In the last four years, the Tucson City Council has banned smoking in restaurants. It has enacted an ordinance that restricts the location of 24-hour big-box stores like Wal-Mart. It has passed a living-wage policy that forces companies that contract with the city to pay employees at least $8 an hour. It has cut off funding for the Boy Scouts because the youth organization discriminates against gays. It has spent tens of thousands of dollars in a legal fight to force background checks at gun shows, despite a state law that restricts the council's authority.
In other words, it's a left-leaning body on social issues, which isn't all that surprising, given that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city by a more than 3-to-2 ratio.
But other than spending $2.5 million to buy the 41,000-acre Bellota Ranch 13 miles northeast of the city limits, the council has taken few visible steps to manage the community's accelerated growth. The city has put a development plan on the November ballot, but critics complain it's a vague and toothless document. The council has eagerly annexed vast tracts of vacant state land slated for development on its southern border while leaving the planning process to developers and state bureaucrats. It hasn't even seriously considered enacting transportation impact fees, a standard mechanism in every other fast-growing major jurisdiction in the state.
In other words, it's a left-leaning body that doesn't want to do much to hamstring the development community, other than tangle it in red tape.
So will the upcoming November 6 general election really change anything? Hard to say. Alliances regularly shift on the council, but Republican Fred Ronstadt, who is facing a challenge from Democrat Gayle Hartmann in the Ward 6 race, often teams up with Mayor Bob Walkup and eastside Democrats Carol West and Shirley Scott to form a business-friendly, bipartisan team that often outvotes the more liberal wing of Steve Leal, José Ibarra and Jerry Anderson, who is retiring after one term. Vying to replace Anderson in Ward 3 are Democrat Paula Aboud, Republican Kathleen Dunbar and Libertarian Jonathan Hoffman.
If both Republicans win, Leal and Ibarra will find themselves increasingly isolated as the Growth Lobby builds political muscle. A clean sweep by the Democrats could result in a council that will push harder to see growth pay for itself. If voters split their tickets, the council will likely retain its somewhat schizophrenic status quo.
COUNCILMAN FRED grew up in one of Tucson's royal families. His namesake, family patriarch Fred Ronstadt, was a pioneer merchant who made his mark with a carriage and blacksmith business. The councilman's father, Jim, headed up the city's Parks and Rec department for two decades before retiring a few years ago. One of Jim's cousins, Peter, was Tucson's chief of police; another, Linda, fulfilled the ultimate American dream, becoming a rock and roll star.
Fred was toiling in healthcare administration when he starting poking around politics. In 1997, when newly elected District 5 Supervisor John Even died just a few months into his term, Ronstadt applied for the job, but was passed over in favor of Ray Carroll. Later that year, Ronstadt decided to run for the Ward 6 seat being vacated by Councilmember Molly McKasson.
Given the Democrats' lopsided voter registration, nobody gave Ronstadt much of a chance. But a combination of factors, from the family name ID to a bitter primary that weakened support for Democrat Alison Hughes, allowed Ronstadt to win by 2 percentage points on election day.
Politics has since proven financially rewarding for the 38-year-old Ronstadt. After he lost his healthcare job, his tight ties to the Southern Arizona Leadership Council helped him land a job at National Bank of Tucson. Last year, he moved over to Compass Bank.
The political arena has also been lucrative for wife Pamela Ronstadt, who has created her own political consulting firm, Pillar Consulting. She advised unsuccessful council campaigns for Republicans Rick Grinnell and Ray Castillo in 1999 and worked for Congressman Jim Kolbe in 2000.
Ronstadt likes to say that his "greatest accomplishment is bringing common sense to the table." But there's no denying he's become the darling of Tucson's power structure, from the homebuilding industry to billboard baron Karl Eller, who has resisted compliance with the city's restrictions for outdoor advertising for more than 15 years.
Those Growth Lobby ties have inspired Gayle Hartmann to challenge Ronstadt. An archaeologist, writer and editor, Hartmann is a veteran of Pima County's land-use politics. Over the last three decades, the Sam Hughes resident has fought to preserve open space, sat on the county's Planning and Zoning Commission, helped draft the county's Comprehensive Plan in the early '90s and, most recently, served on the steering committee for the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.
Hartmann, 59, says she got into the race because she's "concerned about the direction the city is heading. It's been muddling through for several decades and I think it needs to find direction. Secondly, I became very exasperated with Fred's votes as I read them in the paper."
Hartmann says the city needs to focus on planning for future growth, especially since it has recently annexed at least 28 square miles of vacant state land on the city's southern border.
Ronstadt has responded to Hartmann's challenge by claiming the political center. The kinder, gentler Ronstadt has begun stressing the need to plan future development and, in campaign propaganda, touts his work to manage growth in Tucson and his support for neighborhoods. He's even embraced the possibility of building an expensive light-rail system. As one Growth Lobby player puts it, Ronstadt is starting to sound a lot like Molly McKasson.
While he works to capture the crossover support he needs to win re-election, Ronstadt has frayed some nerves on the conservative right. For example, former state Sen. Jeff Hill, angered by Ronstadt's vote to cut city funding for the Boy Scouts, has hung a massive anti-Ronstadt sign outside his Grant Road business.
Hartmann isn't buying Ronstadt's conversion on conservation. She complains that Ronstadt's record shows "just the opposite."
"It's a clever campaign tactic, taking his weakest point and trying to make his strongest point and hoping that people don't notice," Hartmann says. "He has absolutely no record of supporting managed growth."
Hartmann says Ronstadt regularly supports rezonings, opposes impact fees and has done little in his four years to push the planning effort he claims to support.
Ronstadt denies that he has altered his political persona for his re-election bid. "I've always felt I've been fairly close to the middle at all times," he says. "And while I have never carried the banner of growth management, I've always been cognizant of it and made decisions based on how this is going to affect the livability of our community."
Hartmann, whom Ronstadt calls an "environmental extremist," has a flawed approach to handling growth issues.
"Her idea of growth management is to buy up all the real estate so people can't build," Ronstadt says. "My notion of growth management, which I've been fairly active on, is to enhance the core of the city so that people don't have an incentive to go out and build in the periphery."
The El Con redevelopment was a major midtown battle during Ronstadt's first term. Ronstadt calls the final agreement "a great accomplishment," although his critics complain he remained in the pocket of the mall owners. Ronstadt opposed the big-box ordinance that grew out of that process, although he now says he supports the ordinance's "underlying principles."
Ronstadt calls the final El Con agreement "a milestone in this community, where we were able to bring neighbors and business together to come up with a solution that didn't make everybody happy on either side, but addressed the longstanding concerns of the neighbors."
Ronstadt dismisses mall critics as a "vocal sub-minority" and says neighbors who opposed a Wal-Mart were driven by their perception that low-class shoppers would invade their neighborhood. He regards big-box stores as good for the community; if Tucson had more of 'em, it would reduce traffic and help small businesses, many of which depend on warehouse stores for supplies. The limits on grocery space in big boxes, he adds, was a possibly unconstitutional sop to labor unions.
Hartmann likes the big-box ordinance, which she says protects established neighborhoods from being disrupted by the noise and activity generated by a round-the-clock warehouse store. She sees big boxes killing locally owned small businesses, pointing to the recent closures of longtime outfits such as Choate's Hardware and Scot Photo. "Sure, they sell things cheaper, but you pay for that in the long run," Hartmann says. "The wages aren't very high and the benefits are poor."
Hartmann criticizes Ronstadt for his opposition to background checks on all firearms sales at TCC gun shows. Ronstadt says the city is wasting money on a court fight it can't win because state law clearly prohibits the city from enacting firearm regulations.
Hartmann supports the effort to challenge the state law and says she'd vote against allowing gun shows at the TCC if the council can't force background checks.
Both Ronstadt and Hartmann are taking a wait-and-see approach regarding the city's transportation challenges, saying they'll consider the recommendations of the city's new transportation committee due after the November election. Neither has committed themselves to supporting a proposed half-cent hike in the sales tax dedicated to transportation improvements, saying they'll need to see the details of the proposal.
They split again when it comes to impact fees. Hartmann says she favors enacting concentric impact fees that increase as development stretches further from the city's core and existing infrastructure. Ronstadt prefers "the process we have been using in current zoning cases where we put an actual price tag on the infrastructure and have the developer pay their fair share."
Ronstadt supports trimming garbage collection to once a week and instituting a weekly recycling pickup. Hartmann says she'd also like to increase recycling, but continue picking up garbage twice a week, "if the city can afford it."
It's increasingly clear the city can't afford it; the Solid Waste Department has repeatedly asked the council to cut back collection to once a week and institute a fee to help the city pay an estimated $60 million bill for landfill clean-up and expansion. Ronstadt says he's weighing the notion of turning the Solid Waste Department into an enterprise department like Tucson Water, which has to support itself by billing for water service. He's sketchy about the details, saying he'd make a final decision after a public process. Hartmann says she'd "prefer that no fee be charged, but siting a new landfill must happen soon and it will be expensive, so a fee may be unavoidable."
For all his election-year maneuvering, Ronstadt says he'd never make a decision based on political pressure. His motives are based on a simple principle.
"I don't make decisions based on my political health," Ronstadt insists. "I make them based on what I believe is good for Tucson. Let's see if somebody who stands up for what they believe, votes on what they believe, can win re-election."
NEXT DOOR IN Ward 3, a similar dynamic is at play as Democrat Paula Aboud, Republican Kathleen Dunbar and Libertarian Jonathan Hoffman are vying to replace Democrat Jerry Anderson, who is stepping down after one term. A Dunbar win would move the council closer to the community's traditional power structure, while an Aboud win would keep a strong neighborhood supporter in Ward 3. (A Hoffman win would be an act of God.)
A former state lawmaker, Dunbar is a polished politician who is hardly modest about her own qualifications for the job. "Tucson is a great city," she says on the stump, "and it deserves a great city council."
Dunbar, 51, caught the political bug after Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992. She remembers she was so depressed by his election that "I decided never would an election go by where I didn't do something to help the people I wanted to win."
Starting out as a precinct committee member, Dunbar moved up the party ladder and grabbed a spot on the GOP executive committee. In 1998 she made her first political run for a state House of Representatives seat in District 13, knocking off Democratic incumbent Brian Fagin. Two years later, Dunbar bowed to pressure from party leaders and tried to win the open District 13 Senate seat, only to lose to fellow House member Andy Nichols. (Nichols died in office earlier this year and was replaced by Democrat Virgina Yrun.)
During her one term in the legislature, Dunbar emerged as a fiscal conservative and social liberal, promoting, for example, domestic violence legislation. (She sits on the board of Brewster Center, a domestic violence shelter and advocacy organization.)
Critics, including Aboud, complain she also repeatedly sought to undercut the city of Tucson's authority. She sponsored a bill for the local Chamber of Commerce that would have blocked Tucson's ability to enact the living-wage ordinance that requires contractors with the city to pay employees at least $8 an hour. She voted for a state law that prevents the city from forcing background checks for private gun sales at the Tucson Convention Center. She supported bills that cut the city's ability to regulate billboards.
Dunbar says those were minor bills unworthy of attention. "Who cares about billboards?" she asks. "When I talk to people about the issues, they don't mention billboards."
Her most public clash with the council was in 1999, when the city stretched the original Rio Nuevo legislation (which Dunbar had supported) to create a taxing district that reached from downtown to eastside malls. Dunbar angrily lectured the council, warning them that the legislature would punish them if they went ahead with the scheme. Ignoring her, the council put the plan before voters, who approved it by 62 percent.
Despite her initial objections, Dunbar now says she overcame her reservations and voted for the Rio Nuevo proposition in 1999. She counts Rio Nuevo among her legislative successes.
Dunbar sometimes tangled with the legislature's conservative leadership, remaining a staunch pro-choice vote on abortion issues and pushing for animal-rights legislation. The latter issue has long been near to Dunbar's heart. Before winning her legislative seat, she left her career in advertising to take a job as director of community relations for the Humane Society; since her loss last year, she has worked with another animal adoption program. She features her six dogs and two cats in campaign literature.
Her opponent, Democrat Paula Aboud, wasn't well known in political circles until she climbed into the ring after Anderson unexpectedly announced his decision to retire early this year. But the Aboud name is well-known in legal circles; following in their late father's footsteps, three of her siblings are local lawyers and the family owns an extensive empire of rental properties.
The 51-year-old Aboud graduated from Tucson High (Class of '68) and earned a degree in English from the University of Arizona (Class of '72). She taught for six years at Rincon High and one year at Sabino High before leaving Tucson in 1984 for a job at Colby College in Maine, where she got involved in politics.
Aboud returned to Tucson in 1992 and hooked up with a coalition of neighborhood associations, where she says she found a "grassroots sense of politics."
As a rookie politician, Aboud has plenty of rough edges. She sidesteps questions, calls for citizen committees to make decisions and complains about the council's lack of vision while offering little herself. But her strong opposition to the development community was good enough for Ward 3 voters; in last month's primary, Aboud easily beat her Democratic opponent, victim-rights advocate Vicki Hart, by a 3-to-1 margin. Aboud has found considerable strength in Tucson's neighborhood movement.
Aboud criticizes Dunbar for not belonging to a neighborhood association, but Dunbar says there's no formal organization in her neighborhood. At her previous eastside home, she says she was active in the organization, working alongside Carol West, a former council aide who now represents Ward 2.
Aboud has been taking swings at Dunbar since she started campaigning. Aboud has called her opponent a "political opportunist" and, in an interview earlier this year, she declared, "I'm not going to give away this city to someone who doesn't have a history here, or a love of this city or a vision for Tucson. I'm not going to give it up without a fight."
Despite those attacks, Aboud reacted swiftly last week to a Weekly report criticizing the condition of some her family's properties ("Trash Talk," October 4). In a downtown press conference, she announced her campaign would stick to the issues and encouraged the opposition to refrain from mudslinging.
The candidates clash on many of the social issues the city has tackled. Aboud supports the ban on smoking in restaurants, while Dunbar opposes it. Aboud says the city should stop allowing gun shows at the TCC, while Dunbar says the city has no right to block the shows or enact background checks.
Both oppose fees for garbage collection, which they'd cut to once a week (while adding weekly recycling collection).
Aboud says she's reluctant to support a half-cent sales tax hike for transportation funding, calling it a blank check for the transportation department, while Dunbar says she'd probably send the plan to voters. "It absolutely kills me to say that, but I don't know what else we're going to do," she says.
ON PAPER, THIS shouldn't even be a fight. Tucson is home to roughly 92,500 Democrats and only about 58,500 Republicans, which should give the Democrats an overwhelming advantage. In fact, the superior numbers allowed Democrats to beat the GOP in every election in the decade before Ronstadt broke the curse in 1997.
But Republicans are finding ways to end the Democratic domination of the City Council. Walkup won the mayor's seat two years ago, beating former Councilwoman Molly McKasson by 14 points. Although McKasson had considerable support in the city's center, Walkup won the hearts and minds of voters in outlying areas. (The other Democrats on the ballot fared much better; Councilmember José Ibarra won re-election in westside Ward 1 and Carol West grabbed the open eastside Ward 2 seat.)
This year, the GOP has fielded experienced and well-funded candidates. Both Ronstadt and Dunbar have raised just over $80,000, the maximum allowed under the city's campaign-finance program.
While Hartmann has a rolodex that allowed her to raise the maximum $80,000, Aboud has struggled to collect contributions. As of September 17, she had only raised $22,570 and spent $9,300 in the primary.
But even if Aboud had maxed out, the Democratic slate would still be at a financial disadvantage. The Republicans can count on significant backing from both the local GOP and at least two independent campaign committees.
Under Tucson's publicly financed campaign program, candidates who agree to limit their campaign spending this year to roughly $80,000 see each dollar they raised matched by the city, provided they qualify with a minimum of 200 contributions of at least $10 each from city residents. Two years ago, for the first time, Tucson's business community unleashed a flood of campaign dollars through an independent committee that ran a series of attack ads against Democrat Molly McKasson, who lost the mayor's race by double digits.
This year, two independent campaign committees have registered with the city, Citizens for a Better Tomorrow and Good Government for Tucson/AZ Republican Party.
The latter group, funded entirely by the state Republican Party, is already contacting voters who have requested early ballots by mail and phone. Phone-bank callers deliver a rapidly read statement linking the Republicans to Mayor Walkup. Don't bother asking questions; the callers hang up as quickly as possible if voters make inquiries about the candidates.
Tucsonans for a Better Tomorrow is just getting its effort off the ground. Jonathan Paton, chairman of the group, also links Ronstadt and Dunbar to Walkup.
"Our basic feeling is that everything is pretty tough in Tucson and across America and we've got a good leader in Bob Walkup and he needs a good team behind him," Paton says. "We know that Kathleen Dunbar and Fred Ronstadt will be a part of that team."
The committee has just begun collecting contributions and Paton declined to name any specific supporters, although he suggested it will be a bipartisan effort. "We have commitments from a lot of Democrats who contributed to the Walkup campaign," says Paton, who lost a House race running alongside Dunbar in District 13 last year.
Paton's first dip into city politics came in the September primary, when he helped strategize the campaign for Tucsonans for Alert Government, the independent committee that spent an estimated $20,000 backing Jesse Lugo's losing campaign against Steve Leal in Ward 5. In the final days of that campaign, Tucsonans for Alert Government mailed a hit piece with a picture of Councilman Steve Leal nodding off at a council meeting.
It's a safe bet that many of the Growth Lobby players who contributed to that campaign, such as car dealer Jim Click and billboard baron Karl Eller, will also back Tucsonans for a Better Tomorrow.
The effort to tie the Republican candidates to Walkup is a key campaign strategy. With public opinion polls showing Walkup to be one of the most popular political figures in Tucson, the GOP hopes to link its candidates to his coattails and push turnout on its eastside base.
The Democratic Party has no money to counter the GOP and Growth Lobby efforts. Although new party chairman David Bradley has offered the Democratic slate desks at party headquarters, his attention this election season has been focused on moving the HQ to more expensive digs. The Democratic campaigns have begun seeking phone-bank volunteers to counter the independent campaign.
There are signs that the Democrats are awakening to fight the GOP's superior money and organization. In Ward 5, the biz-friendly Lugo campaigned aggressively, walking door-to-door six days a week, spending at least $60,000 on his campaign and enjoying support from the aforementioned independent campaign committee, which spent more than $15,000 on mailers and phone banks. Despite all that, Lugo couldn't come within 20 percentage points of Leal, who spent about $55,500 and had the solid support of neighborhood associations and organized labor, which spent more than $13,000 on an independent campaign committee.
Will the Democrats hold their base and get voters to the polls? Or will Republicans, aided by a flood of campaign dollars, persuade Dems to defect to their slate? For the answer, tune in November 6.