Former Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes has announced he is entering the race to become Arizona’s next secretary of state.
Fontes, a Democrat, announced his intention to run for the statewide position in 2022 with a short Twitter video on Friday morning.
“We’re at a major crossroads in our nation and in our state,” he said. “Arizona needs public officials who are going to be ready to do the job on day one.”
Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, is not seeking a second term in her and has decided to run for governor instead.
Secretary of state is Arizona’s chief election officer and first in the line of succession to the governor.
Unless another Democrat also decides to run, Fontes will be up against the winner of a Republican primary field headlined by two state lawmakers, Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita and Rep. Mark Finchem. In a recent tweet, Fontes called Finchem a “traitor clown” for his presence at the U.S. Capitol riots on Jan. 6. Finchem maintains he did not enter the building when it was overrun by supporters of Donald Trump.
Fontes led the 2020 Maricopa County general election that is at the center of the continuing audit authorized by state Senate Republicans. Fontes lost in 2020 to Republican Stephen Richer.
Who is Adrian Fontes?
By Tom Reardon, from the September 2019 Issue of Echo Magazine.
Photos by Gerri Hernandez
Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes knows how to draw you in. He’s a gregarious guy and there is a certain honor behind his voice that, like a comfy blanket, makes you think that everything just might be okay and if you support him, he’ll support you. He’s also a smart, driven, dude who saw something wrong in our county and decided to actually DO something about it.
A native Arizonan, Fontes grew up in Nogales on the US/Mexico border in a family of educators and builders. He loves his family and speaks of them with the kind of pride we all wish our family members would show when speaking about us. Now nearing 50, Fontes came to Tempe after graduating from high school and decided to go to Arizona State University, but that first trip to the big city didn’t necessarily take, so after spending a year in Cornville, Arizona working as a high school counselor, he decided to join the United States Marine Corps where he served for four years before going back to ASU and finishing his bachelors.
Fontes is the kind of guy you want to have a beer with and also the kind of guy you want on your side because going up against him, well, that’s going to be one tough battle. After graduating from ASU, Fontes left Arizona for Colorado and went to law school at the University of Denver and earned his law degree.
He began practicing law while still in Colorado for the Denver District Attorney before coming back to Phoenix to work with Terry Goddard while he was Attorney General. This particular path allowed him to travel around the southwest and put him in the middle of some intense cases including work in Mexico going after criminals who had crossed the border in an attempt to avoid the U.S. legal system.
In 2016, Fontes, like many Arizonans was appalled by the issues with the voting process for the Presidential primaries in March of that year and decided to do something about it. Since that point, the father of three who lives in the Coronado district has been working diligently to bring about effective change in Maricopa County to ensure this type of widespread voting mismanagement never happens again.
We spoke to Fontes about his experiences growing up, why it is important to get involved, and what’s happening with our local elections.
What was it like growing up in Nogales?
It was neat growing up there because it was a very business-y town, very import/export town, actually a very cosmopolitan town. Which is a little interesting because, you know, there were Korean families and Lebanese families and Jewish families and Greek families and literally folks from all over the world because it wasn't import/export town.
People don't realize that you learn an awful lot about humanity and all you really need are lots of people from different places and to be exposed to them. You'd go to one friend's house and grandma’s speaking Korean. You go to somebody else's house and they're speaking Greek and you may not understand any of it, but you don’t care because they’re safe spaces.
How long did you live in Nogales?
All the way until I graduated from Nogales High School (in 1988). So, I'm a product of the border and that bi-national, bi-cultural, bilingual environment and this is really something that is part of my identity.
Growing up, did you know you wanted to go into law? Was this seed planted in Nogales?
That's really kind of a funny story and it's a little bit weird. I didn't know what I wanted to be, but I knew what kind of person I wanted to be and what kind of role I wanted to play. I literally could envision myself sitting behind a big desk with a shirt and a tie on and somebody would bring a file to me. I would open it up, I would sign something and that would be important. Literally, that was to me, as a little kid, that was professionalism or a professional place. Where my signature on a piece of paper meant something important.
And while everybody's signature means something important, I didn't understand that as a kid. Little kids generally speaking, unless their parents are lawyers, don't understand the concept behind what a lawyer is. Like what does it to do law? It’s easy to understand firefighter or policeman but lawyer, what does that mean? So, that's what ended up happening and that's how long that idea had been in my head.
Switching gears, you play in a mariachi band, correct?
Yeah, I was with Mariachi de Grand Avenue when we were together. I still have a “group.” We don’t perform publicly. I try to stay connected to the music. Why do everything we do in society if you can’t enjoy music and poetry?
Did you start playing music in Nogales?
Yes. When I was a very small kid, my dad’s mother would stand me next to her old, big, Zenith console stereo and she would play a lot of the old classic mariachi stuff, but then she would slip in Debbie Boone and the Marty Robbins’ Gunslinger album with the pink cover.
She spent a lot of time sitting next to this console and she would put these songs on and sit there and sing. I used to sing, “You Light Up My Life,” that cheesy Debbie Boone Song. I heard the tail end of that song on the radio about three months ago and it brought back so many childhood memories. I came to realize it was a huge part of my childhood because she loved it and she would make me sing it all the fricken time. It was great.
Were you part of the 80s punk scene in Nogales? A lot of current Arizona musicians came from that scene.
Well, you know, the punk rockers in Nogales… a lot of them were buddies of mine. It was a small town, so everybody knew everybody. I wasn't into the punk scene myself. I was a bubblegum pop guy. I was into The Cars. A little rock and roll, right. A little Motley Crue…Van Halen. Dire Straits…I wore that record out?
Brothers In Arms? If that record came out today, people would call them homophobes.
Yeah. You know, and here's the interesting thing about that is that was the whole idea of homosexuality and what a lot of those lyrics meant was not part of like, literally it wasn't in our awareness.
It was pre-'political correctness.'
Well, it wasn't even that. It was, you know, Nogales was a very Mexican place. Right? Very dominated by Mexican American culture and the whole very machismo, very Catholic type of thing. Homosexuality and the LGBTQ type of stuff wasn't something in the first place in my recollection, that was ever really discussed. It wasn't an issue. Right? It wasn't like we ever thought of it as negative or positive or anything. In fact, I remember as an elementary school kid, there was a guy whose nickname was “El Patito” which means “the little duck.”
He was a very, very colorful guy. He would occasionally, while the kids were all at recess, and I mean hundreds of kids at recess in my elementary school, be walking down the other side of the street. I don’t know if this story is going to get me in trouble with your readers or not. It probably isn't because it's just, this is the real experience. He'd walked down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street from where the school was and the kids would run up with glee, just joyful, and scream, “El Patito! El Patito!” and grab the fence and shake it.
We would yell “Baila la lavadora, la lavadora!” which is the washing machine, right? “Dance the washing machine dance.” We knew he could hear us, but he acted like he couldn't hear us until more kids would show up and pretty soon the whole playground was empty because all the kids were lined up five deep against the chain-link fence.
Then he would stop, look over, and then he would swirl around, shaking his groove thing doing this really cool dance move. He would do a full circle and he would be, you know, shaking his butt a little bit, and it was bedlam. The kids went crazy. It was like this little, four and a half-second long performance art moment for this entire assemblage of hundreds of kids and we'd all go crazy. Then he’d walk off and we’d go back to playing kickball. That was my first memory of a person I knew who was part of the LGBTQ community. It was very celebratory. It was not something that anyone frowned on and nobody every shooed us away from the fence, or anything like that, and I went to a Catholic school.
I wonder if he’s still with us, dancing…
I never knew what happened to El Patito … (pauses) I like to think that he is.
What got you into politics?
I got mad. I got mad that people couldn't vote (in March of 2016 for the Presidential primary). It was literally that simple. It's not a complicated story. I felt like my insides were getting ripped out. You know, why? Looking at these long lines and people out and it was just an abject failure of the system and the people running the system. I had just been in a country that had survived years of disease and pestilence and wars (Fontes has just returned from a trip to Greece with his mother) for literally thousands of years and I’m here in Phoenix where the current civilization has hardly been around for a couple of generations and people can’t vote. That made me absolutely furious. I knew that complaining about it on Facebook wasn’t going to make a difference. So, I decided to run for office.
Prior to that, had you given thought to running for office?
Briefly in 2013, but this was the first time that I had jumped in and followed through. I was under no illusion that I was going to win. The incumbent had been in office since 1988 and this was a County that still had Joe Arpaio as sheriff. Paul Penzone had not entered the race yet. There were a lot of cards stacked against our campaign, but I felt it was valuable enough to have the conversation.
I figured, you know, if I don't do something about it, who will? The next morning, I went out to the County party headquarters with a friend, Rebecca Wininger. She’s a member of the LGBTQ community and she wanted to help me out. We went down to the warehouse, that is now my warehouse, but there, right under the sheet of glass with Helen Purcell’s (the former County Recorder) name on it, I filed the paperwork to challenge her.
Rebecca’s awesome. I had been involved with the LD 24 Democrats for a while. Once I decided to run, I got a great deal of help from a guy who’s an amazing human being. Ray Bradford. He was right there by my side through the entire campaign. He was a great fundraiser.
I know the name.
Ray’s name, still…he was a fierce advocate for homeless LGBTQ youth. He volunteered a lot at Tumbleweed. I learned so much from him. He was so hilarious. He was on my ass like white on rice when it came to making phone calls, raising money…he was always there. I would not have gotten elected if it wasn’t for him. When I heard he passed away, I just, internally, totally collapsed. He was such an amazing guy.
What made Ray such a great leader for the LGBTQ caucus?
He was fearless. He existed with this insistent dignity. He was always up to the moment. He could be in a deep funk one moment and then turn around, ten seconds later and be a beacon of light in the room. He had a charisma…it was this kind of deep magic about him. As I sit here talking to you, I’m still wearing the eyeglass frames he picked out for me. I literally see the world through a frame that he put on my face.
You mentioned you still have messages on your cell phone from him.
I do. It was somewhere in mid-October (2016) and he called me and said, “I think we might win this thing.” I will never get rid of that. I’m glad you’re not here right now (we were doing the interview over the phone). I’m a puddle-y mess right now. Ray Bradford is synonymous with political activism in much of the LGBTQ community, as much as I understand it. I’m an ally, so I speak from the patio, sort of, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the community who is politically engaged who was not influenced by Ray Bradford.
Not just LGBTQ, but all the various pieces of our community, it sounds like you got into doing your job because you want everyone to have a voice.
That’s the idea behind democracy. And it wasn't always, you know? Let’s be clear. We've changed and evolved into the system we have now. Women didn’t use to get to vote. People of color didn’t use to get to vote. Native Americans didn't fully have the right to vote until, you know, some in the 60s, in some places in the United States. We've always been a nation that has welcomed more and more and more people into the franchise and the fact that people were being excluded, for whatever reason, was a major step backward in my view. And even though it was just that one day and that one election, it was enough. It was enough to set me off and get me on this path, so here we find ourselves.
I can’t avoid the reality that exists politically and that is, the more people who vote, the more the politicians have to listen to the people and the less people vote, the less the politicians have to listen to the people.
Removing oneself from the process, it emboldens and empowers the people who don't listen, the people in power who won't listen to the voters because they're going to get their traditional core no matter what, regardless of partisan party, regardless of any of that stuff, they're going to get their traditional quarter vote for them. And so, the less other voices, quote-unquote other voices, the less new voters, the less of the total number of people are voting, the more power they have.
Which is apparent, just looking around or picking up a newspaper or magazine.
Exactly. The argument…(pauses) it’s a very privileged argument because it says that I absolve myself of responsibility to help change things and only people who are okay with the current system can say that.
I wish more people understood that.
It’s not an easy concept to understand because they'll say, “Well, well my vote doesn't matter.” Well, it does matter, but you're removing it from the equation. And so yes, you're correct. You're not voting now doesn't matter.
And if you're okay with the status quo, if you're okay with the way things are going, then you shouldn't vote because they'll keep going that way. And the people in power don't have to listen to you. And the folks who are making whatever changes or anything like that, they don't need to make any changes. Things can stay the same. If you're okay with the way things are because either economically or socially or culturally or all of it, you're doing just fine. Well, congratulations, but not everybody is that lucky.
How has your view of the political system changed?
I used to think it was bad. Now I know it’s bad. I used to think that there were people in politics who didn't bother to read. I used to think that they were people in politics who at every turn chose ideology over everything else. I used to think there were people in politics who didn't care about anyone but themselves. Now I know those things to be true. It's not all politicians, and it's not all elected officials, but when you're on the outside of the quote-unquote political world, you have these views of, well, it's gotta be because they don't care, it's gotta be because they're in it for themselves. It's gotta be these reasons, right? Now I'm on the inside and I see it, and boy am I kind of disappointed.
So, what are your next steps?
Just because there is a bunch of terrible people doing these types of jobs, it doesn't mean that I should stop. Right. Cause I don't see myself as one of these terrible people. I didn't come to this because I don't have a better job opportunity. I didn't come to this because my ego said that I should be an elected official. I came to this because people in my community, and by the word community, I mean voters in my town couldn't vote. That's what my motive was and that's what my motive continues to be. It wasn't about black, brown, gay, straight, men, women, disabled or abled, and none of that. It was people weren't voting cause they couldn’t and that was bad. I still have that motivation today and there's still a lot of work to be done.
There are still people out there who don't recognize the value of their own votes, which I think is one of the biggest tragedies in this whole thing. There have been some major adjustments that we've had to make as a family (to be in office) but it's worth it because this is really, really big work and it's really, really good work and I'm happy to do it and I'm happy to continue doing it.
You’re going to run again?
Absolutely. There's no question about it. I think the positive changes that we've made can very easily be swept away if folks don't see the value in it and preserve it.
This is a very different office than it was when I came to it and I'm very proud of the work that we've done. I want those policies to be institutionalized for the betterment of all voters. I want to make sure that all voters get the information they need instead of having to come to the office for the information. The office should be taking the information to the voters.
I want to make sure that our security protocols stay at the heightened level that we put them at. We've got way too much at risk for our democracy if we let our guard down. I want to make sure that we're appropriately utilizing all of the technology that we have and continuing to really bolster these policies and train folks better and communicate with voters better. I think it's critically important to continue so that we can adjust the culture of the office into the future and not go backward.
The people will see the product in the end. They will know that the entire system has been improved and I’ll be very grateful that I was lucky enough to be a major player in preserving and protecting our democracy. That's really all that matters.