Madame Question Mark

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: Valley News Issue: February 2018
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Widely rebuked for two election fumbles, Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan says she’s rehabilitated and ready for re-election – that is, if she doesn’t become governor first.

Michele Reagan doesn’t understand why she gets so much bad press.

“Have you Googled me?” she asks over sandwiches at the Paradise Bakery at Biltmore Fashion Park, with genuine curiosity. “Isn’t there anything positive?”

On page one, at least, not really. Most people searching for information on Arizona’s current secretary of state first come across her biggest blunders. No. 1 was her failure as the state’s chief elections officer to foresee the “election debacle” of Arizona’s 2016 presidential primary, when the number of polling places in Maricopa County was reduced from 200 for the 2012 primary to 60, resulting in six-hour voting lines that drew national attention. On that mishap, Reagan still passes the buck to county recorder Helen Purcell, whose seven terms in office were brought to an inauspicious end by the screw-up.

Photography by Jill McNamara
Photography by Jill McNamara.

“The secretary of state has a fancy title, ‘chief elections officer,’ but there’s very little political authority attached to that,” says Reagan, a conservative Republican who, it should be noted, shares no relation to the Ronald Reagan family – although she admits the name affiliation helped sway her into pursuing politics, back when she was running her parents’ FASTSIGNS franchise on Central Avenue and figured the name would look good on a campaign sign. She kicked off her career by winning a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives in 2002, representing North Scottsdale.

“[Secretaries of state] don’t decide how many polling places there are,” the 48-year-old continues, “and we don’t decide where they’re at.”

Second on the Reagan hit parade was missing a legally required deadline for mailing out publicity pamphlets for a May 2016 special election on two high-profile ballot measures – Proposition 123, relating to education finance, and Proposition 124, dealing with police and firefighter pensions – that deprived an estimated 200,000 Arizona households of important information on the propositions.

“That was a very, very big learning experience,” says Reagan, a native Midwesterner who moved to the Valley in 1991 shortly after graduating from Illinois State University. “You know, I’m upset 200,000 pamphlets didn’t go out on time, but I’m glad we learned with pamphlets.” Far from viewing her “pamphlet-gate” as an impeachable offense – as Tom Ryan, the attorney representing the opposition campaign to Prop. 123, charged in a petition to the state Legislature – Reagan regards the slip-up more as a teachable moment, one that she feels makes her even more deserving of re-election as Arizona enters the initial phase of the 2018 campaign cycle.

“Like I say to everyone, ‘You’ve already trained me as secretary of state, you don’t want to train somebody else now,’” she says, with a laugh. “That stuff is hard to learn!”

Whether or not Reagan can hold on to her seat in November may be a moot point, however, given the famously buoyant nature of her office. Unlike most states, Arizona lacks a lieutenant governor. If the sitting governor resigns or otherwise leaves office, the secretary of state is next in the line of succession, and Arizona has a colorful history of second-in-commands rising to the governorship following unforeseen circumstances – a fact that concerns Ryan, who remains one of Reagan’s staunchest critics.

“If you look at the number of secretaries of state that have been elevated to that position, anyone in that job has a damn good chance of becoming governor before their second term is done,” he says. “That’s been our history ever since 1978, when Bruce Babbitt, who was attorney general, took the reins after then-governor Raúl Castro went down to become ambassador to Argentina [following an appointment by President Jimmy Carter] and Wes Bolin, then the secretary of state, died in office five months later.”

In subsequent decades, three more secretaries of state would ascend to the governorship by statute: Rose Mofford, who became Arizona’s first female governor after Evan Mecham was impeached in 1988; Jane Dee Hull, who leaped to the governorship following Fife Symington’s resignation in 1997; and Jan Brewer, who made the same jump when Governor Janet Napolitano resigned to become U.S. secretary of homeland security in 2009.
Two scenarios are plausible enough to justify the notion that Reagan could follow in their paths. First, the possibility that ailing Senator John McCain steps away from office and Governor Doug Ducey appoints himself to replace him – or resigns and has Reagan appoint him to the empty seat. This governor-to-senator routine has happened nine times in U.S. history, albeit typically with poor long-term political results for the self-appointee.

Reagan with Scott Cancelosi, director of administrative rules, in her office at the Arizona State Capitol in December 2017; Photography by Jill McNamara
Reagan with Scott Cancelosi, director of administrative rules, in her office at the Arizona State Capitol in December 2017; Photography by Jill McNamara

The other scenario that could lead to a Reagan governorship: President Donald Trump could invite Ducey to fill one of his oft-vacated administration jobs, much as President Barack Obama recruited Napolitano. The very idea makes Ryan sputter: “For the love of all that is holy, I hope that Michele Reagan doesn’t get to follow a similar path. This person is not qualified for her office, and she’s certainly not qualified to be governor.”

For her part, Reagan remains focused on re-election to Arizona’s second-highest office, she says. “This is a big enough job. It’s awesome to be the de facto lieutenant governor when Ducey’s out of town. I get to do lots of things that most secretaries of state don’t get to do. But I’m definitely pulling for Ducey to do well and stay in office, because we’ve got enough on our plate. I’ll make it very clear: I’m not speaking for him. But I’ve heard him say publicly that he’s not going to appoint himself to the Senate, and frankly, any discussions of anybody being appointed to fill McCain’s position are premature at this point.”

She prefers to focus on her work on campaign-finance transparency – certainly the most colorful feather in her political cap as secretary of state, but one her most ardent critics are quick to assail.

Enrique Gutiérrez, communications director for the Arizona Democratic Party, points to Reagan’s failure to deliver on her promise to end so-called “dark money” contributions to political campaigns and crack down on campaign finance violations – a central piece of her campaign platform when, as a sitting Arizona State Senator for District 8 and chair of the Senate Elections Committee, she first campaigned for secretary of state.

“Once she got in, she caved to the pressure of the higher-ups, and even pushed forward a bill [SB 1516, which requires the IRS to first strip a contributor of its nonprofit status before Arizona election officials can enforce disclosure laws against it] which I would say actually opened the floodgates for more dark money to come into the state.”

On that charge, Reagan defaults to the “uncooperative legislature” excuse employed by so many executive-branch electees. “I tried to change the laws, but that didn’t work,” she says. “There’s very little interest in it from the people who are already elected. So I changed courses and said, ‘I’m going to build a website instead.’”

That website, an electronic campaign contribution tracking system dubbed See the Money (seethemoney.az.gov), was fraught with its own problems initially. Its rollout, originally slated for the summer of 2015, was pushed to the summer of 2016, then delayed again. After paying an outside contractor nearly $500,000 to develop the site, Reagan decided to move the work in house, allocating another $200,000 to the project. A beta format of the site finally went online late in 2017.

Rollout problems aside, Reagan feels good about the result. “The coolest thing about it is it makes it easier for people to find out how much, say, big, bad lobbyist X is influencing elections,” she says. “Prior to creating this tool, that information was stored at all different levels of government for
different people. You’d have to physically go to, like, 91 different cities in multiple counties to pull paper records. Now you can pull up somebody’s name online and get a bigger picture of what’s actually happening in the state with campaign money.”

The website is still working out some bugs. A search for “Michele Reagan,” for example, turns up four different addresses, each listing minor campaign expenses, while a separate search for “Vote Reagan 2014” delivers three pages of results. Still, it’s a laudable achievement for her first term, and one largely ignored by the state’s political pundits.

“The thing I keep hearing from some folks is that our office has been this big disaster and we’ve made all these mistakes,” Reagan says. “We had four elections in one year and we made one mistake in the May 2016 election. Point to me what other horrible, atrocious things my office has done!”

Reagan in 1992 at her familiy’s first FASTSIGNS location; Photography by Jill McNamara
Reagan in 1992 at her familiy’s first FASTSIGNS location; Photography by Jill McNamara

Reagan points instead to the less publicized goals she’s met, like digitizing the Arizona State Archives and partnering with Ancestry.com to make Arizona family history records available online for free. “We’ve also updated the exhibits at Capitol Museum, and we put our little Capitol Museum Store online now, too – and it’s showing a profit for the first time,” she says (big sellers range from flip-flops embossed with the state seal to a Florence Prison shotglass). “Most people, when they hear about the secretary of state’s office, they think elections. But in reality, elections is one of our smallest divisions. Business services – all the trademarks and trade names, partnership filings – is huge.”

Reagan recognizes such pedestrian work doesn’t generate headlines. “But to me, that is the most troubling thing about working in government,” she says. “And, quite frankly, if this is the environment that we’re now in, I don’t know that you’re going to continue getting good, normal people to want to run for office and go through all this. I mean, I just told you about some amazing things that my office has done. But if that’s not even worthy of ink – if we only get attention when we make some big mistake or set our hair on fire – then, really, what’s the point?”

Even her critics concede that Reagan can be engagingly charming and funny in person. Describing the first time she got to sign an emergency bill as acting governor in Ducey’s absence, the mother to “three dog children and a desert tortoise,” as well as a grown stepdaughter by her husband, real estate developer David Gulino, tells a hilarious story about a frazzled staffer meeting up with her in a Circle K parking lot after David had just gone through surgery and lay passed out in her car. “So I leaned out of the car and signed it, and finally my husband woke up and he’s like, ‘How did I do?’ I told him, ‘Oh, you did just fine. I just signed my first bill!’”

“There’s no doubt that she’s a sweet person,” Ryan says. “I just think that, fundamentally, she does not understand the seriousness of her job... [which] is to run the elections as cleanly as possible and to minimize the disruption to the voter. And she hasn’t done that.”

Conversely, Reagan has made converts of some Democrats and Independents. Phoenix attorney Rich Gaxiola – who previously helped organize a fundraiser for Democratic U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego – says he will do the same for Reagan this spring, after meeting her at a political event Downtown last year. “Michele has a long, dedicated history of serving the state... she really tries to do the right thing irrespective of her party’s line.”

Reagan’s fellow Republicans seem to have few qualms with her competency. Precinct and pamphlet gaffes aside, no prominent Republicans have filed to challenge her in the primary – unlike, for instance, the murderer’s row of intra-party candidates who have lined up to take on embattled Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas. However, if she does win the Republican primary, she will likely face State Senate minority leader Katie Hobbs – a respected and seasoned Democrat – in the general election.

Ever the optimist, Reagan is confident that her regular-gal persona will connect with voters – and that she has the acumen to serve them as secretary of state. Or, you know, that other big job.

“There’s a tendency in the media now to criticize politicians for being real and being normal,” Reagan counters. “But that’s exactly who I am. I’m really down to earth. I’m really fun. And,” she adds, offering a parting hug, “I am really, really smart!”
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