Arizona firefighters have grip on financial power in local elections – but should they?
Reporters Jessica Boehm and Dustin Gardiner discuss how firefighters are involved in local elections. Thomas Hawthorne/azcentral.com
Former Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo rose to national prominence almost four years ago when 19 of the department’s hotshot firefighters perished while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire.
He was asked to retire a few months later and decided to run for Prescott mayor in 2015. Fraijo said he was surprised when donations started flowing in to his campaign from firefighter groups across the state.
Fourteen political-action committees tied to local firefighter unions — some as far away as Tucson and Casa Grande — donated more than $24,000 to Fraijo’s mayoral campaign, a significant number for a race in which only about 14,500 people voted.
Fraijo said he assumed the financial gifts from far-away firefighters were a testament to his leadership during the Yarnell Hill Fire and a sign of empathy because of his unceremonious dismissal.
“Now, why would Tucson support me for mayor in Prescott? So this is somewhat of a unique situation,” Fraijo said.
Except it wasn’t.
In 2015 and 2016, firefighter union political-action committees across the state donated hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars to mayoral or city council candidates they often had never met.
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A Surprise candidate received donations from Sedona firefighters. Lake Havasu firefighters donated to a Tempe candidate. An Avondale candidate accepted funds from Chino Valley firefighters.
In total, 31 firefighter union PACs donated more than a quarter-million dollars to 59 city council and mayoral candidates in Arizona. More than half of the donations went to 10 individuals, eight of whom are active or retired firefighters, according to an Arizona Republic analysis of local and state campaign finance data.
Firefighter unions were some of the largest political-action committee donors in local elections across the state in 2015 and 2016. They spent nearly seven times as much money as police association PACs. And for some candidates, they were the main source of political money.
Firefighter leaders say their campaign donations are noble efforts to ensure their communities are run by politicians who will do the best job for the community — people who will provide firefighters with the resources they need to save lives during emergencies.
Others question the power and legality of city employees so actively involved in electing council members — the people who will decide matters such as their wages and department budgets.
“Of course no one thinks it’s fair, but it’s the system. So you have to work … and try to raise as much money as you can to (counteract) the dollars coming from the fire unions,” Glendale Councilwoman Joyce Clark said. She has ran against firefighter-backed candidates in five races.
Fair or not, it’s becoming easier for firefighters to make contributions to local candidates as national court decisions have eased restrictions on campaign donations.
The impact of those decisions could provide firefighters an even louder voice — and deeper pockets — to influence local elections.
Story continues below infographic. To see the cities in which these candidates ran for office, use the database at the end of the story, or go here.
How it works
Local unions at nearly every fire department in the Phoenix area, and at several of the larger departments in other parts of the state, operate PACs.
The PACs collect donations — usually around $5 per paycheck — from firefighters who belong to local unions. Although voluntary, about 80 percent of firefighters in the state contribute, according to Bryan Jeffries, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, a Mesa firefighter and a former Phoenix city councilman.
A portion of that money is transmitted to the statewide union PAC, which donates primarily to statewide candidates, but most of the money is funneled to city candidates — although usually not the candidates in their own cities.
PACs can give up to $6,350 to a local candidate.
Historically, many Arizona cities such as Phoenix, Mesa and Glendale have had laws or policies that prohibit city employees’ monetary contributions in local elections. To avoid possible violation of these provisions, union PACs across the state agree to “exchange” support for candidates in each other’s cities, Jeffries said.
Jeffries and others locally and nationally have questioned the constitutionality of these city provisions, which they say limit government employees’ First Amendment speech rights. And at least one major city, Mesa, has agreed to stop its enforcement of such rules.
“Our interpretation and our attorneys tell us that there’s not a city out there that’s within their legal rights to prohibit any of their employees from participating in the political process,” Jeffries said.
Jeffries said the unions will continue to educate cities about employee rights and would not be surprised if unions begin donating to candidates in their own cities in coming elections.
What’s in it for firefighters?
There are other reasons why multiple city fire unions donate to candidates outside their cities, he said.
Phoenix-area fire departments operate under an “automatic aid” model, meaning whichever fire department is closest to an incident will respond, regardless of city borders, Jeffries said.
“As a public servant and someone who took an oath to protect the community. I didn’t say I’m only going to protect the community in a specific geographic area,” Jeffries said.
But that doesn’t explain donations to Valley candidates from far-away PACs such as those in Flagstaff or Sedona. Jeffries said those firefighters get connected with Phoenix-area groups because of statewide homeland security and wildfire efforts.
“I know it seems geographically like there’s distance there, but we work still very closely together,” Jeffries said.
Retired Glendale firefighter and newly elected Surprise council member Jim Hayden said outside PACs also chip in during potentially close races once one PAC hits its donation limit or runs out of funds.
“It’s access to that much more money. We realized that it takes money to run a campaign. So that’s a source,” Hayden said. He received $11,700 in fire donations from 15 fire PACs, including those as far away as Chino Valley and Sedona, but excluding his local Surprise group.
Firefighter political involvement doesn’t end with money. Fire groups across the state and country are known for their grassroots support of candidates. Hayden said he participated in elections his entire career by acquiring signatures and placing campaign signs for candidates.
Hayden explained that city firefighters are divided into three shifts. So at any given time, two-thirds of the force is not working, which makes firefighters particularly effective with political action.
“We always took people to the street to help with campaigns,” he said.
A seat at the table
Jeffries said the beneficiaries of firefighter involvement in local politics are members of the community, not the firefighters, Jeffries said.
When firefighters get involved in city elections, it increases the likelihood that they will have a seat at the table to persuade local politicians to spend money on public safety instead of sports teams or developer incentives, he said.
For example, in Mesa the union suggested the city run a ballot initiative to increase sales tax to fund public safety. The proposition failed in November, but Jeffries said the union will encourage the city to try again in 2018.
“The reality is, if you want to have a voice in city government, participating in elections and participating in the process make a big difference,” Jeffries said.
He said the biggest political priority for firefighters is ramping up resources for departments so they can decrease emergency response times.
“We have to live with that for the rest of our lives because we have to watch what happened to that person (if we don’t get there in time),” he said.
But there are other, less altruistic reasons why firefighters may care who is in office.
The city council decides whether to increase firefighter salaries and benefits and whether to hire or lay off public safety officials.
Jeffries said firefighters’ involvement “never has been” about their own benefits.
Even if that wasn’t their intention, firefighters’ political involvement has historically led to more protections for firefighter benefits.
Hayden, who was a Glendale firefighter from 1975 to 1998, said firefighter unions ramped up political involvement in the 1980s when there was no collective bargaining or meet-and-confer processes in most Valley cities.
All decisions were at the will of council, and often that process didn’t sit well with the firefighters, Hayden said.
He said at one point Glendale took away the firefighters’ merit system, and because they didn’t have a meet-and-confer process, the only thing they could do was try to get candidates elected who would reverse the decision.
Now, almost all cities in the state have a collective-bargaining system for sworn personnel.
Hayden said firefighters still need to stay involved because you never know when a council could try to revoke those privileges, as recently happened in Wisconsin with teachers unions.
“If we stay active politically, we have a better chance of that not happening,” Hayden said.
The city council also has decision-making power over firefighter pensions, a hot-button issue in Phoenix.
Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio said it was his push for pension reforms that made him an adversary of the firefighters in his most recent race.
DiCiccio was the target of a “dark money” group called Phoenix Truth and Safety, which primarily was funded by firefighter unions. The group spent nearly a half-million dollars.
“The unions are a machine,” DiCiccio said. “It’s the most significant machine I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re very good at it.”
Questions of constitutionality
The power of firefighters’ support and their proximity to the issues has some questioning their involvement in local elections where they are employed.
Former Surprise Councilman Jim Biundo, who was booted from his seat by Hayden in August, said that “one can only speculate” if firefighter-supported candidates owe an allegiance to the group.
Biundo said he was surprised by the extent to which firefighters are allowed to be political when there are specific provisions in most city codes that limit city employees’ political involvement.
“The built-in irony to me is that regular city employees are prohibited from participating in campaigning as a condition of employment. But the unions serve as a vehicle to which to do that,” Biundo said, noting that although Surprise firefighters didn’t donate to Hayden, they were extremely visible with grassroots campaign support.
Many states and cities across the country have local laws to keep city politicians from influencing or using employees for political gain. These are modeled after a federal law dubbed the Hatch Act, which arose in 1939 after rumors circulated about politicians pressuring agency employees to support congressional campaigns.
Jeffries said the Hatch Act’s original purpose was an important one, and he agrees with several of the provisions that prohibit use of city resources or city time for campaigning. He said these rules “protect employees from tyrannical mayors and governors.”
But the other portions of the Hatch Act and some of the local Hatch Acts that prevent government employees from making campaign donations or placing a campaign sign in their private yard “completely stepped on the First Amendment rights of employees,” he said.
“I’m not less of a citizen just because I work for the fire department,” Jeffries said.
Many lawyers and a few courts have agreed with Jeffries.
Although Jeffries believes the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United “obliterates” these local laws, many Valley cities still enforce them.
He said the union has seriously considered challenging the cities’ restrictions in court over the years, but “it would take a lot of money and resources to do so and we hoped to just reason with political representatives instead of going to court.”
Paul Bender, professor and former dean of Arizona State University’s College of Law, said local governments can stop firefighters from wearing campaign buttons while they’re fighting fires or prevent police officers from campaigning in uniform, but they likely can’t legally prevent them from making campaign contributions or working for a candidate in their personal time — so long as it’s clear that they’re acting in an individual capacity and not on behalf of the city.
“I think they’re allowed to stop you from using the authority of your position to influence elections, but I don’t think they’re allowed to keep you entirely out of politics,” Bender said.
Bender said he was more concerned with the informal agreement among fire PACs to support each other’s candidates to get around the current limitations some cities impose.
If banning city employees from making campaign contributions is constitutional — something he said he finds difficult to believe — then the exchange of PAC money for each other’s candidates also should be prevented, he said.
“If in fact (cities are) allowed to stop them from donating to their own (candidates) and you see a pattern of them doing it for another city and another city doing it for another city and another city doing it for them, that seems to me very suspicious. That just seems like it’s underhanded,” Bender said.
Jeffries said the practice has been “vetted over decades” by the union’s lawyers.
Even DiCiccio echoed the right of the unions to participate in elections.
“As much as I hate it and I believe that they shouldn’t do it — they have a constitutional right to do it,” DiCiccio said.
The Phoenix City Council last year voted to ease its restrictions on employee political speech. Employees now can display yard signs at their homes, express opinions about a candidate in a public setting, post opinions on personal social media or sign candidate nomination or recall petitions. However, they still are barred from donating to candidates.
DiCiccio voted for the change. He called it one of his most difficult votes.
Going up against firefighters
DiCiccio said the tidal wave of attacks waged by the firefighter unions during his 2013 election included calling him a “crook” and a “bully.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had anything that negative happen to me ever,” he said.
DiCiccio had about $50,000 in the bank when the dark-money group opposing him began to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailers and other ads, he said.
“It was a message sent to every elected official: You could be next,” DiCiccio said. “I think that’s what resonated more.”
In Surprise, Hayden spent about $20,000 on his campaign, almost $12,000 of which came from firefighter PACs. His opponent, Biundo, spent just over $5,000.
Biundo said he was surprised at the amount of money that flowed into a city council race. Only 6,300 people voted in his district.
Biundo said he expected his city’s firefighter union likely would get involved, especially since Hayden is a retired firefighter, but he was stunned when he saw donations flowing from firefighters across the state.
“Particularly when one assumes that many (PACs) never met the candidate or knew anything in-depth about the city of Surprise,” Biundo said.
In Glendale, Clark — who’s gone up against fire union-backed candidates in all of her elections — said she doesn’t believe she’s ever made a decision that would offend the firefighters, but they’re “fearful that I might not support their agenda.”
The firefighters are looking for someone who will ensure their salaries and benefits continue to increase where possible, and who “does not question … but rather is sympathetic” to their complaints about high response times and lacking resources, she said.
“I will do as I have always done: I will listen respectfully to their requests and view that in the context of what is best for the entire community,” Clark said.
In her most recent election against Phoenix Firefighter Sammy Chavira, Clark was outspent five to one.
Chavira spent nearly $59,000 on his unsuccessful re-election bid, $19,000 of which was donated by firefighter PACs. He received the third most firefighter donations of any local candidate in the state from 2015 to 2016.
Chavira did not return repeated requests for comment.
Police vs. fire
The Arizona Police Association endorsed Clark, but the $1,250 she received from the Mesa, Gilbert and Phoenix police PACs paled in comparison to Chavira’s firefighter money.
Police unions operate PACs similarly to firefighters, but the amount of money they spend on candidates is considerably lower. From 2015 to 2016, police PACs spent about $35,000 on local candidates.
Levi Bolton, executive director of the Arizona Police Association, said there are two reasons why his PACs spend sparingly on local elections:
- Candidates often find their endorsement more powerful than their purse.
- They never want it to appear that they “attempted to purchase an election.”
“That is very important to us. We contribute, but we don’t want to be a third of the contributions. We just don’t want that to be the case,” Bolton said.
Jeffries questioned Bolton’s claim. He said that firefighters have always been more engaged, both politically and in charitable giving, than police officers.
“I think, frankly, that’s a false notion of them not wanting to have too much influence. I think it’s just a fact that their members just don’t want to give. And that’s just the truth. It’s always been that way,” Jeffries said.
Firefighters turned politicians
At least eight current or retired firefighters ran for mayor or city council in Arizona in 2015 or 2016.
“On occasion we even run our own firefighters because they’re some of the finest human beings I’ve ever known and I think they make great council members,” Jeffries said, noting his bias. He served briefly on the Phoenix City Council in 2011.
Jeffries said firefighters “just get the bug” for public service and seek out opportunities to make a difference.
“If you look at the history, our folks who have ended up in these roles have done exceptional jobs and have been great community leaders. And I think that’s because they come from great foundations,” he said.
Hayden, who waited until he retired from the Glendale Fire Department to run for office, said it was always something he wanted to do. He said he’s spent his whole career in teams of four, and when they weren’t on a call, he’d talk with his colleagues about issues they saw in the community.
“So whatever kind of problems are going on in the city or the world or whatever, we have a group of people … and we talk about how to fix things,” Hayden said.
He noted that most firefighters have helped politicians get elected through grassroots work with the union their entire careers, which makes for an easy transition into politics.
Fraijo, who lost his Prescott mayoral race despite the hefty firefighter donations, said he made the transition from fire chief to political candidate after he realized that political ideologies were clouding leadership’s judgment about the health and safety of the community.
“Our job despite all of the other neat or bad things that are taking place — the horrible things that we see and do — down deep we understand and we accept the fact that we are service providers. And when politics get into the way of that kind of value … then it can become an issue,” Fraijo said.
Fraijo wasn’t alone in losing his election. Four of the eight firefighters-turned-candidates lost.
Fraijo lost by less than 200 votes. Chavira, Clark’s opponent, lost his 2016 race by 46 votes. Mark Burdick, who challenged sitting Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers, lost by 405 votes despite more than $12,000 in firefighter contributions to his campaign. Joel Anderson, a Gilbert council candidate and Phoenix firefighter, placed fourth out of four in the town’s general election.
“The problem with fire service people and I think with police leadership as well is I think there’s kind of a label there. The label is that these are one-focus kind of individuals, what do they know about politics?” Fraijo said.
Jeffries said he’s seen that logic before in other races. The first thing he told his former colleague and newly-elected Mesa Councilman Mark Freeman upon his win was to focus on learning about everything but public safety and prove that he can do it all.
“Don’t let them pigeonhole you as just a firefighter. It’s not fair because these are some well-rounded, worldly human beings,” he said.
Jeffries said firefighters are proud of their political involvement, and will remain an influential force in city elections.
“We have a lot of really positive results for various communities. We’ve supported a lot of good people over the years, done a lot of good work, including our own folks who get on councils,” he said.