Fountain Hills election shows party politics seeping into local races

Candidates and local officials said they’ve never seen anything like this year’s “vitriolic” election in Fountain Hills, a small town of 25,000 people in the Phoenix area’s northeast Valley where races are typically low profile and amicable.

The mayor’s seat and three council positions were on the Aug. 2 ballot, with former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio spending massive amounts of cash in an effort to take the top spot from incumbent Mayor Ginny Dickey, and four candidates — three conservatives and one liberal — vying for the council seats. 

It got ugly when some right-wingers sought to establish a conservative majority, painting their left-wing opponents as “communists,” “leftists” or extremists despite the election being for positions that require the winners to mostly oversee non-ideological issues such as zoning and road repair.

The race got so heated that an entire angry audience was removed during a candidate forum earlier this year, when GOP council candidate and former Illinois state Rep. Allen Skillicorn called his opponent, Cindy Couture, a liar before implying that she and other “liberals” were “ignorant.”

Fountain Hills’s departure from amiability to hostility marks another instance of party politics entering into “nonpartisan” local races. It’s a shift for the conservative-majority town where voters have rarely balked at electing Democrats in the past. 

Cindy Couture lost her bid to win a seat on the Fountain Hills Town Council in the Aug. 2 election.

“This year’s race was vitriolic. It was horrible,” said Couture, a 72-year-old retired English teacher who lost her race and was branded as a far-left radical because of her Facebook posts about prosecuting “anti-vaxxers” and Democratic Socialism. “I mean, it didn’t belong in Fountain Hills. We are a nicer community than this, but they wanted to win at all costs.”

A political action committee called Reclaim Our Town, or ROT, spent thousands on signs that depicted Dickey as a puppet master leading the town to disaster and included slogans such as “leftists ruin towns.”

Conservative candidate Brenda Kalivianakis, who won a seat on the council, said she did not support ROT’s negative campaigning and “did her own thing,” while candidate Hannah Toth and Skillicorn, who wont the other two council seats, joined the PAC in taking swings, getting firmly behind the push to secure a partisan majority.

Incoming Councilmember Allen Skillicorn

“I am only running because the current liberal majority does not represent the values of our conservative town,” Skillicorn told The Arizona Republic. 

Dickey was labeled a “leftist” because of her connection with Couture, whose bid for Town Council she supported, although Dickey believes she’s governed in a nonpartisan way.

Complaints from the PAC and Republican council candidates about Dickey’s leadership largely centered around more material issues, like the town’s four “sober homes” — which multiple officials said sparked the desire to flip the Town Council — rules about how businesses can display signs, and COVID-19 mitigation measures that ended last year. 

By the time the election was over, the conservative candidates had secured the majority they were after. They are slated to replace Councilmembers Mike Scharnow and David Spelich, both Republicans, and Allen Magazine, a Democrat. The latter two said they chose not to run for personal reasons.

Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Dickey narrowly defeated Arpaio despite “America’s toughest sheriff” spending an unusually high amount of cash in the small town’s race. He spent more than $160,000 — roughly three times that of all the other Fountain Hills candidates combined and 600% more than Dickey’s nearly $27,000. 

Arpaio has vowed not to concede; however, he was recycling debunked voter fraud allegations from 2020 and saying he will explore legal challenges — another instance of local races mirroring the troubled state of national politics.

“I’m waiting to confirm with a lawyer,” he told The Republic when asked if he was going to challenge the results. “I will say one thing: I am not going to concede.”

Incoming Councilmember Hanna Toth

Whether the election in Fountain Hills is a canary in the coal mine for the longstanding practice of nonpartisan local elections in Arizona communities, one of the town’s newest local leaders said it is already dead or never really existed at all. 

“Nonpartisan or not, every single candidate for public office has a party behind them,” said Toth, the second-highest vote getter in the Town Council race. “In a lot of ways, I think we were kidding ourselves to believe otherwise.”

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