PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — 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.