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GOP Council slate looks like the real deal

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What the Devil won't tell you

GOP Council slate looks like the real deal

Mayor candidate could be a week away from announcing

  • Bill Morrow/Flickr

Bill Beard had a job that made recruiting roofers in Tucson come July seem easy.

As Pima County Republican Party chairman, his gig was to find three registered Republicans in a city of 525,000 to throw in and run for Tucson City Council.

Sounds like a no-sweat job, you say. Hah. In recent years — as often as not — it's been a bridge too far for Republicans. In 2009, getting the magical third candidate required a series of robocalls the county party rang through Ward 5 on the South Side.

Yet Beard has done it with a pair of flyboys and a math teacher.

Kelly Lawton, an Emery Riddle University administrator, has stepped forward to challenge Democrat Paul Cunningham. Bill Hunt, a Raytheon project manager, will take on Regina Romero. And Shirley Scott gets a competitor in Margaret Burkholder, who already won a seat for herself on the Vail School District Governing Board.

They ain't Rick Grinnell. The 2011 mayoral candidate was a two-time loser at the Council level, whose best skill was to be well-liked by the McMahon's crowd and was running for mayor because he didn't have much else going on professionally. And he only got in the race — as a write-in during the primary — because other GOP candidates couldn't gather enough valid signatures to get on the ballot.

Meanwhile, Beard says he expects to have a mayoral candidate to announce within a week, although the clock is ticking down toward the deadline to file nominating petitions next month.

It's hard to find Republicans to run for a simple reason — Tucson is a safe place for Democrats. In fact, Republicans face a far steeper deficit in voter registration than Democrats do at the state level. When was the last time the Democrats won anything statewide? Exactly.

Running for office in Tucson is just tempting enough to go through a meat grinder to wind up with 44 percent of the vote.

I can tell you right now, the Democrats are not swaggering through their party headquarters saying "mwah, hah, hah, it's in the bag!" None of them have faced a challenge like the one Beard has just handed them.

Scott has never faced 1) anyone with elected experience or 2) a woman, which some say matters because women are more likely to cross party lines than men to vote for another woman. Scott's last race was decided by fewer than 2,000 votes.

Cunningham's sole campaign was against Jennifer Rawson, who makes no Democratic pro squirm.

Romero has simply never faced a significant campaign challenge on any level beyond getting her signatures signed. She had primary opponents but was well-connected through her own work as a staffer and activist — being married to Raul Grijalva's district director absolutely did not hurt — to power through primaries. Then she knocked off Beryl Baker twice in the general election. She of the Green Party.

The candidates on paper look credible and then some, plus with three candidates running the Republican Party can run "slate ads" on behalf of the team and not have it count as an illegal campaign contribution.

But can they win?

Here's a number for you to suggest the Republicans aren't tilting at solar panels: Prescott, according to the latest Arizona Department of Administration Unemployment figures, has added almost half as many jobs as Tucson. Phoenix had long lagged Tucson throughout the Great Recession in terms of recovery, and has zoomed passed it in the last year.

No politician can talk voters into having a sunny optimism about the future. If they have it, it's hard to talk them out of it. In that, it's not unlike being in love. You are or you aren't and you ain't listening to your friends.

Beard is locked on what could be the lethal message: "Things are broken in Tucson. There has been one party in charge of Tucson for over 40 years," he said in an interview Wednesday.

Bang. That's it. That's all he has to say (well, it does have to be fleshed out). That's the message Republicans that will assure Scott, Romero and Cunningham don't sleep between now and Election Day. If the Republicans start invoking guns, Obamacare and for God's sake, Benghazi, a smart political mind will cull them and slaughter them one by one.

Any distraction from the broad message of "Are you happy? Look who's been in charge," is a self-inflicted wound and Republicans can't afford them running in a city that is progressive by nature.

Beard's counterpart, Democratic Party Chairwoman Cheryl Cage, says the Council with Mayor Jonathan Rothschild has overseen a Downtown turnaround, while directing what one magazine calls the 12th best run city in the country, and taking steps to improve the business climate through a streamlined permitting procedure.

That the city can feasibly run on Downtown is a coup in itself, after Rio Nuevo's (let's charitably call them) "issues" (steaming political clusterchomp is a bit too on-point) were millstones around the Council's collective neck.

"All you have to do is go Downtown and have dinner on any weekend night and that place is hopping," Cage said. She threw in a swipe at the Tea Party's tendency to take on a "our way or the highway" approach to government.

What both Beard and Cage agree on is that it will be up to the candidates to define rationale behind their run and how voters perceive Tucson, will play a major role in the race.

This is what makes the election so interesting, assuming none of the Republicans self-destruct. Arguing whether Tucson is or isn't happy with the shape and direction of the economy is almost pointless. They are either happy or they aren't.

These are anxious times. The Great Recession ended years ago on paper but it's effects have lingered. Unemployment is down but the the office park worker may instead be working at a sandwich shop for a little over minimum wage. It's not disaster but it ain't milk and honey.

Much of this is far out of the city's hands and blaming Regina Romero for it is like blaming Beard for the Arizona heat. 

"Tucson seems to have a welcome mat for business that isn't friendly," Beard said.

The economy has been bad nationally and Arizona has been, as a whole, slower than the rest of the country coming out of it. Tucson was, in fact, one of the epicenters of the housing crash and the effects of that smoldering wreckage hurt the economy. Tucson didn't make the mess. The state has hamstrung the city with reduced HURF funding, slashing shared revenue dollars and general meddling into the affairs of a city the Legislature doesn't agree with ideologically.

The City Council can't control that. What the City Council can control to a degree is economic development, which has a long and less-than-storied history in Tucson.

Dialing for dollars

Let's first just rid ourselves of the notion that to be pro-business is to subsume Tucson into a right-wing bastion of Koch-loving soullessness. Austin, Texas, is a liberal city with a trendsetting record in terms of economic development. Madison, Wis., has a strong record. Neither city is known for being the brewing kettle of White Male Anger Breakfast Tea.

Tucson's problems in shaping its economic future are all its own. A Chamber of Commerce that has operated like a local arm of the Republican Party out to beat Democrats, as much as build better business. Democrats chilly to the idea of helping business. One could argue that even if the chamber started it, leaders get elected to end it. The University of Arizona has done little in the way of turning its $393 million federal research budget into local jobs.

While much of that money may be pure research, Silicon Valley got going because of university research on the Bay Area campuses. Whatever the case and counter arguments, economic development efforts have not turned Tucson's quality of life into an upper-end economy.

Still there are bright spots: Tucson ranks 28th in most productive workers (the flip side is that Tucson does more for less than all but 27 cities in the country). It ranks 35th in high-tech job growth. The aviation industry has done well here with Bombardier and Learjet but for every job with wings there seems to be one with an auto dialer and a headset.

Battle plan

If voters feel good about Tucson's position and their position in the city, the Democrats should coast. If voters are frustrated, Republicans still face an uphill battle but on dry ground and under a degree of fog cover.

Meanwhile, the Democratic slate is not the most natural. Some may call it a big tent. Others call it dysfunctional. Romero is the most embraced by party activists, while Cunningham has his own thing going on on the Northeast Side and Scott is ensconced in the Southeast Side and rarely involves herself in local politics. This was true when I was on East First Street. Is it true now? Are they all happy soldiers who have one another's back?

Here's a test. Can or will any of them say the following dependent clause "Under Jonathan Rothschild's leadership .." I tend to wonder because the Council members like to think of themselves as mavericks,  devoted to their own agendas. They can have trouble playing well with colleagues.

First things first for the GOP. They have to get on the ballot. They don't have much time, with the May 27 deadline looming. Hunt just needs 98 valid Republican signatures from Ward I. Lawson must collect 195 Ward II Republican signatures for Ward 2 and Buckholder must get 351 petitions signed. It's a quick turnaround but doable, if they gather enough volunteers, walk precincts and knock on doors.

In 2011, the Republicans ran into problems when they gathered sheets of invalid signatures to get their candidates on the ballot from voters. If the person signing writes down an address that puts them in the 14000 block of anything, it's not a valid signature for a Tucson election.

If they can get on the ballot, Tucson will have a race and as Cage put it: "Elections are good for democracy."

Burkholder told me her message is short and sweet.

"Tucson can do better," she said. "When I was elected to the school board, (the district's) student achievement was at 50 percent. Now we are top in the state."

Buy some Ambien, Shirley.

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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