On 5 January, when Adrian Fontes will be inaugurated as the secretary of state of Arizona, there will be no luxuriating over his appointment, no glitzy made-for-media plans for the first 100 days.
“I don’t have time for those kinds of things, I’ve just got to get to work,” he said.
The sense of urgency is understandable. As secretary of state, Fontes will be responsible for overseeing all statewide elections in Arizona. The state found itself at the frontline of efforts to subvert democracy in the wake of Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, with Republicans staging a widely derided “audit” of the count and attempting to send fake electors to Washington.
That includes federal elections, and with them the 2024 presidential election in which Trump is attempting a comeback. Arizona counties are already preparing for the next battle for the White House, with primary elections to select the two main parties’ nominees only 15 months away.
“It’s not that far away. We will have to work at lightning speed,” Fontes said in an interview with the Guardian from his campaign office in Scottsdale, outside the state capital, Phoenix.
The US continues to confront the threat to democracy unleashed by Trump in a huge legal campaign after the 2020 presidential election to overturn his defeat and then 2021’s January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Fontes has more experience dealing with the crisis than most. In November’s midterm elections he fought against, and defeated, Mark Finchem, one of the most notorious election deniers – who was present at the Capitol on 6 January.
The contest appeared at times to be unnervingly close, attracting national and international attention. In the end, however, Fontes won with a comfortable margin, taking 52% of the vote to Finchem’s 48%.
“We won by about 120,000 votes – we put it away handily,” Fontes said.
But the result is not grounds for complacency, Fontes believes. From his perspective, given the scale of the danger posed by Finchem and his ilk, the outcome should have been much clearer.
“Our victory was more narrow than we would have liked. We should have won by 20 points, and sent a much stronger message. Nobody should sleep easy on the Maga fascist threat that still exists,” he said.
“Maga fascist” is Fontes’ preferred terminology for “election deniers”. He uses the phrase liberally, referring to Donald Trump’s election slogan, “Make America Great Again” (Maga), which is used by opponents to indicate the former US president’s shrinking and increasingly rightwing base of loyal voters.
It indicates how Fontes plans to shore up democracy in his new role as Arizona secretary of state.
“I use the words ‘Maga fascists’ because it’s the truth,” he said. “These people are not Grand Old Party Republicans; they are Maga fascists. There is no reason for me to call them by anything other than what they are. If they feel a little sensitive about that, then maybe they ought to reconsider their position vis-a-vis American democracy and stop acting like fascists.”
His remarks could be construed as hyperbole. But when it comes to the attack on democracy, Arizona and hyperbole go together; as one commentator put it, the state is the “final frontier” for election denialism.
Trump’s playbook, in which legitimate elections are denounced as riddled with fraud when he or his anointed candidates do not win, was deployed again in the Arizona midterm election. Several counties controlled by Republicans delayed certification of their results despite being able to produce no evidence of any substantial problems.
Kari Lake, the Trump-endorsed Republican candidate for governor who was defeated by the current secretary of state, Democrat Katie Hobbs, continues to refuse to concede. Lake filed a lawsuit in Maricopa, the state’s most populous county, challenging the certification and claiming to be the official winner.
Lake’s suit was rejected by a court, and Democrats – and swing voters – have been heartened by Hobbs’ and Fontes’ victories as an important element in the national thwarting of the predicted Republican “red wave” and defeat of extremists in the midterms.
Nevertheless, Fontes sees Lake’s dogged refusal to accept the outcome of a legitimate count as evidence of the ongoing peril the country is in.
“We must stop pretending these guys have legitimate complaints, catering to their eggshell sensitivities. We must confront them again and again, treating them like the enemies to democracy that they are. We’re not name-calling, we’re truth-telling – there’s a big difference,” he said.
Fontes served for four years in the 1990s in the US Marine Corps, and went on to a career as a lawyer and prosecutor. He first stood for public office in 2016, when he was voted in as recorder of Maricopa county, introducing him to the increasingly volatile world of Arizona’s election administration.
Once in the hot seat as Arizona’s chief election official, Fontes intends to use his clout to press the state legislature to increase penalties against anyone threatening or intimidating election workers.
During the midterm elections, self-appointed “monitors”, some wearing tactical gear, some visibly armed, staked out outdoor ballot drop boxes that were part of the legal means of casting a vote, sometimes taking pictures of voters’ car registration or asking them questions.
“We had folks with long rifles and camouflage gear ‘guarding’ our ballot drop boxes,” Fontes said. “That was asinine. Those folks should be prosecuted as the domestic terrorists that they are.”
Any attempt at intimidating election workers should be severely dealt with, he said. “We need to be aggressive – not just assertive, but aggressive – in pursuing these threats, because elections are the gold thread that holds the whole fabric of our society together. We’ve got to defend them fiercely.”