Coronavirus impedes potential Gilbert candidates’ efforts to gather signatures

Gilbert elections
Elections for mayor and Gilbert Town Council are being affected by the coronavirus. (Tom Blodgett/Community Impact Newspaper)

Elections for mayor and Gilbert Town Council are being affected by the coronavirus. (Tom Blodgett/Community Impact Newspaper)

As the deadline to turn in nominating petitions for town elections approaches, coronavirus is making an indelible impression on what the ballot will look like in August.

The cancellation of public events and the closure of public spaces to guard against the spread of the virus has made it difficult to collect signatures, potential candidates said. Some have given up.

The deadline to file the petitions is 5 p.m. April 6.

“Some of the degree of difficulty will depend on the strategies that the candidates are utilizing to obtain the signatures,” prospective mayoral candidate Gary Livacari said. “But with the closures we've seen in public events and now in public parks, there aren't many more places available for candidates to collect signatures other than door to door, which is time-consuming and inefficient.”

Livacari said success in signature gathering has significantly curtailed since closures started happening. Gilbert canceled or postponed public events March 12 and closed most municipal buildings March 17.

Gov. Doug Ducey closed restaurant dining rooms and bars March 20. The town closed Gilbert Regional Park and other public park amenities March 28. Finally, Ducey issued his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy, Stay Connected” order to take effect March 31.

Mayoral race

Livacari is on the fortunate side. He said he had more than the 1,000 signatures he needs to qualify for the ballot before the virus hit town and has been working on his “buffer.” Candidates look to have well more than the minimum number of signatures in case some are thrown out as invalid.

Livacari, a commercial banker, said he is planning a run from Freestone Park to the Gilbert clerk’s office April 2, when he will turn in his signatures. That ceremonial campaign event has been muted as he now plans to have only 10 people or fewer with him for that.

If validated, Livacari will join Brigette Peterson, whose resignation from Town Council is expected to be announced at the council’s April 7 meeting, and businesswoman Lynne King Smith on the ballot. King Smith turned in her petitions March 23, and Peterson did so on March 31, when she turned in her resignation.

King Smith said her campaign already had a late start as she filed her Statement of Interest on Feb. 27, so she started driving hard for signatures from the beginning. As coronavirus concerns amped up, she said she kicked into an even higher gear.

“It got more difficult each day,” she said.

A potential fourth candidate, Matt Nielsen, a charter school service provider executive, said he anticipates turning in between 1,400 and 1,600 signatures. Nielsen said he has been concerned about following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safety.

“We want to make sure that we're being responsible,” he said. “However, you know the reality is we have to collect signatures in order to make the campaign successful. And so that is what it is.”

Two-year council seat

The real effect was felt by potential council candidates, particularly those vying for the final two years of former Council Member Eddie Cook’s seat.

Cook resigned Feb. 18 to become Maricopa County assessor. The council appointed Bill Spence, a retired naval lieutenant commander, from 105 applicants to fill the seat for the remainder of this year. However, because Cook’s resignation came more than 30 days from the deadline to file nominating petitions, the final two years of Cook’s term will be up for election.

Five people, including Spence, filed Statements of Interest to run for the two-year seat after Cook resigned.

One, attorney Jen Ward, said she gave up because of her late start and the difficulty in now gathering signatures.

“It just wasn’t in the cards this year,” she said.

Two hoped to gain the appointment and then run but dropped out when Spence received it: civil engineer Yung Koprowski and Bob Ferron, a manager for a heating, ventilation and air conditioning firm. Both serve on town boards.

“There was not a lot of time to collect signatures anyway,” Ferron said. “If I would've been appointed, I would have gone all in.”

Spence said he collected more than the minimum number of signatures and suspended signature gathering toward building a larger buffer March 27 out of concern for the public’s safety in the process.

The fifth potential candidate is likely the only one to face Spence in August. Laurin Hendrix, a former legislator who serves on the Maricopa County Community College District’s governing board, turned in his signatures April 1.

Hendrix said in an email most of his efforts were with supporters contacting immediate family, friends and neighbors without spending much time at public events and thus the virus did not have a significant impact.

“I can certainly understand why the coronavirus would create a significant impediment for candidates that do not have a strong grassroots support structure,” he said.

Four-year council seats

The race for two four-year council seats also was affected, most notably in the case of archery coach and former teacher Sandra Reynolds.

Reynolds originally set out to run for mayor but said she dropped out of that race in support of Livacari. She then turned toward running for a four-year council seat, though she said it was difficult with a late start and public events canceled.

Reynolds said she collected nearly 200 signatures but had to drop out and went into self-quarantine when she fell ill March 22 while out collecting signatures.

Her concern now, she said, is that she had been in public collecting signatures before falling ill.

“We were concerned before all this happened,” she said. “We were wiping down the pens and everything, treating it like someone had a cold. I just don’t want to get anyone sick.”

Another candidate, Monique Keberlein, also dropped out because of the coronavirus situation. Keberlein said she is a transplant patient and must take drugs that compromise her immune system to ward off organ rejection.

As a result, she said she could not afford to be in public collecting signatures in this environment.

Also dropping out was Charles Jackson, who cited the difficulty in obtaining signatures and “the potential risks of the voters that would be signing and the risk of me bringing illness to my family.

“I will be there for the next election but must stand out on this one,” he said.

Two candidates already have turned in their petitions: Kathy Tilque, Gilbert Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, and Busola Obayomi, who works at a risk-management firm and insurance brokerage.

Obayomi had attempted to run for council in 2018 and had fallen short of the required signatures. That experience, he said, taught him to start early this time. He started in October and gathered about 1,600 signatures, he said.

“It is very time-consuming, so it makes sense to start as early as you can,” he said.

Two others who filed Statements of Interest also said they will have the signatures to qualify. One is an incumbent, Vice Mayor Scott Anderson. The other is Redevelopment Commission Chair Tyler Hudgins, who runs a social media consulting firm.

“It’s a lot more difficult [collecting signatures],” said Anderson, who expects to turn in more than 1,300 signatures. “Neighbors don’t really appreciate you coming up to their door, especially if you’re a stranger,”

Said Hudgins by email,Quite frankly, I am more concerned for my fellow citizens of Gilbert at the moment.”

Postponement unlikely

When Gilbert announced it was postponing or canceling its public events, Reynolds wondered if the nominating petition deadline should be postponed.

However, Gilbert Town Clerk Lisa Maxwell said it would take an act of the Arizona Legislature or a judge’s order to do so.

One change has happened with offices closed. Candidates must turn in their nominating petitions by appointment with the town. This week, the Maricopa County Elections Department also announced it would only accept candidate filings by appointment.

Cook’s county spot

When Cook took the county assessor job, he said the Board of Supervisors strongly encouraged him to run for the opening this fall. But for a county spot, he has to gather 4,000 signatures with a mid-February start.

Cook said he assembled his previous council campaigns team and has gathered the 4,000 signatures. However, he wants to get about 5,000 to have a sufficient buffer.

Even with coronavirus shutting down many opportunities, Cook said he has been working through social media channels and running a texting campaign to get more.

“In theory, if everything was normal, this would not have been such a daunting task,” Cook said. “The pandemic has provided a tremendous amount of challenge to us getting signatures—even more now when the governor a couple of weeks ago shut down the restaurants, the libraries, every public meeting that has more than 10 people. It has been just unbelievably difficult.

“But, you know, we like a challenge, and we have overcome challenges in our lives in the past. So again, it's just another hurdle that we have to overcome.”
By Tom Blodgett

Editor, Gilbert

Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent more than 30 years in journalism in Arizona and joined Community Impact Newspaper in July 2018 to launch the Gilbert edition. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he served as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication from 2005-19 and remains editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.