Now Reading
Tucson leaders need professional help after bond losses
opinion

From the archive: This story is more than 5 years old.

What the Devil won't tell you

Tucson leaders need professional help after bond losses

No one knows what went wrong but finding out is needed before next round

In hatching and selling the 2015 bond program, Pima County leaders played the game of thrones as they have in the past and wound up on the receiving end of a Red Wedding massacre.

The broad community coalition responsible for the horror show should be asking themselves, "Just how personal was the voter rebuke and how deep runs the antipathy to the players?"

I'm not going to answer questions. I don't have answers, but I've got some questions perhaps others aren't discussing.

Voters said "aye" to the county's last 11 bond questions over an 18-year stretch. If your team goes from 11-0 to 11-7 in one night, something went dreadfully wrong. Much recrimination has followed as the bond program transformed from a success with many proud parents to failed orphans living with wolves. It happened in less time you can say "Chuck Huckelberry." No, faster: it happened in the time required to say "Larry Hecker."

Now, I think polls are the most misused and easily manipulated weapon in the political arsenal. So it behooves me to say that the Yes on the Pima County Bonds Committee (snappy name, folks) needs to pay a pollster, do some research and find out what they got so dreadfully, horribly wrong.

The bonds were supposed to be a celebration of unity that couldn't miss. They were broken out so that if voters didn't like one question, they would at least be able to say yes to others. None of the smart guys or women thought they would all go down.

The bring-everyone-to-the-table game plan gathered in 2015. Major contributors included Tucson Electric Power, Southwest Gas, Tucson Medical Center, Tucson Association of Realtors, the Tucson Audubon Society, Diamond Ventures, Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Cox Communications, the Arizona Aerospace Foundation and James Click himself. Even the Tucson Symphony Orchestra was good for $5,000 and I ain't never seen a rich French hornist.

All this civic-minded joining of hands bought them a wholesale slaughter. It was so bad I half expected the National Rifle Association to issue a statement condemning the "Yes" committee as willing victims for not bearing Glocks in the marketplace of ideas.

Not knowing what went wrong is a problem because bonding is one of those things Pima County must do from time to time and sooner rather than later. Bonding is debt. Not all debt is bad. It's how government and corporations pay for things that don't fit in a discretionary budgets and it lets the taxpayers buy today's purchases with tomorrow's dollars. These are smart things. They just require voter approval and that's no longer a slam dunk.

Community forums will only bring out the emboldened antagonists who will make a spectacle of shouts and jeers. Mailing surveys to county residents won't get a scientific answer. A meeting of the minds will produce the same collective wisdom of the people who figured the bonds would pass and who may have just been personally run through with swords. Those minds need professional help.

Taxpayers, of course, shouldn't fork over the cash but the Yes Committee should find $20,000 to pay someone to give them a sense of the community. 

It's in everyone's best interest to do a real after-action report. 

All the community groups that went all in for these bonds should want an accounting of what went wrong before they ever do it again. Business leaders should see it as the smart thing to do.

The cactus-huggers should practice saying the following: "Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Ally Miller." The prospect seemed dim in October when Miller was dismissed as a "crazy tea-bagger" but she's not looking so crazy now, is she? Supervisor Miller (you should call her now, deferentially) opposed the bonds from the get-go. A primary challenge to moderate Ray Carroll and a victory over Sharon Bronson in the swinging Third District is all that stands between Miller and her own governing majority.

I make these points to pique the intrigue. We've heard the smarty-pants answers ranging from $800 million of sticker shock — to an inability to prioritize — to how the bonds were sold. 

Word has it, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry will be moving forward with a smaller plan for 2016. Questions should be answered first.

Blood simple

Let's get real simple about the bloodletting. What was the problem?

Voters supported the regional transportation plan in 2006 and the open space bonds two years earlier in part because the name described the package. People like open space. A regional transportation plan sounds like a good idea. This year voters rejected the a-morphically named "Pima County bonds." Voters tend to vote no when they don't know what they are voting on and I love them for it. It puts the onus on the sellers to do the selling. 

A breakdown of the Yes Committee's spending shows they dropped $16,000 on lawn signs (oh good God), $32,000 on polling (refund policy?), $50,000 on radio ads (are you Sirius?) and locally-run Strategic Issues Management Group got a little north of $230,000 for what I can only gather is their specialty — direct mail.

What? No stump speeches from the back of a caboose? If we are going to deny the 21st Century, let's deny the 21st Century. Television and social media, folks.  

Hey, when the first poll came back showing the approval below 60 percent — they were in a "persuasion campaign" rather than a "turnout campaign." So when the bonds were broken into seven parts the county was screwed because it's hard to persuade seven arguments at once.

Blaming the message is too easy and overlooks a salient fact. From conception to marketing the bonds followed the same game plans run in 2004 and 2006 to great success. 

Did anything happen in the last ten years to require persuasion? Is there something more going on? The answer gets, let's just say "more existential" in a hurry.

Rio Nuevo (let's blame it for everything)

Credit where credit is due. I hadn't thought of this until local Tea Party founder Trent Humphries bemoaned no mention of it in post-election coverage. I dig it. Know-it-alls like yours truly and Yes Committee Chairman Larry Hecker would dismiss the city's downtown redevelopment imbroglio as relevant to a county election. They're two different governments. I just don't know that voters make the differentiation.

Under this heading you could easily also lump in "Obamacare," "Iraq," "the mortgage meltdown" and "the debt ceiling crisis." When government stops working, or gets bad press for failing in spots, all government pays the price. The powers that be here become untrustworthy because other sachems over there proved themselves unworthy.

Rio Nuevo was ... bad. The city's downtown redevelopment plan chafed voters for years for reasons I won't list here because the Internet doesn't have that kind of room.

Downtown's slow redevelopment and the nasty media coverage that chronicled every wretched step seemed to scream that local leadership didn't have its act together. Do voters still feel that hangover and lack of trust? Would they have rewarded some ass-kicking leadership that knows how to get things done?

No. That didn't work either. 

He's your Huckelberry

I would be fantastically curious to know if County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry himself is even known to a majority of the people voting no on the bond. Voters don't typically know who their supervisor is, so are they aware that the Tucson area's version of a "strong mayor" even exists?

Huckelberry is the most powerful person in Southern Arizona. It's not Click, not gazillionaire developer Don Diamond, not Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, not Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bronson and neither U.S. Reps. Raul Grijalva nor Martha McSally. It's Huckelberry.   

His act may be wearing thin. Huckelberry is worth about nine columns but suffice it to say: No one cracks a whip on the bureaucracy in Arizona — or anywhere else in America I would wager — like Huckelberry. He gets things done so business leaders know they can work with him. He's not afraid to piss people off. He can be petty but he also possesses an uncanny ability to confess and then fix fixable screw ups.

Huckeberry may live in the modest home he was raised in but he does his job as if he has a gorgeous spread in Rocky Point to retire to at a moment's notice. That's because he has a gorgeous spread in Rocky Point to retire to at a moment's notice.

So he will do what he thinks is best in a manner to optimize success until he's fired. Then it's bare feet, beer, sunsets and surf. No more warring with county attorneys over discretionary allocation and appropriations. This is how you do a job.

The "no" crowd didn't so much attack the Board of Supervisors as they took to social media to attack Huckelberry. Did it work? His name ID alone would almost be worth the price of the poll because his head on a platter is the real victory the county's opposition has long sought.

Confidence is not high

Giving everyone a little bit is known in political terms as either "log rolling" or a "Christmas tree." Whatever your arboreal metaphor, the wood got chucked (no pun intended) and voters said no.

Typically, the easiest way to sell a ballot question is get a bunch of divergent groups who war on each other daily to vouch for the plan. Their memberships and followers would then vote accordingly.

Tucson community leaders vouched for these bonds but their approval carried little currency with voters. Why is that?

This could make the bonds' failures the result of a greater voter disgust with Tucson's leadership inside and outside of government. That means you, Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, labor unions, developers of all stripes and the Tucson Sympony's french hornist. Does Tucson suffer from a crisis of confidence in its leaders?

Now for the nightmare scenario

Huckelberry may have ignored some of his own advice: Bonds are tough sells in bad economies.

Sure, Tucson is in a recovery. It's just one of the slowest-recovering job markets in America. The post mortgage-meltdown recovery is different because it appears limited to the folks who survived it.

The economy is coming back; the people aren't. If you were never laid off, you may be seeing your fortunes return slowly. Yet that uncle, cousin, sister-in-law and former co-worker who happened to work for a firm that went under or had to downsize have gone from professionals on the come to scrap scavengers with decidedly dim futures. 

It's one thing to feel like you are walking the line on the job. It's another to realize you are walking the line over a 1,000 foot precipice. No, you haven't fallen ... yet.

In other words, the economy has gotten scarier for a lot of people. It's the kind of scary that hits you just before you fall asleep when you look around the bedroom and wonder "what if I have to sell all this to put food on the table the next time the job market hiccups?"

Replay that gut-curdling fear a few hundred thousand times around Tucson and now we're dealing with voter neurosis.

Given that Tucson's median income ranks near the bottom of metro areas of a million people or more — it's doubly tough for voters to feel good about their future.

Asking for more sacrifice to pay for a system that seems corrupted by the forces crafting those bonds may be a bridge too far for some because it's suddenly such a long way down.  

Tucson may just be too scared to vote for such a big package. 

Well then, all the community leaders would have to do to sell a bond package is restore a sense of destiny and prosperity to a city that feels little of either. That ought to be easy. Just get Google and Amazon to move here and everything will be fine. Excuse me while I clean up all the sarcasm that just bubbled up and spilled all over my desk. Sorry. 

Are bond failures the new normal until Tucsonans and Maranans feel like they aren't on the ass-end of the industrialized world? 

Or maybe the sellers just failed to go up on TV with a message. 

I'm no savant. I knew Republicans and libertarians supported the package and I figured it would pass. I'm not suggesting panic, just the recognition that Tucson's throne room may not be hearing voters. It's easy to dismiss noes as the absence of an agenda. Danger, Chuck Huckelberry! I'd be damn curious just how out for blood county voters are — and do they want more?

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.


— 30 —

Best in Internet Exploder