Handicapping the Tucson mayor's race & the myth of 'woke' | What the Devil won't tell you
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What the Devil won't tell you

Handicapping the Tucson mayor's race & the myth of 'woke'

Numbers, voter turnout say Farley has a beatable edge

Once at my local watering hole/Budweiser dispensary, I had a conversation with a prominent local litigator about his run for Pima County attorney.

He was rather amused about his spectacular failure.

“I figured, this will be easy. I’m smarter than Barbara LaWall. I’ll win a couple debates and that will be that. Meanwhile, she was out raising money and getting endorsements.” A highly ironic “hahahahahah” followed.

Then his fiancee walked in, a quarter-century younger with legs taller than the crown on his head. He stood up, patted me on the back and winked about how crappy his life turned out.

But that’s an important thing about local politics. The best person for the job is likely to be the person who proves they are able to win support of the voters they'll serve. Democracy is funny like that.

Which brings us to this fascinating race involving the mayorship of Tucson. For the first time in 20 years, Tucson has a wide-open free-for-all election for the city's top post. 

All the action bubbles on the Democratic side because local Republicans can never get their acts together. Unless the GOP coalesces around local ad guy and independent candidate Ed Ackerley, the winner of the Democratic primary will take the Novemer race with minimal fuss and muss.

So, we have Steve Farley, a former state legislator who has been active in local politics for years and made a failed run for the governor’s nomination. Then we have Randi Dorman, who has been buzzing about in Downtown’s redevelopment but is a novice to electoral politics. Then we have Regina Romero, and her first name says it all. Regina. Latin for "Queen."

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The three-term councilwoman has deep ties to the "political engine that can" here in Tucson. She would be the first Latina mayor to preside over the Council. And she has established a “True Progressive” reputation with good standing among the Democratic activists. Farley does too, but Farley isn’t married to U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva’s district director. Romero sits atop A Whole Lotta People for Grijalva.

I've covered local politics for 20 years, and then was on the "inside" for a couple. 

Tucson's mayoral election is intriguing. Explaining it the way insiders discuss politics requires traipsing all over PC boundaries as they relates to the myth of "woke." You know "wokeness." It's the idea that a white guy can't catch a break when the libs start talking.

Mythology and numbers

Farley served in the Arizona Legislature for 10 years, winning five elections in a district that spanned midtown, the East Side and northwest Tucson. So he's a familiar face among voters in Wards 2, 3 and 6. 

If we are talking about Romero's Latina-ness, then we have to believe her base is in wards 1, 3 and 5, which are the most Democratic and diverse wards in the city. That’s great. That’s half of Tucson. Her problem is the other half is the one that shows up to vote.

Warning: I don't have a link for these numbers but the good people at the Tucson City Elections Division shipped them to me. 

In the 2015 general election – the last time Romero was on the ballot – those wards turned out 28,788 voters in Tucson’s most liberal territory. The other three, largely "Euro"-based wards, cast 53,632 votes.

In 2017, the eastern part of Tucson won the turnout battle with the western part by 55,138 to 30,320.

Wanna talk primaries? In 2017, Ward 3 up on the Northwest Side witnessed a tough three-way primary giving voters choices in a fight to follow. Indeed, turnout increased versus the other wards. Why, Ward 3 voters managed to outpace Ward 6 voters by 100 votes. Yeah, that’s right. Steve Kozachik running without any competition whatsoever nearly pulled in more votes than all of the Ward 3 candidates combined. 

Base politics may be rooted in group identity. Will it be decisive? All things being separate but equal, Farley has an edge because he can lose by 20 in wards 1, 3 and 5 but win the election if he beats Romero by 10 in wards 2, 4 and 6. That's turn out. So the decisive game for both candidates will be to poach the other's supporters.

It's doable.

Big haulers

All of the candidates running for mayor will have enough money to introduce themselves to voters and let Tucson know what they are all about.

Farley leads the pack with $129,593 raised through the first quarter. Dorman is kicking ass in fundraising with $93,324 in donations and Romero’s bronze medal haul of $76,156 is more than sufficient to get her story to the voters (not to mention, she's the only one of the three participating in Tucson's public campaign financing, meaning she doubled that funding). These are great fundraising totals for a City Council race, and we haven’t even gotten to the second-quarter reports yet.

The race and gender factors may work at the margins to bolster a base, but that works best when voters don't know much about candidates in races that are swamped by higher-profile contests. 

Farley represented a good part of Ward 3 in the Legislature, which means he could grab some of Romero’s voters there. On the other hand, do not discount the desire of Sam Hughes white liberal in Ward 6 to elect a Latina mayor. They are Democratic primary voters after all.

There’s no reason Romero can’t get her numbers up in wards 2 and 4. Hell, she won more votes in Ward 2 the last time she ran than she did in her own Ward 1. She also has been critical of a "sanctuary city" ballot initiative which seemed tailor-made for a full-Bernie-style campaign of social justice. That tells me she’s hunting for those votes in the more conservative parts of town, and aiming for the big block of Dems in Midtown.

Raul Grijalva is in Congress because while on the county Board of Supervisors, he won big support from environmentalists and posh Midtown neighborhood groups. Romero can build a similar coalition.

Dorman will get smoked if she lets the "as expected" happen. Her job isn't to dance to the beat. It's to change the song. She has the money to cast herself as an outsider and make the race a referendum on business as usual.

The contenders

Romero and Farley bring different insider experiences to the race.  

Farley is an artist and looks for creative solutions. He likes fresh approaches to policy, like getting businesses to form their own consortium to fund light rail or the establishment of social impact bonds to creatively to help communities that get kicked around. He is smart, direct and to the point. My question is, how good is he at building a network?

Romero tends to prefer established methods to bring about change like raising the minimum wage and boasts of her efforts to bring family leave to Tucson. She can think out loud, which sometimes seems like rambling. She's also a woman who knows how to spot an advantage and strike fast. As a man, this would be seen as a strong leadership skill. Men can find it disturbing in a woman. That's not her fault. 

Dorman is casting herself as a businesswoman with a developer’s knowhow. Judging by her early fundraising haul, she's a woman who should be taken seriously. 

'I'm not a you-know-what' is a disclaimer that never works

My own evolution on "wokeness" began early during this Democratic presidential primary season when talking heads were flat-out saying: "Why are we even being asked to consider a white man?" So white men need not apply, huh? Then I started hearing how candidates like Sens. Corey Booker and Kamala Harris shouldn't get the nomination because they'll agitate the racists on the other side and that Elizabeth Warren was just like Hillary Clinton because they were both women of a certain age. The polls have reflected that with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders leading and Opie from South Bend charging hard.

Turned out, race and gender are more of a hindrance in national politics than a help (people of color and women, I'll wait for you to stop chuckling at this revelation). Warren is finally making a move but Booker and Harris are too good to be dismissed out of hand based on their race.

For decades, insider conventional wisdom has worked inside Democratic politics. Everyone known to be in the know, knows women vote for women and ethnic grups turn out for corresponding candidates. The activists and stakeholders and donors all look at gender and racial identity in handicapping a race. 

That can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because people want to go with a winner. The more someone is perceived to be a winner, the more support they get. The more support they get, the more they are perceived to be a winner. The presumed super-charged wokeness of 2019 would seem to give Romero an advantage. 

Check again. 

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This election is, like all elections, a numbers game and if race plays a role at all it would favor Farley. That's not to say, he'll win because of his race and gender. It's not to say Romero will lose. It's not to say that Doman can't shake things up with an outsider purge of two card-carrying Tucson insiders. 

To the degree that is is about race, the Woke Monopoly on Democratic politics is largely a myth. It is still a white guy’s world and Farley still has the edge — even though it's a narrow one.

The spoils of toil

Woke, P.C., and Social Justice Warrior are brushes used to paint people who aren't going to patiently endure second-class status any longer. 

Of course, there are crazy extremists on Twitter. Of course there are academics who like to sell books by fanning outrage. If the Right wants to go crazy for crazy with the Left, here's a snowball that disproves climate change. Oh, and the president is above the law because he presides over it. 

At the local level, don't over-estimate it. Latinos may vote broadly for Latinos but face it, whites vote broadly for whites. In a community as diverse as Tucson, the winner will be the one who builds the most bridges.

The cool thing about these candidates is I don't see any of them leaving any voters on the cutting-room floor. 

The mayor’s race will probably be won the old-fashioned way. Identify your voters, persuade 'em and get those supporters to the polls. That’s a political campaign in a nutshell. It's not hard, though God knows there's a multi-billion-dollar industry hell bent on making it seem like it's nine-dimensional Dungeons and Dragons.

Remember the smart lawyer in the bar who thought campaigns were about proving his smarts. To the worker, goes the spoils.

The best person for the job will do the best job winning the vote.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.


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The race to replace Mayor Jonathan Rothschild leads to discussions about race and gender when turnout and voter outreach will be what's truly pivotal.

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