A One-on-One with Arizona’s New Secretary of State Adrian Fontes

Adrian Fontes in 2017 (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

By Robert Gundran

December 9, 2022

“A lot of people call it election denialism, I call it authoritarianism.”

Secretary of State-Elect Adrian Fontes is done with Mark Finchem—but he’s not done with election deniers or people casting doubt on the election process in Arizona. 

“That’s garbage. That’s 100 percent garbage,” Fontes said of people who claim Maricopa County and Arizona at large ran the 2022 election incompetently.

“The minute someone says incompetence and tries to tie or equate that to election administration, the person saying that is ignorant. The person saying that has never taken the time to sit and listen and pay attention to what these people are doing.”

Fontes is set to be Arizona’s next secretary of state, defeating far-right election denier Finchem by over 120,000 votes.

A Background in Election Work

The Marine Corps veteran and former Maricopa County recorder ran elections in Arizona in 2018 and 2020.He was defeated in his reelection bid by now-Recorder Stephen Richer, but, despite being a former rival, Fontes had nothing but positives to say about Richer. 

“Stephen Richer has come a long way from his criticisms of me in 2020,” he said. “But he has done so because he’s surrounded by these excellent administrators. He’s not a dum-dum. He’s a smart guy and a very earnest man.

“He has recognized the reality on the ground and rejected the mythologies that are promoted by these ignorant people,” Fontes continued. “His defense of these systems is real because it’s based in fact, it’s not based off conspiracy theories that come out of some resort in Florida.”

Combatting Conspiracies

The cohort of election deniers, including Finchem, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, and Republican attorney general candidate Abe Hamadeh, have attacked Richer and the Republican-led Maricopa County Board of Supervisors for issues on the day of the election. 

Baseless conspiracy theories about the election process may have led to camouflaged people with guns standing watch outside at least one ballot drop box in Maricopa County. 

Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates, a Republican, had to be moved to an undisclosed location in the days after Election Day due to threats to his safety. 

Hamadeh filed a lawsuit, now dismissed, asking for a judge to simply declare him the winner of his race, subverting the will of Arizona voters. 

The primary issue on election day was printer settings at several precincts throughout Maricopa County, printing ballots that were unable to be read by tabulators. Voters were instead directed to place their ballots into a secure lockbox to be counted at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center. 

Republicans also took issue with how long the counting process took. 

“Why is that a problem?” Fontes questioned. “We have incredibly accurate and accountable elections in Arizona. One of the reasons they take as long as they do is because we’re very careful in how we administer our elections.”

Fontes noted that Arizona has always taken between one and two weeks to count every ballot. The process hasn’t changed, but Arizona has changed politically. 

How Did Adrian Fontes Beat Mark Finchem?

Democrats running for statewide office took on their Republican counterparts in a variety of ways. 

US Sen. Mark Kelly and Arizona Attorney General-Elect Kris Mayes more directly attacked Blake Master and Hamadeh. Governor-Elect Katie Hobbs chose to not engage directly with Lake at all. 

Fontes opted for a different approach. In a debate on Arizona PBS Finchem suggested the 2020 election was compromised in Maricopa County and he would have set it aside. He also echoed baseless conspiracy theories from the film 2000 Mules. 

Fontes only spoke to Finchem directly a few times in that debate, and he said that was a purposeful strategy. 

“(Finchem) wasn’t the problem,” Fontes said. “He represented the problem, so there was no sense in attacking him personally. You attack the greater problem, and I think that’s what Arizonans want – leaders who are going to address the problems, the issues. And stay as much away from personalities as possible, because that’s so trite and overused.”

“I went after the ideas and what he represented, and that is chaos, uncertainty, and a denial of the American voters’ will. He was running against the consent of the governed, which is a fundamental idea,” he said. “I tried to go past him because he wasn’t a worthy adversary, but his ideas were dangerous and what he represented was dangerous. Not so much him, he’s just a random sixty-something year old fake cowboy. But what he represented, that was dangerous.”

The results of these strategies were mixed, Mayes is set to win by several hundreds of votes, while Kelly won by over 125,000. Fontes won by 120,000 while Hobbs won by just over 17,000. To varying degrees, a majority of Arizonans rejected election deniers.

Building a Coalition of Voters

Democrats can’t win by themselves in Arizona, as they’re outnumbered by both Republicans and Independents. According to the secretary of state’s voter registration numbers, Democrats only make up 30.66% of all registered voters, while Republicans and Independents make up 34.67% and 33.89%, respectively. In an ideal world with 100% turnout of all registered voters, Republicans could win statewide elections with only 43%-45% of Independents coming to their side. 

Dems need to win big with voters who don’t identify with either major party in order to win statewide elections. Alternatively, Republicans need to alienate a solid majority of Independent voters in order to lose. 

A September poll from Republican polling firm the Trafalgar Group showed Finchem up 47.5% to 41.1% against Fontes. The newly elected Arizona secretary of state claims he was never worried about polling, even when he knew he was behind. 

Internal polling from the Fontes campaign showed behind early in the election cycle, but that gap shrunk and shrunk until he eventually pulled ahead and won. 

“I saw that clip of Charlie Kirk and Wendy Rogers where she was like ‘Well, maybe we’re in our own echo chamber,’ and I was like no shit, Sherlock,” he said. “(They) listen to (themselves) and shun other opinions. I’ll watch OAN and other networks to see what’s happening over there. I need to know what’s happening on the other side of the battlefield.”

What Made This Race So Important, Anyway?

 The Arizona Secretary of State doesn’t just oversee and administer elections in the state. They’re also tasked with preserving Arizona’s history, providing access to public information, and oversee aspects of conducting business in Arizona, among other responsibilities.

“I believe the business of America is business,” Fontes said. “The business services part of the office has to be more efficient and work more quickly. Everywhere from notaries public to trademark filings. That has to move as quickly to the speed of business as we can get it.”

He also said the secretary of state’s office has a connection to Arizona’s heritage via libraries and archives. Fontes said he wants to build up state museums as well. 

“That heritage is good for business. Arizona’s story is an amazing American story,” he said. “I can’t tell you my opponent would’ve appreciated that. He’s a guy who was a failed law enforcement officer from Kalamazoo, Michigan and adopted a fake cowboy persona. And for what purpose?”

“I don’t know that (Finchem) understands the breadth and depth of American history in Arizona,” Fontes continued. “Why Navajo Springs is important to Arizona, or the fact that there are 22 federally recognized tribes in Arizona. I don’t know that he understands any of it.”

Arizona’s first territorial governor, John Noble Goodwin, was sworn in at Navajo Springs in 1863. 

Fontes said he thinks his campaign strategy of courting moderate Republicans and Independents was fundamental to his victory. 

“Many Republicans came to us and told us we needed to beat (Finchem) because of what he stood for,” he said. “They weren’t really talking about him as a person, they were talking about the notion that he represented. A lot of people call it election denialism, I call it authoritarianism.”

He said Finchem doesn’t believe he could ever be on the losing end of something, and that’s why we see the storm of tweets from Finchem’s account, baselessly alleging fraud and calling for a complete redo of the election. 

“That’s why Independents and moderate Republicans came over, because they saw that. All we had to do was point it out more,” Fontes said. 

Fontes will be Arizona’s next secretary of state in 2023, and he said the reason Finchem, among others, have appeared blindsided from the loss is because they never believed they could lose.

“They weren’t paying attention to the details, but that isn’t their M.O.” Fontes said. “They don’t pay attention to the details and that’s why they have such fierce sanctimony. Mark Finchem believes he’s right, and that’s because he doesn’t bother to look beyond the tip of his nose. He has his position and everyone else needs to come over to him for him to feel good.”

“That’s not how grown-ups operate.”

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  • Robert Gundran

    Robert Gundran grew up in the Southwest, spending equal time in the Valley and Southern California throughout his life. He graduated from Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in 2018 and wrote for The Arizona Republic and The Orange County Register.

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