of the more typical conjugation "comunicarse" and didn't switch to the subjunctive voice to express his opinion. Fontes had earlier noted that he was the first Latino ever elected to countywide office in Maricopa County.

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Eligibility, he said, also means working with Republicans and not “apologizing for their passion, particularly when they’re defending the work that their team did, even if it was a bipartisan team.”

Fontes said Bolding has never been able to bring Republicans over to vote for him. Fontes said his time in the U.S. Marines makes him attractive to Republican voters, especially those who disagree with the Trumpist MAGA faction of their own party.

Bolding said that some Republicans want free and fair elections more than victory for their own party, and he said that “we have to make sure we’re giving people accurate information” to counter disinformation that gets more attention from Republican voters.

He also pointed to success in the House as proof he can work across the aisle, saying “in a Republican-controlled Legislature with a Republican governor, I’ve been able to actually pass bills into law. That’s a huge feat.”

Governorship

One of the responsibilities of the secretary of state, Bolding said, has to be understanding the Legislature because “the secretary of state is the lieutenant governor,” a role that doesn’t exist in Arizona but that often has duties in both the legislative and executive branches of state government.

The office of secretary of state can often be a stepping-stone to governor, with four of the 10 secretary of states since 1949 taking over the highest office in the state when it was left vacant.

Bolding said he’s qualified to step into that role because “there’s not one issue that I can’t dive deep in and discuss.”

He said he understands issues such as water, housing and healthcare. Having turned down a full-ride scholarship to law school to become a special ed teacher in Phoenix, Bolding said his background is in education, which accounts for more than half of the state budget.

Fontes acknowledged that he never served in the Legislature — but sharply pointed out that Bolding has never been elected to an executive office, where he’s had to “hire and fire staff at a large scale, who’s had to work day in and day out, not just imagining budgets.”

“Being the governor means you have to have executive-level experience,” he said. “Only one of us has actual experience being in elected executive office.”

Transparency

In 2016, the liberal group Project Vote filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of State's Office, and the Maricopa and Pima county recorders, to ensure that voter rolls are accessible public records, in an attempt to bring transparency to elections.

When asked how he would make elections more transparent, Bolding mentioned that he joined a federal lawsuit to challenge voter suppression laws in 2021, but he also said the secretary of state can keep voters from being purged off rolls and can protect their data.

“I believe we have a solid transparent system, but what we can’t sacrifice is people’s personal safety for transparency,” he said. He warned about Republicans attempting door-to-door "verification" of voters, which he called “voter intimidation just like we’ve seen in the 1960s.”

“We can’t allow that to happen,” he said. “And I’m looking forward to making sure that everyone’s data is protected as the next secretary of state, and we have a transparent system that allows people to know our system is safe.”

Offering more specifics, Fontes suggested that transparency starts with simplifying Arizona’s Elections Procedures Manual, a tome of election regulations for the state, its counties and its municipalities.

“The whole thing is just a big rigamarole,” Fontes said. “This is the rulebook by which our 15 counties run elections, and if it was in plain language and people could understand it that’s the kind of transparency people could look at and say, ‘OK, I know how this process works.’”

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding” around the manual, Fontes said, “because it’s not easy to understand” and because it was intentionally made that way to create opportunities for lawsuits to challenge election results.

Fontes also suggested making campaign financing records more transparent by updating the state’s website, saying “you can’t search who’s financing different candidates, you can’t figure that out. Why in the world, with the technology that we have, can’t you go in and find that out?”

“It’s public record. It should be easily accessible,” he said. “That kind of transparency is what people want.”

Bolding said more transparency around campaign financing was “my idea from previous debates,” imitating Fontes’ move from earlier in the debate.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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Reginald Bolding, left, and Adrian Fontes on stage during Satuday's debate for the Democratic nomination for Secretary for State.

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