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Tucson mayor's race has become much ado about contrived nothings

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What the Devil won't tell you

Tucson mayor's race has become much ado about contrived nothings

  • The race for the mayor's office pits a decent slate of Democrats against each other, so naturally it's turning into a theatre of the absurd.
    The race for the mayor's office pits a decent slate of Democrats against each other, so naturally it's turning into a theatre of the absurd.

When is dark money not dark money?

When you can Google it.

When is it a scandal for a Republican to support a Democrat?

During a primary in which all the drama is contrived.

The Tucson GOP has gone out of business. Seriously, someone might want to run a JiffyLube out of the party’s local office. Maybe do some tax-prep work. Open a Ye Olde British Kippers restaurant out of the storefront. It sure as hell isn’t producing any sort of local pressure in any key local races.

So in the race to replace Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, all the political potboilers are happening over on the Democratic side. That means all the consultant cash is being earned in the primary. Put up a slate of relatively well-qualified candidates dowsing for the safe political ground and the campaign turns into a series of minor gripes and third-rate drama.

Without a Republican, the battle isn’t about big ideas and contrasting governing philosophies. It’s about petty wrist-slaps and indignation over things we shouldn’t be so indignant about.

Steve Farley and Regina Romero seem to be the featured players in that they are both kicking at the ball and each other’s shins. Infill developer Randi Dorman orbits away from the ball, which is how goals are often scored.

All are raising a bunch of money. Money may not buy love or happiness but in politics, it more than pays for pettiness and acrimony. The fastest way to win voters is paint the opponent as hopelessly flawed. None of the mayoral candidates naturally fit that bill. I’m not calling them perfect little angels but they aren’t obviously dangerous. They’ve been around and have a records to extol.

Election losses leave scars. Primaries battles leave intra-party fault lines. Five years after Gabrielle Giffords was elected to the Congress, there were still pissed-off Patty Weiss supporters resenting the former news anchor’s defeat. The warring camps are vaguely pitting the old Barack Obama coalition on Romero’s side against the Hillary Clinton types supporting Farley. It’s less about vast policy differences as it is about coalitions. Romero instinctively knows how to tap Obama style, versus a bunch of people who think Farley would make a really good mayor like people once thought about Hillary (think 2007, not 2017).

So we have the opposing camps. We have the money to buy cross-channel messaging. We might as well have a war, even if the battles are just-plain stupid.

Who is Steve Farley, realllly?

Independent expenditure committees (or "IEs" in the trade) supporting Regina Romero have spent more than $510,000 so far to get her the nomination, double the combination of private donations and public matching funds she's raised on her own.

Howard Dean's group Democracy for America has sent out mailer via Vermont, suggesting Farley isn’t even Farley. The real Farley lurks behind a Farley mask, see? No. You can’t. There’s a mask.

“Is Steve Farley trying to fool you?” the piece asks.

No. Not really. The mailer doesn't really expose anything duplicitous about Farley. The worst allegation included is a deleted Farley tweet that dared to suggest high-poverty schools are tougher to teach in than wealthier schools. And? Yes, students living in high-financial-stress circumstances can take that stress to school. The point is? The problem is the poverty. Not the kids.

Maybe the point is that that local magnate Jim Click sent Farley $500 (or as Click callls it: “Pocket lint”). Click’s Republican Party tried and failed to field candidates for mayor. So he cut a check to Farley. And?

Oh, I get it. His money should be no good among Democratic voters because of all the work he’s done supporting Republicans in the past. But he didn’t get that rich throwing good money after bad so his check-writing pen has gone dry.

Farley? He can deal with Farley maybe. So he sent him five bills he found doing laundry.

If people think Farley is going to sell out to Click for a $500 contribution in a $260,000 campaign war chest (so far), well that reminds me of the old Richard Pryor routine about getting popped by the cops with $1.50 worth of cocaine. It would also suggest Romero would be completely compromised by tapping Trump-supporting Republican Cody Ritchie to co-chair her campaign. I doubt he's going to turn her MAGA.

Romero: Good at Politics. Bad for Tucson?

Romero’s scandal, as suggested by a pro-Farley forces in a whisper campaign, is creeping evidence of what I’m calling DarkGate. The name is as nefarious as it gets because the crime seems to be that Romero is running “clean,” but others support her with outside help.

That’s not a scandal. That’s a good gig if you can get it. What's next, are the Phoenix Suns going to whine out loud “aw no fair, Golden State keeps scoring more points than the other teams and then the commissioner gives them a big golden basketball when the season’s over! Moommmmm!”

The argument limping suggests she is violating the spirit of the city’s Clean Elections provisions by taking matching funds, agreeing to spending limits and letting outside groups spend money on your behalf . You know who doesn’t do that? Those who can’t.

The idea that IEC' money reported on public web sites is somehow dark is just preposterous.  That’s bright light money. That cash glacier-colored and sits there in high relief. It’s not hidden from view by some shady players.

Candidates for state offices run clean all the time and the parties raise money to run an independent expenditure campaigns on their behalf. For a party to do this legally, all that’s required is that they have three candidates that can be treated as “a slate” and the party is free to fire away.

One IEC, Chispa AZ PAC, is run by Romero's former chief of staff. That might tell us that Chispa isn’t completely independent. Welcome to the real world, kids. IEC’s often aren’t as “independent” as they seem. They tend to coordinate up until they launch because at that point, there is no IEC. There are just a couple people talking over beers. Once they launch they go quiet.

Then there’s another strange attack of sorts launched by an off-duty police officer exposing that Romero’s sister was hit with a DUI a few years back and asked the arresting officer not to tell the councilmember.

What? Are we invoking Billy Carter? It's not Romero's DUI. It's her sister's. C’mon. That's the best you got? We got a president who turned the Holy Land relations over to a son-in-law businessman who thought the address 666 was a branding juggernaut. Romero’s sister got a DUI and there’s no proof that she got special treatment. Point is?

Cops are supporting Farley and an off-duty cop rather oddly confronted her with the police report and video. The scandal here is just as much the cop as it is anything to do with Romero. The whole thing looks fishy but only ... like ... minnow-y fishy ... buck eighty-nine beta fishy. It was a bargain-basement scandal of insignificant value and was dead within 24 hours.

Campaign operatives for the mayoral aspirants have whispered in the ears of Sentinel journalists about supposed past marital problems of the opposing candidate, murmured about fender-benders and financial shenanigans and tried to generally paint pictures of an abjectly corrupt sell-out while holding up a portrait of their own as a defending hero.

Then there's the Trump-booster-adjacent cash that's being spent to blast Romero for being... adjacent to a Trump booster? Shrug.

Mad scientist versus field general

Let me cut to the chase. The candidates are more or less on the same page per the issues and are your basic, standard-issue good people. That doesn’t win votes. Getting the press to cover a campaign blow-by-blow is next to impossible if said campaign is issuing press releases about the candidate's 12-point economic development plan. Calling their opponent a corrupt chupacabra is what gets attention.

The problem the go-negative consultants are having is that neither Farley nor Romero are debilitatingly craven or malicious. The difference between Tucson's leading mayoral candidates is the difference between a wonk and an organizer.

Farley is a bit of a policy mad scientist, who goes his own way to come up with big ideas like a public health care option for Tucson. Most candidates are schooled to have a few key themes and hit them over and over again. Farley is running on big ideas – 20 of them. Twenty is more than a few. Wonkery tends to be a top-down process. Farley comes up with a cool plan and adds it to his arsenal. If Farley wins, Tucson will get a super-smart policy dork who business will be able to work with.

He’s also shown in the Legislature that he can work with Republicans on issues like the Obamacare expansion and higher teacher pay. Those who can’t work with R’s, need to stay out of Arizona’s lawmaking bodies. He’s good at the inside game. I hate to couch it in these terms, but a white guy with from Williams College (where the student body looks down on Harvard) will be treated one way by business and the white guys who run things. Latinos/Latinx politicos are used to having to bring throngs with them to be taken seriously. It helps that Farley comes off like a state school guy, face-to-face.

Romero has shown a knack for leveraging overwhelming force. She plays the outside game. People miss the point if they chalk up her successful organizing as a function of her marriage to one of U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva’s top staffers. Grijalva maybe can help make the introduction but supporters like super environmentalist Carolyn Campbell  — a founder of Arizona's Green Party and her other campaign co-chair — don’t stick around for 12 years if they don’t like the results.

She's proven herself a leader.

Mayor Romero could play the inside game with outside muscle. That could be a good thing. Romero can rub people the wrong way because she’s got ambition and estrogen. Ain’t that always the way?

The Dorman Factor

Could political novice Randi Dorman use her background in advertising to squeak in as the beneficiary of petty bickering among the established Democrats? She could absolutely pull an Eddie Basha from 1994. The Democratic gubernatorial primary featured the clear front runners Terry Goddard and Paul Johnson: Phoenix mayors and men of action.

Then Basha stole the nomination from them only to be wiped out by Republican Fife Symington and a Red Wave.

Dorman has raised $192,000 so she can in no way be dismissed, though I'm not sure the appetite right now for a relative political novice from New York with a background in the real estate industry, who's expertise is in branding. She has spent her years in Tucson making the right sort of connections, being involved in the MOCA museum as well as the Downtown business community, and serving on public bodies such as Tucson's Charter Review Committee.

While Romero and Farley have clearly marked one another as the main threats in this match, but their glaring campaign may mean their eyes aren't on the ball. That could pop out to Dorman, who's hanging out with clean shins in front of the goal as she avoids the others' bloodied cleats.

Overhyped negative vibes

Both are nice people. Both are serious about Tucson. Both are liberals. Neither are so liberal as to support the “Sanctuary City” ballot initiative, even as Donald Trump every day lends more and more credence to it. So there are limits to their liberalism and how far they are willing to push the city because both are wary of East Side voters who could swing the results.

Personally, and I think I speak for a lot of us, I would prefer if they were playing it more like the presidential game and whack each other over a major policy difference like the sanctuary initiative. I would love to hear more about inter-modal transportation planning, how to handle the opioid addiction, real solutions to homelessness and how candidates are going to begin the transformation of Tucson’s low-wage status.

These lame-ass attacks happen because our local election is held in an off-year when the packs of political consultants are short of cash. They need money and controversy makes them money. There’s nothing worse for a consultant team than the words “running unopposed.”

Show a starving operative a Girl Scout who makes brownies for the homeless while running a dog rescue, and the consultant will show you a human face masking a lizard person with a forked tongue and a direct line to the hounds of hell.

Radar Strategies, Javelina Strategies, Saguaro Strategies and because odd-numbered years are bad everywhere, Global Strategies out of New York City are all looking for ways to paint opponents as hopelessly flawed and any flaw will do in a pinch."Who wears corduroys to a Rush concert? Steve Farley. That's who. If we couldn't trust his taste in 1981, how can we trust him now to share our values now? Steve Farley: Wrong on Geddy Lee. Wrong for Tucson."

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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