The election campaign to decide the fate of Tempe’s $2.1 billion deal with the Arizona Coyotes has started to get ugly, with two opposing political action committees ― including one financed entirely by the project developer ― teetering on the brink of a legal battle and taking shots at each other’s integrity.
Both PACs formed late last year after the Tempe City Council decided to send the deal to voters during a special election on May 16. They share similar names, but have clashing opinions on the team’s proposal to build 2,000 apartments, an NHL arena and an entertainment district on 46 acres of city-owned land that has been home to a landfill west of Town Lake:
- Tempe Wins is run by Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo and his development company, Bluebird Development LLC. It seeks to persuade residents to vote ‘yes’ by promising the project will create nearly 7,000 new jobs, $519 million in “financial benefits” for Tempe and $215 million in new tax revenue ― all without eating up any existing public dollars.
- Tempe 1st is made up of residents, advocates and even former Tempe Councilmember Lauren Kuby, all of whom oppose the deal. They’re against the more than $500 million in tax breaks for the team and question the promised benefits, argue the plan doesn’t advance the city’s goals in areas such as affordable housing, and don’t want to risk Tempe’s “last bulk” of empty city land on a “risky deal.”
Tempe 1st has also consistently taken shots at Meruelo. The PAC cites his tumultuous and short tenure running the team in Glendale, called him a “deadbeat” who is “notorious for unpaid bills,” and planted signs across Tempe that label him a “corrupt billionaire.”
Those signs were what prompted Meruelo’s lawyer to send Tempe 1st a cease-and-desist letter on Tuesday, saying there is “absolutely no justification or evidence to back up” the allegation that the team owner is “corrupt.” Such letters typically serve as warnings that a lawsuit will be coming down the chute if the claims in question don’t stop.
“Aside from being dishonest to voters, the false claims spread by Tempe 1st are damaging the reputations of Meruelo and his businesses without justification,” Tempe Wins wrote in a news release.
It’s unclear if Tempe 1st would be willing or able to fight a defamation lawsuit. The PAC had raised just under $2,000 from five separate donors by the end of 2022, for example, and doesn’t appear to be backed by billionaires who could foot the legal bill.
Tempe Wins, on the other hand, raised more than $224,000 by the start of 2023. All of that came from a single donation by Meruelo’s Bluebird Development company, plus the businessman and Las Vegas casino mogul likely has plenty more cash to throw at the issue if needed.
Tempe 1st leader Dawn Penich-Thacker isn’t concerned, however. She told The Arizona Republic that “the truth is not defamatory,” and described the cease-and-desist letter as a “run-of-the-mill bullying tactic.”
“Our attorney reviewed their letters and found them to be completely baseless and nothing more than a desperate attempt to intimidate voters into silence,” she wrote in an emailed statement on Thursday. “There is nothing defamatory about residents alerting their neighbors to genuine concerns and well-documented facts.”
Regardless of how the campaign conflict shakes out, ballots for the special election will start being mailed out on April 19. Voters will need to approve three separate initiatives ― Propositions 301, 302 and 303 ― in order for the project to happen.