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New Pima County constable replacing 'rebel eviction enforcer' calls for unity among colleagues

New Pima County constable Deborah Martinez, appointed to replace “rebel eviction-enforcer” Kristen Randall in Precinct 8, is calling on the other constables to work together as she steps into what county administration has called a “fractured group.”

Randall resigned from her position, which mostly serves Midtown Tucson, towards the end of January, citing a “great divide” among the constables. Randall pushed for a “housing-first” mentality and chose to visit tenants before they were served with an eviction to connect them to resources in an effort to prevent homelessness.

The Board of Supervisors filled her seat on Tuesday with a 4-0 vote in which Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board, abstained from voting on the appointment of Martinez a Democrat.

Only a few days into her job, Martinez isn’t sure if she’s going to carry on Randall’s signature practice of pre-eviction visits that she considered key to keeping people off the streets, but she’s committed to “whatever I can do to do the right thing by the people in community, but I can’t say yet what that path is.”

“I’m still trying to get my feet underneath me to see if that’s a viable practice,” Martinez said. “My goal overall is to have whatever resources and whatever I can to ensure people are housing stable, even if that means coming out before and providing resources and giving them some notice that they’re going to be evicted.”

A Tucson native and graduate of Pueblo High School, Martinez said about her contituents in the precinct where she lives and now works that "this is my community. These are my neighbors. I have to make sure that I do the right thing constantly because these are the people I'm going to see every single day in my neighborhood." Her approach to the job is make sure "I'm right by the people, whether they're landlords or they're people I'm evicting or serving warrants. I think it's just a matter of maintaining a level of mutual respect."

She can “empathize with some of (Randall’s) concerns,” she said, and there are going to be challenges to doing the job “consistent with a standardized practice for the office.”

"The constables office as a whole needs a have a methodology. I understand that we're all elected officials, that we work independently and that none of us answers to the others, but there has to be some standardized level of professionalism in the office," she said. "Once that happens, people will want to come to the table to have a say in what that standard is and to hold each other accountable to that standard."

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She stressed that she wants to work with the other constables and is "absolutely committed to working them." The constables are dependent on each other, she said, and if they do work together, they can reverse negative perceptions from the county and the public.

“I hope that the office can come together in a sense of representing the county in the best light and that we can all work together,” she said. “Our office has to work together because we only have each other, and we need to do everything we can to step up as representatives of our county and our individual constituents and precincts. We need to get the target off of our back.”

Top county administrators and the Board of Supervisors have considered reducing the number of constables as a “consolidation” of their offices and workload, as Assistant County Administrator Mark Napier wrote in a county memo in which he also called the constables a “fractured group” because of the disparities in their workloads and practices.

In October, the supervisors voted 3-2 for the temporary appointment of William J. Lake-Wright, a former F-16 pilot who replaced the retired Marge Cummings of Precinct 5 in the eastern part of the county. Chairwomen Sharon Bronson and Christy voted against Lake-Wright’s appointment to eliminate the position in that precinct, with Bronson saying “I think he’ll be a very good constable…but I really would like to eliminate the position.”

One county constable, Oscar Vasquez, was suspended in July for misconduct including refusing to carry out an eviction of a mother and her children, despite a court order, and for speeding in a county vehicle then following and yelling at someone who almost hit his car.

Martinez will fill the Precinct 8 position until this fall's election, but she's already seeking to hold the office for the remainder of a term that runs through 2024. Martinez is looking for volunteers to help her collect the signatures she needs to be placed on the ballot. Two other candidates have also filed statements of interest in running in the Democratic primary: Christopher Toth and Francisco Lopez.

“With all the time and endorsements and support and training that’s going into me right now, it would be wrong for me to not be running,” she said. “My values are the most in line with the constituents in my precinct, the (Tucson) City Council and the Board of Supervisors…I think I’m the most qualified to represent our community.”

She’s well connected to the city of Tucson and the Pima County Board of Supervisors through her work supporting the homeless, she said, mostly by working with local government officials to provide services and host community events. She worked with Tucson Veterans Serving Veterans, which keeps local veterans housed and connected to social services.

Martinez retired from U.S. Army intelligence after multiple tours in Afghanistan. She joined the military after 9/11, saying at the time she thought “if I could contribute, it was not OK for me to sit at home and just do nothing,” and says this is the same reason she decided to become a constable. Her ties to the city and county led to her being nominated as a qualified replacement to Randall, who knows her personally as well, and she took it as a call to action, she said.

She’s “very optimistic” about the job and “confident in my ability to do the job,” but she’s worried about the disparities in workloads mentioned by county administration and the “inconsistency in practices,” as she described Randall’s concerns, saying she wants to work with her colleagues to end “the negative perception off the constable’s office.”

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“After their warm reception, I’m calling on all my fellow constables. I hope they're willing to work with me, and I’m walking in with an open mind,” she said. “Working together, I think we can get the spotlight off of us and reflect our office in a positive way.”

Martinez acknowledges the impact and legacy of her predecessor, saying "Kristen left some pretty big shoes to fill."

"That girl has got a great reputation. I hope I can live up to it. There's nothing but good that's said about that girl, nothing but good," she said. "Everything that's said is overwhelmingly positive about her. That leaves some pretty big shoes to fill. I know she put a lot of faith in supporting me in this position, so I just hope I do right by her too."

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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