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Rothschild got Tucson to walk the line, now we could use a kick

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What the Devil won't tell you

Rothschild got Tucson to walk the line, now we could use a kick

  • Jonathan Rothschild on his first election night, November 2011.
    Will Seberger/ Jonathan Rothschild on his first election night, November 2011.

When I first met Jonathan Rothschild, I was surprised but not shocked to learn that he was a poet. He’d written a book of poetry and had it self-published.

I admit I got a copy and didn’t read it.

However, as I got to know Rothschild, I realized he had that kind of studious side. He also had a sense of justice that seemed authentic. He had money. He had status in the community as managing partner of a prestigious local law firm. His name was "Rothschild" for chrisssake. He could have been an “I-got-mine-type” but he wasn’t.

Shit pissed him off and he would say so. “Shit pisses me off,” was a kind of a cool attitude to hear in what passes in Tucson for a white-shoe law office. Homelessness for one bugged him. Lack of economic opportunity for another. And a city that couldn’t seem to get out of its own way as a community needed leadership to address the issues he found important to fix.

He had a cheeky, almost subversive attitude and I got to thinking “this guy could be a pretty OK mayor.”

Careful. I said almost subversive. I've been on Rothschild for lacking urgency, but urgency really isn't his thing. 

In poet's terms, Rothschild governed in haiku: structured, orderly, minimal but ultimately achieving form and purpose.

Rothschild has announced he won't seek re-election. Well, OK. Sometimes a writer finds the end when he just stops scribbling. 

The two-term Democrat has been a pretty OK mayor. The City Council is more stable, the jobs outlook has been steadily improving, voters approved a sales tax hike for roads, public safety and the zoo, plus a parks bond — even as the county has been whiffing badly. Additionally, the city has done quite a bit to help end homelessness among veterans.

That’s saying something because 10 years ago, the City Council was a mess as it chewed through city managers and went round and round with downtown redevelopment project called Rio Nuevo. The public didn’t trust the city to do much of anything.

Today, a city manager has been in place for three years, Tucson is no longer in a constant budget meltdown and its Downtown economic development authority is no longer making excuses and reimagining itself.

The trains may not be all running on time, but they are no longer two hours late and on fire when they arrive full of passengers screaming “Dear God! Never again! Never again!”

What Tucson is doing is worth noting because it’s done better under Rothschild's leadership, but he has left plenty to accomplish. He got Tucson to walk upright and in a straight line. Now it needs a sprint coach.

Tucson’s standing compared to the rest of the country has barely budged. The city is and has been a low-wage college town with a cozy, homey feel and perfect weather most months of the year. Retirees and real estate still drive the area’s fortune and the University of Arizona remains an underperforming asset.

It’s just impossible and unfair to pin that on Rothschild, a ribbon-cutter-in-chief. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio has executive authority over the city and the schools. Rothschild gets to open the mail.

Readers of this column will know Tucson followed a late 19th and early 20th century model of chartering city governments to run under professional management. They wanted to shield day-to-day operations from local politics. So we have a strong city manager operating under the guidance of a council acting as board of directors. The mayor's title is more of an honorary thing than an indication of executive power.

Rothschild gets to set the meeting agenda and, because Tucson voters got their freak on in 2015, he now gets a vote on major city issues. Voters approved that “big-time” charter change after a Citizen's Blue Ribbon/Human Shield/CYA Committee considered handing the mayor a veto but that went nowhere.

Homeward bound

Ending homelessness has been a major part of Rothschild’s agenda. Here’s a hint. He didn’t. But Tucson’s ranks of homeless saw a drop from 2,100 in Jan. 2014 to 1,300 in Jan. 2018. How much of that is the economy and how much of it is Rothschild leading the charge to end it? That’s up for debate.

It’s not like the city has had much in the way of resources to address the issue. City sales tax revenue took eight years to recover from the collapse of the Great Recession and domestic austerity has been the policy at both the state and federal level for much of the decade.

Nor does there seem much in the way of information readily available for the homeless or those who are about to go homeless — just phone numbers of various nonprofit organizations and a state office. In that not much has changed since 2014, when help for homelessness was a maze that lead to an answering machine that no one seemed to check.

But the numbers are moving in the right direction as the mayor has focused on it. 

Jobs that pay ... or don't

How much did the economy cut down Tucson’s homelessness?

Tucson employers added 38,000 jobs since Rothschild took office and the city’s unemployment rate fell from 7.9 to 4.4 percent. 

Rothschild touts Tucson’s economic turnaround as a major accomplishment and there’s no doubting that it’s better than it was in 2011. However, the area continues to lag the western U.S., inasmuch as median incomes are concerned.

The mayor hasn’t had a ton to work with in terms of bribes … errr … back-scratching … I mean shady offers … I mean incentives to lay in front of prospective employers. The city’s portion of the property tax is teeny and property taxes are what scares off investment. It can provide sales tax relief for construction but Arizona’s Constitution bars it from offering flat-out bribes to companies to relocate to the state. Other states face no such restrictions on shamelessness.

So Tucson’s $48,700 median income, in 2017, lagged the the national average by $7,800 a year. It also lagged Colorado Springs, Denver, Salt Lake City, San Antonio and Albuquerque. I thought everybody beat Albuquerque.

Time Magazine in 2017 named Tucson as one of the 10 pokiest cities in terms of post-recession economic activity. Of those bottom 10 cities, only Camden, N.J., crept along with slower job growth.

Eight of the bottom 10 cities on the list were in Southern California, Florida, Nevada and one aging pueblo. Each were epicenters of the mortgage earthquake.

Still tied to real estate

Quick, name the industry that has helped replace the pre-bubble real estate boom as a driver of the local economic engine? Can’t? There maybe a reason for that.

Prior to the Great Recession, housing prices here jumped from from $104,000 in 1997 to $225,000 in 2007, which means median home owners felt their wealth increase by $121,000 just by sitting there and looking pretty. Realtors cha-chinged their bank accounts as commissions more than doubled during the peak.

The sales volume at the top of the roller-coaster ride was more than $400 million during the month of June 2007 all by itself, and 6 percent commissions would have added $24 million in monthly salaries. No wonder there were so many Jaguars parked outside North during happy hours that summer. 

Then the housing bubble popped and Mr. and Mrs. Median lost $100,000 as home prices reached their nadir the month after Rothschild was elected in 2011. The sales volume that month was $155 million.

In November, the median sales price was back to $219,000. Inflation being inflation, Tucson isn’t back to where it was before the crash but those homeowners are seeing their income increase and sales volumes are now up to $363 million.

Sun Corridor Inc., allowed to count and declare its own winnings, boasts $24 billion in success stories from 2005 and 2018. It’s $1.7 billion a year with their best spin. During the trough of the housing bust, home sales in pure sales volume accounted for $2 billion in 2011.

Gangsta, gangsta

Then again refer back to what a weak mayor is actually empowered to accomplish. At his best he can ride herd with a giant Lew-Murphy-sized personality. Rothschild isn’t Lew Murphy.

On the other hand, he didn’t spend years chasing sea aquariums and sky bridges like Bob Walkup did. He didn’t try to force annexation and borderline invade outlying areas like George Miller.

He has been in the right rooms, working on the issues he has meant to work on and has created forward progress on issues he cares most about.

The 2015 Sun Tran strike seemed to sidetrack him and knock him off his game. Rothschild listened to the lawyers tell the Council it had to stay away from negotiations or violate the law and then a month in, the Council reversed course and pretty much ordered an end to the strike. Only through city involvement did the problem get resolved but it took them long enough.

The job description does not ask for a ball-buster and Rothschild was up for that particular requirement. 

The poet is on his way out. Now how about a gangsta rapper?

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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