PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Mayor Marlin Kuykendall took a lead role in helping Prescott mourn the loss of 19 firefighters this summer, sharing the stage with the governor and Vice President Joe Biden at a nationally televised memorial. He set aside campaigning in the midst of a re-election bid to focus almost entirely on the fallen firefighters, and his victory to a third term seemed like a safe bet.
That all changed when he and the city started coming under attack on a daily basis over their refusal to extend full benefits to all of the firefighters' families. The issue sharply divided the community and quickly eliminated most of the unity that Prescott enjoyed in the days after the tragedy.
The mayor said in an interview with The Associated Press that he "certainly could be at risk depending on the mood and the confidence that the public has in the way we've handled this situation."
"You keep hearing this has been a perfect storm – that has been used a lot," Kuykendall said. "I have to say life has not been the same since June the 30th."
Up until the firefighters' deaths on that day, Prescott residents had been concerned with making sure the city would have a future water supply, that jobs would be created and protected, roads would be fixed and that the city was buying open space with money from a sales-tax increase. Those issues still loom, but the Yarnell Hill Fire is an election issue that no one saw coming.
The dispute between the city and some of the firefighters' families has focused on the classification of 13 of the men as temporary employees, which doesn't come with full survivors' benefits. The city has said it cannot legally extend the benefits afforded to the six full-time employees' families to the others. Grieving widows have lashed out at city leaders in public meetings and through the media, saying each man put his life on the line.
Kuykendall faces former city Councilwoman Lindsay Bell in the mail-in primary that will also deal with three open city council seats. The council races won't be settled until after the general election in November, but the mayor's race will be decided after the primary because there are only two candidates.
Bell doesn't disagree with the job Kuykendall has done but thinks she can do better. She has kept a low profile when it comes to talking about the firefighters' deaths. She's heard from voters who are enraged that the City Council didn't allow the widow of Eric Marsh to speak at a meeting about rebuilding the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew he founded and from others who are dismayed at the way Kuykendall has treated the families who have spoken out about survivors' benefits, she said.
"I would never intrude on the families and give them my opinion about some of these various issues and controversies, and I certainly would never use the tragedy to advance my political aspirations," she said.
The candidates themselves aren't necessarily making the firefighters' deaths a talking point with voters. There's a political nicety in this former territorial capital that has kept them from harshly attacking one another.
But most everyone in town has an opinion about the city's stance on the benefits, and they're sharing them with the candidates, often prefaced by the sadness they feel for the families. For some, it's a major factor in how they're voting.
"Regardless of whether they said they can do it or not, they could have been more friendly," said Prescott resident Nick Chisum, who will be voting for Bell in the mayor's race. "At least looked at the situation. How can you put a price on life? You really can't."
Kuykendall maintains that the fight by the widow of fallen firefighter Andrew Ashcraft to extend full-time benefits for her family is about money. The criticism of him is not all based in truth, he said, adding it can be "very difficult to turn your cheek to a point when it's really vicious and untrue." Juliann Ashcraft has been the most vocal critic of the city on the issue, giving the debate greater prominence with her national TV interviews and news conferences.
Renee Schultz doesn't blame the mayor for stating that not all the firefighters' families would receive the same benefits. But, she says, "I know our town. I think they are going to turn on the mayor because of his attacks on the widows."
Jean Wilcox, an attorney who is running for a council seat, said the council should be more creative in assessing how it can provide regular benefits for firefighters in the future. At the very least, the council should have told family members that "we're very sorry, and we're trying," she said.
"If it means deferring some road maintenance for a year or two, I don't think people would have a problem with that," she said. "It just depends on whose ox gets gored."
Along with Wilcox, the other candidates in the council race are incumbents Steve Blair and Len Scamardo, and Alan Dubiel, Ellie Laumark and Gregory Lazzell.
Prescott resident Tom Cox would like to see the incumbents retain their seats, saying "they're doing a good job. These people have promoted tourism. It's a well-run town."
Kuykendall, a 79-year-old retiree whose preferred work attire is cowboy boots, jeans and button-up shirt, is a familiar face in Prescott, having lived here for more than 50 years. He has garnered more than 50 percent of the vote in his past two mayoral races. Scamardo, who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the council and is seeking a full term, said he doubts any of the incumbents will run away with the race. He'd rather people vote based on the council's accomplishments in being a cohesive unit that has staved off mass layoffs, maintained basic services and made major strides in securing water.
Scamardo noted that emails from the public are calling city leaders "a bunch of bastards," but he said they wrongly state the city is denying widows basic benefits.
"I think it's going to be very close and certainly it's going to affect the incumbents," he said.