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What the Devil won't tell you

Pet peeve rant: Candidates, please do your homework

Too often, too many do too little to learn about the office they seek

It takes a heck of a lot of a certain something to ask 150,000 voters to go steady and risk them saying “no” instead.

So I have nothing but respect for citizens who throw themselves into the arena and put their name on a ballot. It's apparently quite the ego trip but also quite the bit of emotional risk-taking. When affirmed, it's a hell of a feeling to know your community selected you. When denied, its wholesale rejection.

I like to typically go easy on the first-timers for that very reason. No need to rub their noses in it for not seeming to measure up to a challenge so foreign. They think they know how to win an election, but they soon find out that those who do most of the winning didn't just wake up one day and decide to run. The winners built relationships within the party and throughout the community that gave them early momentum that feeds on itself.

Hard work is important but the right kind of hard work is decisive. First-timers typically haven't learned the difference.

So that's a giant disclaimer for what comes next. Something that should not require any sort of learning curve is the idea that candidates should have something of a clue – anything of a clue – about the office they seek and the issues facing it.

Some in the community view a questioning press as a press biased against them. The truth is most reporters probably show an instant bias to a candidate for office who knows a general fund from an enterprise fund. If said candidate can break down the funding sources in the general fund? Holy dry heat, a reporter will fall in love on the spot.

Mail-in ballots will go out this week to Ward 3 Democrats and Ward 6 Greens (the only contested primary races — there are other candidates with a clear path to November).

I've sat through way too many editorial board meetings with political challengers boasting all the right pedigrees leaving seasoned journalists vapor-locked and staring: “What the hell are you talking about?” I've compiled and formatted “issues grids” condensing policy positions from every candidate on a Tucson ballot into 50 words. I wished it were different but it's not.

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If we know you don't know, it will take the bureaucracy and interest groups about 6.2 seconds to sniff out that ignorance, recognize it as gullibility and twist you to suit their will.

It took mom in a hospital bed (she's doing much better; thanks for the support) about 8.5 seconds watching Friday's Metro Week interview with five City Council candidates to reach such a conclusion about the current crop.

“My God,” she told me. “They don't know anything.”

So I went online for a look-see and I saw five candidates taking pitches from the wise and seasoned Andrea Kelly and not a single ball was put back in play.

Three up, three down

Kelly wasn't hurling 99-mile-per-hour breaking balls high and inside. She was throwing belt-level over the plate. Had she brought the heat she was capable of, they'd have yelped and ducked.

This was a good first pitch right over the plate:

“The city has subsidized from the general fund into transit more than $46 million. Some people see that as a problem. Some people see that as OK. So I just want to ask you what would be the right way to handle transit financially and also managerially.”

Paul Durham works as a lawyer and has an MBA, which means he must have done well on his LSATs and GREs. He's a bright cookie. But his answer to Kelly hardly revealed that.

“There are other ways to support low and moderate riders. I know the Council has looked at them. You can attract more full-fare riders. That improves the financial strength of the system. The problem is that we face a lot of challenges with transit in Tucson. We have lots of low-density housing. We grew up around the automobile and we are now competing with $2 a gallon gasoline.”

No one ever thought of trying to attract more riders before. Thanks for the tip. And yeah, yeah. It's hard to do in Tucson. So how do you pay for it? Swing and a miss.

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Tom Tronsdal, a small-business owner who speaks with fine cadence, swung big at Kelly's pitch and practically threw his back out whiffing.

“Buses always run at a loss. We can try to increase the expediency of all the routes … maximizing when buses run and minimizing the dead times.” I have no idea what that means. Does he mean more buses on each route and minimizing when they don't run? Or does he mean running more buses during peak travel times and fewer during off-peak hours? Either way, neither of those has anything to do with how to pay for Sun Tran.

Kudos for teacher and single mom Felicia Chew for at least roping a ball down the line – the foul part of the line. She tried to discuss the notion of “fare box recovery.” That's a thing. That's real. That's part of the equation for how to run a bus system. She also said the magic words “dedicated revenue source” but when pressed the best she could come up with was the sentence fragment: “From the budget, having a dedicated line item.”

OK, the general fund is a basket of general-purpose dollars that can be used for anything. Securing a “dedicated revenue source” is a way to relieve the budget of a Sun Tran subsidy. So a general fund dedicated revenue source is more than a bit of an oxymoron. Such a distinction may not seem to involve a difference but trust me. It does.

An answer key

Actual answers to Kelly's question could have come from the left or the right and forced action onto the field.

“The city should continue to support Sun Tran out of the general fund at whatever amount is necessary to keep low-income workers mobile ...”

“The city needs to get out of the business of subsidizing a service that needs to run as a business ...”

Hey, a discussion of how the city is seems to be moving away from a private, for-profit contractor model would be a novel discussion point. How about some recognition that transit involves more than just bus service?

Transit and the subsidy providing for it looms as a major issue facing the city of Tucson, so Kelly was smart to ask the question and voters deserve candidates who seem to grasp – if not the fullness of the answer – at least the point of the question.

The interviews didn't improve much when Tronsdal and Durham later got into economic development without any mention of Sun Corridor, Inc., the ever-growing economic development authority for Tucson and the region. They also listed as their respective qualifications, that Tronsdal has lived in Tucson for a long time and understood the issues while Durham declared “I tend to do my homework.”

Chew, of the three of them, seemed to at least have done some Google searches (though this is not an endorsement). But the fact that she's only been a registered Democrat for a couple of years (despite reports you've read elsewhere, she's been a registered voter in Pima County since moving here in 2011) and cast a ballot for Jill Stein rather than Hillary Clinton in last November's election probably won't endear her with Democratic primary voters. That's the dues-paying stuff I was talking about.

Even so, she won the endorsement of Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, who's leaving the Ward 3 seat, and the middle-school teacher has had backing from the folks pushing the Strong Start Tucson initiative that would fund preschools.

Durham and Tronsdale have both attracted what, for lack of a better term, could be called the "establishment Democrat" support.

Durham's been more cautious than progressive orthodoxy would dictate when it comes to making declarations about spending from the city's treasury, saying he wants to see money in the bank in future years before committing to spending it now. He has City Hall experience, having been chief of staff for ex-Councilwoman Nina Trasoff for a year, and is a former treasurer of the Pima County Democrats.

Tronsdale, who owns Canyon Fence Company, has won the backing of the folks on the Star editorial board, who called him "pragmatic and thoughtful." He's said both the proposed Strong Start tax increase, and an initiative that would increase sales taxes to fund the zoo, are flawed.

There's also a write-in Democrat in Ward 3, Dan Linhart. He's got a write-in's chance at surviving the primary and meeting independent Gary Watson in November. Ward 5 Democrat Richard Fimbres has a clear path to re-election.

Check list for candidates

Maybe I'm picking on them. Maybe this was a single bad TV appearance. I've done more than enough candidate introduction pieces to know, the people who run, too often, are not the people paying attention.

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So here's a quick starter kit for citizens thinking about running for office:

Read the budget of the governing body you are seeking to join, but also understand it. Don't worry about the gigundo line-item budget. Just read the budgets that are online with all the pie charts and such until you understand them. Where is the money coming from and where is it going? To this end, understand the difference between discretionary and non-discretionary dollars. Yes, the water bill is high but no, that has nothing to do with giving police raises.

Readers would be shocked to learn how often a political candidate is completely clueless about the top three expenditures of the office they are seeking. I once knew a candidate for the U.S. Senate who couldn't name the top three priciest federal programs after spotting him the Department of Defense.

Don't just watch the meetings but read the agendas … the whole agenda. Every one comes with backing material, which is public record. You have a right to it as much as any Council member or journalist. Often they are posted online beforehand. These agendas can be five inches thick in physical form or just hundreds of pages of staff reports, applications, correspondence between parties and manager recommendations. Some of it will be confusing but at least that information will lead you to the right questions to ask.

Ask big dumb stupid questions, the dumber the better, because you are going to get a bunch of smarty-pants answers. Make them explain it to you like you are a four-year-old. Ask what two plus two equals. If the expert hands you back an answer involving the quadratic equation, the answer may be four but the explanation is meant to confound and co-opt.

A good rule of thumb is any time you ask a big, dumb stupid question and get a smarty-pants answer, you are being bullshat. The smarty-pants stuff comes later but only after you understand the basics. Then you have a framework to hang it on.

Understand the limitations of the office sought. Constitutions and revised statutes dictate what a school board, town council and county board can and can't do. If you want to ban all abortions, don't run for Corporation Commission. If you want to legalize hemp, don't run for county assessor. This happens and I'm looking at you, Green Party.

Why it's not easy being green

Ahh, the Greens. The Greens, the Greens, the Greens, the Greens.

The Greens are constantly harping on the rest of the political world for not taking them seriously. They're a real party, dammit and deserve to be treated as such. I'll get to the Libertarian thought experiment some other time but the Greens are pushing actual policies and often decades ahead of their time. It's today's reality where the Greens seem to struggle most and I'm talking pretty basic reality.

In 2009, the Greens wanted to run David Croteau for City Council. He needed just seven valid signatures on petitions. That was too big a hill to climb because he got knocked off the ballot for lack of registered Greens who signed on the dotted lines.

This year, they have candidates for Ward 6 to face incumbent Democrat Steve Kozachik and Republican Mariano Rodriguez in November. (We'll leave aside for the moment how a guy who's called himself "Deplorable Mariano" and been an outspoken Trump cheerleader thinks he can prevail in true blue Tucson.) Annnnd … oh my God. Andrea Kelly got the Greens to talk.

Mike Cease, chairman of the Pima County Green Party, told Kelly about the key to his campaign.

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“Our campaign is focused on tax reform, progressive tax reform,” he said. Tucson “relies mainly on sales tax and that's a regressive form of taxation. When elected, I'm going to enact and propose ordinances where we're gradually going to change that to a progressive taxation.”

"What does that look like?" Kelly asked.

“It looks like asking the top one percent to pay their fair share.”

"Is that like an income tax?"

“Yes. Progressive taxation. It's not going to happen all at once ...”

Dylan doesn't like all-caps so just pretend: It's not going to happen at all (pretend exclamation point).

The city can not impose an income tax in Arizona without a constitutional amendment, so maybe focus on that first. They city can charge fees, impose a sales tax and tax property in a very limited way. That's it. Income taxes? This ain't Philly. This ain't New York. In fact, the only way to get the one percent up in the Foothills outside the city to pay their “fair share” of city taxes is to tax their purchases when, and if, they come shop within the city limits.

If Cease is campaigning on a promise that's impossible to deliver, well, he must be a Green Party candidate.

Still, Cease looked like Prince Metternich compared to his primary challenger, Michael Oatman, who unloaded the following logic:

“The city needs to make it's own money. This is the whole difference I don't think people get. When the city can rely on itself to become it's own financially solid entity, it won't rely on sales taxes and things to keep the city going because it has its own income.”

And at that, Andrea Kelly looked like she just broke her frontal lobe.

Oatman had plans like maybe Tucson Electric Power Co. could automate meter reading and then somehow pass those savings to the city, which would then build Ethernet infrastructure out into the community so residents could pay a small fee for their Internet and the city could scrap the sales tax.

No matter how tricky a government tries to get, when it lays down a mandatory charge over here to pay for something over there, it's a tax. I suppose the city Finance Department could coin its own money and put Pancho Villa on the $20 bill just to piss off Vail. I'm going to guess that's not actually going to happen.

Greens like Oatman are great at seeing the future and we may be heading to some sort of revenue model of enterprise funds but between now and then, the nation probably faces three upheavals and one genuine revolution. It ain't going on an agenda for March 2018.

I don't mean to indict all Greens. Katie Bolger is a tough-as-nails Green who knows her stuff. Carolyn Campbell is a smooth-as-silk negotiator who knows her stuff. It just takes homework and asking around. Do what they have done and the world will take the Green Party as seriously as it seems to take itself.

Candidates for public office go through a lot and I would actually recommend to anyone that they run for office at least once in their lives if they get the opportunity.

What I saw among these candidates was not the exception but the rule. The newsroom bias tends toward those who come prepared. Journalists don't typically describe a politician as “liberal” or “conservative.” We tend to split hairs over “smart” and “an idiot.”

The difference is who is willing to put the time in to understand this stuff.

Be like Durham. Tend to do your homework. Or maybe Google. Andrea's time is valuable. So's the rest of ours.

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

Aug 9, 2017, 7:15 pm
-0 +1

Have you seen Durham’s latest mailing? an attack piece on Chew for supporting “spoiler” Jill Stein.

Aug 9, 2017, 12:00 pm
-1 +1

You’re proving to be a great asset to local voters, Blake.

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