More than similar unionized occupations with statewide networking, Arizona firefighters have an organized and pervasive effect on local elections.
Few local cities saw the proportionate impact of firefighter union donations as Surprise did during the Aug. 30 primary elections.
Mike Planeta, a Surprise resident for 28 years, a member of the Community and Recreation Services board and a Phoenix firefighter, said for three decades Valley firefighter unions have backed issues ranging from mass transit in Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa to parks and open spaces, libraries, bond elections and public safety initiatives.
“The answer lies in the leadership of the organizations. You see teachers’ unions show up for school bonds. But, that’s about the extent of it. Firefighters’ philosophy is simple — stronger, more vibrant cities and neighborhoods are an investment in our future and the future of our families and communities,” Mr. Planeta said.
The $63 million bond proposal on the Surprise general election ballot also has strong fire union support, both locally and among nearby departments. Mr. Planeta is chairman of Citizens For A Better Surprise, a citizens committee driving support of the bond.
The committee also displays endorsements from Mike Payne, president of the Surprise Firefighters Association, and Mayor Sharon Wolcott.
As of the most recent campaign finance report on Sept. 29, the Surprise PRO Firefighter PAC gave $5,000 in July to Citizens for a Better Surprise and $5,000 more on Sept. 2. The Daisy Mountain Firefighters PAC contributed $2,500 and Phoenix Firefighters Local 493 PAC chipped in $1,000.
Both Mr. Payne and Mayor Wolcott are featured on a pro-bond robocall provided to Surprise Today last week by resident Andy Cepon.
Mr. Cepon worked on the 2011 campaigns for Ms. Wolcott and councilman John Williams, which was the first time he noticed firefighters from other cities providing a “ground operation” for candidates in Surprise.
He said he has always carried a respect for firefighters and their service in their communities, but finds these election practices distasteful.
“Why would these unions put that much of their dues money into local elections? The only thing I can think of is to help their position at contract negotiation time,” Mr. Cepon said.
Mr. Planeta said his support for the bond stems not from self-interest as a firefighter or CRS board member, but from his time spent trying to improve the community and belief in this particular bond package.
He said he was not in favor of an $184.9 million bond proposal voters turned down in 2009, but believes this bond proposal is more specific and a better deal for residents.
“I love Surprise and the people who live here and believe we need to invest in our city to make it an even better place to live,” Mr. Planeta said. “I did not support the last Surprise city bond because it was not specific as to how the money was going to be used, and I did not think it addressed the critical needs of the city. Our city manager and his staff have done an outstanding job of laying out the projects and the costs that are associated with them.”
Most of Mr. Cepon’s concerns stem from the primary, which do not deal directly with fire department matters. Two new permanent fire stations are part of the bond proposal.
The District 2 race, which pitted incumbent Jim Biundo against retired Glendale firefighter Jim Hayden, was the clear example of this phenomenon.
Mr. Hayden said he was active when firefighter unions forged this bond in the mid-1980s. That’s when Chandler, Glendale, Peoria and Tempe entered into a mutual aid agreement.
Valley firefighters joined forces for Habitat for Humanity projects and the annual Fill the Boot campaign, he said. Prevented from directly campaigning for ballot items in their city, firefighters would have their brethren from other cities cover for them.
“We did a lot of door-to-door stuff and grassroots-type campaigning,” Mr. Hayden said.
This year, Mr. Hayden experienced the other side of that networking. Firefighter unions contributed $8,200 of the total $14,341 given to his campaign. Conversely, Mr. Biundo’s campaign coffers were $5,325 with most of that coming out of pocket.
Carol Czekaj helped gather signatures for the campaign of Mr. Biundo, a Sun City Grand neighbor. In the main campaign, she said, his volunteers were outnumbered.
“I don’t know the inner workings of unions, so I don’t know how the union members are ‘asked’ or ‘required’ to help in any way. I do know that they personally did the footwork for Mr. Hayden that Mr. Biundo’s small group of dedicated volunteers did on their own, they could get into places (Ex: Arizona Traditions) (gated) that other people would not be admitted to,” Ms. Czekaj stated in an email.
For this election cycle, Mr. Cepon helped new candidate Gisele Norberg in her District 3 race against the incumbent, Mr. Williams, While that primary campaign and the District 4 race between Ken Remley and incumbent Rachel Villanueva were not as heavily monetized by firefighter unions, Mr. Williams received $2,200 from firefighter groups from other cities while Mr. Remley took in $2,700.
The monetary numbers in Surprise, it should be noted, paled in comparison to some other races. For example, retired Glendale Fire Captain Mark Burdick received donations nearing six figures while incumbent Jerry Weiers broke the $100,000 barrier — and got some of that from police unions.
Letters to Surprise Today and later an ethics complaint raised by Mr. Biundo took issue with pro-Hayden robocalls and the negative tone of some of the campaign, including photoshopped images of Mr. Biundo.
Mr. Biundo did not return an email inquiry about commenting for this article. He did, however, make the following statement after his Aug. 30 loss:
“I am disappointed, but I just could not overcome the relentless stream of robocalls and negative fliers paid for by the thousands of dollars from firefighter organizations throughout the state,” it read in part.
While saying the final weeks of the campaign were uglier, Mr. Hayden said he did not intend to run a negative campaign.
“Whenever anybody wanted to come up with something negative I didn’t want anything to do with it at all,” Mr. Hayden said.
While Mr. Cepon said he can rationalize common campaigns for departments that have mutual aid agreements — like between Surprise and Daisy Mountain — some campaign contributions, particularly in the primary, came from unions as far away as Chino Valley and Casa Grande.
“It’s literally influencing everything in our elections. It’s not a level playing field. What the hell do some of these firefighter unions care about elections in Surprise,” Mr. Cepon said.