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Maricopa County Recorder Maintains Election's Integrity As He Prepares To Leave Office

MARK BRODIE: Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes will be leaving office after one term; he lost last month to Republican Stephen Richer by about 4,600 votes. Fontes came under criticism for some of his actions as recorder, facing arguments that he was trying to help Democrats at the expense of Republicans. But the 2020 election cycle was also generally seen as going smoothly in Maricopa County. The county is, of course, at the center of controversies and conspiracy theories about voting irregularities and fraud. And it's in that context that I spoke with Fontes earlier as he gets ready to leave office. And I started our conversation by asking him about a popular commentary rebutting these conspiracy theories: That if they were true and there was something nefarious going on to help Democrats, then the guy who is running elections, a Democrat, would not have lost his election.

ADRIAN FONTES: Well, first of all, I think the idea that there's something wrong with the elections and it's legitimately challengeable is balderdash to begin with. So it doesn't matter what the fallout challenges or would I or wouldn't I have or any of that stuff, that's all, you know, symptoms of the disease. The disease is that people are fighting against members of their own party — American citizens who have taken an oath to run good elections. And those are the folks who open the envelopes, check the signatures. They're the ones doing the adjudication. And so it kind of doesn't matter what the secondary or tertiary conspiracy theories are. The reality is that challenging American elections is un-American. In my view, it's inappropriate. Particularly when we have the safeguards, the bipartisanship, the participation of stakeholders across the political spectrum that we have. It's just silly. So, you know, I just really don't want to engage in a lot of that.

BRODIE: Why do you think it is, though, that some of these conspiracy theories continue to exist when yourself and your colleagues at Maricopa County have tried to explain what the processes are, what the safeguards are, what actually happens in those rooms?

FONTES: It's ignorance, it's chosen ignorance. These are folks who don't want to look at reality. They don't want to see the truth, and they don't want to believe in America and Americans who actually do this work. Look, I'm a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, and there are good Republicans who probably never have and never will vote for a Democrat who helped us run these elections. You know, we've got a board of supervisors — it's 4-1 Republican. We all ran these elections together. And for folks to be doubting Americans in one of the most important activities that we do as citizens, it's just pathetic.

BRODIE: So I'm curious what you are most proud of in your four years as Maricopa County recorder?

FONTES: Well, I'm proud that, you know, folks that actually pay attention from both sides of the aisle have reached out and have expressed their gratitude for the grit and the stick-to-itiveness, for the vision and the hard work that we put in. My whole administration did so well, and we got so much amazing work out of a group of folks who, for a long time, were not given the opportunity to thrive. I'm very proud that the staff stepped up and that the folks who really care were given a chance to shine and put together the best election in the United States of America. That makes me feel really good.

BRODIE: Any particular policies that you're especially glad that you were able to implement or changes you were able to implement?

FONTES: Wow. I mean, there's a whole list of stuff that we did, but I think the most important was shifting the attitude from looking at the institution first to looking at the voter's experience first, right? Everything from making the voters aware to educating voters, keeping them informed throughout the process, and then giving them a place to look that's easy to find the information they need — providing citizens a way to be effective at citizenship without making it hard. That voter-centric attitude is one of the most important changes that I think we made in this office. And I really hope that that continues, because elections are about the folks casting the ballots and that's most important.

BRODIE: So obviously, your term was not without its controversy, as I think can be said for most elected officials. Looking back on any of the things that maybe didn't go your way or things you caught flak for would you have done anything differently knowing then what you know now?

FONTES: I don't know. I mean, I think that I was learning along the way and I had some great mentors, including folks that I first started a little rough with. For example, I think one of the best conversations I had was relatively early on in my term when I sat in then-supervisor Denny Barney's office and we sat down and had a really honest, straightforward, sort of one of those man-to-man talks. And he taught me a good lesson about being a public servant in this type of role. And I respect him deeply for that. And, you know, there's a lot of folks on all sides of the aisle who have these conversations behind closed doors.

BRODIE: So you're going to be moving to work with the newly elected Pima County recorder, at least for a little while. What about that gig appealed to you?

FONTES: Oh, well, Gabriella, she's a smart cookie. I like her a lot. And that's just smart because she brought me on board — she brought me on board temporarily. And she really wants to build something good down in Pima County. And I'm very happy to help her out and help her build her team right? My first goal is going to be to hire my own replacement and then help, help her avoid the mistakes that I made early on with a similar situation. You know, F. Ann Rodriguez has served as county recorder down in Pima County for 28 years. Helen Purcell served up here for 28 years. They've got a system that I think has, has some room for improvement, as Maricopa County's did. So she, she gets it. She's got a solid vision and is the first indigenous person elected countywide in Pima County. I think she plays a very important symbolic role, not just in county government, but in the state. And I'm really excited to be a part of it.

BRODIE: Any particular pitfalls that you're looking to help her avoid things that maybe you've learned from your own experience?

FONTES: Well, I don't know if, I don't know if I can reveal too much, but I did share one piece of advice with her today and I said, "Look, we're not going to be able to change everything immediately. You've got to work through the process. You've got to get people to buy in. And it's going to take time," because she's excited. I'm thrilled to death that she's so excited and has the energy that she has. But these things take time. These changes take time. Look at — it took us almost a full four years to get to the place where Maricopa County got its election improvement and modernization.

BRODIE: All right. So I have to end with a question that I think is probably on a lot of people's minds. And that is, what is the fate of Phil the Ballot? Will he be sticking around the Maricopa County recorder's office? Has your successor committed to continuing Phil's role?

FONTES: Mark, I think Phil the Ballot has a unique place in the lexicon of American election administration. I think he's one of the most successful first-time mascots out there, one of the few that has sort of the support community-wise. And if I could give Mr. Richer any public advice, as unsolicited as it is, I would say this: Please don't get rid of Phil the Ballot. You will not be happy about the results from the public.

BRODIE: All right. Fair enough. That is outgoing Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes. Adrian, thanks for your time, as always. Really appreciate it. Happy holidays.

FONTES: Great talking to you, Mark. And happy holidays to you and yours.

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    Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.