Charter changes: Tucson could use some competitive elections | What the Devil won't tell you
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What the Devil won't tell you

Charter changes: Tucson could use some competitive elections

Elections must have more consequences for voters to have real power.

Incumbents on the Pima County Board of Supervisors and Tucson City Council are a combined 59-4 since 1990 and I would argue it is not because they have what the Chinese called "A Mandate of Heaven."

Now, for the first time in a long time the Tucson City Council is in a position to perhaps consider ward-only elections to give Republicans a fighting chance in two wards, sacrificing forever their ability to ever again achieve a governing majority.

Tucson Mayor Johnathan Rothschild and the rest of the City Council have established a citizens committee to brainstorm and submit ideas for changing the city's operating system, its charter, which the council could then put on the ballot in December.

This has long been a behind-the-scenes, back-and-forth even within Democratic ranks. The business community has long wanted changes to the charter and the more progressive wing has resisted, if for no other reason that the business community is behind a lot of efforts to change the charter.

There has also been a move a foot to create "non-partisan" elections — I double over laughing as a former comms guy — every time I type those words "non-partisan elections." Yeah, let's do this fast. If you are a Republican running in a Democratic town, the other side is going to make sure you run as a Republican whether you like it or not. Conversely, Democrats running in a Democratic town would tattoo the D word on their dog. Non-partisan elections are a myth of civics class.

Does the city need to change how they conduct elections?

I'm going to pose a question: Do the Council members think if they themselves proposed charter changes to the voters as their own idea, voters would fail to snuff them out in the ash tray of "remember when the Council tried to ..."? Hell, yeah. They would. I've seen polling and the Council is not popular. Yet members keep winning reelection. If the Council knows full well that it's unpopular but needs a perfect storm to lose, then maybe ... maybe the way the city does its elections requires some Big Think.

How bold does the committee want to be? And are the Council members willing to look out for the city as opposed to simply securing their own futures and their stakeholders (local dialect definition of "special interest") along with them? While I hear some of you snickering, let's give them a chance.

Today, the primaries are run as ward-only and the general election is run citywide. Every Council member represents every ward, therefore the city gets seven folks looking out for all of it, right? That's a nice theory. hey also work in ward offices where they rarely see each other. The County Board of Supervisors, long more functional than the Tucson City Council despite a partisan split, have to work on the same floor of the same building. I don't think the two are unrelated. Independent, is one way to describe the Council. Balkanized is another. Dysunctional has been used and people buy it.

The net effect politically is that Republicans on the East Side can feel short-changed and the local GOP's sizeable "stakeholders" are left out in the cold. Voters in the two "Republican-ish" wards on the East Side (Democrats won them last time around, and outnumber Rs among registered voters there — but the Rs actually return their ballots) can feel locked out and unrepresented. If they could pick their own Council members in a ward-only election, they would probably send two Republicans to take their seats.

Let's take a look at how incumbents have lost in the last 25 years.

In 1996, Republican Supervisor Ed Moore tried to show voters one trick with dynamite too many and blew himself up leaving the GOP after leaving the Democratic party after having pissed off pretty much everyone else. He campaigned like he wanted to lose and was thus rewarded.

In 2005, Bush attacked. Post-Katrina and knee-deep in Iraqi quagmire, the local elections nationalized with a suddenly eager Democratic base and a Republican base looking for somewhere to hide. So long Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar.

Then came 2009, when the Kenyan Usurper lead America down the fascist road to socialism as a pathetically weak strong-man dictator, bent on destroying the country with better access to health care and economic recovery. The Democratic base was dog-tired and burnt-out after three cycles of partying and Republicans were again ready to roll as the famously unpopular Rio Nuevo (itself a business community idea, I wrote the story) took center stage like a steaming pile in a dog run. There went Nina Trasoff, who admirably but suicidally decided to stand or fall on Rio Nuevo.

We got Steve Kozachik. Ah, The Koz.

The year 2009 was awful for Democrats in Tucson but should have been much, much worse. Rio Nuevo was ... let's just say national pollsters never heard of a city initiative so reviled and unpopular. It was a Republican idea and backed by the business community, for a good period hijacked by the University of Arizona, but the community was ready to blame the Democrats for it because that's how the tortilla folds. Then the GOP got too tricky by half and decided they could finish off Democrats with a ballot proposition that would have handed the city's general fund over to police along a few more scraps to the Fire Department because no one can run against police and fire fighters. Right? Wrong. The Democratic base woke up and the message got muddled as Proposition 200 went down in flames and just enough attention got drawn from Rio Nuevo to save Democrats Karin Uhlich and Richard Fimbres.

I was there.

I was also part of the 2009 team that hung around Kozachik's neck the Tea Party millstone, which he so ably shrugged off and got elected. "Extremist," I called him. "Out of touch with our values," I wrote. It was hardball and that's what I'd watched Republicans do to Democrats year-after-year as a political writer. Let Koz say "I'm not the Tea Party," and watch him deal with that fire in his ranks.

Support today, because a smarter Tucson is a better Tucson.


He's been great. He's also been since run out of the Republican Party because he wasn't pure enough. They chased him off because he suggested a voluntary gun buyback program in the wake of the Giffords shootings. Apparently, the gun has become the American version of the Koran — that which can not be mocked or desecrated. Rather than replicating the Koz model and knocking off D after D, the Republicans skunked themselves.

It's not unlike when liberals bitch about U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He's a lot more progressive than whatever the West Virginia GOP might throw at Washington so why are you griping? You really want to run Dennis Kucinich in coal country?

In fact, Republicans can win in Tucson. They did have a governing majority from 2001 to 2005 when Republicans Fred Ronstadt, Kathleen Dunbar and Bob Walkup were joined by independent Carol West to form a governing coalition. Tucson's last great mayor, Lew Murphy, was Republican. You can do it but not by running on the platform found in the pages of Rush Limbaugh's "The Way Things Oughta Be."

The business community likewise has made legend out of allowing the perfect be the enemy of the good, refusing to play ball in any other way than championing the most laissez-faire, least progressive policies in a progressive town. If it hasn't worked out well for them.

I suggest both take a cue from conservative talking points and affix some personal responsibility to themselves.

Now, having finished that rant, it's not about the Republicans. It's about Tucson and democracy, which needs incumbents to fear more than self-immolation and perfect storms.

The business community is not asking for enough out of the charter committee. The GOP is leaving too much on the table. The committee should recommend ward-only elections and take the drawing of wards out of the Council's hands. Without an independent redistricting committee drawing ward maps the business community's plan could easily backfire. So why not also ask for the committee and competitive races.

All the Democrats on the Council have to do to get over on ward-only elections is move some lines around. Peel off some Democrats from Wards 1, 3, 5 and 6 and Wards 2 and 4 become a let less a sure thing in a hurry. Council seats on the East Side would instantly become competitive, while the rest of the council would hold seats safer than what they have now — seats so safe Republicans can't find candidates to run. Five wards would get even bluer in exchange for a shot at two purple wards. Bear Down blue and bluer.

This is what you could get, Republicans, if you thought bigger: Two safe Democratic wards and maybe four races that would give the GOP a better chance to win. With a Republican mayor like Bob Walkup, all Republicans would need is to win three of the other four seats and ta-da. You are in the majority.

Now I can hear Democrats saying "All this is true, Blake, but that makes the case against ward-only races. No one can call it gerrymandering if the races is citywide."

Fair enough, but ... privately, over beers or coffee, tell me that you are happy with the results on the City Council. And I ask that of the Council members themselves. Institutionalized competition for seats on the council or anywhere else is a good thing. It's not a bad thing. Fear the politician who doesn't fear the voters, folks. It's a good rule to live by.

Maybe Regina Romero, Paul Cunningham, Shirley Scott, Karin Uhlich, Richard Fimbres, Steve Kozachick and Jonathan Rothschild are the salt of the earth and would never put their own fortunes ahead of the city as a whole. I know them. They are good people. However, cities don't adopt charters with the best public servants in mind. They draft them to protect against the scoundrels.

Moreover, when you protect "communities of interest" by lumping all like minded voters into an election district, you either unduly exalt or isolate those voters. Communities of interest represented by the winners get the spoils. Those communities represented by a permanent minority get potholes.

Before Democrats jump down my throat, if they were constantly losing 55-45, they would be preaching exactly what I'm describing and do not tell me they wouldn't. Seriously, don't. No bloody way. Stop. I'm LMAO.

Accountability is what makes democracy go and a reasonable understanding that one could lose a job makes them better at it. Charters are drawn to provide for the whole city and not a political party.

Let's have real elections where the competing values are up front and the people feel like their vote matters.

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Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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2 comments on this story

Apr 2, 2015, 8:16 am
-0 +1

With the exception of Walkup you couldn’t pay me to vote for an AZ Republican

Apr 1, 2015, 3:19 pm
-1 +3

Why would anyone want to make Pima County into a Maricopa County where politicians scare the bajevees out of the old white people to vote for people like douchebag Ducey and Bonehead Arpaio? Maybe you haven’t noticed that the lunatics are running the asylum in Phoenix but everyone else in the country has. Maricopa is the laughing stock of the nation. I suggest you leave well enough alone.

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