It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ...
—A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
If you listen to this year's crop of candidates for City Council, you'd think they were talking about seeking to run two entirely different cities.
The three Democratic incumbents say downtown is on the upswing, with new restaurants, bars, shops and apartments creating a bustling and revitalized city center. They point to 300 miles of lane miles that have been repaved ahead of schedule and under budget after city voters approved a five-year road repair bond in 2012. They tout their streamlining of the land-use code and other city regulations to make life easier for the business community. They note that in response to hard economic times, they've trimmed the city's workforce by more than 1,000 employees since 2007 while avoiding layoffs of police and firefighters.
The Republican challengers and their allies say that the council has allowed homeless people to hold downtown hostage. They complain the roads are falling to pieces. They argue that local entrepreneurs still face too much red tape when they try to start a business. They say that while the council may not have laid off cops or firefighters, they have let empty positions go unfilled, so the city has fewer first responders. They say the city hasn't done enough to make budget cuts or address issues that left one in four Tucsonans below the poverty level, according to Census data.
In today's polarized political environment, which narrative you believe will largely come down to which team you support—and that's one of the challenges facing the GOP candidates who want to unseat the Democratic incumbents on the Tucson City Council. In the city of Tucson, there are roughly 92,000 registered Democrats, 53,000 registered Republicans and 76,000 voters who aren't with either party. Because Tucson has citywide rather than ward-only elections, Democrats start out with a major advantage over Republicans right out the gate.
The tough playing field is one reason that Republicans weren't able to recruit a candidate to challenge Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, a Democrat who is facing no opposition on his way to a second term. But Democratic incumbent Regina Romero is facing Republican challenger Bill Hunt in Westside Ward 1; Democratic incumbent Paul Cunningham is facing Republican challenger Kelly Lawton in Ward 2; and Democratic incumbent Shirley Scott is facing Republican challenger Margaret Burkholder in Ward 4.
All three Republican challengers are accomplished in their fields. Hunt is an Air Force veteran who now works at Raytheon and leads the local branch of the Flying Samaritans, taking missions into Mexico. Burkholder is an award-winning teacher who has served for a decade on the Vail School Board, overseeing one of the state's best school districts. Lawton had a 20-year career in the aviation industry and now manages the Tucson and Sierra Vista branches of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
But the challengers have struggled to introduce themselves to voters, who often tune out off-year elections that don't have the high-marquee value of a presidential or even congressional race brings. And with early voting set to start next week in the Nov. 3 election, they're running out of time to make an impression.
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Shirley Scott, who has represented the southeast-side Ward 4 for since 1995, has seen the city's ups and downs. Over her two decades on the council, the ward has seen tremendous growth and Scott takes credit for delivering fire stations, parks, libraries and other amenities for the area.
Scott says the city has taken "the long-range view" by using solar energy to power some buildings and facilities (including the Ward 4 council office) and developing a major CAP recharge facility in the Avra Valley.
In general, Scott hasn't faced tough races, but last time out, she squeaked past relatively unknown Republican Tyler Vogt by just 1,863 votes.
This year, Scott is facing Margaret Burkholder, whose time on the school board makes her the most politically experienced of the GOP slate.
Burkholder got into the race because she was worried her kids won't be able to find work here and will leave for greener pastures.
"I chose this community to be my home," Burkholder said. "I'd like my children to be able to choose this community to be their home and I'm not sure the job opportunities are there. For me, it's about building opportunity for Tucson."
The key to creating that opportunity, Burkholder added, is "through job creating and job growth and my benchmark is median income in Tucson. I want to raise the median income, so we need more businesses to make more profits and pay their employees more."
The best thing the city can do is "stay out of the way," Burkholder said. "Let business grow and not hinder business. I've talked to a lot of business owners and they tell me horror stories about development services and how hard it is to work with them."
Burkholder pointed to the recent trouble that a developer had in getting the city to approve land-use changes that would have allowed a new McDonald franchise where an abandoned gas station now stands at 22nd Street and Alvernon Way. The developer withdrew his request for a hearing before the council could vote on his proposal, which would have required the demolition of a residential house for a parking lot, and said he was abandoning the project.
Scott conceded that the city had problems with being too tough on business regulation in the past.
"If someone experienced that in the past, that's a legitimate complaint," Scott said. "But I think there's been more streamlining in the development services department and they have actually narrowed down the steps you have to take."
Scott cited the overhaul of the land-use code and various incentive programs that the city uses to essentially rebate sales taxes or impact fees. And she says the city has been moving forward with major annexations that will bring in additional tax dollars, such as the recent agreements to annex car dealers in the Oracle Road-area auto mall.
"These are significant things," Scott said. "Government doesn't create jobs. We create the atmosphere in which jobs can grow and thrive."
The Tucson Metro Chamber weighed in on the business debate last week by endorsing both Scott and Burkholder. In a statement, the chamber called praised Scott for her leadership in "supporting our military assets" and said she had "promoted growth not only in her ward but citywide."
"Ms. Scott works with developers to see projects reach completion, instead of pandering to fringe groups whose agendas tend to stifle jobs and economic expansion," the chamber noted.
But on the downside, the chamber noted that in the past, Scott was part of a council majority that made decisions that "have detrimental consequences even now."
Burkholder, the chamber said, "would offer new energy and a fresh voice to the City Council" and could "bring robust debate and examination of the issues to City Council discussions."
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In Ward 1, the GOP complaints are similar: Bill Hunt got into the race after noticing the city had problems with potholes and empty storefronts and budget shortfalls. "I'm a problem solver," he said.
On the campaign trail, Hunt is such a gentleman that he praises Romero's public-speaking skills and concedes that her experience in the arena makes her a smoother politician than he is. He has criticized some of her decisions, such as her opposition to discussing selling or leasing El Rio Golf Course to Grand Canyon University. He noted that Grand Canyon University might not have come to Tucson even if a deal had been struck, but the entire affair was damaging to Tucson's reputation.
"I think that the university would have been a good asset to the City of Tucson," Hunt said. "I think it's important to realize that Grand Canyon University was not a done deal. They had not decided for sure. They were discouraged at the end to not come here, and so I think that hurt, but I also think it hurts because other businesses, other corporations that are looking to move to Tucson see that, and they go, 'Oh, well Tucson doesn't really want businesses,' or that may be the perception, and I think that needs to change."
Romero, who initially wanted to examine a possible deal with Grand Canyon University, backed off her support in the face of opposition from neighborhood groups that saw El Rio Golf Course as a historic landmark in the local Chicano-rights movement and LGBT groups that didn't like the Christian college's anti-gay policies.
"There were many, many different people that were not really interested in going in that direction with that piece of property," Romero said.
While Hunt appreciates the road improvements that Tucson has been able to do in recent years, he is opposed to the city's strategy of borrowing money to make the repairs. He said that Romero has opposed bus-fare increases last year even though the city's general-fund subsidy for the bus system has climbed from $18 million to $30 million over the last six years. And he opposes Romero's suggestion that the city consider raising taxes to fund mass transit or public safety.
"I believe that we have enough money through our current tax base to fund these departments adequately and make it work, without an additional sales tax to help," he said.
Romero has lined up solid support from unions such as the Tucson Firefighters Association, Communication Workers of America, Pima Area Labor Federation and United Food and Commercial Workers, as well as the left-leaning Democracy for America.
But in interviews, Romero has also stressed the importance of making the city more business friendly and, like Scott, said that progress has been made on that front with improvements to the city's Development Services Department.
"I'm not going to say we're at a perfect place," Romero said. "We still need to continue moving towards making it as easy as possible for anyone wanting to start a new business, whether small or super-large, to have a good experience. But I think we have an absolutely amazing opportunity in front of us with a new city manager and a new Development Services director."
But the Tucson Metro Chamber challenged Romero's commitment to helping the local business climate. When it released its endorsements last week, the chamber declined to endorse Romero, saying she "has not exemplified the policies, practices or votes that support a pro-growth, pro-jobs environment, resulting in Tucson continuing to be one of the most economically depressed communities in the entire nation. Despite her continual claims to support Tucson's economic progress, her actions and votes say otherwise. Council Member Romero's opposition to one of the nation's largest retailers, opposition to the proposed $100 million Grand Canyon University project in her ward and the lack of progress on the City-owned 'west-side' properties do not align with economic expansion and job creation."
The chamber stopped short of endorsing Hunt, saying that his opposition to annexing new areas into the city "does not exemplify the policies and practices that will support a pro-growth, pro-jobs environment." They also criticized his campaign, saying he "lacks the organization and financial means to be a viable candidate in a citywide race."
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The chamber's criticism about Hunt having a viable citywide campaign may be a bit blunt, but it's a crucial point: All the back-and-forth on these issues and others doesn't make much of a difference if the challengers can't get their message out to voters. And that's where the GOP candidates have their work cut out for them.
Despite their voter-registration disadvantage, Republicans can win citywide: Before Rothschild became mayor, Republican Bob Walkup served three terms; Fred Ronstadt held the midtown Ward 6 seat for two terms starting in 1997; and Kathleen Dunbar won one term in Ward 3 in 2001.
But those were races for open seats; it's far more rare that a GOP challenger knocks out a Democratic incumbent. The only Republican to knock off a Democrat in more than three decades was Republican Steve Kozachik (who jumped to the Democratic Party before running for re-election after angering Republicans with his criticisms of the Arizona Legislature.) And his 2009 win over Councilwoman Nina Trasoff came at a time when the morning daily's headlines were consistently hammering the city over its foundering efforts to revitalize downtown Tucson and while Republicans were energized by losing the White House and Congress to Democrats in 2008.
It's a different story this year. First, the Rio Nuevo scandal has faded away as state and federal investigations have found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, many of the officials involved in the Rio Nuevo project have left the city and, most importantly, downtown is clearly in bloom. Along with the restaurants and bars that have opened in recent years, students are now living in new complexes, an AC Marriott hotel is now under construction and developers are using new city incentive programs get apartment projects underway. Even the Republican candidates concede that downtown is on the right track, although they say the city still needs a greater variety of jobs.
And while the city still faces a big bill to completely fix its crumbling streets, it has made progress with a voter-approved bond program that has repaved many major thoroughfares, blunting another criticism that challengers have been able to hit Democrats with in past elections.
On top of that, the Republican candidates are certainly hamstrung by a lack of campaign funds. The latest campaign finance reports, which were due last Friday, Sept. 25, showed that through Sept. 14, the incumbents have far outraised the challengers. Worse, the challengers hadn't yet applied for city matching funds, which provide a dollar-for-dollar match of every private dollar that they raise. To qualify, they must raise a minimum of 200 contributions of at least $10 each from city residents; both Romero and Cunningham have qualified for matching funds, while Scott put in her application last week.
In Ward 1, Hunt had raised just under $11,000 and had less than $4,900 in the bank, while Romero had raised more than $54,000 and received an additional $20,000 in city matching funds. Romero had already spent more than $60,000 and had about $14,200 in the bank.
In Ward 2, Lawton—whose campaign was profiled in last week's edition ("East Side Story," Sept. 24)—had raised just over $13,000 and had about $10,100 in the bank, while Cunningham had raised more than $40,600 and supplemented that with more than $34,000 in matching funds, bringing his total campaign warchest to more than $75,000. Cunningham had more than $24,000 in the bank at the end of the reporting period.
And in Ward 4, Burkholder had raised just over $12,000 and had about $6,500 left in the bank. Scott had raised nearly $41,000 and has applied for city matching funds.
Scott had about $3,500 left in the bank at the close of the reporting period, but as long as she qualifies for matching funds, she can easily boost that low total.
Without a major influx of campaign dollars, the Republicans haven't had the resources to send out mailers, run radio or TV ads or otherwise reach out to voters.
And in a town where Republicans face an uphill climb, this may just end up being the worst of times for their effort to win any council seats.