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Opinion

What the Devil won't tell you

Decision 2021: The more things change, the more Tucson wants warm milk

Voters say they're tired of the political circus

I get to mouth off a lot. It’s part of my job description. And I’m something of an expert in local politics. I’ve worked in it and spent 20 years covering the who’s-up/who’s-down nature of life in the city. I haven’t seen it all but I’ve seen most of it.

So my hot take on the 2021 Tucson city primary election is best described as “OK, fine.” There's not a lot to get froggy about. If this election had a name, it would be "Uncle Jim." Yeah. Y'know. Cool. Fine. It's not going to fire the imagination but it's not going to scare the shi-ite out us either.

Come to think of it. Maybe the election should be named "Joe Biden."

There’s nothing terribly surprising in the results, and perhaps that’s what’s the most surprising.

In 2020, Tucson voters – Democrats especially – broke character a lot. Voters who so often blanch at younger candidates put Gabriella Cázares-Kelly into the position of county recorder. Voters who typically reward incumbents instead ousted County Supervisor Ramon Valadez in the primary and Sheriff Mark Napier in the general election. Foothills and Northwest Side voters elected a Democrat for the first time since the days of the Hohokam.

A year later, in the city? Incumbent Steve Kozachik rolled past two young challengers. Kevin Dahl, who’s run different environmental organizations since the 1990s, won big. Ward 5 Democratic incumbent Richard Fimbres was unopposed, so he won bigger.

Dahl was probably to the left of challenger Juan Padres, and Kozachik was to the right of his competition, Miranda Schubert and Andres Portela, in the highly liberal Ward 6.

So Ward 3 voters elected a post-retirement liberal white guy in 2017 and added a similarly aged liberal white guy in 2021 and retained whatever-the-hell alignment Kozachik is in Ward 6.

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The results of the primary election seem more like a warm glass of milk and a “Friends” marathon than the sort of turbulent circus the last couple of elections have been. Tucson voters just want quiet. What happens in Vegas, or D.C., or Phoenix, should stay there.

I'm not saying it's what we need. I'm saying it's what we got.

What the results tell me is that people aren’t terribly mad at the city. We’ve come through mask mandates, Black Lives Matter protests and the Battle of Barnum Hill (OK, maybe a slight skirmish during which my opinion was not greatly appreciated).

The results of the two contested primaries say that city voters just want to chill out.

Ward 6

One could say Kozachik receiving less than 60 percent of the vote in a primary is a sign of political weakness. When Randy Graf came that close to Jim Kolbe in 2004, Kolbe had run his last election.

But the prevailing wisdom (and I use both terms loosely) held that Kozachik could be in trouble if he faced a single progressive. He’s a former Republican (of sorts) who has maintained his boosterism of the police force. Yet even the combined forces of  Schubert and Portela would have come up almost 20 points short.

Schubert had a lot of help in the form of an independent expenditure committee (that "dark money" that people go on about) funded by the national Working Families Party that spent more than $29,000 on her behalf. Progressive donors and activists took a shot. It didn’t work.

That’s less a reflection on the challengers than it is a commentary on Kozachik’s Koziness.

He’s always out front and hard to pigeonhole. He’s at times provocatively pragmatic but every once in a while he shows a wild liberal streak or returns to his conservative roots. Koz is a hard worker and voters seem to like him specifically.

Kozachik himself, barely did any fundraising but a friendly local independent expenditure committee (which has disclosed its donors) raised about $47,000 on his behalf — but spent only about $13,000 of it for the primary.

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He’s now facing Val Romero, an independent running apparently on the Big Island. “Aloha Tucson” is his theme. The owner of Arizona Grill and Hearth likes to call himself the "King of BBQ’s." He’s the guy looking like he’s about to take the stage at a Vegas Hilton not far from McCarran Airport.

Romero has been glad-handing in Republican circles but is running as an independent. Note to future independents: these thinly veiled Republican campaigns don’t work. It’s not a partisan thing. Thinly veiled Democratic campaigns don’t work either.

But if you don’t like the Tucson City Council, and you don’t mind Donald Trump, check him out. He just might dazzle you.

Ward 3

I was curious to see how JP Padres would do against Dahl, as a Latino running on espoused bread-and-butter family issues while seeking a seat in a particularly poor part of town that might not respond to such Sam Hughes issues as electric car chargers and LEED building certifications. It was more Padres’ experience inside City Hall as a former assistant in the city manager’s office that caught my eye. He had a pretty pragmatic message and Dahl ran a campaign rooted in fighting climate change.

Padres also had a boost from some of that sort-of dark money, with the Responsible Leadership Initiative out of Phoenix (which somewhat misleadingly called itself the "Responsible Leadership Institute" on the grammar-challenged postcards it sent out) dropping $3,664 to back him — with the entire amount funded by a loan from Gibson McKay, a conservative political consultant from the Valley of the Yakes.

Whichever way they frame their name, the PAC didn't file any reports with the city of Tucson, as required. And why is a GOP strategist shelling out to bump up the name recognition of a Democratic City Council candidate?

Maybe McKay just likes Padres — who, incidentally, has blown through the last two campaign filing deadlines without telling anyone how much money he raised, or where it came from. Or maybe the message from Dahl doesn't resonate much with a former lobbyist for the real estate industry.

Dealing with climate change is freaking important, but whether voters perceive it as being in conflict with their ability to earn a living remained an open question. Apparently not. It didn’t hurt the winner, anyway.

What probably helped Dahl most was his long experience in running various kinds of campaigns and outreach leading – say – the Tucson Audubon Society. He had seen campaigns up close and personal, so this wasn’t his first rodeo.

That’s a big advantage in any campaign.

Tucson primary voters broke left in Ward 3 and kept the “centrist” in Ward 6. Beware anyone suggesting the results mean anything bigger than that.

Now, Ward 3 boasts one Republican who made the general election ballot by getting enough votes as a write-in candidate.

Now let’s see if the GOP backs Alan Harwell, Jr. with money and organization in his run against Dahl and independent candidate Lucy LiBosha.

The early signs aren’t great. In Tucson, running as a write-in candidate is just an easier way of gathering signatures. Write-ins make the ballot for the general election if their write-in votes meet or exceed the number of signatures required.

The signature requirement equals 5 percent of the total party votes cast in the previous primary. So Harwell only needed 134 signatures or write-in votes. That’s like 10 days of a candidate walking neighborhood with three friends. He couldn’t organize four friends to walk for him to get on the ballot and make voter contact?

No? That’s probably why he wound up with his name on less than half of the Republican ballots cast in Ward 3.

Money? So far he has raised $130.  That's it? One Republican runs in all of Tucson and he raised $130?

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It’s not like he’s not doing everything Republicans demand. Unlike Romero, he’s gone full on MASA – Make America Sick Again — and has done so publicly.

He’s running against whatever definition of "critical race theory" currently provokes on right-wing talk radio, and he doesn't want it being taught in schools (even if it’s not). He would forbid teachers from performing "sexual indoctrination."  What's that, you ask? Does the City Council set Tucson education policy? No. It does not. That's the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board, along with the boards in Amphi and Flowing Wells, in the ward he seeks to represent.

Or is that demonstrable fact just "fake news?"

C’mon Republicans. He’s even championing your favorite non-existent constitutional rights like our God-given freedom to spread a deadly virus in the middle of a pandemic. What’s up, GOP? You can’t turn over a nickel to the pro-coronavirus candidate?

He’s running on Republican issues but Republicans can’t be bothered to support him? Oh, I know. Harwell has yet to declare the 2021 Tucson election results fraudulent.

I gotcha.

Man, GOP. You used to be contenders.

Meanwhile, Lucy LiBosha is showing more get up and go than the entire local GOP with her independent challenge of Dahl.

This is more of a legit independent challenge, because there's a strain of progressives who believe Democrats are really no different from Republicans. 

Might LiBosha peel off enough Democrats to put Harwell over the top? Could she peel off the hyper-progressives and pair them with enough independents to make a go of it?

It’s more likely that her path to victory would require turning out voters who don’t typically show up for city elections.That's a hard road but she has raised a somewhat respectable $8,500 in a year when everyone’s fund raising is down. 

Dahl is closing in on $35,000 and has about $28,000 unspent in his campaign kitty.

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So LiBosha is a long shot's long shot, sweating while trying to draw an inside straight, and betting Arizona will reach the Rose Bowl.

Things have changed along the political landscape. Boy have they changed. And I'm not just talking about Cyber Ninjas and the biblical Right to Spread a Plague.

Apparently, wannabe candidates like Lucas Rodriguez down on the South Side can still file random campaign paperwork after they fail to get nominated as actual candidates whose votes will be counted, because they don't know how any of this works. More Republicans probably wrote in "Donald John Trump" on their city ballots than remembered there was a write-in in one ward who needed real votes. More dark money supports the sort of upstart Democrats who usually would oppose such cash floating around in our elections (but seeing as how that's the game, I can't fault the players). Developers go on the record supporting an incumbent who's usually a thorn in their sides, loading up an independent campaign fund to back him — even though there's an avowed conservative (but completely unlikely) candidate in the race.

I guess anything goes and that's left us frazzled.

So Tuesday night in Tucson, voters just wanted to keep hanging out with Joey and Chandler and make like the world isn't on fire. More of the same was the name of the game.

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.


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