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What the Devil won't tell you

What Mayor Romero might mean to the City Council and Tucson politics

It was 20 years ago, and I would dish with Raul Grijalva in the smoking section of the Pima County Administration Building’s cafeteria. I was a big deal, see? Shooting the breeze with a county supervisor. There was often a young woman there hanging out with her boss, who was also a smoker. That young employee in the housing division did a lot of listening to me and Grijalva, as we emptied packs of Marlboro Lights.

She seemed sweet enough but she wasn’t … heh heh heh … a metro reporter covering the county, now was she?

No, but last night she likely secured her place in history as the first woman — and first Latina at that — to be elected mayor of Tucson.

Ward 1 Councilwoman Regina Romero ran away with the Democratic primary with a double-digit win over former Arizona State Sen. Steve Farley, while businesswoman Randi Dorman languished in the low teens.

A Romero term would come with a truly progressive edge. She’s a champion of workers and right up until the sanctuary city initiative has been a voice for migrant rights.

Republicans have pretty much stayed asleep through the mayoral election, what with not even having a candidate running. They had best either wake up for Michael Hicks or get woke for the next two years.

Romero will now face independent Ed Ackerley in the general election. Sorry, I don't see this as a an upset waiting to shake up the world because I doubt the local GOP will swarm to Ackerley's cause of more and free mass transit with swords held high.

The more conservative elements of the community have been paying attention to this race like dogs with their eyes wide and ears forward. They’ve been quiet but prepared to be alarmed. Mayor Farley? They could deal with Farley. Mayor Dorman would have been wonderful. Mayor Romero? Grrrrr.

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Romero touts herself as a champion of social, racial and economic justice and that pretty well describes her background if we define those kinds of justice in progressive terms. Conservatives who think taxation is theft would not. Their better play might be to actually back Hicks, the Ward 4 Republican candidate for Council, with something more than $7,000.

The agenda

Many of Romero's plans for Tucson wouldn’t likely provoke controversy but her call for a $15 an hour floor for city workers will come with a bill someone’s gotta pay. Her call for a climate resiliency plan will inspire resentments among the scientifically illiterate (I’m so done arguing basic particle physics, so take a thermometer into a greenhouse) on the right. And her push for infrastructure equity means some more affluent neighborhoods may feel short-changed in the face of justice as Romero may want it applied.

All she’d have as mayor is a bully pulpit but that may be enough daylight for Romero. A mayor should say “Hey, I’m elected to lead the whole city, now here’s what I want done” and the Romero we’ve seen will have absolutely no problem doing that.

The thing is, that’s also the sort of thing that creates an equal and opposite reaction.

Romero will be a shot of adrenaline into the Tucson City Council, which has had 20 years of low-key mayors in the form of Bob Walkup and outbound incumbent Jonathan Rothschild.

If she can keep her fights low-key, then the response to her moves may stay sub rosa. If she takes it to the streets, then the cul de sacs in some neighborhoods are are going to do their best send it back.

It’s not good or bad. It’s the basic laws of politics and primal forces of nature.

Rick Grinnell's point ...

I got into it a bit last week on the Bill Buckmaster Show with former Republican mayoral candidate Rick Grinnell, who called in to talk up Ackerley’s candidacy. Actually, I got into it over the horror of Tucson somehow turning into a desert version of San Francisco, because imagine the horror of too many people making too much money.

But Grinnell’s point was that a Romero victory would galvanize the GOP behind Ackerley in a last-ditch effort to stop Romero. He argued there were enough moderate Democrats and motivated Republicans to boost Ackerley to victory.

Ackerley may not be the local GOP’s idea of a suitable alternative. In 2017, they mainlined absolutism and refused to back a candidate who supported a half-cent sales tax for roads and public safety. Ackerley is campaigning on free Sun Tran, and Sun Tran is as close as Tucson has to a welfare program. It’s transportation for low-wage workers and students who can’t afford cars or to pay off traffic fines. He also wants light rail rampant throughout Tucson. Why not just chop Republicans maleness off with a clever. Light rail? What’s next, the NFL switching to touch football?

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I’ll believe Tucson Republicans will rally to a Tucson election when I see it. They’ve all but gone fishing for the last three election cycles. On the other hand, Grinnell — who had to squeeze onto the 2011 ballot with write-in votes and then lost to Rothschild with 40 percent of the vote — may not be off the mark when it comes to the Council itself.

However, it would be wrong to miss Grinnell's broader point: Romero is going to bother some people in ways Walkup and Rothschild did not.

Spitballing things

It's the night of the primary. Romero hasn't won the general yet. But I can't help looking ahead. It just takes a little bit of fire to get people to start reacting to the heat. The seven-member mayor and council would is ruled by four votes. Those can get tricky fast.

Romero would, in all likelihood, come in with one ally in her aide Lane Santa Cruz, after Santa Cruz won a four-way primary race to replace Romero on the Council. That's two votes. Ward 3 Democrat Paul Durham is a pretty reliable liberal vote representing a reliably liberal ward. That's three. Richard Fimbres is Durham but with a good connection to the business community. Is that four? Eh? Mmm. Not sure. 

Just spitballing it, Romero could quickly cause trouble for Ward 2 Council member Paul Cunningham. Cunningham is pretty solidly progressive and gliding on the political tectonics turning suburbia more Democratic. Romero, though, may pressure Cunningham further to the left than Northeast Side ward is ready to go just yet. I'm not sure he follows. 

Next, there’s Steve Kozachik and the Koz has exactly the opposite reality. Kozachik’s relentless and informed pragmatism is the kind that may just dig in his heels against Romero’s efforts to push the city left. He doesn't give a shit. He's not going to vote for something he thinks is a bad idea. The man used to be a Republican, and still has plenty of conservative tendencies to go along with his engaged do-gooderism.

On the other hand, Kozachik’s route through his next primary route is ward-only in the highly liberal central Tucson. Kozachik has enjoyed goodwill among his more senior voters because he's been effective at his job. His base could change if Romero's liberal leanings motivate those voters.

So, electing a Republican like former Tucson Unified School District Governing Board member Mike Hicks to the Council gets more interesting and urgent for the GOP.

A Hicks victory against a relative political newcomer like Democrat Nikki Lee isn’t crazy to contemplate. In 2011, Republican Tyler Vogt came just a couple points shy of unseating incumbent Shirley Scott. Kozachik won the year before that when a slate of Republicans juiced in Obama’s first year nearly unseated three Democrats by dragging Rio Nuevo through the election.

Hicks’ tenure on a volatile school board was marked by more conservative tendencies but he’s not cray-cray. He’s your Republican uncle who doesn’t scream at the television, much.

Hicks could be that third vote pushing back on a leftward lurch the Council may take with Romero.

Such a scenario would leave a fourth and deciding vote to a guy like Richard Fimbres, who has long enjoyed good relations with the business community.

But the GOP will have to show up for Hicks, who lost a TUSD re-election bid last year. With just $7,000 raised so far, he'll have a struggle to catch up with Lee's campaign kitty of $35,000.

In what might be a sign of relative support, Hicks' counterpart in Ward 2, political unknown Ewart Williams — despite reporting only having raised $345 thus far (Williams last filed a campaign report in March, and has missed several required filings since) — polled 4,800 votes to the 4,000 that Hicks garnered in his ward.

If the GOP doesn't step up now, they won't be able to make any noise until 2021, at least, with the other three Council seats up for a vote in the next city election go-'round.

The business community has made some strides to the political middle but it’s a long trek for a group of people who have long rode to the right of Atilla the Hun.

At the same time, a Mayor Romero could very well have the nominating wing of the Democratic Party rank-in-file behind her. In Tucson, where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1, that’s enough to make anyone who challenges her pay attention to the political risks.

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I also remember the late Mayor George Miller announcing plans for massive annexation during his State of the City address before the Metropolitan Tucson Chamber of Commerce. He basically walked over to the City Council meeting to put his plans on the table and they died for the lack of a second to his motion.

Romero would have to prove she has the muscle and savvy to move votes. That would be on her. Some people may react badly to a Mayor Romero because her name is Regina Romero and she looks like it. That will be on them.

I’ve been around a few blocks. It doesn’t take much to turn political leaders who’ve been playing cool to start running hot. Romero may prove to be that something.

My quick take on Romero’s primary win is that it could awaken dormant forces in city politics and start shaking up City Hall and Council offices.

She would have four years to prove that the rumble worth the effort.

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

Regina Romero learns she's winning the Democratic mayoral primary Tuesday night.