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What the Devil won't tell you

2021 promises a liberal helping of local politics

I've never been a huge fan of these year-end columns. They are generally done to feed a starving beast because there's no local news happening between Christmas and New Year's but readers still expect to see something new.

On the other hand, there’s something in the psyche to think of what’s new while the sun flies southward for the winter. What will we see when the light comes back?

It’s one of the reasons I’ve preferred to look ahead rather than to look back (that and editors demanding it).

There’s not always an obvious story. This year there is and I’m not talking about diseases wearing Johnny Unitas’ old number. I’m not talking about Orange megalomaniacs wielding seven irons, talking nonsense and debating the end of American democracy.

Donald Trump lost the presidency in 2020 (not up for discussion, MAGAs) and much has been written about how Biden's victory did little to help Democrats down ticket.

Pima County apparently didn’t get that message because Holy Ocasio did voters here deliver a southpaw’s blow. And in 2021, those newly elected leaders will take office and begin to govern.

The third base line

Tucson was never what anyone would call a Republican haven, but voters would deviously toss a Todd Clodfelter or Ethan Orr at the Legislature. They’d elect the spare Bob Walkup as mayor and give him a Fred Ronstadt as a play date.

Or they’d stock elective offices with Clarence Dupniks, who were vaguely Democrats. One got the sense that if Tucson were a GOP town, they’d be vaguely Republican.

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Not anymore. This time voters drilled the election straight over third base and down the left-field line. They pretty much did the same thing in 2019.

In successive elections, the Tucson City Council and Pima County government have nearly purged themselves of moderate Democrats.

The improbable margin

The county Board of Supervisors now has an improbable 4-1 edge for Democrats, after the Catalina Foothills took a hard Left turn in 2020.

Adelita Grijalva has replaced the late, great Richard Elias in a seat once held by her father, Congressman Raul. That’s not a big shift Left but Adelita Grijalva will have the distinction of serving on the Board of Supervisors for her day job and then finish her term on the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board at night. That’s a nifty strategy to receive a lot of abuse.

Matt Heinz replacing Ramon Valadez to serve in the South Side District 2 seat does represent a significant move to the Left. Valadez was more of a liberal than a “true progressive.” Heinz doesn’t have a problem kicking up a fuss.

Rex Scott won a surprising victory to grab a seat serving what had been a Republican stronghold in the Catalina Foothills and Northwest Side.

He may not be a screaming liberal who will set the world on fire with his calls to progressive action, but he is way to the left of outgoing Republican supervisor and conspiracy sleuth Ally Miller. (Hint to the GOP: A middle-of-the-road Republican replacing a liberal Democrat represents a big move to the right).

So how will this new board approach something like early childhood education, which is the county taking on a new role. Supervisors were cool to the idea of taking this on when the issue came up in 2018. Now? I’m not so sure they won’t take it up with interest.

How will they deal with another go at regional transportation planning, which I think will be one of the biggest decisions county residents make in the first half of the 21st century.

This will happen with climate change front and center, and it’s impossible to do transportation planning without a new look at land-use planning. Tucson could be, and I will argue should be, up for a redesign.

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It used to be, local progressives proved their chops on the environment with stronger desert protection than Republicans wanted.

To what degree are the new Democrats in Pima County going to move into ramped-up public services to tackle issues like education and income inequality. Hey, how about a new dive into immigration? That's never the least bit provocative.

Do we still hang 'em high?

New County Attorney Laura Conover seems ready to join a new crop of chief prosecutors in Democratic politics trying to put more "justice" in the criminal justice system. Justice, of course, used to mean societal vengeance on the accused. It now means absence of vengeance in the application of the law.

Ruthless prosecutors like Ken Peasley and David White — former prosecutors in the Pima County Attorney’s office who committed reckless misconduct in the pursuit of convictions — are now dinosaurs. The more “just” prosecutors are on the rise as mass incarceration is seen more as a problem than a goal.

Arizona has always struck me as more liberal than it lets on, except for law and order. This has always been a hang-em-high state and I'm not sure how much that has changed.

Conover will have a narrow eye though which to aim the thread. 

If she can pull it off, Conover would provide something Democrats haven’t had since Gabby Giffords roamed the state Senate floor. County attorney is a traditional launching pad for higher office. Should something happen to U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in the midterms, the Democrats would have an obvious candidate loaded in the chamber and ready for a shot at that seat.

The national party had to import Kirkpatrick from Flagstaff in 2018 because they found not a single Democrat in the entire district worthy of serving their own community.

Pima County's shift to what folks in medieval times — or those over at Pima County Republican Club lunches — referred to as "sinister" includes the election of Suzanne Droubie as the new county assessor, replacing what in Bill Staples had been a Democrat who couldn't get in the same sheaf, much less on the same page, as the rest of elected county Dems.

Eyeing making some substantial changes in our elections is incoming Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, who's promised to shake up the entrenched Democratic establishment after running to the Left and easily besting both her primary opponents and longtime GOP activist Benny White.

She's perhaps the most progressive of the newly elected progressives but as recorder, she'll hardly be in a position to set policy on anything other than, say, expanding access to the polls to historically screwed populations. Although, Republicans apparently consider those votes criminal. But they'll still be relying on her to file their real estate transactions.


The move Left even jarred the TUSD board.

The Governing Board used to have at least one or two rabble rousers on the Right looking to shake things up. Mark Stegeman, Michael Hicks and Rachael Sedgwick even formed a governing block of sorts that gave more conservative cachet to the board.

New board members Natalie Luna Rose, Sadie Shaw and Ravi Grivois-Shah seem at first blush to represent the progressive side of the Democratic Party. They join Adelita Grijalva and Leila Counts on the five-person board.

That’s a pretty health break from the past.

Now, a caveat with all things TUSD: It’s nominally nonpartisan and can be personality driven as much as by some sort of ideology. Tiny fissures can widen into gaping chasms.

I’ve seen city councils solely populated by Democrats go Lord of the Flies on each other, while three Democrats and two Republicans by comparison got along just fine.

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So I’m out of the business of predicting what, in the name of Baby Jesus, will happen to a school board over a two-year stretch.

Put all this together and there’s a huge shift to the Left in people elected to tell the rest of us how to do what we do.

Beware of Phoenix

The revolution, however, wont likely be too traumatizing for local conservatives because they have a 1,200-pound ally 100 miles to the north.

I’m talking, of course, about the Arizona Legislature.

Counties are political subdivisions of the state and operate without a “charter,” giving them the right to what’s known in the business as “home rule.”

So the state Legislature can (and has) passed laws to blunt progressive/liberal action in Pima County. COVID restrictions being a recent example but state lawmakers have used any number of ways to micromanage Tucson and Pima County.

To project force south of the Gila River, the governor and Legislature have banned gun buybacks, blocked environmental protections and came up with one of the most bizarre tax changes since the Pharos ruled Egypt.

So expect more fights between Southern Arizona and progressives. I may have tolled the bell too soon for the end of the Baja Arizona movement.

The one saving grace for local control is that leaders down here just need one saving vote. Republicans hold both the Arizona House and Senate by single-vote margins. Just one of the 47 Republican lawmakers can get shaky and stop any legislation.

I’m not 100 percent sure the election results were any sort of plan by voters to tack west as we sail north or if it was just a coincidence of a whole bunch of individual decisions.

President Donald Trump lost Pima County by nearly 20 points and that’s a whopper of a margin. It’s possible that his stamp on the Republican Party rubbed local voters so much the wrong way they just voted the opposite. Anyone who smelled like MAGA got beat.

It’s not like there was some powerful Republican presence in the county to rebel against. What? The Tyranny of Beth Ford? Who’s afraid of Beth Ford? Apparently not many voters because the county treasurer and Supervisor Steve Christy are the only surviving Republicans in Tucson politics — and they were barely able to hang on to their seats.

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It’s possible these new officeholders will see their jobs as technocratic and focus on good governance. Or the sea change may mean voters see real change.

What kind? What will it mean? Will it provide the dead and buried Pima County Republican Party an opportunity to claw back some races?

I don’t know but it’s going to be interesting to watch.

There’s only so much COVID news we can take and your friendly online columnist is utterly trumped out.

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. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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1 comment on this story

Jan 2, 2021, 6:26 am
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Forgive me for noticing, but it should say “Mark Stegeman, Michael Hicks, and Rachael Sedgwick,” not “Mike Stegeman, Michael Hicks and Rachel Sedgwick.” I know it is perhaps impossible to avoid all typos in a news article, but a name is a name. Happy New Year!

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Pima County politics, plus the TUSD Governing Board, are about to lurch hard to the Left in 2021.


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