TucsonSentinel.com looks back at 2021
Tucson rang in 2021 much as we left the previous year, but with a few new twists: in the grip of a pandemic that has become a political issue, more immigration and asylum issues, a growing climate crisis.
These stories came to us thanks to the efforts of the Sentinel's award-winning reporter and photographer Paul Ingram, IDEA reporter Bennito L. Kelty, with analysis by Blake Morlock and accountability journalism by editor Dylan Smith, who along with dozens of local contributors and our national investigative reporting partners made sure to keep Tucson and Southern Arizona informed during a year in which headlines vied to top each other on a daily basis.
Coronavirus was again the dominant and contentious topic of the year, with battles over masks and vaccinations raging from the statehouse to the schoolhouse. City and county government was not immune, and challenges to mandates have led to the courthouse.
Government officials and community leaders have worked throughout the year to increase vaccine availability and vaccination rates, including HHS grants to promote health literacy and health care equity to help improve people understand and use healthcare information and services in high-risk and underserved areas. Local governments have also increased testing and vaccination sites around Southern Arizona.
There was change at the Arizona Department of Health Services as Don Herrington, a 21-year veteran of the department, became the agency's interim director and replace Dr. Cara Christ, who announced she was leaving her post late July to work for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona. Former surgeon general Dr. Richard Carmona was tapped by Gov. Doug Ducey to lead a statewide effort to boost vaccinations.
Tucsonans spoke on why why they're getting their COVID shots as hospitals are facing a nursing shortage that predates the pandemic and has strained medical facilities and workers to the breaking point. Meanwhile, the number of variants is increasing and as the coronavirus playing field changes, maybe it's time to look for a back-up plan.
Riot at the Capitol
The year began with a deadly and chaotic riot in which supporters of Former President Donald Trump broke windows and smashed doors in the U.S. Capitol to halt the tally of electoral votes for Joe Biden, leading to resignations from the White House and a search by law enforcement for those involved in the attempted insurrection.
This led to various and disproven theories about ballots and the election - often promoted by Arizona politicians - and the infamous Maricopa County "audit" by CyberNinjas.
In continued prosecution of those who participated in the riot, Jacob Anthony Chansley, who called himself the "QAnon Shaman," was sentenced to 41 months in prison by a federal judge for felony obstruction of a congressional proceeding for his involvement.
Immigration and the border
Always a hot topic, disarray was the word when January began with the end of Chad Wolf's tenure as the head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ending the question whether he was legally in his post or had been placed there in violation of federal laws.
The release of migrants by U.S. Customs and Border Protection from Border Patrol stations in Southern Arizona forced Pima County to make plans to transport migrants from outlying areas to shelters in Tucson.
The Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General revealed the extent of childhood separations under the Trump administration.
Expulsions continued at the border under Title 42, and the average "re-encounter" rate—previously classified as a recidivism rate— significantly increased. And, even as the Biden administration promised more humane policies along the border, asylum remained a faint promise as hundreds of people remain in border cities like Nogales, Sonora waiting for a chance to seek protection in the United States.
Tucson became home for refugees from the war in Afghanistan, and the community began providing assistance to families from the war-torn country.
Growing housing crisis
After the year began with an eviction moratorium that was lifted, reinstated and lifted again, Tucson now faces a slow building eviction crisis.
When the moratorium on evictions was eventually lifted by the Supreme Court, more money became available from the federal government to address the crisis, intended to help both renters and landlords.
Pima County, along with Tucson city officials and the federal government, created a network of programs intended to help people who need rental assistance, mortgage aid, are facing homelessness, or have missed utility payments because of the outbreak of COVID-19.
In the midst, some on the Board of Supervisors want to reform or even eliminate the elected office of constable, while the City of Tucson has approved the building of casitas to help alleviate housing stresses.
The Fight for $15 succeeded in in raising the minimum wage in Tucson, but the effort seems unlikely to be replicated on the county level, in spite of a booming economy.
A community initiative was aimed at "flipping the script" on access to capital to local Black, indigenous or people of color entrepreneurs, and now 16 business owners are the inaugural class of recipients of loans from local nonprofit Community Investment Corporation.
Tucson will see new bridges, roads, buses and trains because of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, and the impact of the spending should help struggling local businesses.
Marijuana is now legal in Arizona, and by October, the state reached a record $58 million in recreational marijuana sales.
Under a new state law, Arizonans with criminal records for marijuana possession have a chance to have their records expunged, and advocates are assisting with clearing marijuana convictions.
The fight over the pandemic and mitigation continued to stress the education system in Pima County, as local university groups engage in the same battles at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College over masks and vaccinations.
Meanwhile, the Pima County Board of Supervisors approved a plan to support free pre-K education for low-income Pima County families.
Activists are now working to overturn Arizona's latest tax cuts for the wealthy, to protect last year's passage of a tax increase for schools, one among many attempts by the state legislature to change Arizona's school system.
The Arizona Land and Water Trust purchased more than 370 acres of land near Amado, Ariz., as part of a multi-million dollar campaign to protect a "conservation linchpin" between the Santa Cruz River and nearly 54,000 acres of landscape covered by Pima County's conservation plan.
Tucson began 2021 warmer and drier than normal and air quality was an issue, but it finally rained in Southern Arizona - and and several metal gates in the U.S.-Mexico border wall along the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge were damaged during the monsoon flooding.
Though the monsoon helped, water continues to be a major issue: PFAS from the Tucson Airport Remediation Project continue to be a concern and Pima County is moving ahead with a lawsuit against Tucson over an increase in water rates for customers who live outside the city limits.
As the climate crisis worsens, calls for activism to protect the environment increase, and the work of University of Arizona researchers present an opportunity for national lawmakers to heed their constituents.
Culture and history
Southern Arizona is a region rich in culture and history, and these are just a few of the stories of our community this year: a border-focused art exhibit in Nogales presenting mixed media from Arizona and Mexican artists; the chip-seal of about a half-mile stretch of the Leon Ranch Road, a skinny dirt road and the last remaining route to the the burial place of Mexican pioneers who homesteaded the Vail area in the late 19th century; a Tucson activist facing two federal charges over her protesting border wall construction near Quitobaquito Spring because she believed she needed to protect the land from being "desecrated."
A veteran of the Korean War returned to Tucson for burial; the return of the Mexican Baseball Fiesta to the state, Joe Biden becoming the first U.S. president to proclaim Indigenous Peoples Day and the expansion of Pascua Yaqui tribal lands near Grant & I-10, Pima County Public Library's annual LGBTQ+ Author Talk, and diversity efforts garner praise as the Arizona Historical Society achieved its first national accreditation.
Other items of note
Thanks to IDEA reporter Bennito Kelty, the TucsonSentinel.com has increased coverage in Spanish, including efforts to promote health care equity, air quality issues, the new city of Tucson Office of Equity, a fight over water, the last resting place of Mexican pioneers in Vail, and a plan to support free pre-K education for low-income Pima County families.
Fentanyl overdoses are now the leading cause of death among kids and teenagers 19 and under in Pima County, putting the county on pace to set a record for overdose deaths for the third consecutive year.
With the rise in extremism around the country coming to Tucson, religious and ethnic groups announced a coalition to fight hate in Southern Arizona. The city earned a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, in an assessment of equality in city policies, laws and services.