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GOP secretary of state candidates joust over ‘dark money’ disclosure

Justin Pierce, Michele Reagan and Wil Cardon debate Tuesday night as each seeks to become the Republican nominee for secretary of state.  Hosting is Ted Simons, right, of KAET-TV.

Justin Pierce, Michele Reagan and Wil Cardon debate Tuesday night as each seeks to become the Republican nominee for secretary of state. Hosting is Ted Simons, right, of KAET-TV. (Photo by Capitol Media Services/Howard Fischer)

One of the three Republicans running for Secretary of State said Tuesday night he’s not convinced that Arizona law should bar anonymous spending on political campaigns.

Justin Pierce, currently a state representative, said he understands the arguments against “dark money” campaigns financed by undisclosed interests. But he said there are legitimate reasons to allow people to get involved in politics without their names being made public.

During a televised debate at KAET-TV, he cited instances in the 1950s where the state of Alabama demanded the NAACP provide a list of its members.

“We’ve seen even more recent examples… when the IRS has targeted groups,” Pierce said. “I have heard from more and more voters who want to be involved but are afraid of painting a target on their back.”

But businessman Wil Cardon said there is no reason that voters should not know the source of cash that is funding commercials and mailers for or against candidates.

He also said Pierce has a different viewpoint for a simple reason: He is benefitting from a $92,911 campaign on his behalf financed by the Arizona Free Enterprise Club. And that organization will not disclose who is filling its coffers.

Michele Reagan, also seeking to be the Republican nominee, agreed that more disclosure is necessary. Reagan said that she introduced legislation as a state senator earlier this year to force that to happen but could not get the votes.

Pierce, speaking to reporters afterwards, was unapologetic for his stance.

“If I’m going to err on this, I’m going to err on the side of free speech,” he said. “I do not want to create a situation where people feel like they can’t participate in the process.”

And he insisted that it does not matter who is giving the money.

But Reagan said it does.

She acknowledged the U.S. Supreme Court has equated money with speech. And the justices said that individuals – and corporations – are free to spend as much of it as they want on campaigns.

But Reagan said the high court specifically left it up to the states to decide what needs to be disclosed. She said Arizona has so far fallen short in that arena.

The race is more important than simply who occupy what is a largely administrative office in charge of things like elections and business name filings.

Arizona has a long history of governors dying, quitting or being convicted, elevating whoever is secretary of state to governor. It happened most recently in 2009 when Janet Napolitano quit and Jan Brewer replaced her.

Reagan said she’s the most qualified because of her 12 years in the Legislature. She said that means she knows things like how to prepare a budget, how the agencies work and who to appoint.

“That is invaluable experience,” Reagan said.

Pierce said he, too, has legislative experience, albeit just four years.

“I don’t think you measure it purely in years,” he said, citing his business experience as a partner at a law firm.

Cardon sniffed at that.

“I’ve hired lots of attorneys,” he told Pierce. “And it’s not the same being an attorney, advising someone to do something, as the one where the buck stops and you have to make the hard decisions.”

The survivor of the Aug. 26 primary will face off in the general election against Terry Goddard, the only Democrat in the race.

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