So ... How do you like paying $14 a month to have your trash picked up? How about the idea of drinking treated sewage water? Should we sock developers with higher impact fees? Why do burglars keep robbing our homes? How much should we shell out for parks and rec programs? When's the next bus coming? Will we rally behind an arena football team if we build a Rio Nuevo coliseum? Does that downtown condo tower really pencil out? Can we do anything about the racket from those jet planes? Should we save the Reid Park elephants?
The questions, and so many more, will be hashed out between now and Nov. 8 as Tucson City Council candidates crisscross the city, attending forums, making promises and eating way too much rubber chicken.
The campaign season officially kicked off last week, when the candidates formally filed nominating petitions to put themselves on the ballot.
· In midtown Ward 6, PR spinstress Nina Trasoff is taking on light-rail conductor/public artist Steve Farley in the Sept. 13 primary for the chance to be the Democratic challenger to Republican Fred Ronstadt, who is seeking his third term.
· In northside Ward 3, Democrat Karin Uhlich, who has headed up two local social-service nonprofits, is taking a shot at unseating first-term Republican Kathleen Dunbar in the general election.
· In southside Ward 5, Republican Vernon Walker, who is evidently some sorta property manager, is trying to knock out Democrat Steve Leal, who is after his fifth term.
Libertarians and Greens evidently found new hobbies this year.
For Democrats, the November election represents a chance to regain lost pride. Even though Democrats outnumber Republicans by roughly a 5-3 margin in the city limits, they've lost every open seat since 1999 and have failed to topple any of the Republicans who have run for re-election. The end result: The council has gone from seven Democrats in 1997 to three Democrats today. (They lost three elections, and last month, Ward 2's Carol West changed her registration from Democrat to independent.)
This year, Democratic county chair Paul Eckerstrom promises the party is better-organized, better-funded and better-prepared.
For Republicans, the election is a referendum on the direction in which they've pushed the city. Under Mayor Bob Walkup's leadership (driven by now-departed City Manager James Keene), the council has enacted a $14-a-month charge for trash collection, imposed development impact fees, increased the cost of parks and rec programs, boosted spending to put more cops on the streets, expanded the city limits by annexing vacant land on the southeast side and borrowed heavily for last year's street repairs.
History doesn't favor the challengers. No elected incumbent has been turned out of office since 1989, when Leal knocked Republican Roy Laos out of office.
One reason for that is voter disinterest; because they are held in odd years outside the higher-profile state and federal cycles, city elections traditionally attract low turnout. In last year's presidential election, turnout hit 82 percent; in 2003's mayoral election, less than 41 percent of voters cast a ballot.
A particular challenge for Democrats: Getting voters out on the city's south and west sides, which are heavily Democratic. In the 2003 general election, only 29 percent of the voters went to the polls in southside Ward 5; compare that to the eastside Ward 2, where 49 percent of voters cast a ballot.
Although initiative petitions aren't due until July 7, only a push to repeal the gargage fee remains alive. (See "Broken Promises," page 19). The leaders of a push to elect council members from their wards rather than citywide abandoned its signature-gathering effort last week.
The City Council is expected to decide next month whether to ask voters for a pay raise. A committee has recommended the mayor's annual salary be increased from $42,000 to $52,080 and council salaries be increased from $24,000 to $29,760, according to the City Clerk's Office.
The last day to register to vote in the primary is Aug. 15. Early voting begins Aug. 11. You can request your early ballot any time by calling 884-8683. (That number again: 884-VOTE. Call now!)
Ward 6Councilman Fred Ronstadt defied expectations when he first won office in 1997. Because council candidates run citywide and Democrats had a significant voter-registration advantage, no Republican had won office since 1985.
But Ronstadt, thanks to a well-known family name and a disorganized campaign by Democrat Alison Hughes, was able to pull off an upset victory. He won re-election to a second term in 2001 against environmental activist Gayle Hartmann.
Ronstadt calls the new city budget, which instituted the new garbage fee, one of his proudest accomplishments, because it provided money for more cops, more firefighters and more street repairs. "We have seen serious neglect in this community over things that ought to have been done over the last two decades and, really, the majority of the council has had to move aggressively to avert disasters."
Ronstadt brushes aside critism that he's too often an apologist for city staff.
"I question staff all the time," he says. "I don't choose to do it in public. I try to do my homework before we go in front of the cameras."
Ronstadt wants another four years to keep his new Ward 6 office open for constituent meetings, work on downtown redevelopment--"We spent the last four years setting the table and now people are coming to dine"--and continue with his goal of reducing paperwork by taking advantage of computers and the Internet. "We're using technology to reach out and get people involved," he says.
As he gears up for his third council run, Ronstadt, 41, is facing the wrath of angry constituents across the political spectrum, from central-city homeowners upset by the noise from Davis-Monthan jet flights to developers upset over water delivery issues.
But is there enough unrest to toss him from office? Two Democrats are gambling that's the case: Steve Farley and Nina Trasoff.
The first Democrat in the race, Farley, 42, is a public artist who created the historic photographic tiles at downtown's Broadway Boulevard underpass. Farley got his start in city politics when he served on a committee that studied the Fifth/Sixth Street corridor. He was angered when most of the recommendations were ignored by city staff.
"When the city ignores people who have spent that much time getting involved, then there's something really wrong," Farley says.
Farley's most high-profile political activities have revolved around transportation--he opposed the city's 2002 half-cent sales tax proposal and led the 2003 light-rail proposition, both of which were rejected by voters--but he's already taking stands on other issues that are sure to get the attention of voters.
Take Ronstadt's recent drive to come up $8.5 million in to expand the city zoo's elephant enclosure now that the beloved Shaba has reached breeding age. As part of the campaign, Ronstadt is now collecting drawings of the elephants by schoolchildren.
Farley dismisses the effort as pandering and says a better decision is sending the elephants to a reserve so they can live among other elephants, while spending public dollars on public safety.
"It's almost like these guys who lock their children in the closet for years and say it's because they love them," Farley says. "If we really do care about the elephants' welfare, and we don't just want to have them caged up in this tiny little enclosure so we can gawk at them twice a year, they could be somewhere where they're being properly cared for, and they have lots of other elephants to socialize with. They're social beings."
Farley's Democratic opponent doesn't have a plan for the elephants, although she frets that an expanded enclosure might take the place of a soccer field. "I'll be happy to put Fred in charge of raising private funds after I beat him in November," says Trasoff, 59.
A New York native, Trasoff moved to Tucson in 1976 and landed a job anchoring the KGUN Channel 9 newscast for about six years before briefly holding a public-relations post with the station. She then jumped the journalism fence, going to work as a public info officer at University Medical Center for 2 1/2 years, before launching her own PR firm, Trasoff and Associates. She boasts service on more than 30 nonprofit boards during the last 25 years.
Last year, Trasoff debuted on the political stage with an unsuccessful run for the Arizona Corporation Commission. She says her victory within in the Tucson city limits shows she can win a council race.
Trasoff frequently talks about the need for better planning to avoid Tucson becoming another Phoenix, but an underlying theme of her candidacy is that she's more likely than Farley to beat Ronstadt in November.
"In the past, Ward 6 has had a tendency to nominate people who could not win in a general election citywide," says Trasoff. "(They've been) some very good people who are well intentioned, but they can't win outside the ward. That's what I don't want to see happen in this race. I can win outside our Ward 6."
However, the only Democrat to win a contested primary in Ward 6 and lose citywide in at least three decades was Hughes in 1997.
So far, Trasoff has been more successful in gathering early endorsements from outfits such as Democracy for America-Tucson (an offshoot of the 2004 Dean presidential campaign), the Arizona Women's Political Caucus and the Arizona Democratic Political Caucus.
Trasoff is the only candidate in Ward 6 who has called for repealing the new garbage charge, although she has yet to explain how she'd replace the $20 million or so in revenue the fee raises. Farley supports the fee, but wants to see a better program for low-income residents who can't afford to pay it.
Barring a sudden voter-reg rush, Trasoff and Farley will be fighting for the hearts and minds of a little more than 32,000 eligible voters--roughly 20,000 Democrats and 12,000 independents. In 1997, during a five-way primary, about one in every four voters cast a ballot. If that's the number this year--and it's hard to imagine it getting significantly higher--that's maybe 8,000 voters deciding the race.
One trick for both Democrats is winning the primary without blowing all their bling. Under the city's campaign-finance program, which matches every private dollar raised with a public dollar, candidates must limit spending to $79,222; they can blow as much as $59,416 during the primary, but that doesn't leave them with much left over for a citywide general against an incumbent.
Both candidates have already applied to qualify for the matching funds program. As of April 28, Trasoff was leading the fundraising race, with $12,266 in contributions. She had $6,451 left in the bank after spending $5,815.
Farley had raised $9,188 and had $1,766 remaining as of May 13.
Ronstadt decided against participating in the campaign-finance program after using it in his previous campaigns.
Trasoff and Farley also both realize the importance of keeping the race civil so that Democrats unite behind the candidate who wins the primary. Ronstadt's election in 1997 was made possible partially because a fractious five-way primary left hard feelings among some Democrats who didn't support nominee Hughes in the general election.
Both candidates say they'll support the Democratic nominee if they lose the primary.
More candidate info:
Republican Kathleen Dunbar takes great pride in winning a state House of Representatives seat in 1998, boasting that she was only candidate in Arizona to knock out an incumbent lawmaker.
Dunbar's luck didn't hold two years later, when she lost a race for the state Senate. But within months, she had retooled her political machine to run for the Tucson City Council.
When Democratic incumbent Jerry Anderson decided against seeking re-election, Dunbar, 54, drew a weak challenger in Paula Aboud, who lost her first run for public office.
After a rough start, Dunbar won over many critics with strong constituent service. Among the accomplishments in Ward 3: 17 miles of sidewalks, new streetlights in neighborhoods, more parks, a developing business district along Campbell Avenue, elimination of the rush-hour suicide lane on Grant Road and a demolished adult theater on Miracle Mile.
Even her Democratic opponent, Karin Uhlich, conceded in her announcement speech that Dunbar has done well with constituent service.
Uhlich, a 41-year-old Michigan native who worked as an advocate for the homeless with the Primavera Foundation for nine years beginning in 1993, now runs the Southwest Center for Economic Integrity, which has taken aim at the payday loan companies and other predatory lending outfits.
Uhlich, whose political experience includes serving on the city's budget and bond oversight committees, promises that her campaign will focus on Dunbar's policy positions. One central target: Dunbar's decision to reverse her position and vote to enact a $14 monthly trash collection fee last year. Uhlich herself supports some kind of trash-collection fee, although the Democrat has yet to pinpoint an amount. She sidesteps the question of whether the fee should cover all costs of trash collection or whether the service should receive a subsidy from the general fund, saying only that the trash fee was enacted too quickly and without sufficient public debate.
Dunbar admits that changing her position on the trash fee was the hardest decision she's made in the last four years. She declines to say whether she'd support a higher fee, which Tucson Water Director David Modeer has predicted will be necessary in the near future if the city is going to have full-cost recovery for trash collection.
Dunbar continues to support a pay-as-you-throw program that will charge different amounts for different-sized garbage containers, even though early numbers from city staff show that program would likely raise fees for most Tucsonans while eliminating alley collection.
Uhlich accuses Dunbar, who supports abortion rights, animal rights and gay rights, as being a closet conservative.
"The only thing right-wing about me is my husband," Dunbar says with a laugh. "Karin has nothing to run on, so she has to make things up. I think she has a left-wing agenda."
Uhlich smiles when told about Dunbar's response. "I suppose she would see me that way."
More candidate info:
Ward 5Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal is seeking his fifth term against Republican Vernon Walker, a political newcomer who remains a man of mystery. Walker, 47, didn't return a phone call from the Tucson Weekly.
Leal, 57, is a longtime neighborhood activist who isn't likely to have much trouble on the road to re-election if his opponent remains media-shy. Or, for that matter, even if he doesn't.