News & Opinion » Feature

Extreme Politics

Can Democrat Nancy Young Wright pull off an upset victory against the Tea Party's Ally Miller?

by

17 comments

When the dust cleared from August's Republican primary in the race to replace the retiring Ann Day on the Pima County Board of Supervisors, Ally Miller emerged as the winner.

Miller captured 37.6 percent of the vote in northside District 1, besting second-place finisher Mike Hellon by almost 6 percentage points. Now Miller faces Democrat Nancy Young Wright in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

The four-way primary proved once again that a candidate who can tap the Tea Party's support can win a crowded primary, even though Miller was able to capture only a little more than a third of the vote.

But the general election will answer another question: If primary voters nominate a hard-right candidate with a tendency to play fast and loose with the facts, and a tenuous grasp on how county government operates, can a Democrat win enough crossover votes to capture a seat in a GOP district?

District 1 isn't exactly friendly territory for a Democrat like Nancy Young Wright. Forty-one percent of voters in the district—which includes parts of Marana, Oro Valley, the Casas Adobes area and the Catalina foothills—identify as Republicans, and just 30 percent are Democrats.

But the district was remarkably split in the primary. Miller, who promised to shake up county government and push for the firing of top administrators, dominated the northern portion of the district. Hellon—who promised to continue Day's constituent service—won nearly every precinct in the Catalina foothills.

Wright sees an opening with that dynamic and is telling voters that she's a better successor to Day than Miller.

"I'm a lot more aligned with Ann Day and her viewpoints," Wright says. "She cares about parks and land and the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, and is a moderate, pro-choice Republican."

Wright got involved in Pima County politics nearly two decades ago, because she was concerned about the lack of parks in Oro Valley. She learned about the complexities of land-use policies and zoning laws when she led a fight to preserve Oro Valley's Honey Bee Canyon and later worked as a member of the steering committee on the county's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. Wright says that gives her experience in dealing with the kind of land-use decisions that the Board of Supervisors frequently deals with in the unincorporated areas of District 1.

Wright first won political office, on the Amphi school board, in 1996. As a board member, she began digging into the actions of the board and blew the whistle on so much corruption—from insider deals on land purchases to board members skimming from day-care programs to pay for food, drink and retreats for themselves—that voters ultimately recalled the board majority in 2000.

Wright stepped down from the Amphi board in 2007, a year after she made an unsuccessful run for mayor of Oro Valley. She meant to take a break from politics, but was drawn back after state Rep. Lena Saradnik retired following a stroke. Wright was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the Arizona House of Representatives in Republican-leaning District 26 in 2007 and won election to the seat in 2008. She lost it two years later when Republicans Vic Williams and Terri Proud won the two legislative seats in LD 26.

Wright said she decided to run in the heavily Republican District 1 when she heard that Day was retiring, and she was concerned that some of the Republicans lining up to seek the job leaned far to the right.

"I saw that Ally was running, and I saw that she was from the Tea Party, and I thought that she would be a very poor representative for our part of town," Wright says. "I like constituent service a lot. I like public policy and working with people."

Miller has lived in Pima County for three decades, but became involved in politics just a few years ago, when she launched a 2009 effort to recall Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson that quickly fizzled.

Unable to get support for her efforts from the Tucson Tea Party, run by Trent Humphries and Robert Mayer, Miller formed her own Tea Party group: the Pima County Tea Party Patriots. Among the group's highlights was endorsing Republican Jesse Kelly over Jonathan Paton for a congressional seat in the 2010 GOP primary. Kelly would go on to win the primary, but lose to Democrat Gabrielle Giffords.

During her campaign for the Board of Supervisors, Miller has downplayed her history with the Tea Party Patriots. In a September radio interview with Mark Evans of tucsoncitizen.com, Miller said that references to her work with the Tea Party were an example of how "the establishment" would "fabricate just horrible stories and lies about me to retain their stranglehold on Pima County."

But those Tea Party connections landed her primary endorsements from the most-conservative politicians in Southern Arizona: state Sen. Al Melvin and state Rep. Terri Proud, as well as congressional candidate Gabriela Saucedo Mercer, who recently received national attention for her suggestion that Middle Eastern men should not be allowed in the United States "legally or illegally," because "their only goal in life is ... to cause harm to the United States."

On the campaign trail, Miller's chief complaints are about county property taxes, the poor condition of many county roads, a lack of good jobs, and a sense that Pima County is a hotbed of nepotism and a good-ol'-boy network of insiders who profit at the expense of taxpayers. She wants to see County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry fired.

Miller can sometimes engage in exaggeration. For example, in a June interview with the Tucson Weekly, she claimed the Amphi school district, while in a legal battle to build a school in the habitat of the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl back in 1998, was forced to spend "millions and millions of dollars on guards watching that land to make sure they didn't release pygmy owls on the land."

The actual amount, according to press reports, was $46,000 for three months of work. Amphi officials said they were concerned that environmentalists might plant evidence of an owl on the property, but not an actual endangered owl.

While Miller boasts about her experience in working on financial matters with Honeywell and Intel, and she has a master's degree in business administration from the UA Eller School, she was taken in by false claims that were emailed to her regarding the county's budget.

As the Weekly reported in July, Miller received a document via email that purported to show that $345 million couldn't be accounted for in the county's transportation budget. The claim was so outlandish that fellow Republican Hellon dismissed it as "preposterous" during the primary campaign.

Miller encouraged the Weekly to investigate the claim, and a review of the county's transportation budget showed that the information sent to Miller left out key areas of spending.

The report was assembled by developer Mike Farley, who is upset with Pima County because he owns property near Valencia and Kolb roads, where he wants to build a shopping center. But county officials have been planning to build an intersection that would not accommodate Farley's plans. Huckelberry says Farley's preferred alignment for the intersection would cost several million dollars more than the county's preferred alternative, and would be less efficient at moving traffic.

In a July interview with the Weekly, Farley conceded that his claim that the money was "unaccounted for" was an exaggeration designed to call attention to the county's transportation priorities and "bloated bureaucracy."

"Is the money unaccounted for?" Farley told the Weekly. "Nah, it's probably in there."

When the Weekly attempted to follow up with Miller on the topic of the allegedly missing money, she declined to respond to our questions. After a story ran that revealed she had bought into the bogus claim, Miller announced on the radio that she would not speak to the Weekly again.

Wright says the episode reveals a lot about Miller's personality.

"She does have an education, but her ideology is overriding her ability to look at things factually," Wright says. "To me, that's the last thing you want in somebody in that position—they're so dogmatic and persistent in their position that they can't be reasoned with."

Miller has a habit of taking budget numbers out of context without understanding them. In an interview, she pointed to a $27 million transfer from the county's transportation budget and asked, "Where is that money going?" Asked if she had checked with anyone at the county to find out where the money was going, Miller replied, "I have not been able to get anyone to answer any questions."

But Huckelberry says that Miller simply doesn't understand how the county budget works. That $27 million was transferred from the county's operations and maintenance fund to its capital-improvement fund to pay for major road improvements.

"We've been doing it that way for 20 years," Huckelberry explains. "Transportation budgets are annual documents. The capital project fund is a holding fund. Most transportation projects take longer than a year to complete. ... (It's) no shell game."

Miller also declared at a primary debate that she had undertaken an "investigation" that revealed the county was using transportation dollars from the state to pay for road bonds. She denounced the practice as "wrong" and declared that "it needs to stop."

But voters decided in a 1997 bond election to use the state funds to pay back the bonds—so if the county followed Miller's advice, it would be breaking the law.

"That's a really good example of someone who is unfit for public office," Wright says. "You have to be willing to look at other information and facts. She doesn't seem to be coming from looking at facts. She seems to be coming from looking at propaganda that's she's given by her handlers."

Miller has not returned phone calls from the Weekly to clarify her positions on these issues. When given a chance to do so at a debate last August, Miller chose to instead go on a tirade against the Weekly.

"Have you ever seen that paper?" she asked. "It's a liberal rag."

When it comes to land-use issues, Miller and Wright are far apart.

"I'm an environmentalist, but I believe that the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan goes too far," Miller says, adding that "it's more about being in control than being an environmentalist."

Miller says the plan was flawed from the beginning, because, in addition to mapping sensitive areas, it included plans for preserving open space.

"We have more than enough open-space land, and I don't believe we should be funding further open-space purchases," Miller says.

Wright, who worked many volunteer hours as part of the steering committee for the conservation plan, says concern about the award-winning plan being watered down was one reason she got into the race.

"I've put a lot of time into fighting for some good stuff for this county, like the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, and I don't want to see anyone undermine it," Wright says.

Miller sounds notes of distrust toward local environmentalists. For example, she believes it's inappropriate for Carolyn Campbell, who heads the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, to also serve on the county's bond-advisory committee.

In general, Miller expresses concern that the county's regulations and impact fees are stifling development. She wants the county to "work toward" abolishing impact fees, because "development was going on for many, many years without them."

"The impact fees are too high," Miller says. "That's a way we can cut back and help businesses get up and running. ... It's not cash out of the taxpayer's pocket upfront."

Wright argues that impact fees have brought in more than $70 million to help with road construction since Pima County adopted them in the 1990s. Given that the county has struggled to keep up with road needs even with that additional revenue, Wright says, "I can only imagine how bad it would be without that money."

Wright agrees with the decision by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year to reduce wastewater-connection fees for new development and to forgo an increase in impact fees. She says she'd be open to temporarily reducing them until the construction sector gets moving again.

"I do have some sympathy for where (developers) are coming from, but taking impact fees away altogether is not the answer," Wright says. "I don't think that's what they're asking for, but we can be reasonable and talk about that."

Although she's the underdog in the district, Wright has outdone Miller in fundraising. Wright had raised more than $66,000 for her campaign and still had more than $28,000 on hand as of Sept. 17, according to the most-recent campaign-finance reports.

Miller has struggled to raise money. Her most-recent campaign finance report showed that she had raised just less than $51,000, including $18,300 that she had lent the campaign during the primary. (Her campaign-finance report showed that $2,795 of the $9,020 given to her by contributors since she won the primary has gone to paying herself back.)

Miller has had big-dollar contributors from the development community. Farley, the developer who hopes to persuade the county to change its plan for the intersection of Kolb and Valencia roads, has been running an independent-expenditure effort to help Miller, along with fellow Republican supervisor candidates Tanner Bell, Fernando Gonzales and Jim Kelley, and sheriff's candidate Mark Napier.

In addition, developer Mitch Stallard, who built La Encantada at Campbell Avenue and Skyline Drive, poured $10,000 into television ads and newspaper advertisements in the final weeks of the primary to help Miller boost her name ID.

Those independent campaigns have led to complaints from two of Miller's primary opponents—Hellon and Stuart McDaniel—that Miller's campaign illegally coordinated with the independent efforts, because both used TagLine Media, a public-relations company.

Matt Roberts, a spokesman for Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, says the investigation into Miller's campaign is still open.

Miller has refused to comment on the investigation, but Deb Weisel, who heads TagLine, says that she severed ties with Miller and the other Republican candidates so she could work with the independent committees.

"I'm not working for any of (the candidates)," Weisel told the Weekly in August. "I sent them all letters. Actually, Ally had quit long before the other ones, because she knew that I was probably going to start working for an independent, so she just did her own thing."

Miller sees firing Huckelberry as the key change the county needs. "What we need to do is get a board elected that is willing to take Mr. Huckelberry and let him go," Miller said at an August Tea Party debate. "He's been running that county too long."

Wright recalls the last time Republicans took control of the Board of Supervisors and dismissed a group in upper management. The county's administration was thrown into chaos, and the dismissed workers won a legal settlement that cost county taxpayers millions of dollars. Ultimately, the business community leaned on the Board of Supervisors to hire a new administrator to bring some stability to the county, in 1993.

That administrator's name? Chuck Huckelberry, who has been in the top slot ever since.

Wright believes Huckelberry is doing a good job. She points out that county property taxes have remained stable, even as other jurisdictions have had serious budget troubles, and the state has cut funding for the county.

Wright recalls that Huckelberry started out as a civil engineer whose focus was on building roads and other infrastructure, including a project that lined river banks with soil cement, much to the dismay of environmentalists.

"He's grown over time to be a person who has a real forward vision for the county," Wright says. "I've talked to longtime conservationists who say he changed over time from a guy who wanted to build roads and bridges to seeing that there was a lot more to it. That's why we have the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan and a bicycle loop. He sees things in a much-broader way. It's not just growth or no growth. It's a much-more-balanced vision."

Comments (17)

Showing 1-17 of 17

Add a comment
 

Add a comment