Update: This story has been updated to include information provided by the Littlefield campaign about how it defined special interests in a campaign advertisement.
Three Scottsdale mayoral campaigns have taken square aim at each other in recent weeks in communications with voters.
The campaigns for Suzanne Klapp, Virginia Korte and Bob Littlefield have painted starkly different pictures of each other and disputed claims made by their opposition.
The messages have focused on a variety of topics, ranging from the McDowell Sonoran Preserve fight that defined the 2018 City Council election to more contemporary issues on ethics and campaign contributions.
A Korte campaign mailer juxtaposes her record against Klapp and Littlefield, highlighting her position as the only candidate with endorsements from Scottsdale Area Association of Realtors and the local police and fire unions.
The mailer claims that of the three candidates, Korte was the only one to support anti-dark money legislation and a non-discrimination ordinance – claims her opponents dispute.
City Council discussed a non-discrimination ordinance in late 2015 but never voted on one.
Discussions fell apart over a stipulation to exempt small businesses that would have exempted most businesses in the city, Korte told the Progress last year.
But Littlefield, who was not serving on Council at the time, said he was never opposed to an anti-discrimination ordinance.
“Total lie. Ask Korte to produce any documentation that I ever opposed this,” Littlefield said. “In fact, back in 2007, I voted for a proposal to extend non-discrimination protections in city employment to LGBT city employees.”
Both Littlefield and Klapp also challenge the claim that Korte is the only candidate who “supports transparency and actively champions anti-dark money legislation.” The flyer claimed both Littlefield and Klapp have led dark money campaigns in the past.
“There is no attribution on this mailer to any council report or documented evidence about her claims of support or either my opposition or Bob Littlefield’s to an ordinance or involvement in ‘dark money’ campaigns,” Klapp said.
“Without documented evidence, attributed on this mailer, these and other statements are just baseless accusations,” she continued. “Attribution statements allow for fact checking.”
A “dark money” flyer did go out in support of Klapp but she said her campaign was not involved with that mailer.
Dark money typically refers to legal campaign contributions where the source is kept secret by funneling the money through entities not required to disclose donors.
The flyer, which targeted both Littlefield and Korte, was paid for by Scottsdale Residents Council, according a mandatory disclosure on the mailer
According to Arizona Corporation Commission records, Scottsdale Residents Council is a trade name owned by the Arizona Residents Council, a nonprofit run by Scottsdale residents Robert Dwyer, George Plescia and William Conner.
Klapp said she was not involved with the creation of the flyer.
“As clearly defined by law, a candidate or a candidate’s committee cannot coordinate with these independent groups,” she said. “My mailers and other marketing materials are clearly identified as paid by my campaign committee Vote Suzanne Klapp and its reported donors and authorized by me.”
Korte’s mailer was also likely alluding to Klapp’s opposition to a proposal made in June to amend the city’s ethics code to explicitly ban anonymous donations to councilmembers in response to a GoFundMe set up for Councilman Guy Phillips following a work injury that resulted in a now-dismissed ethics complaint.
The amendment failed on a 5-2 vote, with only Korte and Councilmember Linda Milhaven voting in favor.
At the time, Klapp and Mayor Jim Lane argued the city should not rush to amend the 15-year-old code. The new council is scheduled to take up the issue next year.
Littlefield said he did not oppose the proposed change to the ethics code.
“I actually supported this proposal but I wanted that coupled with a proposal to amend the ethics code to specifically disallow special interest group campaign contributions,” Littlefield said, alleging Korte opposed it because it would affect her campaign contributions.
Campaign contributions also played in a flyer Littlefield’s camp put out on social media, alleging Klapp and Korte are too beholden to donors.
Citing campaign reports filed in April, that flyer claimed both candidates received a lion’s share of contributions in the first quarter of the year from “special interests”.
A Progress analysis found that just over 40 percent of donations to both Korte and Klapp’s campaigns in the first quarter came from the development community.
That is a far cry from the numbers in Littlefield’s flyer, which claimed 71 percent of contributions to Klapp and 61 percent of contributions to Korte came from special interests.
The Progress analysis only accounted for individuals with ties to known developers or development companies.
A spreadsheet provided to the Progress by Littlefield showed his campaign's analysis included some lawyers, lobbyists, restaurant owners, business owners and a doctor not included in the Progress' calculations.
But both Klapp and Korte defended their campaigns in the past and argued all contributions to their campaigns were legal and have no impact their council votes.
“They have a right and freedom to contribute to the candidates of their choice…My votes are not for sale,” Klapp said. “I use campaign contributions for campaign purposes only, not for personal use.”
“I do not believe we should deny people their right to engage in the political process because they work in industries that some don’t like,” Korte said. “If we exclude developers today, who will we exclude tomorrow? We should not exclude anyone.”
Korte’s mailer also claimed she was the only candidate willing to “stand up to political insiders” because she opposed cuts to police and fire during budget discussions at the start of the pandemic.
But Littlefield said, “What I supported was cuts to General Fund expenditures, which is sensible it light of the projected 20-40 percent drop in general fund revenues due to the pandemic.”
Both Klapp and Korte proposed cutting spending during budget discussions in May.
The pandemic played a more direct role in a recent mailer from Klapp’s campaign.
The flyer included a photo of the candidate in a mask and made the claim that she is the “only conservative candidate for mayor” addressing the pandemic.
The flyer called out Klapp’s “liberal challengers” for allegedly playing politics rather than addressing issues facing the city.
When reached for comment by the Progress, Klapp alleged that all four of her fellow candidates “have adopted liberal views.”
But only two candidates –Korte and Littlefield – are actually mentioned on the flyer, which makes the claim that they “abandoned their conservative principals”.
Both Littlefield and Korte, who are Republican, rejected the claims made in the Klapp mailer, calling them vague.
“Her accusation that I ‘have abandoned conservative principles’ is simply rhetoric and extremely vague,” Korte said. “If she is referring to my steadfast support for wearing masks, then she obviously puts politics above community health and economic stability.”
Littlefield called it a misguided attempt to pander to Republican voters, who comprise 42 percent of registered voters in Scottsdale – the largest voting bloc in the city.
“But it is not clear from the mailer which ‘conservative principles’ she claims Korte and I have abandoned. Mask wearing maybe?” Littlefield said. “But that seems to appeal more to the liberals she trashes in the mailer than to conservatives, so it seems she is sending this mailer to the wrong audience.”
Klapp defended the flyer’s claims about conservative values, but pointed to Littlefield’s opposition to “numerous development projects” that she characterized as anti-business and anti-property rights.
That argument mirrors claims in the Scottsdale Residents Council flyer, which stated, “Bob Littlefield has a long record of opposing new businesses in our city.”
Littlefield said the allegation he is against all development is wrong and argued he only opposes projects he thinks are bad for the city.
“The verifiable truth is in my 12+ years on the City Council I voted for the Waterfront, Optima I, expanding the Tony Nelssen Equestrian Center, building the Granite Reef Senior Center, Mcdowell Mountain Aquatic Center and Museum of the West, protecting Papago Park, acquiring the land for Camelback Park and have voted 100 percent for completing the McDowell-Sonoran Preserve and for building trailheads to promote public access to the Preserve,” Littlefield said.
The Scottsdale Residents Council mailer also took aim at Korte and Littlefield over the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
It criticized Korte because of her support for the Desert Discovery Center that voters effectively killed at the polls in 2018 with the passage of Proposition 420, which Korte also opposed.
Korte, in her own flyer, signaled herself out as the only “Preserve Pioneer” in the group.
In the early 1990s, Korte chaired the city’s McDowell Mountain Task Force that made recommendations to the city on creation of the preserve. In later years, she supported sales tax increases to fund its expansion.
Littlefield chided Korte for her more recent positions related to the preserve.
“Even if she was a ‘Preserve Pioneer,’ she certainly has thrown the Preserve under the bus in the last few years with her support of the DDC and her proposal for a moratorium on land acquisition for the Preserve,” Littlefield said.
Littlefield also defended himself from attacks in the Scottsdale Residents Council mailer, which alleged he supported the DDC, citing comments he made in support of the project at a council meeting in 2008.
“Twelve years ago, I supported what the Desert Discovery Center was originally intended to be: a small, low-impact desert interpretive center with no commercial activity and no nighttime activity,” Littlefield said. “This has actually already been built; it is the current Preserve Gateway.”
The Residents Council flyer also went after Korte for her support of light rail, which it claimed “would be devastating to businesses on Scottsdale and McDowell Roads.”
In 2016, Korte and Milhaven were the only two members to oppose the adoption of the city’s transportation master plan that specifically excluded light rail and street cars as future transportation options.
Korte said she supports having a larger conversation about transportation options in Scottsdale.
“I support a deep community conversation about public transit in Scottsdale,” Korte said. “We must better understand the needs of our citizens, our workforce and our visitors with respect to public transportation. Only then can we make an educated decision on what forms of public transit are needed.”
She said at the very least, the city should discuss creating “frequent connections” to existing light rail lines in Tempe to better connect SkySong with the main Arizona State University campus.
Korte also said she opposes the influence of dark money – like the Scottsdale Residents Council flyer – on elections.
“I believe in transparency in elections and stand with our citizens and our right to know who is trying to influence our vote,” Korte said. “When elected mayor, I will bring this issue to the council for discussion.”
Klapp said independent groups have spent money on Scottsdale elections for years ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which extended free speech protections to corporations and other outside groups, effectively allowing them to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.
She said you can trace dark money back even further than that, going back to an effort by the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce in 2008.
That year, it courted controversy by distributing materials in support of four candidates without filing as a political action committee or disclosing donors, according to East Valley Tribune.
“Since the Scottsdale Chamber’s introduction of its campaign with undisclosed donors, this type of electioneering has become common in Scottsdale,” Klapp said. “I have been both the beneficiary and the target of these efforts, as have my opponents.”
Klapp, who was elected to her first term on Council in 2008, was one of the candidates who benefited from that Chamber effort.
Following multiple campaign finance complaints, the Tucson City Attorney determined the chamber’s lack of disclosure had violated campaign finance law.
Klapp alleged the campaign was organized by the Chamber’s then-President Rick Kidder and former President Korte – an allegation Korte denied.
Korte was a past president of the Chamber, but in 2008 she was working as CEO of STAR, a nonprofit for developmentally disabled individuals.
“I was working at STARS, 2007-2014,” Korte said in an email responding to Klapp’s allegations.
However, according to her biography on the city's website, Korte left the Chamber in 2008.