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What the Devil won't tell you

Candidates with a clue: Tucson's Democratic primary slate is chock full of experience

The Republican Party has gone out of business in Tucson city politics. The GOP has a big opportunity because in Tucson wages are low, crime rates are high and Democrats have been in charge.

But the party of a citrus-colored You Know Whom can't bother themselves with the heavy lift of proposed solutions, much less follow through with ground-level politics. There is too much science to deny and pandemic to foster lest public health measures successfully defeat coronavirus. There are too many fantasies to invent about stolen elections and space lasers. There are Confederate statues to defend and the windmills of critical race theory to attack.

Without a functional local Republican Party, the only way to hold incumbents' feet to the fire is through Democratic primaries, which in Tucson city elections are limited to ward-only votes.

En español: Candidatos con una pista: La Primaria Demócrata de Tucson ofrece experiencia

And the ballots are about to arrive at mailboxes in wards 3, 5 and 6, in Midtown Tucson and the Northwest and Southwest sides as partisan voters choose their candidates. Only one Republican, write-in candidate Alan Harwell in Ward 3, may work his way onto the ballot come November. Independents Val Romero and Lucy LiBosha are on the ballot in the fall for Ward 6 and 3. Ward 5 voters don't really get a choice: nobody is running against the incumbent councilman.

And good news for Tucson voters about that primary: Y’all have choices. Each of the Democrats vying for office come in knowing the difference between a general fund and an enterprise fund.

That's not to say anyone is killing it when it comes to fundraising. The April reports show a slow start but there was a pandemic making gathering for fundraisers incredibly difficult.

The candidates represent different approaches and priorities, which I will discuss below. And the challenges they want to address are real. In fact, the challenges are borderline crises.

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In other words, the candidates seem to know what the hell they are talking about.

In Ward 3, Juan Padres, an entrepreneur and former assistant to the city manager, is squaring off against Kevin Dahl, an environmentalist with so much experience I remember his name in a computer file where the screen was black and the letters were green. They both have been around the block and both know what’s what.

As far as I’m concerned, they are both addressing issues I’ve argued the Tucson City Council must take on as they vie for a seat left open by Paul Durham’s decision to retire and Karin Uhlich being an interim appointment who's not running again.

In Ward 6, Steve Kozachik is running for a third term herding cats and wrangling warring parties to the ground. But he’s gotta get past University of Arizona academic adviser Miranda Schubert and housing advocate Andres Portela – both talk an awful lot like members of the Democratic Party’s activist base.

In Ward 5, Richard Fimbres … well, he can check back in 2025 because no one is challenging him.

The Ward 6 primary may be getting the ink and concern because it pits the iconic and iconoclastic Kozachik against the emerging force of progressives who just turned county government a deeper shade of blue.

But I want to start with Ward 3 because this primary involves a great – albeit hard – choice for Democrats (and whichever "independent" and Green voters decide to cast a D ballot).

Kevin Dahl and climate

Padres has had enough of Tucson – and his part of it in the near-north by northwest side of town – constantly being poor. Dahl says climate change represents an urgent threat that must be first on the minds of Tucson voters.

I like to ask what that one issue is that puts candidates feet to the floor in the morning when they don’t think they can walk on to knock on yet another door.

“For me, it’s climate,” Dahl said. “Greta Thunberg (the Swedish teenage climate agitator) has really inspired me.”

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I can't help it. I love the answer. Climate change is absolutely an area where people must act locally.

Tucson is in one of the fastest-heating states in the country and this pueblo of ours wasn’t starting out as a place anyone would call “temperate.”

“We just had one week where we experienced torture. And it’s obvious that we will see that more and more,” Dahl said.

How does Tucson change the change? Well, it can be done by working to spread renewable energies throughout the city with ports for electric vehicles, Dahl said. He also wants to help weatherize homes in Tucson, which will reduce energy consumption as it cuts electric bills and dampens the carbon footprint.

The Regional Transportation Authority is up for reauthorization in 2026, so the planning will have to be done to develop a program for voters to approve or 86. Dahl is one of those voices arguing for more options to internal combustion to get people from point A to point B.

But Dahl isn’t just any voice. He’s been running environmental organizations for going on 40 years. The big one was Tucson Audobon Society. But he’s also run the Native Seeds program, among others. He led all candidates with just over $10,000 raised through the first quarter (the most recent records available).

Is climate really an issue Tucson should be focused on? Is the state Legislature going to do it? All they need to know about it is that a former president and their cult leader once called it a “Chinese hoax.” Is the federal government going to fix it? Not so long as Kyrsten Sinema is more focused on her mavericky brand than getting things done.

Local government may be the only venue for solutions.

Padres vs. poverty

That’s all well and good, Padres says, but it’s hard for people to focus on climate when they are living crummy paycheck to crummy paycheck, month after month and decade after decade.

That requires the old concept so talked to death in Tucson, without any real change in circumstance.

“To start mitigating poverty, it’s going to require economic development.”

Nothing new there but Padres does have a way of putting it all together. No one is going to bring jobs to a high-crime area. A bunch of low-income workers who live in neighborhoods under what is referred to as “urban stress” can’t take advantage of new job opportunities if public transportation doesn’t get them to work. And if they are paying most of their income on rent, then they aren’t supporting the rest of the economy.

So one of his ideas is take the vacant and idle land like Amphi Plaza at North First Avenue and East Fort Lowell Road and turn it into a mixed use development. Create business, homes and offices all sharing the same area. People can live right above where they work.

Now replicate that all over town.

Obviously fighting poverty is more complicated than that but Padres talks about it with a sense of urgency that has been lacking in Tucson since Mo Udall was a star point guard at Bear Down Gym.

“I would sit in the city manager’s office during staff meetings and these issues were rarely discussed,” Padres said. The focus often fell to what was on fire that particular day.

Padres, who is something of a habitual entrepreneur now running a beer and wine import business, promises to hammer on getting wages up and poverty down. He’s got that fire, even if he didn't have any money in the bank — with less than $500 through the first quarter.

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Dahl and Padres say they aren’t focusing on their issues to the exclusion of others. Padres understands the environment is what brings people to Tucson and should be protected. Dahl promises to engage neighborhoods and get them more involved in policy making.

Both candidates are pledging to focus on what needs to be focused on and that’s good. They also have the experience to know how to turn ideas into policy.

So go vote, Ward 3. Where is your collective head at?

For the Koz

Ward 6 meanwhile is Kozachik’s turf. He's a former Republican running in a ward rich with "True Progressives." But his prospects are buoyed by facing two challengers in University of Arizona academic adviser and radio host Miranda Schubert and Andres Portela, an up-and-coming housing advocate.

"The Koz" is also something of his own brand, who doesn't neatly into any cubbyhole. He's a 67-year-old who still runs 12 miles every day and needs that energy to keep hopping from fire to fire. (I couldn't run 12 miles a day when I was a teenage soccer midfielder).

Kozachik is Kozachik is Kozachik. He’s the 1 in a lot of 6-1 City Council votes. He’s also the guy who puts people in a room, bangs heads together and gets things done when the doors are closed. And when the doors are closed is where it gets done.

However, Kozachik points out that when the doors open up and the dealmakers head back to their peeps, they have to sell the deal. Closed doors don’t make a closed process.

And leave it to Kozachik to throw a Snap-On ratchet into my machinery that says “poverty and climate” are the two major issues facing Tucson and … the world.

He does it with one word: “Water.” Oh yeah, that. We put 7 million people into a desert and they largely have been free from thinking about the central ingredient to life in a part of the world known for the absence of it.

The western drought is threatening Arizona’s CAP allotment and that will affect Tucson’s water supply.

“We are going to see the implications of the whole PFAS deal,” said Kozachick, who helped lead the city to take action to clean up a plume of water contaminated by perfluoroakyl and polyflouroakyl subustances. “We are going to have a stage 1 reduction in CAP water and we may well have to go back on groundwater.”

What he means is agriculture will take the first hit in CAP water reduction, setting off some Rube Goldberg-style political machinations that will put Tucson’s water supply on the table.

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So there’s a plume threatening Tucson’s water made up of “forever chemicals” that don’t break down and have been linked to cancer and immune system malfunctions. Of course it does.

Kozachik jumped into this fight and helped get Tucson Water into a position where the problem was at least addressed. It’s something he does a lot. He’s jumped into protecting the mid-century modern Sunshine Mile during the Broadway expansion. He’s gone feet first into designating the Benedictine Monastery an historic landmark even as it was turned into apartments.

The list goes on.

Kozachik is the only incumbent facing an electoral challenge. So if voters want to send a message to the Council, he’s the only platform available for any sort of IM. And once again, he's all but abandoned fundraising out of general principle. He's raised $500. Trust me. He could raise more.

It should also be pointed out that Kozachik believes (and it looks fishy) that he lost his job running athletic facilities at the University of Arizona because he became a pain in the ass over coronavirus testing that UA honchos didn't want to carry out.

Schubert process

Schubert and Portela’s challenges are somewhat blunted by the other’s presence in the race. But they are still giving it a go.

Schubert’s “feet on the floor” issue, I gotta say, seemed a bit vague at first.

“If I get elected is responsibility. Doing this job the way it should be done. How do I really show people what this campaign is about. It’s not about getting the seat. It’s about this seat giving people a voice.”

OK. Not exactly a straight-up answer. But the more I talked to her, the more I realized her issue was the process itself.

Some candidates aren’t “issues people.” Some are process people. Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was a process person. Kozachik is a process person. Point being that a lot of times being good at – or changing – the process, can bring about more change than running on a grand vision. Someone good at their job should be able to handle anything thrown at them.

That’s a legit issue too.

“I think with my personality I’m more of a process person.” Fine. There it is.

Schubert wants the city’s outcomes to be more focused on equity.

Giving people a voice is sort of what she’s done hosting her own radio talk show on feminist issues. She’s also had to negotiate the UA’s labrynthian bureaucracy to establish a United Campus Workers chapter there. And folks, if you can deal with the UA bureaucracy, Tucson City Hall is level one Pong by comparison.

It’s not like she doesn’t have issues that she’s interested in or eager to tackle.

"We need to stop ceding public space to private interest,” Schubert said, reflecting a line in the sand that some residents began drawing with a zoo expansion that was set to swallow up part of Barnum Hill in Reid Park. “It pisses people off to not have parks and not have public space.”

She wants no net losses of public space with new development. Meaning if a developer eats into public space, they would have to buy an equal amount for the city to offset their project’s impact. Interesting idea but it’s a bit tricky given developers can just build what they want without additional conditions if their project has the proper zoning and land use designation.

Schubert is the one candidate talking most about law enforcement reform and making sure that communities aren't over-policed. 

Schubert, 37, has also received the endorsement of Councilmember Lane Santa Cruz, which is a bit of a get given Santa Cruz has to work with Kozachik and used to employ Portela. She’s also supported by Joel Feinman, who has been an emerging force in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. I want to say the Bernie Sanders crowd, but that name fits more of a general sense of direction these folks want to take the party than any sense of certainty that they are all Bernie Bros awaiting instruction from Vermont.

Schubert knows Kozachik has a certain standing in the ward but said the condition of the city requires an urban update.

"The status quo has led us to this point and it’s time to try something new."

The Portela plan

Which brings us to Portela.

Like Padres, Portela promises follow-through and if having plans is any indication of his seriousness, he's got that covered. He has a series of benchmarks already written down that he wants to achieve out of the gate. It's a check list of 22 items to do by certain points in the first 100 days.

Here's a taste.

Day 7: "Working with existing neighborhood leaders to create an action plan to address their immediate needs while longterm planning for the future."

Day 30: "Modernize the way we do service at the ward office by working with IT and the city manager to create a responsive customer management system. This will allow us to see in real time the status of improvements throughout the ward."

Day 60: "Work with Planning and Development Services to understand the permitting process and a plan to address long waiting times."

Day 100: "Work with Planning and Development services to understand what it would take to properly have a stormwater basin based on hydrological design."

The 27-year-old has gone from a homeless college athlete to homeowner, and housing advocacy is his life. The guy is absolutely self-propelled. He’s worked with the city and the federal government trying to create what can be best described as “housing justice” (my words, not his).

Boy did he pick the right time to make this argument. If poverty, climate change and water are 1, 2 and 3 of top issues facing the city, then affordable housing is coming up fast on the inside.

Not only are home prices rocketing up like the early 2000s, this time rents are following suit with the lowest apartment vacancy rates in years. Rents have jumped $130 a month since 2015. That’s an important juxtaposition against mortgages, which homeowners can lock in for 30 years.

The pandemic eviction moratorium is about to expire at the end of July, and then look out.

Portela wants to "center" homelessness, justice and equity right up front in Tucson politics because the city has been studying these issues for years without a bunch of follow-up.

For instance, Portela helped create the still-vacant Office of Equity in Tucson. But what that office means and what it is supposed to do is still up in the air. The idea was put someone in charge so that equity is somebody's job. If it's everybody's job; it's nobody's job.

"My whole thought process was how do we change the dynamic of the city of Tucson," Portela said, putting issues of equity front and ... center, I guess ... but then holding the City Council accountable through measuring the effects of policy.

Crazy, huh? Accountability? Portela is clearly too young to understand how to Tucson has worked.

If Tucson knew it was a low-wage town 30 years ago, why is it still low-wage? If Tucson knew it had a problem with homelessness 40 years ago, why does the community spend an inordinate amount of time still trying to figure out where the homeless shouldn't sleep?

It seems like the word we are looking for is progress and Portela is naive enough to think that's an idea that Tucson should take seriously. What does he think this is? The private sector?

Portela had raised just over $1,000 through the first quarter but again, those numbers are going to be skewed by the pandemic but the second quarter numbers aren't out yet.

The City Council has gotten better in a lot of areas, from budgeting to toning down the infighting. There hasn't been a bus strike in five years, so that's something.

While a guy like Kozachik is great at turning acute controversy into workable solutions. The city still faces the same old chronic challenges. While Kozachik can point out Tucson is facing the same issues a lot of communities face, Tucson is enduring a more severe course of poverty, low-wages and crime.

Police reform

I should also take a moment before checking out to talk about police reform. All the Democrats are on board to varying degrees. But the whole notion has been so distorted in concept and diluted in meaning that it's hard to get a grasp on it.

Schubert is probably most focused on how to change policing in Tucson, while Kozachik is more focused (than the rest of the field) on how to stem the 12-percent loss in the police force.

But as the candidates and I got to yakking about the whole concept, they all came across as on board with this notion: Police should serve the constituency they are policing, rather than a political constituency who supports the idea of the police protecting them from the communities being most policed.

In other words, the job of cops isn't to bust heads in Ward 3 to make Ward 2 feel better in their suburban homes in the northeast.

To those about to lose, we salute you

My little section of TucsonSentinel.com includes a fair degree of snark. There’s plenty to bitch about in 2021.

People who run for office though, aren’t one of them. I can get frustrated with candidates who don't seem to have done their homework, so it's good to see that this crop has studied up.

Running for office is a noble exercise. 

In fact, I think everybody – well, most everybody – should do it at least once. People who enter what Teddy Roosevelt called “the arena” are showing their mettle. They are saying “This is what I believe. This is what I care about. Both will be addressed because I’m going to see to it, personally.”

More to the point, they are putting their name on the ballot and waiting to see how many people choose them or someone else. It's like asking the whole city to prom and awaiting the answer.

Now it's the voters job to decide whom their date will be for the next four years.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly spelled Joel Feinman’s last name, but a public defender got us off on a technicality.

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have your say   

2 comments on this story

Jul 12, 2021, 7:48 pm
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I tried to leave a comment on Padres’ comment section (he favors eliminating impact fees for developers which made N/W Pima County an infrastructure nightmare since the ‘70’s development explosion) Google Chrome wouldn’t allow the post at a known fraudulent site. I voted for Dahl.

Jul 11, 2021, 1:48 pm
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I guess it’s easy to “abandon fundraising” when your “Friends” will do it for you. Especially if those friends are the downtown developers, property owners & their attorneys, and loads of others making huge profits from the city council’s decisions.


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Ballots will start arriving in mailboxes across three Tucson City Council wards so Democratic voters can make their choice in ward-only primaries. Voters have a slate of experienced choices.


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