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Zach Yentzer to challenge Tucson Mayor Regina Romero

Zach Yentzer to challenge Tucson Mayor Regina Romero

  • Zach Yentzer announced last Wednesday he's running for mayor, challenging Democrat Regina Romero in November.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comZach Yentzer announced last Wednesday he's running for mayor, challenging Democrat Regina Romero in November.

While the hangover from November's balloting continues, Zach Yentzer kicked off the next election cycle in Tucson, announcing last week he would challenge Democrat Regina Romero for mayor. Yentzer, formerly registered as a Republican, is running as a non-party candidate.

In a dirt lot at the Mercado San Augustin just west of Downtown Tucson, Yentzer said he would push to expand housing in Tucson, promote business development, and seek to solve the city's homelessness problem. Yentzer, 32, spent four years as the president of the Menlo Park Neighborhood Association, and five years hosting Tipping Point, a Tucson-focused news and politics talk show on 1030 KVOI. He is currently the executive director of Tucson Young Professionals, a networking group.

"Over the last decades Menlo Park neighbors have found ourselves at a point where we had to have crucial conversations about the future," he said, adding that his neighborhood "wrestled with big questions" of housing access and affordability, economic development, transportation planning, public safety, and homelessness. He added that Menlo Park is "representative of the whole city."

"Tucson is in exactly the same place and the same moment right now," he said. "We are at a point where we cannot just conserve our history. We must also protect and strengthen and shape the future of this place for our kids and their children."

"I filed to run for mayor as an independent, because, for all that is good and beautiful about this place we call home, I do not believe our current course is taking us in that direction," he said.

Yentzer said he filed to run for Tucson's mayor last year. According to county records, Yentzer switched his party registration from Republican to independent on Jan. 26, 2022.

Along with choosing who to serve the next term as mayor, Tucson votes will also cast ballots for Wards 1, 2 and 4, where three Democrats currently serve on the City Council.

In Ward 1, first-term Councilmember Lane Santa Cruz will seek a second term. In Ward 2, Paul Cunningham will seek another term after being in office since 2010. In Ward 4, first-term Councilmember Nikki Lee will seek her second term.

Yetnzer will face a tough road in his quest to unseat Romero. She spent years serving Tucson's Ward 1 for the Tucson City Council, and she handily beat independent Ed Ackerlery in 2019 and became Tucson's first Latina mayor. In 2020 as she lead Tucson through the COVID-19 pandemic, she also weathered a recall effort after organizers failed to submit enough signatures to get their petition on the ballot.

Further, Yentzer will have direct competition from Ackerlery, who has again stepped into the ring to challenge Romero as an independent. Ackerley has promised to rapidly hire dozens of Tucson police officers and pave and repair roads, as well as promote economic development in the city and establishing what he calls "homeless transition centers" in abandoned buildings, as well as "quick strike teams" to relocate and clear homeless camps.

Tucson has 131,000 registered Democratic voters, with 98,000 not registered with a political party, and just 61,000 signed up as Republicans. 2,300 are Libertarians.

While candidates associated with the political parties must gather signatures and run in the August 1 primary election (with mail-in voting throughout July), independent candidates must submit nominating petitions with about 3,000 valid signatures to earn their way on the city's November general election ballot. Signers must be registered voters who live in the city, who have not signed a petition for another candidate.

In December, Romero noted her efforts over her term as mayor during her State of the City address. "Decades' worth of unmet needs, societal inequities and lopsided investments have resulted in complex, multi-faceted problems such as lack of affordable housing stock, significant infrastructure needs, houselessness, and lack of action on mitigating climate change," she said, later added the city was "building bridges" between Tucson Fire and Tucson Police to "ensure that our city improves the outcomes for individuals struggling with mental health, substance use, homelessness or extreme poverty."

Yentzer said he filed his candidacy about six months ago and has spent that time talking to voters in their living rooms about the issues.

"On our most pressing challenges, time and again, the issues of housing affordability, neighborhood safety, homelessness and economic opportunity rose to the surface in those conversations," he said. He added median rent has increased by 40 percent since just 2017, and home values have increased 60 percent in the same period. "This is partially the result of population growth that has outstripped the little amount of housing supply we’ve built since 2009," he said. Yentzer said this was in part because of an understaffed permitting department at the city.

He also criticized a recent move to require electric vehicle chargers on new homes because few people have them. "I think it's probably the future going forward, but we just placed electric vehicle regulations on new multifamily and affordable housing," he said. "There just wasn't any nuance around this. Is this the time during a housing crisis to add in more regulation?"

Yentzer argued Tucson's recovery since the COVID-19 pandemic is "continually near the bottom" in comparison to the state's six other metros. According to the University of Arizona's MAP Dashboard, Tucson's business and employment growth is "dead last among our peer metro areas," he said. At the same time, homelessness grew 70 percent between 2020 and 2022, however, while city leaders have pursued a "housing first" model, he argued the programs are not "scalable" resulting in high costs to protect fewer than 200 people.

Over the last several years, the city and Pima County have pursued housing first policies, which focus on getting people into temporary housing, which is followed by other services. This is in contrast to previous models that often required jobs, job training, or drug treatment programs before housing was provided. Further, over the last year, Tucson and the county have bought up motels to use as shelters and subsidized apartments using millions in federal dollars. 

The city has spent $10 to $12 million on purchasing just a few motels and hotels that are really only built to serve about 140 people right now, Yentzer said. The city needs to find solution for nearly 3,000 people a night who "need a roof over their head."

About 74 percent of homeless people are "un-sheltered" and rather than a housing first model, he would pursue what he called  "shelter-first, treatment first, housing-earned." This would include more shelters and faster access to mental health and substance abuse support, as well as "more accountability" when "there is criminal activity," he said. 

Shelter should be a "starting point," Yentzer said.

Other cities have found success with the Housing First model. A 2004 study in New York City found after five years, over 80 percent of those in the program remained housed. In Canada, a study of five cities—including Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton—found that nearly two-thirds of 2,000 participants in Housing First programs remained housed, while also driving down overall costs.

A 2021 study by the National Institutes of Health found Housing First programs decreased homelessness by 88 percent and improved housing stability by 41 percent compared to Treatment First programs.

"We know that these issues are rising, we don't have a sustainable way to really tackle it at scale. And so I would start by ensuring that we have enough shelter not as the end game but as the starting point," he said. "That would be an invert, I think of what is happening now," he said.

"But the reason that I believe we keep sticking with the policy is because politics are attached," Yentzer said, arguing this continues because Tucson is "one of the only cities or towns in Arizona" that has a partisan election.

"Everybody else has said a nonpartisan independent election is a good idea because these issues should not be politically charged," he argued. "We should be taking a pragmatic look to see if our direction is working. If it's not we should have the freedom and the independence to switch and pivot," he said.

"Politics doesn't allow for that. Politics prioritizes purity over pragmatism." Yentzer said.

Promising a campaign without mudslinging, Yentzer said his positions are "fiscally responsible and socially inclusive" and said he has switched parties before, and often voted a split ticket. He also criticized how "national politics" have informed local races, and said would reject questions about both abortion and gun control. 

"That’s not the job you’re hiring me for," he said. 

Yentzer said he would lead a "grassroots" movement that is "cross-partisan and multi-generational."

"You'll find Republicans and progressives and everything in between are crossing over to our movement to turn down the political noise and take urgent independent action to make Tucson an affordable place of opportunity with a good quality of life for our residents and businesses. Now is not the time to play politics or play it safe," he said.

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