Arizona sports executives now big political players

The Arizona Republic
Sunday, February 1, 2015
Dan Nowicki
From Derrick Hall of the Arizona Diamondbacks emceeing Gov. Doug Ducey's inauguration to U.S. Sen. John McCain lounging with Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill at a game, politics and sports are mixing in Arizona more than ever.

Rather than cheering from the sidelines, Phoenix-area professional sports executives — and in some cases, their relatives — are taking active roles in financing political campaigns, and in some cases are trying to call the plays for the political establishment.

Pro sports' cozy relationship with politics is not a new phenomenon, or unique to Arizona or metro Phoenix. Witness the fallout over New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's recent celebratory hug of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose team is a rival of the New Jersey-based New York Giants. Jones bankrolled the trip for the possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate.

But some say the Valley's teams are assuming a bigger role once filled by Arizona's home-grown captains of industry. With many of Arizona's banks, media organizations and other institutions now owned by out-of-state corporations, the sports franchises increasingly dominate the locally based business landscape.

The stark partisan orientation of Arizona teams' political behavior also stands out. Cardinals and Diamondbacks red, also appears to be Republican red.

Franchise officials overwhelmingly favor GOP politicians and aren't afraid to publicly cheer a candidate, as they did for Ducey during his campaign for governor.

Ducey, the former chief executive of the Cold Stone Creamery ice-cream-shop chain, received thousands in campaign contributions from top Valley sports executives while his Democratic opponent, Fred DuVal, was ignored. The sports titans also sided with Ducey in last year's competitive six-way Republican gubernatorial primary. Michael Bidwill made headlines for urging business leaders to coalesce around Ducey at the expense of GOP rivals such as former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith and former GoDaddy executive Christine Jones.

Bidwill was later named to Ducey's inaugural committee.

"It's not unheard of for this kind of involvement, but it's not the way that the majority of owners behave," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts and an expert on the sports industry. "The majority of owners try to cuddle up to both parties so that they can have some influence no matter who wins, and they might make donations to candidates of both parties. The majority of owners, however, tend to be Republican. They like to have lower taxes."

Some observers say sports figures are better known but otherwise no different than other members of the business community who are interested in a vibrant economy and other civic priorities. Others worry that franchise owners' celebrity could give them out-sized influence with starstruck politicians.

The relationship seems to be getting cozier.

"Sports is big business and big business always has an interest in big government," said John J. "Jack" Pitney, Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in southern California. "It's natural: Politicians love sports because their constituents love sports, and sports people understand that politics has a great deal to do with their livelihood — subsidies for stadiums, many different kinds of regulations that affect their business at every level."

However, political meddling in today's hyper-partisan climate also brings a potential downside for teams — the possible alienation of fans with different party preferences or philosophies. Many fans view professional sports as community assets that they believe should stay on the sidelines during political brawls.

"They have to be very careful, on the surface at least, to not have too partisan of a face," said Bruce Merrill, a veteran political scientist and senior research fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy. "It's behind the scenes that they can still have a big influence on whether certain candidates get money."

Sports and politics collide

Super Bowl XLIX has highlighted the often emotional nexus of sports and Arizona politics.

Even as Bidwill was helping Ducey get elected, he was publicly chastising Glendale officials over hotel "gouging" and complaining that the city has not been a good Super Bowl partner.

In most instances where sports and politics have collided, team execs are looking out for their interests rather than picking sides in a debate for partisan reasons. Usually though, the sports business has been at odds with the state's conservatism.

In 1991, Arizona lost Super Bowl XXVII, which was to be played at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, because voters initially rejected a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The NFL moved the 1993 game to Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif. "NFL Go To Hell. And Play The Super Bowl There," a defiant Arizona bumper-sticker read.

A national furor over two bills passed by the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature also threatened big games set for the state.

Passage of Senate Bill 1062, the 2014 right-to-refuse-service measure, was soon followed by rumors the NFL might yank Super Bowl XLIX. The measure prompted a public outcry because it was seen as discriminatory toward the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community. Gov. Jan Brewer diffused the situation by vetoing the socially conservative legislation.

Uproar over SB 1070, the state's tough 2010 immigration-enforcement law that Brewer signed, led some to pressure Major League Baseball to move its 2011 All-Star Game from Chase Field in Phoenix, although the calls to do so went unheeded.

Robert Sarver, the Phoenix Suns' majority owner, opposed SB 1070 and his players protested the law by donning "Los Suns" jerseys, signaling not only a more inclusive brand of politics but also an acknowledgment that many of the team's fans and employees are Latino.

Fights over taxpayer support for baseball and football stadiums and hockey arenas played out across the Valley before city and county panels, in the Arizona Legislature and via ballot measures throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. Many of the biggest critics of public subsidies for pro-sports facilities were anti-tax conservatives who viewed the projects a corporate welfare giveaways to big business. This year, a possible spring-training facility for the Milwaukee Brewers has become an issue in a Peoria City Council race.

Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said sports franchise execs have no reason to be ashamed of their political activities. They attract extra attention because they are popular and "in their own right are celebrities," but otherwise largely have the same priorities and concerns of others in the business community, he said.

"They want to see a healthy economy," Hamer said. "If you have a healthy economy, generally speaking, people have more disposable income and they are attending more sports games."

Republican ties

The politics of two of the families behind the Cardinals and Diamondbacks are exclusively Republican.

The Bidwill family, which has owned the Cardinals for decades, are reliable Republican benefactors, as is Ken Kendrick, the Diamondbacks' managing general partner.

The Republic's efforts seeking comment from Michael Bidwill about his family's political activities were not successful. Kendrick declined through a spokesman to discuss his or his family's contributions.

According to a Republic analysis of state political contributions, Bill Bidwill, the Cardinals' owner and chairman, gave more than $10,000 total to Ducey, Attorney General Mark Brnovich and Secretary of State Michele Reagan during the 2014 election cycle.

Michael Bidwill, a former federal prosecutor who worked on Republican Bob Dole's unsuccessful 1996 presidential campaign in Arizona prior to joining the Cardinals' front office, gave more than $14,000 to Ducey, Reagan and other state candidates during the same period.

Other Bidwill family members doled out a total of about $15,000 for Ducey, Brnovich and Reagan. Ron Minegar, the Cardinals' executive vice president and chief operating officer, gave $1,100 to business PACs and $750 to Ducey.

Kevin McCarthy, president of the watchdog Arizona Tax Research Association, said the Bidwills' concentration on Ducey is easier to defend because it appears to reflect a sincere belief that Ducey was the best candidate. Writing checks to all candidates, Republican and Democrat, as some business operators choose to do, can only be interpreted as a cynical play for special access.

"If what Bidwill did and Kendrick did was write big checks to a particular candidate, they're supporting that candidate and it's their right to do so," McCarthy said.

McCarthy sees the political activities of Bidwill and Kendrick as an outgrowth of their business advocacy. ATRA closely monitors the Arizona Legislature, and McCarthy said he is unaware of pending legislation sought by the state's professional teams. "They're not at the Capitol much," he said.

McCain, R-Ariz., a voracious sports fan who pays face-value for tickets when he attends games, including Sunday's Super Bowl in Glendale, said he doubted the Cardinals organization would need to spend money on political donations to get a friendly audience with elected officials.

"The Bidwills are Republican, and they always have been, going back to St. Louis," McCain told The Republic. "But I honestly have not seen any difference between them and, say, the CEO of Intel or Boeing or Raytheon or other leaders in the business community."

Kendrick, of the Diamondbacks, a McCain supporter over the years, gave more than $18,000 during the state's 2014 cycle, including $4,000 to Ducey; $4,000 to Brnovich and $4,000 to Republican state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, according state records. On the federal level, he gave about $175,000 to candidates and causes, including $100,000 to a conservative Super PAC called Grow WV, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Hall, the baseball team's president and CEO, gave $4,220 in the state, including $4,000 to Ducey. He also co-chaired with former Suns and Diamondbacks heavyweight Jerry Colangelo the finance committee of Democratic congressional candidate Mary Rose Wilcox. As a Maricopa County supervisor, Wilcox was wounded in a 1997 shooting by a deranged critic of her vote to enact a countywide temporary sales tax to fund construction of the Diamondbacks' ballpark.

Hall donated $2,600 to Wilcox in June, but later gave $1,000 to now-U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who beat her in the August primary.

Some less partisan

"They're certainly well-known and all that, but I'm not sure they have outsized influence," McCain said of the sports executives. "I know that, for example, Kendrick's wife has been active politically much more than Ken has. Bidwill has been engaged, but the guys at the (NHL's Arizona) Coyotes, I haven't noticed anything. I haven't seen any engagement in the political arena by Sarver. So it sort of varies by the individual."

Last year, Sarver, as well as Kendrick, was listed on the host committee of an April 24 McCain fundraiser at the Ritz-Carlton, Phoenix.

McCain is correct that Sarver and the management of the Coyotes hockey team have not been particularly active donors in recent statewide politics.

In 2014, Sarver gave $912 to Ducey and $1,912 to losing Democratic Attorney General candidate Felecia Rotellini. Andrew Barroway, the Coyotes' Pennsylvania-based owner, chairman and governor, gave Rotellini $2,000.

Sarver seems to keep a closer eye on Phoenix city politics, having donated over the past couple of years to various candidates, including Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. On Oct. 16, Maria Baier, a former Phoenix City councilwoman and the Suns' senior vice president for communications and public affairs, organized a fundraiser for Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, to whom Sarver contributed $2,000.

In an interview with The Republic, Sarver described himself as "politically, very much in the middle in terms of my views" and said he is comfortable supporting either Democrats or Republicans who he believes will do a good job for Arizona.

SB 1070 "was just one issue that I just felt so strongly was going to be very negative for the state and do a lot of damage," Sarver said. "And just from a civil-rights standpoint, I didn't think it was appropriate."

Sarver's background in banking has made him value jobs, he said, which makes him put a priority on "the overall well-being of our state and our economy."

"Some people have strong influence in politics, but I don't think it comes from the position or the type of business they operate," Sarver said. "It comes more from their involvement, the time and money that they spend on campaigns. People have all sorts of different passions."

Family contributions

The Kendrick family member most associated with politics and causes is not directly associated with the Diamondbacks.

Randy Kendrick, Kendrick's wife, is in a league of her own in her support for the political right, giving more than $130,000 to state political efforts in the 2014 election cycle, according to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office, and, at the federal level, more than $290,000 to Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives and other conservative political action committees, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

A former board member of the pro-growth Arizona Free Enterprise Club, Randy Kendrick gave $25,000 to the campaign backing Proposition 122, a statewide ballot measure that ostensibly would let Arizona refuse to enforce U.S. laws that the Legislature or voters consider to be unconstitutional. She also donated at least $50,000 to the Arizona Republican Party.

Her financial generosity also extended to candidates and organizations outside Arizona. She has donated to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a favorite of "tea party" conservatives and a possible 2016 presidential contender. On Oct. 6, she hosted a well-attended fundraiser at her Paradise Valley home to benefit Republican U.S. Senate candidates Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Monica Wehby of Oregon, and GOP U.S. House candidates Barbara Comstock of Virginia, Marilinda Garcia of New Hampshire and now-U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz.

In a letter to The Republic published in October, Randy Kendrick defended billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, a favorite target of the left for their big spending on conservative and libertarian-leaning causes, and lashed out at media scrutiny of anonymous "dark money" in politics, suggesting it is an attempt to silence right-leaning financial contributors and organizations.

"Please quit calling me for comment," she wrote. "Quit with the intimidation! Quit making other donors afraid to associate and give to great causes. Quit sullying the practice of private and anonymous free speech, which dates to the anonymously written and published 'Federalist Papers' and the right of the NAACP to keep its donors private during the civil-rights era."

Though Randy Kendrick emphasized she was proud of her association with Charles Koch, there are signs the Diamondbacks organization is more wary of appearing so partisan.

After Hall participated in the Jan. 5 inauguration ceremony of Ducey, Reagan, Brnovich, DeWit, Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas and state Mine Inspector Joe Hart — all Republicans — a Twitter user with the handle @bmain249 wrote he was "sad" that Hall was involved with politics and that he had lost some respect for him.

Hall tweeted back that he was "just emcee for the state. No politics. All good."