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Nanos' candidacy part of a bigger problem in Pima politics
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What the Devil won't tell you

Nanos' candidacy part of a bigger problem in Pima politics

It's time to let voters pick elected officials, not supervisors

Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos should not be on the ballot this election.

It's not that he's unqualified, would do a bad job or that I have any proof that he's corrupt (the controversy about an in-house cafe paid for with civil forfeiture funds isn't much of a scandal, but civil forfeiture regimes themselves are totally scandalous). I never met the man and don't know his mind or his heart. Still, he should not be seeking to be elected to this office he now holds.

Sheriff Clarence Dupnik's former right-hand man represents a long-term trend that is finally starting to ebb this election season and it, frankly, needs to go away quickly.

He's an incumbent Pima County officeholder whom the voters didn't choose for the job. Instead, he was appointed to fill an empty chair, as were a long string of county leaders.

Elections are what separates who runs Arizona counties from who runs Arizona cities. City and town councils hire managers to hire everyone else. County boards of supervisors enjoy no such luxury regarding the sheriff, county attorney, county assessor, county treasurer, county recorder, clerk of the county courts or schools superintendent. The voters get to choose those row officers and that makes the county harder to govern.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors, like the others in Arizona, has only limited control over how budgets are set. At the same time, the row officers themselves are at the mercy of supervisors for the big block of cash that they will be able to spend to fulfill their campaign promises (not sure what promises the county superintendent of public instruction makes but you get the drift).

Right now, today, Pima County technically has 11 elected officials running the joint. Of them, three of five county supervisors and half the row officers never had to stand for election before they first got the keys to their offices.

Nanos was appointed last year. Clerk of the Court Toni Hellon was appointed in 2013. Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda Arzoumanian was appointed in 2000.

Supervisor Ramon Valadez was appointed to fill the term of Dan Eckstrom in 2003. Supervisor Richard Elias got the nod to succeed Raul Grijalva, who resigned to run for Congress in 2002. Supervisor Ray Carroll replaced John Even, who died in office less than a year after winning his seat in 1996.

These six leaders immediately enjoyed the perks and powers of incumbency, without ever having to schmooze voters, pound pavement, knock on doors or convince more than three county supervisors (in Carroll's case, two supervisors and County Clerk of the Board Lori Godoshian, and in Hellon's Gov. Jan Brewer) that they were right for the job.

I don't blame them for their appointment obviously and I don't really blame them for running. The blame goes to their predecessors for often retiring with barely a year left in their term and to the supervisors for not at least securing a pledge to simply hold the seat until voters can decide from a fresh slate of choices.

There are three problems with how it's been done: civics, incumbency and empire-building.

Who is owed for what

First is civics. Elected leaders by definition owe their allegiance to the folks who gave them the job. County Treasurer Beth Ford won her seat in 2000 as a Republican in a Democratic county. She owes her seat to the voters. So does Supervisor Sharon Bronson. So does County Assessor Bill Staples.

When elected leaders are appointed, they owe their selectors rather than the electors. The supervisors are your benefactors for everyone but Hellon — Gov. Jan Brewer selected her. So one woman from Scottsdale got to pick for voters in Pima County.

Deals can get cut. You give me X and Y and I'll give you Z. I have far less issue with the mule-trading nature of politics than most people because that's just how stuff gets done. But when you are promising votes merely to get the gig, that's a problem.

Elected leaders are supposed to be chosen by the people and that's how it ought to be.

Whose seat is it anyway?

Technically, every elected seat belongs to the people and those who serve in it are just caretakers until their contract is up at the end of their term.

Don't say that aloud at party headquarters.

When an elected seat opens up, it's shootin' time for people working in local politics. A free-for-all election can ensue and voters might have a semblance of a choice. An early retirement short-circuits that wide-open field of contestants. It doesn't always happen to be sure, but it can without a breach of etiquette.

A universal truth of local party politics reads simply "thou shall not primary (verb) an incumbent." The Hohokam carved those words onto the crest of Pusch Ridge c. 500. Don't believe me? Just one of these six appointed officials faced a primary challenge the first time up.

Carroll faced a special election in 1998 and beat Even's widow Brenda, plus a political neophyte Ken Marcus, to win the GOP nomination for his seat and then coasted to general election victory because his district is stocked with Republicans. Carroll's appointment had also incited a minor riot inside Republican ranks because he was deemed as a stooge for Grijalva. Well, old Sugar Ray just turned on the charm and won his seat handshake-by-handshake in a tough campaign.

Think about that. County supervisor seems like a good gig. Pay is good. Nice benefits. Job security. And at every chamber of commerce and Rotary luncheon you visit, they applaud you just for showing up. You also get to set policy. No one in District 2 or District 5 figured in 2002 or 2004, "Hey, I'd like to take a swing at a seat on the board."

Of course they did. I know former longtime Grijalva ally and former University of Arizona administrator Solomon Baldenegro wanted Grijalva's board seat. He felt Elias' appointment was a slap in the face. Baldenegro sat on the redistricting committee that drew the boundaries for Grijalva's congressional seat and made it a perfect fit.

Then came reality. "Primarying" an incumbent is frowned upon and an uphill slog. Incumbents can use the seat to gain money and name recognition because their official acts buy them free media.

Also, incumbency in Pima County is like tenure at the UA.

A job for life

Since 1992, 10 county elected officials have run during Summer Olympic years and the clerk of the Superior Court has run during in years when the world follows curling. During those 65 campaigns for 11 voter-selected offices just one incumbent has lost.

One.

Supervisor Ed Moore lost to Sharon Bronson in 1996 and he had to go about five parsecs out of his way to do it. Moore was a character and he wasn't always wrong, he just had a dickish way of being a supervisor. He was elected as a Democrat, pissed them off to no end and switched to Republican before exhausting his welcome there and finally running as an independent. In between he conducted a purge of county staffers he didn't like during a brief stint as board chairman.

Of course, those around Tucson long enough also remember the Ballad of Alan Lang, a county assessor so horrifying that he was forced in 1994 to stand for re-election and won 7.5 percent of the vote. Not 75 percent — 7.5 percent. A vote that prompted Tucson to wonder how it was that Lang had 13,477 cousins. 

Incumbents just don't lose in Pima County unless they beg to. Appointments to fill seats left through early retirement grant that all-powerful weapon to those who never had to scrap for a vote.

Rules of succession

The third problem is a bit more hard to prove, but you just know its there. Elected leaders can retire midterm and often seem to, the evidence points to, don't really want to say but it sure looks like they get to name their replacement.

It was an open secret that Eckstrom wanted Valadez to takeover his seat and Valadez just happened to hire Jennifer Eckstrom for his staff upon being selected. Did Grijalva have a say in Elias? Both said "no" but I know for a fact that they were close. I also know that Elias' public interview in front of the board got headlines for his impassioned tent-show-preacher presentation. He took 'em to church that day.

Nanos was Dupnik's chief deputy and the Supervisors wasted no time at all in appointing him to fill the seat of the guy who made Nanos his No. 2. Hellon was, at the time Brewer appointed her, Clerk of the Court Noland's chief deputy.

See, even when row officers stand for election in Pima County, they can come from inside the system they seek to run. County Attorney Barbara LaWall was a chief lieutenant of her predecessor Steve Neeley. Beth Ford practically ran the office of James Lee Kirk in the 1990s before winning her post in 2000. Even County Assessor Bill Staples came from inside the county, working as an appraiser for the county Transportation and Flood Control departments.

It snows more often in Tucson than new blood washes through a county department, which is what elections are supposed to provide. It would be nice to elect people to run the county who didn't draw a public paycheck prior to being placed in office. Just sayin'.

If these row officers aren't back-channeling, then they shouldn't leave mid-term. In 2000, Superintendent of Public Schools Anita Lohr left office less than a year before the election. Dupnik waited three years into his 5,000th term but couldn't wait another. Eckstrom resigned about a year before an election could have let voters decide who would replace him (there were rumors that his retirement wasn't of his own making but I just point that out so people know I know about the rumors. They were never substantiated). Noland retired in the drop-dead middle of her term but she couldn't have gutted it out or left two years earlier?

I'm not condemning Nanos or any of the other appointed electeds. Elias? I love Richard. He's a good guy and a smart leader. Carroll has done his job well and I already paid tribute to him. They don't make better people than Toni Hellon. Maybe they'd be great if they ran for the office first. Valadez seems to be doing a good job. Nanos may very well be in that mold. I don't know and I don't care.

The trend needs to end. A typical lathe operator could count on one hand the votes needed for a majority of the county's elected leaders to secure their post.

The trend is reversing itself with the retirements of Arzoumanian and Carroll providing open seats. So now it will be 4 of 11. I say let's make it as few as humanly possible. Who knows when LaWall or Ford or Staples or Bronson for that matter will decide to buy a Winnebago.

Let democracy work. It might catch on.

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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