On its Web site, Tucson-based political organization Arizona List declares it "is a grassroots donor network supporting pro-choice women Democrats running for the Arizona State Legislature, county and municipal offices and school boards. We are modeled after EMILY's List ... ."
That comparison to one of the nation's premier generators of contributions to female political candidates has drawn loud complaints. Some of the group's harshest critics argue it has little in common with EMILY's List; however, supporters of the organization point to its success in getting its endorsed candidates elected.
"My interest came from EMILY's List," recalls Marilyn Robinson, a former contributor to Arizona List, "but they don't really operate that way. ... I didn't realize they give so little money to candidates. It seems it's more of a social group, and that doesn't interest me."
Based on that, Robinson concludes: "I wouldn't think of supporting them anymore."
Pamela Sutherland, Arizona List co-founder and current executive director of the 3-year-old, rapidly growing group, counters: "It's a bizarre thing we're being accused of."
Recalling why the organization was established, Sutherland writes in a lengthy e-mail: "We founded Arizona List to encourage more pro-choice women Democrats to run for office. Women tend to view themselves as 'unworthy' of holding elected office and dismiss their own accomplishments; men tended to be asked to run by the political establishment more frequently than women are."
Robinson and other critics of Arizona List complain that the organization doesn't funnel enough money directly to candidates. EMILY's List does that very successfully through a process called "bundling."
Explaining this procedure, Carrie Giddins, from the EMILY's List office in Washington, D.C., says: "We have more than 100,000 members, and they receive a list of recommended candidates from us. They decide whom and how much to write a check for, and those go to a mail house run by EMILY's List, which then forwards them to the campaign. None of this money goes to EMILY's List."
While the organization raised $11 million for candidates through bundling this year, it also received $34 million in contributions for other purposes.
Arizona List does not use bundling.
"Because of the complexities of Arizona election law," Sutherland writes in an e-mail, "we do not bundle our members' contributions to candidates ... ."
Expanding on that statement in a later interview, Sutherland stresses state Clean Elections candidates cannot accept the group's money, while some localities like Tucson also place severe restrictions on their contributions.
Sutherland also points out another potential drawback to the organization contributing to a candidate's campaign.
"Because Arizona List works directly with candidates at the planning and training stages," she writes, "it could be accused of coordination if it made independent expenditures (to candidates) itself. Arizona List therefore contributes funds to separate, sympathetic groups who choose how to use the money in key races."
The question of how the group has spent the more than $280,000 it has raised since its founding is contentious. Prepared by a vocal critic of the group who requested anonymity, an analysis of Arizona List's revenues and expenditures shows that only 15 percent has gone directly to candidates or to independent political campaign committees. The major expenditures of Arizona List instead are for payroll (including Sutherland's salary), operating expenses and professional services. Another 7 percent was spent on food and catering.
Sutherland disputes some of the findings of the financial breakdown while proclaiming that Arizona List provides grassroots political training and support to women candidates. In addition, she says, they hold events to encourage volunteers to get involved with campaigns.
Sutherland also points with pride to the group's recent success in supporting winning women, especially in three state races in Yuma.
Closer to home, Lena Saradnik was elected to the Arizona House from predominately Republican District 26 on Tucson's northwest side, and is glowing in her compliments of Arizona List.
"I think they're a fantastic organization for women," Saradnik says. "I called them, and they got involved very early in my campaign and helped me realize what it means to run."
Arizona List additionally provided volunteers for Saradnik's bid for office, helping with telephone calls and door-to-door walking. The group couldn't contribute financially to her campaign because she ran as a Clean Elections candidate, but Saradnik concludes of Arizona List: "It is very valuable for women running for office."
Despite the criticism about how it operates, Sutherland believes Arizona List's 1,200 contributors know that the organization doesn't work exactly like EMILY's List.
"It's really clear on our Web site," she says, while adding in a later e-mail: "We send out many, many e-mails a year to our members keeping them apprised of our work."
But Tucson educator Shelia Tobias doubts that most Arizona List members know what is going on with the money they donate to the group. While she still contributes to the organization, Tobias resigned from its advisory board earlier this year after disagreeing with the group's controversial endorsement of Paula Aboud in her successful state Senate primary election race against Ted Downing.
"Actually, a lot of members don't know (Arizona List) is modeled on a 527," Tobias says of those national independent campaign committees. "There's no way to be informed about how they spend their money."
While acknowledging the group has a role to play in promoting women in politics, Tobias also observes: "I think it would be helpful if there was a public discussion of how they support candidates. They should be more forthcoming."