COCHISE COUNTY — It’s beginning to look a lot like campaign season among four individuals vying to take the Division 5 bench in Cochise County Superior Court, with candidates firing salvos at each other in court, on social media and beyond.
Challenging the veracity of signatures collected on petitions, accusations about downed campaign signs, mysterious yellow signs that have surfaced and target the only write-in candidate, and of course, the obligatory negative comments about each other on Facebook, have already marked this campaign for the seat of retiring Judge James Conlogue.
Three of the four candidates — Anne Carl, Roger Contreras and Jason Lindstrom — will compete for a chance on the November ballot in the primary election on Aug. 4. The fourth candidate, attorney Sandy Russell, will automatically be placed on the general election ballot in November because she is running without a political party affiliation.
Carl, the only write-in candidate and Democrat, must garner 453 votes in order for her name to appear on the November ballot. Contreras and Lindstrom, both Republican, will compete against each other in the primary to determine which one advances to the general election in November.
According to Cochise County Elections Supervisor Lisa Marra, there could be three candidates on the ballot, or just two if Carl fails to collect the required signatures.
Regardless of the time-consuming grind that is campaigning, some of the candidates have also taken opportunities to attack each other on Facebook.
Lindstrom, an assistant Cochise County Attorney, and Contreras, a defense attorney in private practice who was once a prosecutor in the same office, have left each other alone. But that hasn’t been the case between Russell and her opponents.
Except for one post about one of the candidates he doesn’t name, Contreras’ Facebook page has been benign, focusing mostly on his campaign events and photos with supporters.
In an email to the Herald/Review on Tuesday, he said his campaign has been going smoothly.
“My campaign is going well. Despite the current situation, there have been a few recent opportunities to speak directly with voters and answer their questions,” Contreras said.
“In the past two weeks, I enjoyed speaking with voters at the TMRW candidates reception at the Landmark Cafe and the Benson Tea Party meet and greet in Lions Park, and I continue to look forward to spending time with citizens in other areas of the county.
“I have employed social media as a conduit to provide information about events I will attend and my community involvement. Numerous voters have reached out through those channels to ask questions about my background and experience, and I have been able to provide them prompt information. Feedback on early ballots has been very good, and I’m encouraged that people seem to be making informed decisions based upon the qualifications of the candidates.”
In the Facebook post in which he mentions another candidate, Contreras wrote: “I feel compelled to set the record straight. One of my opponents continues to state that she has the most experience, and that is completely false in every respect.”
Russell, meanwhile, challenged the signatures collected by Contreras and Lindstrom in April in a seven-hour hearing in Superior Court. Russell’s husband, Chris Russell and a lawyer, represented her.
She dropped her challenge against Contreras during the marathon court session, but moved ahead against Lindstrom, claiming he and his relatives had altered signatures, obtained signatures from people not registered to vote and had the same signatures twice.
She also pointed to a post Lindstrom made on Facebook during the height of the COVID-19 toilet paper shortage in which Lindstrom offered a roll of the scarce product in exchange for five signatures on his petition.
The judge dismissed the signature challenge against Lindstrom, and a few days later Lindstrom posted on Facebook regarding the fact Russell had hired a handwriting expert to analyze signatures and testify at the hearing.
“My opponent spent $7,400 on the handwriting expert alone! This is what happens when a rich, bored and unemployed attorney decides to run for a local office.”
Lindstrom did not respond to a request for comment for this article on Tuesday.
Anne Carl, the write-in candidate and only Democrat, collided with Russell almost from the moment she decided to join the race. Both women have attacked each other on Facebook, at one point Russell calling Carl “Mrs. Democrat opponent,” and Carl stating that posts made by Russell were false and petty.
Both women also said they have had issues with downed campaign signs, while placards have started popping up denouncing Carl’s candidacy.
Russell mentioned Lindstrom in her Facebook post after she fixed one of her signs that was knocked over recently. “After I fixed it, a Lindstrom sign showed up not far from mine,” she said.
Bright yellow placards about Carl with the words “No write-ins” in red capital letters at the bottom of the sign have surfaced in Bisbee, and some of her signs have vanished. The yellow signs also mention the Democratic party and Carl is the only Democrat running in the race.
“What I’ve stated about all of this in the past holds true now — our courts should never be politicized. It’s sad when they are,” Carl told the Herald/Review on Tuesday.
“As you perhaps already know, social media histrionics may have spilled over into other areas, including signage. Some of my signs have been removed, and some yellow ‘attack’ signs, which politicize this race and happen to be of dubious origin, have sprouted-up near and next to many of my signs that remain.”
But Carl also said her experience on the campaign trail has been a good one.
“I feel privileged to be in this race and grateful to my supporters for writing me in. All-in-all, it has been a good experience for me. I have greater respect now than ever before for anyone who puts him- or herself out there for public office. It’s probably a tough climb even in the best of circumstances.
“Campaigns are expensive, time-consuming – and in my race only one person will make it across the finish line,” she added.
“I hate to add this. I hope it’s not true, but perhaps it is realistic for every candidate today to expect to face at least a little nastiness while campaigning or even once elected,” Carl added. “That seems to be the nature of 2020 politics. Hopefully we’ll turn a corner to see a race to the top (as opposed to the bottom) for our pubic offices, especially for leading our nonpartisan courts, but we’ll see.”
Carl’s and Russell’s feud erupted several weeks ago when Russell posted on Facebook that “A write-in candidate has been calling all over the county making false statements about myself ... ”
The comments were about sanctions Russell received in 2016 regarding “failure to comply with a court order.” The sanction was a private one in Georgia, but a “published” one in Arizona. Russell says she talks about the issue “all the time” as an example of judicial abuse by the judge who sanctioned her.
Carl, upset because she claims Russell has diminished her experience as an attorney, wrote on Facebook: “Unlike Sandra Finch Russell’s experience, mine does not include being sanctioned by an 11th Circuit Court for lack of ethics.”
In her email response to the Herald/Review Tuesday, Russell said she is staying away from negativity.
“While other candidates may be focused on a negative campaign, I am focusing on what I have to offer the citizens of Cochise County,” Russell said. “My opponents and I are all lawyers in the legal community and it is extremely short sighted not to consider that we will continue to cross paths once this election is over,” she said.
“I am a trial lawyer. I fight for justice for people. It’s easy for lawyers who don’t fight for people in court to throw stones. Some of the greatest trial lawyers in the country have been sanctioned,” she added.