A Song of Ice and Sand: By Tempe, for Tempe

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Heather Chen
min - read
If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
When results were released on election night, it was immediately clear that the propositions had been voted down.
A variety of factors could have contributed to the loss, especially as Tempe Wins had to go on the defensive.
The election results leave the future of the Coyotes uncertain, which could be a detrimental loss for the region and the sport of hockey.

Judgement Day

This is the second part of a two-part series about the Arizona Coyotes arena vote. Click here to read the introduction and here to read Part I.

On election night, Marson was across the globe in Israel. It was 6 am in his time zone— still, he phoned into the election party that the opposition coalition was hosting at The Golden Pineapple, a local lounge in Tempe.

His friends spoke to him on FaceTime, sharing the buzz of the moment. Even half a world away, he could feel it, a wondrous awe at the people gathered together. “I just got the chills right now,” Marson said as he recalled the moment. The memory was a good one—an image of unions, community organizations, small business owners, and Tempe residents brought together for the culmination of over a year’s worth of hard work. 

When the results finally began to roll in, the outcome of the election was clear. Even though a small portion of the votes had not been tabulated yet, it was already evident that the ‘no’ vote had prevailed by a strong margin. 

“It wasn’t a nail-biter,” Marson said, “We knew on election night that we won…[it] was just an amazing feeling and something that I think I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Meanwhile, just three miles away, the Tempe Wins campaign was holding their election day party at Four Peaks Brewing Company. Journalists, city council members, campaign staff, and some fans were present at the occasion.

In the beginning, the atmosphere was bright. “There were a lot of smiles,” Brown recalled, “Everyone was feeling a little confident.” But as the election results came in, the mood shifted, an aura of bleakness settling into the room. At 8:29 pm, Gutierrez came out to address the crowd that remained.

There, he announced that the future of the franchise would be evaluated by the National Hockey League in the coming weeks.

Back at The Golden Pineapple, under the warm glow of string lights on the patio, a crowd of coalition members gathered around to celebrate the win. “This is a victory by Tempe, for Tempe,” an organizer shouted out. “We ran a campaign by the people.” For Marson, that statement encompassed the difference between the two campaigns.

“You have billionaires and CEOs of large companies,” he said in reference to Tempe Wins, “And then you have community members huddled up together, genuinely wanting the best for Tempe. I think those two different images really tell you everything you need to know about what happened [in] this election.”

People celebrate at a bar
Tempe 1st and its allies celebrate at The Golden Pineapple

Setting the Line

In the end, the financial advantage of Tempe Wins might not have been as beneficial as the Coyotes would have hoped.

Bastian explained that the Coyotes and Bluebird Development hired all sorts of professionals to run Tempe Wins, like campaign consultants and advertising specialists. Marson noted the number of paid staff as another difference between Tempe 1st and Tempe Wins. “They hired almost every consultant out in Arizona, every strategy firm in Arizona, to run their campaign.”

As of June 10, campaign finance reports indicated that Tempe Wins spent over $750,000 on its campaign. In comparison, the spending of Worker Power, AZ AANHPI for Equity, and Tempe 1st combined for approximately $500,000, with Tempe 1st spending around $15,000. So how was the opposition coalition able to bridge the gap in spending.

Tempe 1st made up for lost ground in the extensive organizing experience their volunteers held. Marson named former Tempe city councilwoman Lauren Kuby and political consultant Dawn Penich-Thacker as being two heavy hitters who assisted the campaign for free. “I think [that] really shows that they felt it in them, as Tempeans and as people who really care about the city, that they’ll do this work for free,” Marson said. “...That’s a huge distinction between the two [campaigns]. We weren’t bringing in a bunch of outside people,” Marson explained.

“At some point, you do need passion…you need to have a love for Tempe to care because this won’t really affect anyone but Tempe residents.”

That abundance of local political experience translated into the field operation the opposition coalition was able to run. Not affiliated with either campaign, Tempe resident and recent ASU graduate Aseem Chandi felt that the opposition had a stronger presence, noting that their campaign literature and signs were everywhere.

“You couldn’t turn down any street without seeing a campaign sign stating this deal was nothing but a handout to billionaires,” Chandi said. To him, the effort from Tempe Wins felt very lackluster in comparison. In Chandi’s eyes, both campaigns were able to play a nonpartisan angle, driving the issue down to the city’s division on development and housing.

The opposition coalition was even able to draw some Coyotes fans as volunteers. “They loved hockey, but they also wanted to advocate for the community,“ Tiwamangkala explained. Similarly, Marson had a friend at ASU who was a fan of the Coyotes and often attended games at Mullett Arena—and that friend, due to his political beliefs, voted no on the proposal. 

For Marson, that seeming contradiction in actions could be easily explained. “I don’t think you have to hate the Coyotes to vote no, I just think you have to hate the idea of this huge, horrible deal for Tempe. I think there is a place for the Coyotes in Arizona…but I don’t think it’s at the corner of Priest Drive.”

Another difference was the tone each side took on. “I feel the Tempe Wins campaign went the nice route,” Brown said. With a tagline of “Landmark to Landfill” and an emphasis on job creation, Tempe Wins seemed to lean into positive messaging. In comparison, Tempe 1st led with the slogan “No New Handouts for Billionaires,” while AZ AANHPI for Equity went for “Don't Get Pucked Outta Tempe.” As a result, Tempe Wins often found themselves on the defensive, sending out press releases and fielding articles that tried to debunk the talking points raised by the opposition.

At times, things got heated, especially in online spaces like Facebook and Twitter.

“It got a little ugly,” Tiwamangkala said. They explained that their lawn signs were vandalized and some harassing mail was sent to their office. Conversely, the official Tempe Wins Twitter account tweeted a series of pictures on May 15 where the opposition was allegedly stealing lawn signs.

Faced with a sizable opposition that had managed to build a bipartisan movement, it seemed that Tempe Wins had a tough hill to climb, repeatedly needing to prove themselves and their messaging to the community. In the end, they succumbed in the face of aggressive grassroots organizing.

“I always thought it was going to be a ‘no’ vote,” Marson said, “I know [Tempe 1st] didn’t have the money, but very rarely did I talk to someone that [was] voting yes…I knew we had the community behind us.”
Photo/Ross D. Franklin
October 28th, 2022: Fans watch players warm up before the Arizona Coyotes’ home-opening game against the Winnipeg Jets at the Mullett Arena.

The Aftermath

With the results of the election, the landfill at Priest Drive and Rio Salado Parkway will, for the time being, remain just that —a landfill.

For Bastian, the entertainment district was a chance for someone other than taxpayers to cover the costs of its cleanup. If there is a better deal out there, he is open to supporting it. But at the moment, there does not seem to be any active alternatives. “I’ve moved on…[I was] a little bit disappointed the night of the election and even a little bit the next day, but certainly, this isn’t going to change my life or my outlook on very many things,” Bastian said.

The devastation of the election results hit harder for fans like Meisterheim and Brown. “...I just want [the Coyotes] to stay in Arizona,” Brown said when asked about her hopes for the future of the team. She teared up as she spoke. “It’s what I love. And the fact that it could be gone just doesn’t work right with me.”

For Meruelo and the Coyotes organization, it seems that the dream of finding a permanent home in Tempe ends here. The team is still under contract to play at ASU’s Mullett Arena for two more seasons. Beyond that, the future is uncertain—will the Coyotes have to leave the Grand Canyon State? And what would an exit from the Arizona sports market mean for the growth of southwestern hockey?

In the hours after election results had been released, many Twitter users were quick to dogpile on with jokes about the Coyotes being sent to Quebec or Atlanta. Through the wash of rage tweets about landfills, some voices raised concerns about what the election results could mean for diversity in the sport.

When the NHL has the whitest fanbase of the four major professional sports leagues, it seems paramount that the Arizona Coyotes, who have the third-most-diverse fan base, remain a viable franchise in the state and the league. In 2020, Gutierrez became the first Latino team president in the NHL, while Meruelo became the first Latino team owner in the NHL after acquiring the team in 2019.

The Coyotes are also crucial to the success of youth hockey in the state. The team has invested incredible amounts of money and resources into local rinks and hockey programs across the state. Their youth development programs have produced real talent, with NHL superstar Auston Matthews as the most prominent success story.

Women’s hockey has experienced notable growth as well, with a 2019 report from USA Hockey finding that Arizona ranked first in total percentage growth for female hockey players. If the Coyotes were to leave the state, one can only imagine what that would do for not only Arizona youth hockey, but also for the diversity of the sport as a whole.

For now, the destiny of the team is unknowable—most of us can only speculate about the conversations being had behind closed doors. However, there has been some indication that the league will continue to fight for the future of Arizona hockey. Through the loss, fans like Meisterheim find hope through the promise that Gutierrez, Meruelo, and general manager Bill Armstrong bring. Perhaps, for the first time, the team may have the front office it deserves—one which can carry the Coyotes through the hard times ahead. In the heat of the desert, they continue to dream of the ice. 

“We’re not going to Houston. We’re not going to Quebec,” Meisterheim said. “Hockey belongs here and it’s going to stay here.”

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