Breaking News
More () »

Phoenix Suns owner spends big money on city elections after arena deal

Robert Sarver's $50,000 aids councilwoman days after she flipped vote. Arena supporter Daniel Valenzuela aided by $100,000 in mayoral race. Sarver says he backs candidates who have 'city's best interests at heart'

Nine days after the Phoenix City Council approved a controversial deal to renovate the Phoenix Suns home arena, Suns owner Robert Sarver donated $50,000 to a campaign PAC supporting a councilwoman who cast a crucial vote.

That donation to Councilwoman Vania Guevara last month came after she flipped her “no” vote to a “yes,” with Sarver’s pledge to spend $2.6 million on Head Start programs in her district.

Sarver followed up his donation to Guevara with a $100,000 contribution to a firefighter PAC backing the mayoral campaign of Councilman Daniel Valenzuela, also a supporter of the arena deal.

Sarver is the largest known individual financial supporter of Valenzuela’s campaign.

The Suns owner provided this statement to 12 News about his campaign spending: 

"I care deeply about the future of the city of Phoenix. I am proud to support candidates who have the best interests of the city at heart, particularly those who are committed to job creation and improving education. I gave openly, not behind a veil, and I look forward to the exciting days ahead for our community."

The Valenzuela and Guevara campaigns didn't respond to requests for comment.

The contributions are documented in campaign finance reports filed last week with the Phoenix City Clerk and the Arizona Secretary of State.

These are the final reports before Tuesday's special election for mayor and two City Council seats, in Guevara's west Phoenix District 5 and also District 8, in south Phoenix and Laveen. 

Other takeaways from the reports:

Big spending by unions

Campaign finance documents show both Valenzuela and opponent Kate Gallego, a former councilwoman, are beneficiaries of union contributions that are on track to exceed $1 million for each campaign. 

Firefighter unions and the United Food and Commercial Workers union have made major contributions to Valenzuela, who works for the Glendale Fire Department. Gallego has significant backing from the building trades unions, the bulk of it coming from UA Local 469 Plumbers & Steamfitters. 

Cultural Center donors 

The most significant individual contributions to Gallego are from top executives of True North Cos., a private equity firm that purchased Phoenix’s Chinese Cultural Center.

The True North purchase became a flashpoint for protests by business tenants and community representatives who wanted to preserve the center. 

Campaign documents show five True North executives and their spouses have donated at least $104,000 to Gallego’s campaign. 

“They’re fully disclosed, you can ask me about them, you can ask the people who made the donations about them,” Gallego said in an interview Friday.

“(The True North executives) have been good business partners… I do not expect any votes to go to the city related to their building. The CEO of the company went to the same school I attended and actually shares my interest in outlawing dark money.”

“They want to be able to own their building and develop it, but they’re not looking for handouts from the City of Phoenix, which is substantively different than a business owner who is looking for a $150 million investment that will increase the value of the sports team that he owns,” Gallego said.

She was alluding to the City Council-approved deal that contributed $150 million in tax dollars to a $230 million renovation of the Suns’ home, the city-owned Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns agreed to kick in $80 million. Gallego has opposed the deal.

Dark-money spending

Not in the finance reports: Information on spending by the dark-money group Advancing Freedom Inc., based in Oklahoma. Advancing Freedom has spent heavily in the last weeks of the campaign to help Valenzuela. 

Mailers to Republican voters portray Valenzuela as the “conservative choice” in the election and link Gallego to “deplorable” Hillary Clinton. Valenzuela’s campaign staff say he is a registered Democrat; in 2016, he supported Democrat Clinton for president. 

The Advancing Freedom effort dovetails with Valenzuela’s sharp political pivot to lure Republican voters in the runoff phase of the nonpartisan mayoral race.

Advancing Freedom must report is spending to the Phoenix City Clerk by April 15. As a dark-money group it doesn’t have to disclose donors’ identities. 

Twist in Sarver donations

Sarver made his Valenzuela and Guevara donations to separate PACs. Both donations followed a path that allowed Sarver to legally give much more than the $6,300 limit to individual campaigns. 

The $100,000 for Valenzuela went to the PFFA Committee to Move Phoenix Forward, a pro-Valenzuela PAC largely funded by public safety and private-sector unions. 

In an odd twist, Sarver’s $50,000 Guevara donation put him in bed with a group that was bashing the Suns deal TV in ads attacking Valenzuela.

Follow the money: 

-On Feb. 1, nine days after the City Council approved the Suns deal, Sarver made the Guevara donation to a PAC called Residents for Accountability. 

-Residents for Accountability is a vehicle that forwards money raised by the UA Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 469 to another PAC, called Revitalize Arizona. Local 469 has endorsed Gallego for mayor and Guevara in District 5.

-Local 469, through the Pipe Trades PAC, represents Arizona workers in the heating, cooling and plumbing trades. It is a fund-raising powerhouse. Campaign finance documents show it forwarded $845,000 to Residents for Accountability from Jan. 1 through Feb. 23.

-Residents for Accountability’s campaign finance report shows it forwarded  $807,000 for the period from Jan. 1 through Feb. 23 to Revitalize Arizona. 

Revitalize Arizona spent the money in two ways:

-Booking about $920,000 worth of TV ads that slammed Valenzuela and the Suns deal.  The first ad appeared within a week after Sarver made his donation to the firefighters PAC.

-Sending mailers to voters in Guevara’s district that tout her “brokering a deal to get millions of dollars in Head Start funding for our kids.” 

Guevara faces challenge to keep seat

Those "millions" were the price Guevara extracted from the Suns to get her vote for the Talking Stick Arena renovation. 

“A few will invariably write some choice words about me for having changed my mind, and that's OK,” Guevara said at the City Council meeting Jan. 23, as she voted “yes” on the Suns deal. 

Guevara is seeking to win her District 5 seat in Tuesday's special election after the council appointed her to fill the vacancy created when Valenzuela, her former boss, resigned to run for mayor.

Guevara faces three opponents: Audrey Bell-Jenkins, Betty Guardado and Lydia Hernandez.

Before You Leave, Check This Out