As different players raised the patriotic stakes, the A atop Sentinel Peak west of downtown underwent a series of colorful transformations.
An anti-war protest group, the People Against Imperialism, was the first to ante up, painting the A black on March 23. Within a few days, city staffers had restored it to white, at a cost to taxpayers of $3,700.
But that was just the first round. City Council members Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar raised the stakes another notch last Thursday after the hosts of a local FM morning show began an on-air campaign calling for a march on the mountain to paint the A red, white and blue. Around noon, the Republican council members led a charge up the mountain with enough buckets of donated paint to do the deck the A in patriotic hues.
"I thought it was the right thing to do," says Ronstadt. "I wanted to show my support for the troops. I knew about at least two groups that were planning midnight runs. I thought, if this is going to happen, why don't we just do it out in the open, in public, in the middle of day? We're not going to be midnight terrorists. This should be positive for the community."
Dunbar says she was following the will of her constituents. "Those are our national colors, the colors of our flag," she says. "People have said they want it red, white and blue."
Two Democratic council members, José Ibarra and Steve Leal, weren't going to sit this hand out. They joined their colleagues on the mountain for the brushwork.
Leal says he had been working on a plan to get anti-war activists involved in painting the A, but feared that Ronstadt and Dunbar, by "jumping the gun," had ceded the effort to people who supported not just the troops by the war itself.
"I went up to have it not be about one side or the other but to have it be about supporting the troops," Leal says. "I didn't want it to become a symbol for supporting the war."
Ibarra, who unsuccessfully tried to persuade the council to support an anti-war resolution earlier this year, tells a similar story. "Now that we are at war and we weren't able to find a diplomatic solution, I wanted to show my support for the troops," he says.
On Thursday night, after the new patriotic colors had been splashed on the rocks, an unknown culprit who remains at large raised the stakes once more by adding another layer to the work: a peace symbol on the center bar of the A. On Friday morning, another group of citizens pushed the pot even higher by arriving at the mountain to return the A to its original white.
Once police got word that yet another group could be coming up to A Mountain to protect the red, white and blue colors, the Tucson Police Department called a time-out, halted the painting and closed the park.
Mayor Bob Walkup, who originally had called for the A to remain white, sprang into action, calling an emergency Sunday session of the City Council.
When the council came together on Sunday, Ronstadt, Dunbar and Walkup voted to keep the A red, white and blue until the Iraq war was finished. But they were blocked by Leal, Ibarra and Ward 2 Councilwoman Carol West, who instead supported Leal's curious proposal to keep the A in its hodgepodge condition--red, white, and blue with a little white paint on one leg and a peace symbol in the middle.
"That to me reflects the division, confusion, posture of Tucsonans, of Americans, about how we got here and what we're doing," Leal says. "So it seems to me we really ought to leave it that way until the war is over."
Ibarra also concluded that the red, white and blue motif that he'd helped paint a few days earlier no longer properly supported for the troops, but just supported the war. "Even when we were up there, we were talking about making it a compromise," he remembers. "We were talking about maybe putting yellow, or making the border of the A black."
With the council deadlocked on 3-3 votes on both proposals, the original policy of keeping the A white remained in place. But earlier this week, city officials postponed the repainting because council members plan to revisit the issue yet again at next Monday's study session.
Councilwoman Shirley Scott, who missed the meeting, says council members "should work very hard to unite this community and not divide it. If I were to go in today, my vote would at best would make this be a 4-3 divided council."
Asked which way she would have voted, Scott declines to answer. Instead, she tosses her own chips in the pot: a big flagpole on A Mountain. She's promising to help raise the first $2,000 for the project.
West, meanwhile, has managed to mostly sit this game out, but she wonders just how high the stakes can get.
"Why stop with A Mountain?" she asks. "Why not tell the parks department to paint their buildings red, white and blue, too? This is something that the staff ought to be able to figure out. Why we're getting in the middle of it I don't know."