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Cortes testifies she’s unaware of recall campaign machinery

Olivia Cortes testifies during the hearing to determine whether or not she is a "sham" candidate (in the words of plaintiff's attorney Thomas Ryan) in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix Thursday. (Photo by Jack Kurtz/The Arizona Republic)

Republican Olivia Cortes is challenging one of the most powerful politicians in Arizona, but the political neophyte testified in court today that she doesn’t have full control over her campaign and doesn’t know who paid circulators to gather many of the signatures she needed to qualify for the ballot.

Cortes testified that she has given $500 of her own money to fund the campaign, but said she has no idea who paid for dozens of campaign signs that are posted across her district.

She also told the court she didn’t know about a press release that was recently sent out by her campaign, alleging Cortes is being targeted as a “sham” candidate because she is Hispanic.

Those details emerged during the trial over a lawsuit alleging Cortes is a part of a “cynical ploy” to dilute the vote against Senate President Russell Pearce, who faces a Nov. 8 recall. The lawsuit claims Cortes’ candidacy is designed to divert votes from the Pearce’s main contender, charter school executive Jerry Lewis.

Testimony in the hearing also shed some light on the relationship Cortes has with Greg Western, the chairman of the East Valley Tea Party and the person who filed her nominating petitions with state elections officials.

Being new to politics, Cortes said she relies on Western, whom she met at church, for advice. He has crafted her media releases and is helping her prepare for an upcoming debate, she said.

Later, Western testified that he found Pearce’s views on immigration too “harsh,” and he recruited Cortes as a candidate after learning that she wanted to increase legal immigration into the United States.

“I said, ‘It would be awesome to have you in the race,’” Western said.

Meanwhile, other Republicans who helped her get on the ballot offered odd explanations for their actions: They believe she’s a better alternative to Lewis, whom one Pearce supporter called a “backdoor” liberal candidate.

“… All of a sudden Jerry Lewis appears,” Franklin Bruce Ross testified. Ross, who helped gather signatures for Cortes, was the plaintiff in a lawsuit that unsuccessfully alleged the recall was unconstitutional.

When Thomas Ryan, who filed the lawsuit against Cortes on behalf of an East Valley resident, asked why the “backdoor” candidate analogy doesn’t also apply to Cortes, Ross replied, “Because we put her on the ballot because of that.”

Other Pearce supporters who testified they helped Cortes gather signatures included Maricopa County Republican Party officers Pat Oldroyd and Daniel Grimm.

Suzanne Dreher, who was paid to collect signatures for Cortes, said she was instructed by her employer to tell Pearce’s supporters that signing Cortes’ nominating petition would help Pearce keep his seat.

When pressed how, Dreher said by “dividing the vote.”

Ryan said the testimony bolsters his claim that Cortes is a sham candidate.

But Cortes said she’s a legitimate candidate and is offering her views as a naturalized American citizen. She told the court she wants to serve Latinos in her community.

She said she hopes to win votes away from both Lewis and Pearce.

Cortes also defended her right to throw her hat in the ring, and her lawyer, Anthony Tsontakis, hammered on one point: The lawsuit against Cortes has no basis.

Additionally, Tsontakis said the lawsuit is politically motivated and it achieves nothing but to defame Cortes.
Tsontakis said the government also has no business inquiring into the motivations of people who gather signatures for a candidate.

“It’s none of this court’s business what the political motivations of a candidate’s circulators are – only whether they meet the legal requirements to qualify for the ballot,” he said.

If the court removes Cortes from the ballot, as the lawsuit hopes to do, it will set a precedent that will chill political speech, the lawyer said.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Edward Burke pressed both sides, asking Ryan how election officials would proceed should the court agree that Cortes is a diversionary candidate.

But Burke, surmising that ordering and putting up campaign signs can be expensive, also wondered why neither Cortes nor Western knew anything about where the pro-Cortes signs came from.

Burke said he will issue a ruling by Monday.

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