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Dark Money Issue Could Divide GOP Ticket In Corporation Comm Race

The fight over dark money could place some Republican candidates at odds with each other in the race for Arizona's public utilities commission.

Tuesday's GOP primary was a victory for the incumbents.

Commissioners Bob Burns and Andy Tobin easily picked up first and second place with about 24 and 23 percent of the vote respectively as of midday Wednesday. The final candidate, retired Chandler mayor Boyd Dunn scooped up third place with about 8,000 more votes than Rep. Rick Gray. All three will advance to the general election where they will face Democrats Bill Mundell and Tom Chabin.

The primary whittled down what had been a three-man team, made up of Tobin, Gray and former state Sen. Al Melvin. That could have major ripple effects for the central issue of this year’s election — dark money.

Burns said his strong showing in the primary indicates votes care about transparency.

“That has been the center piece of my campaign,” Burns told KJZZ on Wednesday. “That if the utilities are going to get involved in corporation commission races they need to report at the time of the spend so the voters know what their intentions are.”

Arizona Public Service is widely believed to have spent $3.2 million in dark money in support of now commissioners Doug Little and Tom Forese during the 2014 election cycle. For months, Burns has requested the utility turn over its campaign finance records. Earlier this month, Burns finally subpoenaed APS and its parent company, Pinnacle West, demanding it reveal all charitable and political spending in recent years.

Tobin has clashed with Burns over the dark money issue and was one of three commissioners who blocked his effort to hire an outside attorney to conduct the APS investigation.

On Wednesday, Tobin said he wished Melvin and Gray had advanced in the election, but he believes the Republicans can get past the infighting to fend off the two Democrats in November.

“Bob Burns and I disagreed on a couple issues along the way, but nine times out of ten we are probably voting the same way, so we will find a way to run a Republican ticket I’m sure and keep these three seats in Republican control,” Tobin said.

Tobin characterized this disagreement within the Republican ranks as a healthy part of the primary process and criticized Democrats for not doing the same.  

Nonetheless, all three GOP candidates will have to contend with this rift in the party ranks. The Mundell-Chabin team has also made dark money spending one of the key issues of their campaign, raising the possibility of an alliance across party lines.

“This election isn’t about Republican or Democrat or Libertarian,” Mundell said Wednesday. “It’s about transparency and making sure we have independent commissioners who are not bought and paid for by the very utilities they’re supposed to regulate,” he said.

Mundell also criticized Tobin and Dunn for “flip-flopping” on the issue.

Burns said he “obviously would like to have support for taking on this issue,” but did not elaborate as to whether he would vocally support Democrats in an effort to form a new majority on the commission.

The final GOP candidate, Dunn, stayed mostly outside the fray of Burns’ investigation into APS.

On Wednesday, he said all the attention on election spending has ultimately deterred outside interests from spending excessive amounts on the primary election.

“It’s one of those questions that I think, in essence, has answered itself by having a very different election. I think the issue is out there, and we are seeing that impact in this cycle,” Dunn said.

He pushed back against Mundell’s assertion he had “flip-flopped” and said election spending by regulated utilities can be dealt with in a number of ways other than just focusing on the 2014 election, for example by altering the code of ethics for the commission.

“It’s not a lesser concern of mine, but I am not making that the primary issue of my campaign,” Dunn said.

The only major source of outside spending on the corporation commission race so far has been the solar industry. Campaign finance records show about $667,000 of independent expenditures by a pro-solar group — backed by Solar City — in support of Burns. In response, Burns has said he would rather not have the solar industry involved in the campaign, but unlike the alleged APS dark money there is transparency about the source of the money.

Will Stone grew up with the sounds of public radio. As a senior field correspondent, he strives to tell the same kind of powerful stories that got him into the business — whether that means trudging through some distant corner of the Sonoran Desert or uncovering an unknown injustice right down the street. Since joining the KJZZ newsroom in 2015, he has covered political scandals, fights over the future of energy, and efforts to care for some of Arizona’s most vulnerable communities. His pieces have also aired on national programs like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here & Now and Marketplace. Before coming to KJZZ, he reported for public radio stations in Nevada and Connecticut. Stone received his degree in English literature from Haverford College, where he also wrote about the arts and culture scene in Philadelphia. After graduating, he interned at NPR West in Culver City, California, where he learned from some of the network’s veteran reporters and editors. When he doesn’t have a mic in hand, Stone enjoys climbing mountains, running through his central Phoenix neighborhood and shamelessly promoting his cat, Barry.