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What the Devil won't tell you

Down-ticket candidates need love too

They are called “down-ticket” races but they are often uppermost in importance in the lives we lead.

In 2020, the big national election effects local outcomes if for no other reason than how COVID-19 dominates all local issues and the – let’s call it kindly “a chasm” – between the two presidential candidates' approach to the virus.

Typically local and state issues get buried by national theatre. The laws governing how you drive, where you live, your rights on the job, your rights as a property owner, the property taxes you pay, the future of our kids education and the local ordinances are swamped by national tribal identities.

Until 1912, U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures to represent state interests. However, legislative elections turned into national referendums because the one issue that mattered was whom a hopeful state lawmaker would choose to serve in Washington, D.C.

Arizona’s U.S. Senate race alone has blasted $9.3 gazillion of political messaging through various marketing channels. The state’s new status as a genuine swing state in the Electoral College means Arizonans are getting pummeled by presidential coverage.

That overwhelms candidates struggling for attention in state and local races. It can also help candidates who know they get an advantage in political subdivisions where one party dominates. If all voters know about them is that they are in the “correct” political party, then they have an advantage while facing zero scrutiny for their ideas or cockamamie schemes.

Can you name your state legislative candidates? Who represents you on the Pima County Board of Supervisors? Who is running for TUSD? Why is Pima Community College asking for a budget override?

I think not so humbly that the country should shove all their state and local elections into odd-numbered years so we can focus on local issues. Which would be the opposite of what the Legislature has been doing, attempting to push Tucson's city elections onto the same ballot as more high-profile races.

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A hot, sexy base budget question ... reow!

Hey, here’s a big one.

One of the most under-appreciated issues facing Southern Arizona’s economy has been the chronic underfunding of Pima Community College. Today, PCC funds its operations at $3,250 less per student than the average of the state’s other community colleges.

That’s because of a legal restriction unchanged since 1979-80, limiting its base funding. In 2015, the state zeroed out all funding to Pima and Marciopa community colleges.

So Proposition 481 would change that and allow the Pima to spend more of the money it has on what it needs. It’s raising the money now, it just can’t spend it on daily operations.

The ballot guide for Prop. 481 includes support from Chicanos Por La Causa, Southern Arizona Home Builders, the League of Conservation Voters and Tucson Electic Power Co., and O’Reilly Chevrolet.

No arguments were even offered opposing it.

Yet, in an election dominated by discussions about affairs of state and the future of democracy, it’s hard for PCC to get a word in edgewise.

These kinds of ballot questions can go down because voters don’t know the deal.

Pima has gone through some stuff in the last decade but its future is our future, especially with a struggling economy.

This is a good chance for people to use some professional downtime to get more skills – the kind they can get at a community college. It should be a key cog in our economic development machine but it's not getting anywhere near enough grease.

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It doesn’t matter how much Pima raises if they can’t even spend it.

Look, there's a school board election

A majority of the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board is on the ballot this year.

There is no more thankless job in local politics than school board. Voters' children are in play and so passions run hot, tempers flare and politics can get vicious. So of course we pay board members absolutely nothing when they should get combat pay.

It’s also hard to govern the district because the districts are so decentralized. They are made up of schools, schools are run by principals and teachers run their classrooms. There are thousands of little god complexes at play, even as they do yeoman’s work in Arizona.

Districts are also governed by state law and lawmakers have their own idea of the way things ought to be.

Yet responsibility falls on the Governing Board to chart a course, and they are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

It’s a situation that can make the best board jumpy and the worst utterly dysfunctional. TUSD’s board has come through a fit of enmity to smooth itself out. That’s a good thing in the main but I’m a big believer that unanimity leads to bad governance.

Contrarians are healthy. Opposing viewpoints are necessary. They keep the system honest. Nutjobs are problems.

Contrarians in this election come from opposing sides. Nick Pierson ran as a Republican against U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva in 2018. He’s running now for the board as something of a watchdog, warning about structural deficits within the district.

That’s a bit of a warning sign because a structural deficit cannot exist in a school district, which must and does balance its budget. There’s a structural challenge to the district where budget is tied to enrollment and enrollment is falling with charter school competition.

Sadie Shaw sits now on the board’s diversity coalition. She describes herself as a “community organizer,” and says her commission work has frustrated her to the point that she’s running for the big chair.

God bless her. That’s how it’s supposed to be done.

Then there are the candidates like Adam Ragan, Ravi Grivois-Shah and Natalie Luna Rose, whom I might call institutional candidates. Two seem like smart capable people.

I’ve known Luna Rose for years, since she served as Grijalva’s first communications director. She’s good. She’s smart. She cares. She may not be your cup of tea but she can do the job.

Ragan is also a former failed candidate who chose to run again. This happens a lot in local politics and it should encourage more people to run for office ... twice if necessary. He’s a Sunnyside school teacher who seems to know the ins and outs and nuts and bolts of local K-12 education.

Then there’s Grivois-Shah, a physician with a husband who is an educator and also knows his stuff from what I’ve been able to glean from him. Hey, why would it be smart to have a doctor today on the school board?

I wouldn’t say these candidates have big plans for TUSD, which is a bit alarming given the challenges facing education today. The whole of public education is a bit of a relic of industrial economic needs, and it's facing a future that is less regimented and requires more adaptation.

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I’m not sure stay the course is the best option but those three — who are supporting each other in the race — won't turn the district upside down.

In between seems to be Cindy Winston, who has been a teacher for 28 years. She uses kinda loaded terms like “finish the work of the audit committee” that has been taken inside the system as an attack on it. But she brings a teacher’s perspective to the school district and something of an interesting one. She’s done hybrid online and classroom teaching that may be the future.

Write-in candidate Cristina Minnella talks about herself in terms of reformers and with a background in speech pathology, she’s worked with kids who can require extra knowledge to teach. She at least mentions as important support services to help teachers teach.

Boy, are they ever in a district like TUSD, which has a high poverty rate because poverty leads to all sorts of other issues.

A 28-year reign in danger

Much of what it means to live in Arizona is decided by the state Legislature and not congress or a president.

Do you like being a low-tax, low-service state? Should the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry have the power it has long wielded?

You gotta be careful here because the things you like about Arizona can kind of get taken for granted. On the one hand, there aren’t a lot of rules about business. On the other hand, it’s easy (-ish) to start a business in Arizona compared to say, New York, where the rules are written to destroy upstart competition.

For the first time in a long time, the Legislature may be poised to flip at least one chamber from Republican to Democrat. If just one seat flips, the state House would be deadlocked 30-30.

For 28 years, the Democrats have not controlled either the Arizona House nor the state Senate. The parties split control of the Senate during the 2001-02 legislative session.

The House hasn’t been in Democratic hands since 1966. Sending a signal to Republicans that their rule is neither to be assumed or a matter of entitlement would be good for democracy. And I’ve long thought the same thing about the Tucson City Council.

Rows, aliens and Green Mountain Boys

We haven’t even gotten to the Pima County supervisors, largely drawn into safe districts, or the “row officers” like sheriff or assessor.

Some of these positions would, frankly, be better served not being elected by the people. County Superintendent of Public Instruction is a real job and if voters can’t tell you what a county recorder does, then how do we know if they do it well?

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The less we hear about these folks the better. Trust me, you don’t want your county assessor to make national headlines, as those who remember Alan Lang will attest.

And of course there’s a contest for the soon-to-be vacant Pima Community Governing Board. Boardmember Mark Hanna is retiring after the Ohio native built a business empire after the war and proved a kingmaker after steering William McKinley to the White House … oh wait. That’s a different Mark Hanna.

Anyway, the election pits Republican Ethan Orr, best known for his capture of Fort Ticonderoga and furniture empire, against Democrat Catherine Ripley, former crew member of the Nostromo who killed a bunch of aliens over the span of many lifetimes only to find out she didn’t save Newt from anything.

Or was that Ethan Allen and Sigourney Weaver?

Okay, Orr has been around Republican politics for a good long time and even did a stint in the Legislature. Ripley is an adjunct instructor of political science at the University of Arizona and is a retired Navy veteran who has taught at schools like Harvard and M.I.T.

They're experienced hands vying for an important job absolutely no one pays attention to, is all.

It’s easy to get lost deep down the ballot but democracy doesn’t stop at the U.S. House of Representatives. It goes all the way down to your neighborhood and happens just down the street.

These races require your time and attention too.

The democracy that happens just down the street is the first set of laws rolling right back up it.

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.


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