Every time we have an election in Arizona, the Secretary of State’s office comes into the forefront. But did you ever wonder what exactly goes on in this office, or what initiatives are being handled behind the scenes? Here’s a hint – it’s not all election-related. Secretary of State Michele Reagan shares with Traversant Group about how she came to hold such a high position in our state, why she ran for public office in the first place and – most importantly of all – her vision and tactics for serving Arizonans and furthering business in our state.
What are some of the exciting projects the Secretary of State’s Office is Working On?
One of the exciting projects my office is working on is remodeling the Arizona Capitol Museum. We have a treasure trove of items in our archives, like the robe that Sandra Day O’Connor wore and the telephone that President Reagan called Justice O’Connor on when he asked her to serve on U.S. Supreme Court. We also have the last known pictures of Geronimo, one of the flags that went down with USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. Our State Archives division houses our original Arizona Constitution and territorial maps. Some of these historic items have never been seen by the Arizonans that own them. With the arrival of Dr. Jack August to our team, we are going to make the museum a destination for both children and adults.
We are also partnering with the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Families in October to replicate a “drug room” in the Museum. The room will be arranged to look like a child’s bedroom for parents to see how easy it is for children to hide illegal substances.
You’ve been in office a little more than a year. What has surprised you the most?
I’ve been surprised by how vast the service offering is. Most people have no idea that the Secretary of State’s Office has so many divisions. Many know that it is the state’s second highest elected office – the de facto lieutenant governor and in charge of elections. But this office is also in charge of the state library system, a variety of business services and the braille and talking book library, to name a few. My office processes 7,000 business filings a month, on average. Then, we have four statewide elections. It’s incredible.
It’s funny – on election day, we are so excited to be up in the morning at the polls. We are working at the polling place and up all night working with the county recorders who are counting votes. But, you go talk to someone in our business services division and it doesn’t even register that “It’s election day?”. With our state library division, the LSTA grants announcement is their “election day” and on that day, the elections staff is thinking, “What is an LSTA grant?”
How large is the Secretary of State’s Office?
We have capacity for 160 full-time employees, but we are not fully staffed right now. Surprisingly, the elections division is one of the smaller areas. The libraries division is probably the largest area and business services division generates the majority of revenues for the office.
You campaigned on transparency and modernization? Tell us more about this and what you are up to.
Yes! This election season, we debuted our new online Candidate Portal, which has been a tremendous success. Now, all state candidates can file online. Candidates still have to drop off petitions in the office, but they no longer have to sit here while we count them. This has been a huge time saver for candidates and it also benefits the public because they can research candidates online. I am very proud of this.
Are there other technology initiatives on the horizon?
Again, yes! My office is also working on another transparency database initiative called “See The Money.” Once this database goes live, someone can go to the See The Money Web portal, select a candidate and see everyone who has contributed to that candidate – along with the dollar amount. In that list of donors, you can then click on the donor’s name and see all of the candidates that donor has contributed to. Or, you might see an official, like a legislator or the governor, and another window opens to show you from whom that official accepted money. See The Money shows how money is moving through the political system. It’s a powerful data tool and will be debuting soon.
You can also do the same search functions with Political Action Committees and Independent Expenditure Groups. There is a common misconception that neither reports campaign contributions and that they’re all secret. Well, they’re not. The majority of these groups file reports with the Secretary of State’s office. And, if it is truly “dark money,” then See The Money will provide the IRS and Arizona Corporation Commission filings.
See The Money will even track local campaign giving – an area that has been historically neglected. Campaign contributions at the cities, towns and counties also play a big role in the political process. So you can see whether a person has contributed to a supervisor in Yuma, a city council person in Tucson or a justice of the peace in Mohave.
We will be the first in the nation to develop a searchable online repository like this. Online lobbyist registration will be the next phase coming after that –it’s yet another paper-based process.
When will See The Money go live?
It is being transferred onto our servers right now. I sketched it on a cocktail napkin – where all the best ideas start! We will do some testing after the November general election, and go live in 2017.
How do you access all of this data in real-time?
We have built relationships with other state agencies, as well as the federal and local governments. See the Money will be built on a scalable platform – not every Arizona city and town will be signed right away. But it should be easy to be able to add them as we go.
Tell us more about how you became so passionate about transparency.
Yes, I have become obsessed with our See The Money project. We can’t even begin to discuss transparency unless every elected official in the state is filing through the same portal. Otherwise, the citizens are only seeing a sliver of the information that should be public information. Some may say that it is too much information and others may say that it is not enough. Regardless, once See The Money goes live people will feel empowered when they can see the relationship between elected officials and the donors who contribute to them. As politicians, we will build greater trust with the community if we stop making it so secretive. I’ve put a lot of thought into this initiative. I was not going to come up here and sit around and do nothing. It’s not my style. This is the right thing to do.
What got you interested in public service?
My family had a sign company and we had done quite well. My parents were involved in various business community groups for networking purposes, and I had this brilliant idea that I would join the local Young Republicans to network and try to sell some of our products! It was a simple premise, who needs more signs than a bunch of politicians?
But what happened next was that I began to get involved in campaigns and became addicted to public policy. And I started to take notice of how the state legislature could really wreak havoc on small businesses like ours if the right people weren’t down at the state capitol. I would often joke with my Dad late at night when we were fulfilling orders that I would run for office when we sold the business. It just so happened that when we sold the business in 2001 there was an open seat in my district. So, I ran! I walked the neighborhoods with my parents, the Young Republicans and my two little dogs, Lucky and Bozo, all of us wearing Michele Reagan t-shirts.
And you won!
Yes! The whole reason I ran was to be a voice for small business owners. And I went to the legislature with that goal in mind. Jake Flake was the Speaker of the House then. To me he was 10 feet tall. I was 30 years old, probably dressed in something far too colorful for the capitol and way too bubbly. My first session, I was assigned to Ways and Means Committee, Banking and Insurance Committee and as Vice Chair of the Commerce Committee. Seriously, that is the trifecta for someone interested in economic issues. I eventually became Chair of the Commerce Committee. I’ll always be grateful to Jake Flake for giving me a those first committee assignments. What a gift – a blessing.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Rockford, Illinois but raised in the south suburbs of Chicago. We moved to Arizona to open our sign business three days after I graduated from college.
What did your parents do?
My Mom was a teacher and my Dad was always involved in technology ventures. It was a gamble to come to Arizona. We gave up everything we did and had, and started over.
This is where my Mom wanted to live. There weren’t many big tech companies here at the time so my Dad said we will have to open something of our own. We decided to open a franchise that the three of us could do together. So my Dad and I just picked a franchise that we thought we would enjoy. We drove past a sign company one day and thought, “we can do this.”
What advice would you give someone thinking of running for office?
You have to ask yourself what you are passionate about. I think that is the best advice I received. I wanted to make sure Arizona was good to small businesses. I still do. It’s one of the reason I love being Secretary of State because I get to work with our state’s business community every day. I think everyone needs to have a real reason for running. Public service can be brutal – angry people, the media, the partisanship. It used to be we could have relationships across the aisle, but everything now is so distasteful. If you don’t know why you are running, why would you do this?
Why did you run for Secretary of State?
I want to be a voice for small businesses and I want to increase voter participation especially within our younger demographics. There is so much this office can do for the small business community. And, I love the changes we are able to create – like See The Money. And transitioning our Business Services division from paper to online filing so people and businesses don’t have to drive to the capitol to file simple paperwork. Bringing this office into the year 2016, 2017 and beyond. And it’s no different when we talk about reaching out to new voters. The days of talking to them on paper are over. We need to talk to the younger generation where they live, in the digital world. This office needed a serious overhaul in so many areas. That’s what keeps me going.