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What the Devil won't tell you

Rothschild's bite-sized achievements welcome in age of giant, empty political promises

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild delivered his final State of the City address on Friday and glossed over a major blemish on his record.

I’m talking of course about Indoor Football League’s expansion into Tucson.

The Sugar Skulls? I mean c’mon. The Sugar Skulls? This is the dumbest name in all of pro sports and there was a once a soccer team called the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly.

Suffice it to say, if I’m mayor, I throw a cross-body block on that one. No, you don’t get to use the city’s arena unless you change the name to something that doesn’t embarrass the game of football, the people of Southern Arizona or anyone miffed over cultural appropriation. I'm not a big believer in cultural appropriation as a negative force but in this case the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

If that counts as an outrage in the eight years of Jonathan Rothschild’s leadership, it couldn’t have been a bad era.

George Miller fought water wars with the voters and got into a ridiculous series of lawsuits to block the democratic rights of communities to incorporate because he planned on annexing Casas Adobes and Tortolita. Bob Walkup had Rio Nuevo with the Sonoran Sea Aquarium and the Sky Bridge (no, don’t go looking for either).

Rothschild’s term will be remembered more for it’s accomplishments than the Sugar Skulls or the Salty Femurs or the Hip Replacements or whatever the hell we name our next new sports team.

I’ve written about what Rothschild and the City Council haven’t done. At one point, I called for him to get himself indicted to improve Tucsonans economic conditions. I’m going to play devil’s advocate myself. So I guess I’m telling you what he will.

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Cast what Rothschild has done against new True Progressive demands for radical restructuring of the American nation. There are promises of jobs guarantees, paying off the electorate with hundreds of dollars a month, free college and cheap Grade-A health care for everyone.

Of course, none of it is going to happen but it feels good expecting it until they day they inevitably get stiff-armed by the Republicans filibustering in the U.S. Senate.

Rothschild on the other hand, looked out, saw what was doable and lead the City Council to getting it done. Maybe that’s low-hanging fruit but he never promised more than he could deliver, and usually accomplished what he said he'd do.

Poppers for all

His was a bite-sized mayorship, with accomplishments like the ones he read off at the Tucson Convention Center in front of the annual gathering of the region’s business leaders:

  • There was the Pathway to Purchase program to improve homeownership opportunities by providing up to 20,000 in certain parts of town and a housing rehabilitation program for people buying fixer uppers.
  • In education, he boasted about using people in the AmeriCorps program to help parents and students receive social servies available to them. His office also supported $3.5 million in school grants for the Corporation for National Community Services.
  • Rothschild, the City Council and Tucson Police Department established a diversion program for certain drug offenders to get treatment and secured a $2 million grant over the span of five years for Tucson’s Veterans Court and a half million over three years for the Domestic violence court.

That’s kind of par for the course for Rothschild, doing what’s doable to make Tucson better at the margins and clean up after the Great Recession.

More good stuff

I look at what’s happening at Pima Community College in Tucson as a really important development and a potential major legacy.

Caterpillar's mining division headquarters, which moved to Tucson during Rothschild's tenure, partnered with PCC to establish a Center of Excellence in Applied Technology. It’s a public-private partnership that maybe (perhaps) can help offset the monumentally zeroing-out of state support for Pima and Maricopa community colleges. Business looks to be stepping in to fill the gap (just like someone said they should).

To me, that's a bigger deal if properly deployed than the businesses that move here because the right workforce will attract the right investments.

Skills, skills, skills are the key to workers commanding higher wages and closing the wealth gap. On the other hand, I don’t think we can count on business to hand workers too many skills lest they do something insane like start demanding better pay for those skills. So maybe don't leave it up to business, entirely. Business wants walk the edge of convincing people they are lucky to have a job and while banking the winnings of their workers' effective labor.

Long-term, Rothschild has has fought to reduce homelessness in Tucson and has done pretty well on that score, depending on who you talk to.

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The number of people in homeless shelters fell by more than a third between January 2014 and January 2018. He’s also partnered with the Primavera Foundation to do things like “poverty simulation” so that people will better understand the issue. I’m sorry. That’s absolutely ridiculous. Pretending to be poor is like going through one of those team-building boot camps and saying you understand what D-Day was like.

Give the guy credit, though. He’s working on different fronts to move a bunch of stuff a little bit forward and make Tucson better off around the edges.

Same old, never changes

On the other hand, nothing has changed the city’s trajectory.

Tucson’s median and per capita incomes have barely budged. We were a low-wage city when Rothschild took office and we are a low-wage city now. The median household income hovers just above $41,000 —$10,000 less than the metro area and $15,000 less than the statewide median income.

Rothschild has kept busy getting things done but Tucson remains a hard place to raise a family, save for college and retirement. Opportunities remain better elsewhere.

Violent crime here remains above the national average and has ticked up between 2011 and 2017 (the most recent statistics) from 658 incidents per 100,000 residents to 775 incidents per 100,000, which is very close to the national average of 768 for cities with populations between 250,000 and 1 million.

The in property crime trend line covering the same period slopes downward, though, from 5,454 to 5,108 per 100,000 (and way down from the 9,000-plus we saw in 2001-2002 (in part due to a change in how the FBI counts crimes)) — well above the national average of 3,309 per 100,000 for cities of populations between 250,000 and 1 million.

Yeah, but the sun, right?

Exactly. Tucsonans continue to trade other factors that contribute to quality of life for warmer winters. It seems like we should be able to have both, right?

Can a mayor change that? Not all by himself, but it's also not going to happen all by itself.

No prizes

In the age of outrage and outsized promises, Rothschild’s political poppers go down kind of smooth.

It doesn’t seem like that long ago, something like the perceived political (in-?)appropriateness of the Tucson Sugar Skulls could have sunk the whole deal. The Washington Redskins controversy would have been invoked, and the Pima County Interfaith Council would have packed the City Council meeting room for a six-hour meeting of sustained outrage.

Rothschild’s lowest moment as mayor was probably the 40-plus day bus strike. But you know what? There haven’t been two of them. Truthfully, that has to count as an improvement because typically the Teamsters and Sun Tran (meaning whatever business is running it) would wait until 11:59:53 before getting a deal done.

It’s been pretty quiet on the bus front and that’s a good thing.

The city is in better shape than when he took over the mayorship in 2011, because the economy as a whole is better off than it was in 2011. That the city government is in better shape, has at least something to do with Rothschild. He doesn’t aim too high but he doesn’t disappoint.

Reporters won't win Pulitzers covering the mayhem over at this City Hall because there was none. That's bad for the press but good for the voters. 

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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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Rothschild delivered his last 'State of the City' address and it could have been a lot worse.