by Jim Nintzel
UPDATED on Monday, April 13: Bernal abandons campaign!
It appears that Ward 3 City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich's decision to fire City Manager Mike Hein has bought her some political trouble already: Democrat Bennett Bernal is planning to challenge her in the September primary.
Provided he qualifies for the ballot, Bernal represents a credible threat to Uhlich, who is wrapping her first term. He was beloved by many Ward 3 neighborhoods for his relentless constituent work when he worked for Republican Kathleen Dunbar. After Uhlich decided to let him go, he found work doing similar projects for Pima County. Those connections could prove vital in a Democratic primary.
Bernal got his first lessons in campaigning during unsuccessful campaign for constable last year.
Tune into the John C. Scott Show this afternoon at 3 p.m. for an interview with Bernal. (And stick around to hear me at 4:30!) John is now on The Jolt, KJLL, 1330 AM.
TW named Bernal a local hero in 2005:
As a longtime leader in Balboa Heights, Jane Baker has heard a lot of talk about how city officials are going to help her stressed neighborhood near Grant and Oracle roads.
But she hasn't seen many people tackle problems like Bennett Bernal, who is leaving his job handling constituent service in the Ward 3 office in the wake of Republican Kathleen Dunbar's defeat in last month's City Council election.
"Bennett was very in tune with the needs of the neighborhoods," Baker says. "He was out and about every day taking care of those needs. It's going to be a loss to the neighborhoods, because he was constantly available."
Baker says whether the problem revolved around
graffiti, abandoned shopping carts or slumlords, Bernal handled it with urgency and efficiency. On top of that, he found ways to cut through red tape for aspiring business people and helped get money to put in streetlights and sidewalks.
And he even worked weekends.
"That job was not a 9-to-5 job for him," Baker said. "He worked 24-7. He would call me, and I would say, 'What the hell are you doing working on a Sunday?' He'd say, 'I've got so much to do to catch up.' It was always like that."
Bernal remains modest about his accomplishments over the last four years, but he says his passion for the job comes from a simple desire to make life better in Tucson neighborhoods.
"I enjoy helping others, because everyone helped me when I was growing up," he says.
A Tucson native, Bernal, 43, was raised in the southside Mission Manor neighborhood. Before he got into government, he was a constant presence at the Tucson Racquet Club, where he got his first job almost three decades ago as a waterboy filling courtside igloos. He worked his way from dishwasher to kitchen manager while finding time to help out with summer camps and plenty else. He still hangs out around the club looking to play ball, at least when he's not driving around neighborhoods making sure nobody's abandoned a mattress in the middle of the road.
Bernal got his first taste of constituent service when he went to work for the colorful Ed Moore, the former Pima County supervisor, in 1993. He found he loved having a chance to help people out.
Bernal's secret to getting the work done: "You just have to keep the politics out and do the right thing."
With Democrat Karin Uhlich taking over the Ward 3 office, Bernal is now packing up his office. Some of the folks he's helped are sure going to miss him.
"I have nothing but high praise and respect and thanks for Bennett," says Kevin Daily, the former president of the Flowing Wells Neighborhood Association. "You can tell he really believed in what he was doing, and he wanted to make a difference."
Daily has watched as Bennett has worked to see more streetlights in neighborhoods, new fences around dangerous drainage canals and fewer drug houses.
"I don't know of a drug house in our neighborhood right now," Daily says. "He cleared out three of them."
Daily credits Bennett with leading the way in the rebirth of Jacobs Park, which now features a remodeled swimming pool, a new Little League park courtesy of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and a playground for both normal and disabled kids that was funded by the Catalina Rotary Club.
"Jacobs Park is now what it should be," Daily says. "It's a place where people want to be."
Nick Bradley, president of the Ocotillo Neighborhood Association near Speedway Boulevard and Stone Avenue, says that Bernal has made life a little brighter for neighborhood kids by organizing a chess club and an annual Christmas party.
"He follows through on what he says he's going to do, unlike a lot of political people who give you a lot lip service," Bradley says. "Bennett's never been like that."
Bernal has stuck around the office for the last couple of weeks, showing Uhlich's staff around the ward and introducing them to members of his network.
"Karin's been a class act, letting me stay on through the transition and giving me the opportunity to work with her and keeping these projects moving forward," he says.
Next month, Bernal goes to work for the county's community-investment program. He's hoping to continue work on his latest project: a park inside the Pascua Yaqui village near Grant and 15th Avenue that will focus on physical fitness to help the tribe battle obesity and diabetes. He's lined up $300,000 in Back to Basics money from the Ward 3 office and is working on getting more from the county and the tribe.
He's not planning on getting much of a break between his gigs.
"That's all right," Bennett says. "That's what I want. I'm a workaholic."