Correction: A photo included in a previous version of this story included a typo erroneously referring to mayoral candidate David Ortega as Daniel Ortega. The Progress regrets the error.
Scottsdale’s local elections have been officially non-partisan since voters approved the City Charter in 1961 but that has not stopped party politics from infiltrating local races this year.
If they are not among the 70 percent of the Scottsdale electorate who have already voted, Scottsdale voters tomorrow or Tuesday will choose between Lisa Borowsky and David Ortega for mayor.
They will also fill three open City Council seats from a field that includes Tammy Caputi, Tom Durham, Betty Janik, Becca Linnig, John Little and incumbent Guy Phillips.
Scottsdale residents can find their nearest polling location or ballot drop box at scottsdaleaz.gov/elections.
While ballots include no political party information in the council or mayoral races, most candidates’ official or unofficial affiliations are already known due to partisan bickering that has dominated much of the election cycle.
In the council race, Phillips, the incumbent, has made no secret of his Republican credentials, adding “vote Republican” to his campaign signs and circulating a letter painting some of his competition as “liberal candidates” who would negatively impact the city.
The letter made unsubstantiated claims that Caputi and Little would “defund the police, raise your taxes and allow criminals to run rampant as their punishment for perceived systemic racism,” and suggested the candidates would vote to paint a Black Lives Matter mural at City Hall.
Little and Caputi, both endorsed by the Police Officers of Scottsdale Association, called the claims totally false and said there is no evidence either candidate ever staked any of such positions.
Phillips’ letter contains accusations that have dogged some candidates since the Primary, alleging that they changed their political affiliations from Democrat to Republican “to fool” voters.
County voter records show that a number of candidates have changed their registration in recent years – including Caputi and Little, who changed their registration from Democrat to independent.
Ortega changed his registration from Democrat to Independent in 2019. Ortega previously ran for the county Board of Supervisors as a Democrat around a decade ago.
Borowsky has taken some shots at Ortega’s political leanings, though nothing as overt as Phillips’ letter.
During the Primary, Borowsky said party affiliation is not the most important factor at play in the race.
“Party registration is not dispositive of one’s ability to lead our city,” Borowsky said, adding that what is important about a candidate is ultimately left to voters to decide.
“I’m asked frequently about party registration, indicating it’s important to voters this election,” Borowsky said. “I’ve responded: I am a conservative, endorsed by Arizona Free Enterprise Club.”
Still, Borowsky’s campaign has reinforced her Republican affiliation throughout the election by campaigning alongside Republicans like state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita and legislative candidate Joseph Chaplik.
Borowsky’s campaign bus has also been spotted at local rallies for President Trump.
Borowsky’s supporters have continued to criticize Ortega, calling his party change a move to better his chances in Republican-heavy Scottsdale and her own campaign commercials have referred to Ortega as a “liberal” or “liberal Democrat.”
Ortega denied the allegations of political gamesmanship. He told the Progress during the Primary that he became an Independent after witnessing partisan gridlock in Washington D.C. when he lived there briefly in 2017 and 2018. “One-party rule usually ends badly, so I registered as independent,” Ortega said. “I do not depend on party machinery.”
In Scottsdale, party politics are even creeping into other historically non-partisan races.
In the Scottsdale Unified School District, six candidates are running to fill three open seats on the district’s governing board and the local Republican and Democratic parties have each attempted to tip the scales in favor of their preferred candidates.
Julie Cieniawski and Dr. Libby Hart-Wells, the only two Democrats in the race, have received support from the local LD 23 Democratic Party.
The local LD 23 GOP has endorsed two candidates – Kathleen Angelos and Lucy DiGrazia – even though three registered Republicans are running for the board.
Both the local Dems and GOP have sent out recommendations to local party members about races up and down the ballot that includes their preferred candidates in SUSD.
Only candidates Zach Lindsay, a Republican, and Rose Smith, an Independent, have not received party support.
Lindsay said that puts them at a distinct disadvantage.
“They put them on their mailers and they did literature drops for them; Rose and I can’t compete with that,” Lindsay said. “We can’t compete when either side’s like give us your flyers and they go out with 25 to 30 volunteers walk the neighborhoods.”
Lindsay said he reached out to the local Republicans but they did not offer their support.
Lindsay he believes they rejected him, because he tries to be non-partisan and work across the aisle and has supported Eric Kurland, a Democrat running for the Legislature in Scottsdale.
“And LD 23 (GOP) does not like that,” Lindsay said. “They want you to be total team Republican.”
According to the National League of Cities, over three quarters of cities in the U.S. have non-partisan local elections and only eight of the 30 largest municipalities still use partisan contests.
Angel Molina, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Public Affairs, said the push to remove politics from local elections can be traced back to Progressive Era reforms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“The rationale was that by having people run under ballots that weren’t officially linked to any one of the political parties, then they had to make their appeals to community interests as opposed to the sort of the policy agenda or the platform of one of the two major parties,” he explained.
By the time Scottsdale voters approved the city’s charter in 1961, non-partisan elections were the norm in many cities, including Phoenix.
Critics of the partisanship interjected into this year’s election said the candidates should honor the spirit of the Charter and the Scottsdale citizens who crafted and approved it.
“They were abundantly clear and prescient in believing divisive party politics had no place in the provision of clean water, safe streets, sanitation services, effective public safety and outstanding parks and libraries,” Little said, adding:
“My voter registration is ‘no preference’ out of respect for the wishes of the citizens who adopted the Charter sixty years ago.”
“What matters are a candidate’s values…Most of us share values even when we disagree on positions,” Caputi said. “If we focus on our shared values instead of party affiliation, we can find common ground and solutions that work for everyone.”
There is little mention of the non-partisanship clause in the Scottsdale Daily Progress articles published in 1960 and 1961, and it appears few residents knew much about the Charter at all.
Just 269 residents voted in that election – with 260 in favor of the Charter – at a time when Scottsdale had around 10,000 total residents.
Prior to the Charter’s adoption, partisanship was the norm in Scottsdale, though neither Republicans nor Democrats appeared on the ticket.
According to Progress articles, the All Western Party, made up of the original Council members appointed by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in 1951, dominated council races in the 1950s and was challenged by “new” All Western candidates and, ironically, the Non-Partisan party in 1958.
Partisanship has popped up in recent years.
In 2008, Republicans formed a PAC to oppose incumbent Mayor Mary Manross, a Democrat, in her failed re-election bid against current Mayor Jim Lane.
Manross and her supporters blamed the partisan nature of the race for the loss, the East Valley Tribune reported in 2008.
Fast forward to 2020 and some candidates are calling to remove partisan fighting from local races.
Lindsay said no one knows what his party affiliation is when he volunteers at schools and the focus of board members should be “focused on doing right by the kids.”
Little, a former city manager who also served as chief of staff to longtime mayor Herb Drinkwater, often recalls a quote from his former boss, a Republican, stating “potholes aren’t Democrats or Republicans; they just need fixing.”
Critics of the non-partisan model say it robs voters of key information about candidates and that party affiliation is an important part of the decision-making process for voters.
“The proponents of the partisan model argue that’s particularly important for down ballot races where candidates might be running for offices that are more low-information, that are more generally associated with sort of a low participation, low turnout,” Molina said.
Former Democrats like Caputi and Little, who could be hurt by those affiliations in heavily-Republican Scottsdale, are not the only ones championing non-partisanship.
Both Durham, a Republican, and Janik, a Republican turned Independent, have called for an end to the divisiveness.
Durham, often a critic of Little, agreed with him on this issue. “The issues that face Scottsdale are not partisan,” Durham said.
“We all want the same thing for Scottsdale,” he added.
Janik said party affiliation does not determine how a person votes on local city issues.
Both candidates were endorsed by Councilwomen Kathy Littlefield, a Republican, and Solange Whitehead, a Democrat.
In 2018, Littlefield and Whitehead themselves were an example of how policy positions could trump party affiliation in local elections.
At the time, Littlefield, an incumbent, and Whitehead, a first-time candidate, ran closely aligned campaigns that leaned heavily on their mutual support for Proposition 420, a charter amendment to ban development on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve that passed with 70 percent of the vote.
But that bipartisan success story looks to be an exception, not the rule.
Molina said it is getting more and more difficult for candidates to take moderate positions, even at the local level.
“I think it’s increasingly difficult today for candidates to argue for moderate positions without being thrust into one camp or the other,” Molina said.