But the 52-year-old supervisor, who is seeking his fourth term on the board, has built a formidable political machine in the 12 years he's been on the board. His support among District 5 Democrats was obvious during the September primary, when he won 74 percent of the vote against a relatively well-funded and politically savvy challenger, Dan Medina.
That big win on election day solidified his troops as the campaign for the general began. Given that his district is 56 percent Democrat and less than 23 percent Republican, you'd think a GOP candidate would have to be crazy to challenge him.
But Republican Rosalie López sees Grijalva as vulnerable. López says she decided to get into the race "because so many people, as myself, had come to a point where we recognized that change was necessary in order to restore Pima County to good financial health. Many people have long tired of Raúl Grijalva's patron system of politics. With that in mind, I pose a different type of leadership that I believe will restore integrity to that position as well as work for the greater good of not only District 5 residents but all of Pima County."
López complains that while the budget has spiraled out of control, District 5 residents are suffering with too much crime and lousy streets. But if District 5 Democrats are unhappy with Grijalva, they didn't show it in the primary. In fact, Grijalva's 74 percent win over Medina in the Democratic primary topped the 71 percent of the vote that López gathered running unopposed in the GOP primary.
Grijalva says López is running a campaign similar to Medina's, banking on Grijalva Fatigue. She blames all of Pima County's woes on him, while "anything that appears to be somewhat progressive or forward-thinking is shared by everybody else but Raúl," Grijalva says. "And that's kind of the strategy. So the question becomes, were we wrong in saying that sprawl takes away money from existing neighborhoods? Were we wrong when we said we should reinvest in neighborhoods and kids and prevention? Were we wrong to hold up some of the big rezonings? Were we wrong to support a livable wage?"
The environmentalists in District 5 don't share López's disenchantment with the incumbent. "Raúl been a pretty solid friend," says Carolyn Campbell, the chair of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, a umbrella group of 41 local conservation groups. Campbell has sometimes clashed with County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry over details of the county's ongoing Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan; Grijalva's office has often backed Campbell. "He's the biggest ally we've had," she says.
Grijalva has a long record opposing major rezonings, fighting for tougher development standards and pushing for transportation impact fees. This year, he's supporting the Citizens Growth Management Initiative and his campaign workers are carrying campaign literature opposing Prop 203, which would ban bilingual education, and Prop 100, the Growing Smarter proposition opposed by 70 conservation groups across Arizona.
Nearly all those positions put him at odds with López, who remains critical of the county's push for downzoning and opposes Prop 202 and increased impact fees.
EVEN WHEN GRIJALVA tries to bring home pork to District 5, he comes under criticism from López. She blasts him for proposing a $40 million improvement along South 12th Avenue when only $9 million is available through a 1996 bond package.
"I think it's most peculiar in an election year that he now wants to beat the bushes for $40 million and now has this vision for 12th Avenue being much more grand than what the $9 million can buy," López says. "I think he created a rift with his colleagues on the board when he did this."
López complains about "government officials who do not respect him or his politics," but she herself has hardly built political alliances with the politicians she would join if elected. District 4 Supervisor Ray Carroll has had hard feelings toward her since she confronted him at a GOP Executive Committee meeting. State Sen. Ann Day, the favorite to win the District 1 seat, witnessed the incident and came away with a negative impression of López. And District 3 incumbent Sharon Bronson loathes the idea of serving alongside her.
Give López this: She's relentlessly ambitious. She'd have to be, to take on Grijalva in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin.
López grew up on Tucson's south side, She graduated in 1972 from Pueblo High and attended NAU, the University of Northern Colorado and the University of North Texas. She received a law degree from the University of Houston Law Center in 1990. A few years later, under the name Rose Bender López, she lost a race for a judgeship in Texas.
When López returned to Tucson in the mid-'90s, she was quickly at the center of a political fight to bring Mexican-American Studies to the Tucson Unified School District. When the TUSD board failed to create the program after López and others petitioned them in 1996, López filed suit against the district in 1997. The board eventually created a program in the summer of 1998.
The publicity from the legal fight helped López win a seat on the TUSD board in 1998, but her critics began to complain that López was more interested in self-promotion than helping Hispanic children.
She'd barely been in that post for a year when she began hungering for more. She targeted Grijalva, moving into District 5 to run against him.
LOPEZ'S CAMPAIGN STARTED melting down in August, when Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson, acting at the behest of Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, asked her to resign from the county's Merit Commission, a five-member body that hears claims from disgruntled county employees. Since López was a candidate for the board, Dupnik was concerned that there could be a conflict of interest if she heard a case before the commission and later would hear about it as a board member. Backed by a legal opinion from County Attorney Barbara LaWall, Bronson asked the board to vote to remove López.
López first tried to interest reporters from the dailies in her version of events: Bronson had a vendetta against her because Bronson had been pursuing a romantic relationship with López's close friend Chris Limberis, who had left his job as a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star to serve as an aide to Bronson. After working the 11th floor for a little more than a year, Limberis quit his county job and took a job with the Weekly; although he's no longer on staff, he's still an occasional contributor.
When neither paper bit on the story, López aired it herself during an interview on John C. Scott's radio show. She claimed that Limberis had audio tapes that proved Bronson had pursued him.
Bronson has vehemently denied harassing Limberis. Limberis has backed up López's story, but he has yet to share any taped evidence.
The incident exacerbated López's reputation as a loose cannon. She's kept a lower profile since her outburst, cutting out her regular interviews on the Scott show in favor of an aggressive direct mail and telephone campaign in District 5, using a machine that leaves tape-recorded messages reminding voters about schoolchildren in crosswalks and offering to help fill out early ballots.
Lopez has raised $47,826 for her campaign as of October 2. She had spent $38,595, leaving with less than $10,000 for the final month of the campaign. Grijalva has easily outdone her in fundraising, collecting $81,770 in contributions. He'd spent $70,358, leaving him with $11,412. He also has a small army of volunteers out canvassing District 5 neighborhoods.
López likes to credit herself with forcing Grijalva to work for his re-election. "Frankly, if there is any good that really has come from me jumping into this race, it's been lighting a fire under him to get him to do things that should have been done a substantial time ago," López says.
But the big question remains: Has López has used her own political career as kindling for that blaze? While the firefight will end on November 7, López may find that the smoke takes a lot longer to clear.