Republican Mike Polak decided one day that he's seen enough of the problems around Tucson and was going to run for the City Council. So he went downtown and signed up as a candidate.
"I saw the roads," Polak says. "I saw how the job market was. Our public safety response times and high crimes rates."
Polak is among those who have lost their jobs recently. He moved to Tucson in 2009 to work on Boeing's virtual border fence program, which was designed to use electronic sensors and cameras to keep an eye on remote stretches of desert in the place of a physical barrier. But the government pulled the plug on the project after concluding that it wasn't going to work. (Polak maintains that it did work, but the government was too impatient and the Border Patrol was too undermanned to hold up its end.)
In April 2012, Polak was laid off. And with high-tech job opportunities not so great in Tucson right now, he's been supporting himself with a side business—he sells gun accessories and parts at gun shows—and spending most of his time on the campaign trail.
The key to getting Tucson back on track, he says, is getting the business community to trust the members of the City Council again.
"What I've seen is that they're anti-business, anti-growth and anti-taxpayer," Polak says. "Big companies that want to come in here don't trust us."
Politics is a new field for Polak. He went into the Marine Corps after graduating from high school and, after eight years of service, entered the Marine Reserves in 1992. He spent the following years working as an expediter for various aerospace manufacturers, but got laid off in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
He went back to school to finish his degrees in computer science and electronic engineering, which landed him a job with Boeing.
Polak's unfamiliarity with city government sometimes shows when he starts discussing the ins and outs of city government. He readily admits that he sometimes doesn't know everything about how local government works, but he's pretty sure that the city needs to do more to attract businesses by lowering fees and reducing regulations.
The incumbent he's trying to unseat, Ward 5 Councilman Richard Fimbres, says he's been working to make Tucson more business-friendly. Fimbres rattles off his accomplishments after 3 1/2 years on the City Council: To help the transit budget, he led the charge for more advertising on Sun Tran buses. He has pushed for more city departments to adopt the use of the so-called "P-card," a kind of debit card that not only saves the city the expense of using checks, but also provides a rebate. He worked with private businesses to raise funds to reopen city pools that had been closed to trim the Parks and Recreation budget. Alongside his fellow council members, he's supported simplification of the city's land-use code and the regulations for businesses to get a certificate of occupancy so they can open their doors.
He's tightened his own belt as well: Fimbres has cut his full-time staff, with the equivalent of 3 1/2 staffers now in the office, which is three less than his predecessor, Democrat Steve Leal, had. He's cut the cost of running the office from $460,000 to $279,000.
And he's proud of the new jobs that have come to Ward 5 since he took office: a new Costco brought 150 new jobs; electronic retailer Curacao brought 220 jobs. The new Walmart? 350 jobs. Goodwill has moved into a storefront that was empty for more than a decade. And he's hopeful the UA's new biosciences park will create a high-tech hub.
"I call it the renaissance of the southside," Fimbres says.
Fimbres' own roots run deep on the southside. He was born and raised in Ward 5. He attended St. Ambrose, played football at Tucson High and worked for the Pima County Sheriff's Department for more than two decades, both as a reserve officer and a program manager. He was the head of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety in the Napolitano administration, served on the Pima Community College Board of Governors and was named Man of the Year by the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce in 2001 for his efforts to keep kids from dropping out of high school.
He says he's proud of his record on the council.
"It's about putting people back to work and thinking about Tucson first," Fimbres says.